Thursday, February 12, 2009

Interview with Walter Chapin, Part 3

Here is part three of five of my interview with Walter Chapin, director of the Oriana Consort.

Interview with Walter Chapin, 1/30/09, Café Algiers in Harvard Square, Cambridge, 2:00 pm

(continued from Part 2)

What follows are Walter's notes on the history of the Oriana Consort and its upcoming concert; we talked about this during the interview, but unfortunately I lost that part of the audio.

* History of Oriana and how long I've been with them

The history of the present Oriana Consort is essentially an accounting of many incarnations, the first of which goes all the way back to 1972. If the current Oriana Consort sings at a high artistic level (as many thinks it does), it is certainly not because we reached that level by short and brilliant leaps and bounds. On the contrary, our progress has been extremely incremental since 1972, a period of some thirty-seven years. In 1972, after leaving the community chorus on the South Shore for which I had been the hired director, I founded my own community ensemble, called the Pro Arte Singers. The PAS became fairly successful and grew to 40 members. Among our many concerts, all of which were on the South Shore, were some well-received performances of Handel’s Messiah, with full instrumental accompaniment. All our soloists were members of the ensemble, and we had some pretty good ones.

Still, the group was a struggle, both because the average musical level of the members wasn’t as high as I wished it had been, and because (as I now see in retrospect) I still had an incomplete set of the “people skills” that are needed to form a cohesive amateur choral group. Members of the Pro Arte Singers finally lost the enthusiasm needed to sustain the group. In 1980 we disbanded, and I continued on with about 10 of its members to form the Pro Arte Consort.

The PAC was fun --- we performed at a lot of South Shore events such as summer art shows, church suppers and Christmas celebrations, weddings, etc. --- even an event at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that featured a number of musical groups. In this group there was a cohesive spirit among all of its few members, a spirit which has continued with all successive incarnations up to the present. This kind of spirit is a sine qua non for successful choral groups, I think.

In about 1986 the PAC stabilized at eight singers, some of whom doubled as instrumentalists on recorder and lute. We renamed ourselves the Oriana Consort, stuck to Renaissance and Medieval repertory, performed in Renaissance costume, and did lots of performances around Boston and Cambridge as well on the South Shore. The strategy was to perform at events organized by people other than ourselves, so that we could avoid the overhead of renting performances spaces. We had good voices in this group, although reading ability was uneven, which sometimes made rehearsals difficult. Another problem with this incarnation was the size of the group: it was too small to do contemporary choral music effectively.

About 1994 we expanded to about 16 singers and shifted our center of activity from the South Shore to Cambridge, where we presented December and spring programs, rented space in churches for performances, and did our own publicity. We did this move primarily because the South Shore was not fertile ground for finding new singers, whereas Boston and Cambridge certainly were.

Our next phase come in 1997, when we started to audition and to advertise publicly for new members. Up to this point we had recruited new members only from people whom our members already knew, and we realized that if we were to improve, we had to look to the general population. Our audition process utilized much member input. Four members would form a quartet with whom the candidate sang along; after hearing a group of candidates we would huddle, and accept people based on how well their voices fit with the group, reading ability, etc. Still, we made some mistakes in our acceptances, as we didn’t always end up with the new voices we thought we were getting; thus we became more and more selective in our auditioning over the next ten years.

About 2003 our constantly increasing overhead expenses, which were seldom entirely met by our at-the-door admissions, led us to file for 501(c)(3) status and to seek donations from our ever-growing mailing list. About this point the Oriana Consort reached its current size of about 24 voices --- which seems the ideal size for performing music of an a cappella era, from early Renaissance to the present day. This size gives a sound intimate enough for motets and madrigals, yet with enough depth for performance of works requiring division up to SSAATTBB.
We have been blessed by being in a community in which there seems always to be an abundance of singers with fine voices, most (but not all) of whom are in their 20’s or 30’s. We have found that success breeds success: the better the group sounds, the more attractive it is to prospective members. There is some turnover at each half-season, but this is reassuringly low.

Our program-building strategy is to choose 60 to 75 minutes of music that contains music from a number of eras that will sustain the interest both of our members over a series of rehearsals, and of our audiences during every moment of a performance. Such a program ought to contain much music that is of a style familiar to singers and audiences, with a certain amount of music in a less familiar style, yet still interesting. This will naturally include a conservative amount of music that will be a technical stretch. While skill in assembling programs of this nature is absolutely crucial to the health of a choral group, it’s very tricky to do. If I have learned to do it well, it has only been after years of trial and error. I consider the ability to put together attractive concert programs one of the critically necessary skills of a choral director.

Since about 2005 we have formed a warm and valuable association with two outstanding members of greater Boston’s early music community, Mai-Lan and Hendrik Broekman. Using these two players as a continuo, and assisted by their colleagues whom they recruit as viol players or Baroque string players, we have successfully performed a number of works from the Baroque era by composers such as Schütz, Bach, Buxtehude, Purcell, and Michel-Richard Delalande (one of whose works we now have in rehearsal). We now perform regularly at Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge and at the First Lutheran Church of Boston, in December and in the spring. Interesting, these two venues draw audiences that are fairly distinct and not very interchangeable. That’s fortunate, because it seems to maximize the audiences we bring in.

One recent feather in Oriana’s cap was being one of four choral groups selected to participate in a master class presented in March of 2007 by Peter Phillips, who of course is the director of the world-famous Tallis Scholars. It was our great pleasure to sing a Renaissance motet for him (by Cristobál Morales) and to be critiqued by him. I think I can say that the critique was positive.

Our ever-more-stringent audition process has in recent years brought more and more very highly talented soloists into our membership, a fact which enables us to perform works such as Bach cantatas, the Delalande motet, and the demanding “A Child’s Prayer” of James MacMillan. We have never engaged outside soloists, preferring instead to select music that fits the soloists that we have. Thus, as our solo ability has increased, it has become possible to perform works that call for increasingly high solo capability.

Over the last dozen years or so we have built up quite a repertory, of many contrasting styles and eras. The list is here; perhaps it will speak for itself.

* Details about the upcoming concert

It’s called “Miracles of Spring: Choral music for Easter and Passover from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 20th centuries”. Although we don’t ordinarily do concerts of all sacred music, especially in the springtime, it so happened that this season Christmas and Hanukkah occurred at about the same time, and so did Easter and Passover. This prompted the parallel themes for our two half-seasons: “Miracles of Winter”, containing music for both Christmas and Hanukkah, and “Miracles of Spring”, containing music for both Easter and Passover. Our Easter music includes:

* “Surgens Jesus Dominus”, a beautiful five-part motet by the English-turned-Flemish composer of the late Renaissance, the little-known Peter Philips (that’s with one “l”; not to be confused, of course, with the famous Peter Phillips mentioned above).

* Two contrasting Baroque works. One is Bach’s Cantata BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, which I’ve wanted to perform ever since singing it with the NEC Chorus as a student. The other is Michel-Richard Delalande’s “De profundis”, a motet for chorus, soloists, and instrumental ensemble --- not specifically an Easter work, although the sense of its psalm text, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee”, fits well with Easter.

* Several contrasting contemporary works: Arvo Pärt’s “The Woman With the Alabaster Box”, which narrates an event of Jesus’ life during the week before his trial; Pärt’s “Which is the Son of ...”, again not specifically an Easter work but which works well with the first Pärt; and Frank Ticheli’s “There Will Be Rest” --- once again, not specifically for Easter and not even really a sacred piece, but whose beautiful poem by Sara Teasdale invokes themes of rest, resolution, and peace at last, which Easter seems to be is all about.

* Five songs for Passover by the remarkable Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun, drawn from his 1982 a cappella collection “Fifteen Passover Songs”. Texts for these pieces are from the Haggadah. This remarkable choral music seems to grow out of the fascinating rhythms of the Hebrew language, and Braun’s Bartok-like use of eastern scales and rhythms leads to a mesmerizing choral sound that “grabbed” our singers right away.

The two Baroque works form quite a contrast with one another, as mentioned above; and each of the three sets of a cappella music on the program couldn’t form more of a contrast with the other two. And that’s our programming style: move from one thing to another, thereby keeping both singers and audience always engaged!


  1. Oh, I wish I could attend this concert! I love "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" -- I sang that with the Northern Berkshire Chorale a few years ago when I was still singing. (Sigh.) And the Yehezkel Braun material sounds gorgeous and right up my alley; I might have to look for a recording of that to put on my Amazon wishlist... :-)

  2. @ rbarenblat:

    Yep, it's a good cantata! I'm sorry I can't make it myself (conflicting concerts that I'm performing in.)