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Spiritual connections

By Marilou Carlin

When University of Michigan Choir Director Jerry Blackstone (photo left) was planning the Chamber Choir’s spring concert at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), he recognized an opportunity for a profound confluence of beauty in sound and setting.  The resulting free concert, which Blackstone conducts 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, is entitled “Connections.”

The program features pieces of sacred and inspirational music connected through topic and tone and based on themes of summer, Blessed Virgin Mary and rebirth — all motifs that are abundant in UMMA’s collection. The works will be performed continuously, with each connecting immediately, or with musical interludes or poetry, to the next. The singers will be placed throughout the museum’s cathedral-like Apse so that voices emerge from all areas to enfold the audience.

“I chose these pieces and this format because of the magnificent nature of the architecture and acoustics of the museum’s Apse,” said Blackstone, who is also chair of the Conducting Department at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

A highlight of the performance is the world premiere of “And Summer Arrives,” for saxophone soloist and choir, by Canadian composer and U-M alumnus (DMA ’77) Stephen Chatman, a multiple award-winning and internationally recognized composer of choral, orchestral, and piano music. Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, a senior saxophone major, is the featured soloist, along with soprano soloist Ariel Halt, a senior vocal performance major.  The five-movement work is based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale.

“Chatman’s harmonic language is tonal, evocative, colorful, and exceptionally well written for the choir and saxophone,” said Blackstone. “I commissioned him several years ago to write the work, and now we have the privilege to bring it to the public for the first time.”

The first half of the concert, titled “Marian Moments,” strings together several pieces with a “Mary” theme — some inspired by the Blessed Virgin Mary, others of a more general “Mary” nature, including pieces by Holst and Rachmaninoff. Elements of chant, Renaissance polyphony and Romantic motets are woven together in a fabric of choral sound. Interspersed in the program are movements from William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices sung by a group of six singers.

The program continues with an exploration of the interaction of water, Mary, and hardship in a section titled “In Times of Trial.” It includes a poignant folk setting of Eliza Gilkyson’s Requiem, written to commemorate the 2004 Asian tsunami tragedy. Also featured is The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Moses Hogan’s setting of “Wade in the Water,” which sees water as liberator and healer.

The SMTD@UMMA performance series is made possible in part by the Katherine Tuck Enrichment Fund.

Marilou Carlin is a writer at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

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