Much contemporary choral music values atmosphere over structure. And while soothing music has its place, too much can have a narcotic effect. Sometimes one needs to return to bracing counterpoint to invigorate mind and soul.
Musica Vocale, the superb ensemble directed by Kansas City choral music legend Arnold Epley, will get back to basics with “Foundations and Cornerstones” Sunday, June 5, at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral. The concert will focus on music by three bedrock classical composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms.
“I’m watching choral music in many educational institutions, and some choirs get further afield from this basic literature,” Epley said. “21st century choral music is more soundscape than contrapuntal.”
“Foundations and Cornerstones” is intended as a corrective. Epley and Musica Vocale’s artistic adviser, Jay Carter, hope to introduce their audience to a musical technique, most popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, in which voices are harmonically interdependent and rhythmically dependent. It’s easier to hear than to explain, which is why Carter hopes the musically curious will attend “Foundations and Cornerstones.”
“Counterpoint is really at the center of what I fear we’ve begun to lose sight of,” Carter said. “How to sing counterpoint, how to understand counterpoint and how to listen to it.
“One of the things that will be good about the pieces we’re singing, the Bach and Mozart especially, is the opportunity to hear really well-constructed counterpoint in such a way that is accessible to someone who is not well-versed in it. Finding a piece that is so thoroughly contrapuntal all the way through, yet a listener can hear it — that doesn’t happen a lot.”
Carter, like many other prominent Kansas City vocalists, learned about counterpoint and other musical wisdom from Epley who taught at William Jewell College for years and was the longtime director of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus.
“I first met Arnold about 25 years ago, which is kind of crazy to think about,” Carter said. “He was doing an honor choir in Illinois when I was a freshman in high school. So when it was time to figure out where I wanted to go to college, William Jewell was pretty much at the top of the list because Arnold was teaching there.
“There is something about the clarity of the way he speaks about things and his openness. That and the fact that he’s rather entertaining.”
Epley holds similar affection for his former student, whom he now thinks of as one of his own teachers.
“Jay is an extraordinary human being who carries the most wonderful set of musical sensibilities and phenomenal memory and a great capacity to absorb things,” Epley said. He’s also a person of depth and humanity. And his singing is mesmerizing.”
Carter, a countertenor, won’t be taking any solo bows in Sunday’s concert, but his influence, as always with Musica Vocale, is behind the scenes. As artistic adviser, very little happens with the choir that Carter is not a part of, Epley says.
“A lot of the time he drives literature choices and styles of literature,” Epley said. “He’s our resident guru and weird ancient language expert.”
In addition to his work with Musica Vocale, Carter is artist-in-residence at William Jewell, where he says he “spins lots of plates.” Carter teaches courses in art-song, diction and music history and conducts the Schola Cantorum.
“Schola Cantorum is just a few undergraduate voices, and we do a few projects a year, usually liturgically based,” Carter said. “We ferry ourselves out to congregations around town and sing things like choral evensong or compline or lessons and carols.
“Students get the opportunity to do something that’s very intensely liturgical, so if they’re ever hired as a ringer or a hired gun, they know how to walk in and do it seamlessly.”
For the past several years, Musica Vocale has been working its way through Bach’s motets. The group will complete its traversal Sunday with the 11-movement motet “Jesu, Meine Freude.”
“It’s such an interesting piece architecturally,” Epley said. “Bach does every compositional trick that he knows. At times it’s a little madrigalesque and other times old-form counterpoint. It’s an amazing 11 movements of alternating the chorale ‘Jesu Meine Freude’ and a passage from Romans 8. He simply goes back and forth. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Bach will be followed by two offertories by Mozart, “Venite Populi,” K. 227, and “Misericordias Domini,” K. 222, which Carter and Epley describe as also being strongly contrapuntal. The concert will conclude with two works by Brahms: Four Songs, Op. 17, for women’s chorus, and one of his choral masterworks, the Alto Rhapsody, for contralto and men’s chorus.
Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, Julie. Not long after he finished the piece, Brahms presented it to Clara, who wrote in her diary: “A few days ago, Johannes showed me a wonderful work. … He called it his bridal song. It is long since I have received so profound an impression; it shook me by the deep-felt grief of its words and music.”
Rachel Colman, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, who Carter says possesses “a wonderful solo voice,” will be the contralto soloist.
“The Brahms Alto Rhapsody is a little like a Baroque concerto grosso,” Epley said. “It’s got this block of men’s voices and the solo alto voice, and the alto voice is rather rhapsodic, the men’s parts are beautiful, warm, homophonic music and then there’s a large orchestration, but what we’re choosing to do is use piano, which turns it into a kind of chamber piece.”
Eryn Bates, one of Kansas City’s most sought-after accompanists, will perform the piano reduction, which Epley describes as “quite difficult.”
“Eryn is managing it very well,” he said. “She’s our regular rehearsal accompanist, but she’s a fine soloist in her own right. She’ll also provide continuo on the portative organ for the Bach.”
It’s a solid program, as one would expect from a concert titled “Foundations and Cornerstones.” But with all this talk of counterpoint, don’t think this is all some sort of intellectual exercise. Bach and Mozart didn’t use counterpoint as an end in itself, but as a means to sublime musical expression. The program comprises deeply soulful music, and it’s also something of a personal indulgence for Epley.
“This concert is a birthday present to myself,” he said. “I recently had my 77th birthday, so I’ve given myself a present of Bach, Mozart and Brahms.”
Happy birthday, Arnold, and thanks for sharing your gift with us.
2 p.m. Sunday, June 5. Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St. $10-$15. Tickets available at the door. For more information about Musica Vocale, visit musicavocale.org.
Heartland Men’s Chorus 30th anniversary concert
The Heartland Men’s Chorus will celebrate three decades of top-notch music-making, activism and good times with “I Rise,” the group’s 30th anniversary concert, Saturday and June 12 at the Folly Theater. The concert will include the world premiere of “I Rise,” a work the chorus commissioned from composer Mark Hayes based on the words of Maya Angelou.
In a press release, the HMC’s artistic director, Dustin Cates, writes: “Maya Angelou’s poetry is synonymous with civil rights and elevating oneself and one’s surrounding community. It’s only fitting for Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus to commission and present this significant work.”
Also on the program is “Brothers Sing Out,” which the Heartland Men’s Chorus performed on its first program in 1986. There will be other works that have become HMC audience favorites over the years.
8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. June 12. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. $18-$43. 816-931-3338 or hmckc.org/tickets.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org