Madison Choral Project Presents a Gift of Hope for the Season—and Beyond

The exquisite vocal ensemble offers a broader perspective on the season

 

The Madison Choral Project has become one of the special treasures of the Madison musical scene (does our artistic cup ever stop running over?!). Under the direction of Albert Pinsonneault, this group of 26 singers (as configured last Saturday night at Christ Presbyterian Church, and pictured above in a previous performance) is a sterling model of musicianship and programming.

Pinsonneault certainly thinks outside the box, which can be a welcome attribute during Christmas and holiday season. I’m all for an annual dose of “Messiah” and “The Nutcracker,” but concerts that take the road less taken (such as the Madison Bach Musicians) are a wonderful antidote to the surfeit of sugar we get, at the dessert table and in our concert venues.

Pinsonneault has taken it a step further this year: In a program devoid of obvious Christmas material, the MCP sang music exclusively of the 20th and 21st centuries. More telling is Pinsonneault’s passion for truly embracing community in a tangible way. The MCP put out a call to schools far and wide in the state, asking “We’re looking for young people who can work with us to spread hope. We’re looking for students to share not only the issues that keep you awake at night, but also the creative solutions those issues have inspired.”

The result was a flood of responses, and the MCP staff selected six, from students ranging in age from sixth grade through eleventh, and they represented schools from Oregon, River Falls, Johnson Creek, Fitchburg and Madison.

The readings were interspersed with the music, read by Noah Ovshinsky, news director for Wisconsin Public Radio. What is on the minds of these young people, as we close a particularly turbulent year? Three out of the six have LGBTQ on their mind and hearts, one wrote about being “in a dazed state” (referring to both mental illness and “contradicting states of being”), and the other two focused on forgiveness and hope.

What emerged was a fascinating juxtaposition on several occasions from the innocent and heartfelt expressions of the readings, almost always uneasy to some degree, if not despairing, with timeless music. And by “timeless” I mean the sense that the music so often evoked old music, a cappella compositions from the Renaissance, e.g.—but from composers born within the last forty years or so, who set texts often far older.

Let me give one too-brief paragraph here to extol the purely musical virtues of this group…A year ago when I realized I would miss their December concerts, I was convinced to at least attend one of MCP’s last rehearsals. That’s when I realized how special this group, and Pinsonneault’s gifts as a director, are. For this year’s concert, the group opened by singing at the back of the large and acoustically warm sanctuary, and from the first notes of arranger Brazeal W. Dennard’s “Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ My Name, the rich and ambient layers of the group ravished one’s ears.

Pinsonneault had given a cogent introduction to the program, and indicated that all applause should be held for end of each half of the concert; this allowed for real emotional flow and concentration throughout (the audience was large, by the way, close to filling the church). One of the vocal highlights followed, the “At Castle Wood” by Kevin Puts. His music has been featured more than once by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and the Madison Symphony has also presented his music; this work was dominated by bleakness and pungent harmonies—and offered more convincing evidence that Puts’ still-growing body of music is likely to stand the test of time.

Pinsonneault also started another new tradition that has community, both musical and generational, in it. Partnering with Madison Youth Choirs, four high school students were selected as “Choral Scholars,” participating in three rehearsals and joining MCP for two selections. The students—who sounded and looked right at home—were Melia Allan, Nathaniel Johnson, Savon Vanderbloemen and Samantha Wilcox. The first of the two numbers including this quartet of teens was the “Polonese” of Gjermund Larsen (born 1981) and arranged by G. Eriksson. On the program it read “Untexted Norwegian folk-style singing, as song without words.” It was a thorough delight, made more so by a violin obbligato part played by Jon Vriesacker; he had also joined the otherwise unaccompanied group in Merritt’s “Miles and Miles.”

The second number for the “kids” was the most traditional of the program, “Notre Pere” (“Our Father,” as in the Lord’s Prayer), composed by Durufle. Simply put it is a four-star work given a four-star performance.

For all the unexpected musical treats on the program, however, perhaps the most exciting one was the discovery for me of music of Timothy C. Takach (born 1979). The first was “Joseph,” a fresh and compelling look at an overlooked aspect of the Christmas story: how does Joseph—essentially the stepfather of Jesus—feel about this incredible event? The text is by Michael Dennis Browne, with words and music created in 2016. Later we were swept away by “Neither Angels, Nor Demons, Nor Powers,” based on Bible verses from Psalm 121, Revelation 7:17 and the closing verses of the eighth chapter of Romans (which includes the song title). One stanza is by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Takach is listed as MCP’s composer-in-residence this season, and so the best news is that on their spring programs we can hear the latest new work by Takach.

Speaking of which, those concerts will take place on May 10. 11 and 12 and the program (titled Mother: Nature) consists exclusively of music written in the 21st century. Mark your calendars now, and also take note of yet another wonderful aspect of Pinsonneault’s pursuits, the week-long Wisconsin Conducting Symposium from June 9-15, with a closing concert on the 15th.

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