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A Hymn to Poetry

Colorado Vocal Arts Ensemble walks the line between music and words

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The line between words and music has always been a thin one. A concert by the Colorado Vocal Arts Ensemble this week will erase that line even further as the 24-voice, Colorado Springs-based choir presents Immortal Fire, a concert dedicated to poems set to music by 20th-century composers.

It's just the kind of program you'd expect from CVAE, which has long sought to showcase rare gems that are not often performed or recorded -- either because those pieces are technically challenging, or simply because they never became one of the last millennium's top 100 choral hits.

The ensemble's repertoire manages to touch on almost every style and era from Medieval to contemporary, but most of the music for this week's program was written in the 20th century. It's the poetry that reaches farther back in time, to the Elizabethan, Victorian and romantic eras of Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, Herman Melville and John Milton.

Ensemble director Deborah Jenkins Teske says the group has always wanted to be as broad as possible with its repertoire. "We didn't start as an early music group or a madrigal choir, which is what many people think of when they think of small, a cappella vocal group," she notes. "There's such a vast repertoire for a 24-voice ensemble. You can cover anything from the Middle Ages, or even earlier with chant, to brand-new commissioned 20th-century works. To limit to any one repertoire would ultimately get boring."

With Immortal Fire, CVAE presents an eclectic compilation that falls far outside the standard voice-over-music fare that audiences usually get to hear. Teske plans to open the concert on a soulful note, with two different musical settings for Whitman's "Last Invocation," the wistful words of a man nearing death. The first is a lush and romantic backdrop by composer Randall Thompson, followed by a more stark and almost eerie score by American composer William Schuman.

The dying-breath theme is continued with a dirge from Shakespeare, "Come Away, Death," set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. A lighter note comes via an Ogden Nash ditty called "Who's Who at the Zoo," a poem for overgrown children set to music by Colorado composer Jean Berger. "The cow is of the bovine ilk," Nash educates us. "One end moo the other milk."

CVAE will also take the audience on a musical adventure into the belly of a whale courtesy of Melville and composer Peter Schickele, and they'll bring you to a rave (of sorts) in the Eden-like seaside garden of St. Cecelia. Complete with dancing angels, a naked Aphrodite surfing the half-shell and St. Cecelia wailing away on a homemade organ, the scene is brought to us by poet W.H. Auden, who wrote "Hymn to St. Cecilia" for Benjamin Britten, who in turn set the poem to music.

Rev. Ken Burton, a professor emeritus of religion at Colorado College and former chaplain at Shove Chapel known for his sonorous English accent, will read each poem solo before the choir performs the musical version.

This week's concert comes at a big time for the ensemble. In addition to capping off the 2000-2001 season, the concert comes as the group begins touring farther from home and has started getting grants from likes of the Gill Foundation -- all part of a drive to bring CVAE's brand of interesting and challenging music to more ears around the state. This concert will likely further that goal, enhancing the group's reputation as an ensemble that not only maintains a high musical standard, but creates interesting musical events worthy of broader recognition.

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