Preview, Vocal music

Honoring a Pivotal Moment in Our History: St. Martin’s Chamber Choir

A preview by Marc Shulgold

We all know a little something about America’s bloody Civil War – mostly who won and who lost, the names of a few generals and battles, and how the country seems still divided between North and South.

Sadly, the one thing we really don’t know is the music directly inspired by that war, both old and new.

Oh sure, there’s Dixie. And that fiddle tune from Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War documentary, a lament that beautifully captured the eternal sadness of the conflict. But then, it seems that any music about this painful chapter in our history is bound to be mournful.

Timothy Krueger

Timothy Krueger

Timothy Krueger understood that sentiment and the challenge he faced when assembling a Civil War program for his St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. “I know that the subject matter can be pretty depressing,” the conductor admitted. “But we’ll be trying to dwell on the positive, monumental aspects of that war.”

It turns out that his timing is perfect for the upcoming commemorative program, titled “Beat! Beat! Drums.” The choir’s concerts, April 10-12, coincide with the 150th anniversary of the war’s conclusion. Robert E. Lee signed the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, while April 10 marks the anniversary of Lee’s eloquent farewell to his troops, followed on April 12 by the Confederacy’s formal surrender. Lincoln would be assassinated only two days later in that fateful year.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

A remembrance of these historic occasions on this important anniversary also fit neatly into the theme for St. Martin’s current season, Krueger observed. “We’ve titled our 21st season ‘Coming of Age.’ And, in a sense, the end of the Civil War is when America came of age.”

The April programs mark the second of this season’s two Cameo Concerts, shorter events held in smaller settings and performed by a reduced St. Martin’s contingent. Stepping aside from his usual podium introductions, the conductor has enlisted three speakers who will offer readings as preludes to sung selections. Authors of those memorable words include Lincoln, General Lee (represented by his Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia, mentioned above), Frederick Douglass and a young Confederate diarist named Sarah Morgan. Several of the texts will be read by Civil War antiquarian Richard DeTar.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

Battle Hymn of the Republic

And what about the music? Some of the tunes will be familiar, if not immediately associated with the war – Shenandoah, Battle Hymn of the Republic and two spirituals (Way over in Beulah Lan’ and Angel Band). In addition, Krueger said he may find a way to include that sad little tune from the PBS series, titled Ashokan Farewell by contemporary fiddler Jay Ungar. “I might have the singers hum it, since we’ll be ending the program with a reading of the letter written by Sullivan Ballou the day before he died in battle,” the conductor said, referring to the soldier’s poignant words spoken over Ungar’s melody in Ken Burns’ documentary.

The powerful Walt Whitman poem that gives the program its title shows up as part of a choral work with guitar, composed by Jeffrey Van (soloist will be Alex Komodore). His Procession Winding Around Me is built in four movements, each drawn from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (as is O Captain, My Captain!, represented later on the St. Martin’s program in a contemporary setting by John White).

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Krueger’s program concept, clearly, is not of the typical nothing-but-music variety. He’s done plenty of those already, the conductor said, “But the traditional concert format has become less attractive to me of late. I look for a narrative – one that’s going somewhere. A program that has a dramatic trajectory. I want to lead the listener from one point to another.”

Alex Kommodore, Guitar

Alex Kommodore, Guitar

That approach is carrying over to the choir’s 2016-17 season, he continued. “I’m thinking of titling it ‘Choral Chronicles,’ in which all of the concerts have elements of story-telling.”

Assembling a St. Martin’s evening is no simple task, Krueger said. “It’s quite a balancing act. Many of those attending our concerts have said they enjoy the spoken introductions, while others have complained that there’s too much talking.”

Realizing that he can’t please everyone, the conductor is left to follow his own tastes. “I always want to do high-quality pieces,” he stressed. “But I want to present them in creative ways.”

St. Martin’s Chamber Choir will present Beat! Beat! Drums! – America Comes of Age at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 10, in Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 4500 Wadsworth Blvd., Wheat Ridge; at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11 and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 12 in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 2015 Glenarm Pl., Denver. Information: or 303-298-1970.

St. Martin's Chamber Choir

St. Martin’s Chamber Choir

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