Walking a Tightrope with Ars Nova

By Marc Shulgold

Ars Nova Singers, with Tom Morgan

Tom Morgan understands the dangers of controversy. The music director of the Ars  Nova Singers has accepted the challenge of programming a new work which doesn’t shy away from addressing some of the contemporary issues that have divided public opinions, that have led to violence in the streets as well as personal acts of heroism – but in the end, a work with a strong, positive message for these anguished times.

Melissa Studdard

“It’s the most political piece we’ve done,” Morgan says of Door Out of the Fire, Christopher Theofanidis’ setting of texts by Houston-based poet Melissa Studdard. The 30-minute work, scored for eight-part chorus and solo classical guitar, will receive its Colorado premiere at Ars Nova’s season ending concerts this weekend. It will share the bill with Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Requiem, celebrating the work’s 100th anniversary.

Abigail Nims

Studdard’s poems – she refers to them as “messages in a bottle” – fearlessly address such newsy, front-page subjects as climate change, raging wild fires, anti-police street protests and opening our southern borders as a solution to the immigration crisis. One movement tells the story of Rahul Dubey, who saved street protesters from arrest by shepherding them into his home. Not quite the usual material for a choral concert, Morgan agrees.

Christopher Theofanidis

“It’s a tightrope (for us) to walk,” Morgan says of the subject matter. “But this is about our society. Yes, it’s challenging, but this is an approachable piece that’s well-crafted and one that has a unifying stance.” Morgan insists that the texts are clearly not intended to raise audience blood pressure. For example, there’s an aria for mezzo-soprano (given to Abigail Nims), who delivers a gentle message from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The spirit of the late Supreme Court justice sings of being “a hundred-year flower the world was waiting to see bloom.” A similar tone unfolds in the finale, with a hopeful dream embracing a universal anthem that is welcoming and accepting.

Morgan explains that Theofanidis’ work was commissioned by University of Colorado guitar professor Nicolò Spera, who will serve as accompanist and soloist in interludes between each of the four movements. The guitarist and conductor had worked together earlier. In conversations with Spera a year-and-a-half ago, Morgan proposed another collaboration. Learning that the guitarist had connected with Theofanidis for a choral work with guitar, the Ars Nova conductor offered to present the first Colorado performance. “But first, I had to review the piece,” Morgan says. “It’s 128 pages of music, so I had to look at the difficulty, as well as the amount of time we’d need to prepare it.” Door Out of the Fire received its premiere last October, sung by the University of Michigan Chamber Choir.

Nicolò Spera

As for the work’s handling of all those political-tinged themes, the conductor was unconcerned. “The texts are not in-your-face,” he insists, adding that Ars Nova began its preparations with a reading last October and began serious rehearsals in February.

The three weekend concerts by Ars Nova are not entirely political, Morgan observes. Two shorter works will open the program: Immortal Bach, a recasting of a Bach chorale by contemporary Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, and a Telemann Fantasia played by Spera. The first half will conclude with Pizzetti’s lush Requiem, premiered in 1922. “We’d performed it around 12 years ago,” the conductor says of the work. “In these concerts, it becomes a nice contrast with the Theofanidis.  Mostly, it presents a familiar (choral) aesthetic.  Audiences may not be familiar with it, but it’s standard repertory in the choral world. A lot of the music sounds more like opera.”

Ars Nova will sing works by Theofanidis and Pizzetti in concerts beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3 in St. Paul Community of Faith, 1600 Grant St., Denver; Saturday June 4, 7:30 pm in First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St. in Boulder; and Sunday June 5, 7:00 pm in Stewart Auditorium, 400 Quail Rd. in Longmont. Information: ArsNovaSingers.org

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