Not as simple as it seems

Ars Nova Singers, Stratus Chamber Orchestra present ‘Music that Connects’

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Stratus Chamber Orchestra
courtesy of Stratus Chamber Orchestra

Have you ever been stranded in an airport between flights?

If so, Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers and Denver’s Stratus Ensemble have a musical program for your playlist. 

“Intermezzo! Music that Connects” features works written to connect scenes in operas, or to make other types of connections. The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Regina Caeli (queen of heaven), could be part of a playlist for stranded travelers.

But they are great works of music as well, as are the other works on the program. Conducting will be shared by David Rutherford, conductor of Stratus, who will lead pieces with orchestra; Tom Morgan, musical director of Ars Nova; and Ars Nova’s assistant director, Brian Dukeshier, who will lead one piece.

The Mascagni and Puccini works are theatrical intermezzos, linking acts of operas. Regina Caeli is a hymn that is part of Vespers, the Roman Catholic evening service that connects day to night. The other major work on the program is Randall Thompson’s Frostiana, a setting of poems by Robert Frost; here the meaningful connection is between the music and Frost’s poetry.

Other works on the program include four a cappella works to be sung by Ars Nova. Stratus will open the concert with movements from the Serenade for Strings by Norwegian composer Dag Wirén, music you may recognize even if you don’t know the title.

Although Ars Nova and Stratus have never performed together, their conductors had talked for some time about a joint concert. 

“Part of the joy of collaboration [is] to have each ensemble present to the other organization’s patrons and audiences,” Morgan says. “We shared ideas of possible choral and orchestral things. We were both hoping to create an eclectic program. The theme actually came from David Rutherford.”

They decided to pick one of the programs that Stratus had outlined for the coming season. “I had a series of concerts taking musical terms and applying that to musical presentation,” Rutherford says. These included “Danza” and “Quartetto,” but “as we looked at what could work for our collaboration, ‘Intermezzo’ made the most sense,” he says.

The one piece actually titled “Intermezzo” is the instrumental piece that falls in the center of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. One of the most familiar instrumental excerpts from opera, it is a beautifully lyrical piece but not necessarily easy to perform. 

“Sometimes it’s those things that you hear all the time that end up being really difficult,” Rutherford says. “It’s very slow, [and] because it is so slow, there’s so much opportunity for screwing it up. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration and connection, to feel like there’s a line that goes all the way through. And when you get it, it’s unmistakable!”

Ars Nova will sing four pieces without accompaniment: works by Bruckner, Randall Thompson, Jake Runestad and Juris Karlson. Morgan explains that “Karlson is a Latvian composer, and we’re going to sing in Latvian. It’s a very short piece, but very fast and virtuosic for the choir.”

Runestad’s “Let My Love be Heard” was written for the choir at Cal State Long Beach, in memory of a CSLB student who was killed in the Paris terrorist attacks. Both the music and the political connection have made it a very successful piece with choirs.

The final piece will be Thompson’s Frostiana, “which is just a gorgeous piece of Americana,” Rutherford says. “It’s wonderfully endearing.”

Both New Englanders, Thompson and Frost knew one another, which is likely why the composer got permission to set Frost’s poems. In fact, Frostiana is one of a very small number of musical settings of Frost, because today, the Frost estate generally turns down requests from composers. 

Thompson selected seven poems, three of which are set for full chorus, with two more each for women’s chorus and men’s chorus, all with chamber orchestra. Among the poems are the very well known “Road Not Taken,” “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Choose Something like a Star.” Frost attended the first performance and is said to have liked Thompson’s music. 

“Most everything [in the music] is very straightforward, and certainly nothing is over-challenging,” Rutherford says. “In its simplicity, [Frost’s poetry] reveals the depth of the thought. 

“Thompson’s musical setting matches very well to Frost, in that it allows us the time to spend thinking about the words. There are times when [Thompson] could have gone further in developing emotional moments. But instead he’s understated. And that allows the text to speak for itself. 

“The longer you spend with it, the more depth it reveals, even though it may seem simple on the surface.” 

ON THE BILL: ‘Intermezzo! Music that Connects’ — presented by Ars Nova Singers with Stratus Chamber Orchestra. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, First Plymouth Congregational Church, 3502 S. Colorado Blvd., Denver. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 E. Alameda Ave., Denver. 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-388-4962, or https://augustanaarts.org/buy-tickets/