Happiness and cheer

The Ars Nova Singers celebrate the season with a variety of music styles

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Courtesy of Ars Nova Singers

Happiness and Cheer,” the 2015 edition of Ars Nova Singers’ annual holiday concert, will offer music from Gregorian chant to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

And at least five centuries of music in between.

Ars Nova — the name means “New Art” and is taken from a style of music that was new in the 14th century — has been performing music from both ends of the historical spectrum for 30 years.

“We’ve prided ourselves on the fact that we do early music as well as contemporary music,” says Thomas Edward Morgan, the group’s founding director. “Our Christmas concert, when we reach our widest audiences, is meant to give them a range of what we do.”

Chronologically, that range runs from the 13thcentury “Song of the Nuns of Chester,” through music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, to 20thcentury Christmas pieces by Rachmaninoff, Poulenc and Holst, and ending with music and arrangements by Morgan. Almost all will be new to the audience.

There will be four performances of the program, in Englewood (Dec. 12), Denver (Dec. 13) and Boulder (Dec. 17-18). Ars Nova will sing unaccompanied under Morgan’s direction, with oboist James Brody appearing as a guest artist for a portion of the program.

The most unexpected piece might be “Christmas Time is Here” from Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas, now a staple of the holiday season. “It’s the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Morgan says. “In the past I arranged ‘Christmas Time is Here,’ which also features our guest oboist, so we decided to call the whole concert ‘Happiness and Cheer’ in honor of A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Of 20 pieces on the program, several are worth noting. One of the earliest pieces, the Gregorian chant “O Emmanuel,” has been arranged by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. “The way he has the pitches of the Gregorian chant echoed in the choir makes it sound like it’s in a very large, reverberant cathedral,” Morgan says.

The Renaissance set includes “Beata es Virgo Maria” (Blessed is the Virgin Mary) by Philippe Verdelot, who is better known in history as one of the creators of the Renaissance madrigal. “It’s a setting for seven voice parts, which makes a really rich sound,” Morgan says. “Those kinds of pieces are particularly appealing to me, because I like to explore the sonic spaces they create.”

Rachmaninoff ’s “Cherubic Hymn” from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom will recall Ars Nova’s recent performance of Rachmaninoff ’s Vespers. Like that piece, the “Cherubic Hymn” will call on bass singers who have learned the technique of singing “undertones,” pitches an octave lower than normal. Used by Russian choirs and some Asian chant traditions, the lower octave gives a deep resonance to the sound.

Brody will perform a singular piece with Ars Nova, the final movement of the Concerto per la beata Virgine (Concerto for the blessed Virgin) by the Belgian composer Vic Nees — literally a concerto for oboe with an eight-voice choir in place of orchestra.

“Ten years ago we did another movement, (but) we’ve never done the whole piece,” Morgan says. “This movement has a buoyancy, and Nees writes so exquisitely for both the choir and the oboe (that) the combination together is wonderful.”

After intermission, Ars Nova will perform the Bach chorale Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein (Ah, my heart’s beloved little Jesus) in an “interpretation” by Edwin London. Not really an arrangement, London’s “interpretation” is a technique for singing a chorale in a way that creates a uniquely haunting and atmospheric sound.

“You take the pitches of a Bach chorale and stretch them out across the entire ensemble,” Morgan explains. “One person described it as watching the colors run on a watercolor painting. We’ve never done it with this particular chorale, which is from the Christmas Oratorio, but whenever we do it we get audience response that is quite powerful.”

Near the end of the concert, Ars Nova will sing Morgan’s arrangement of the Czech “Rocking” carol (“Little Jesus, sweetly sleep”), which was requested by one of Ars Nova’s supporters. “Every year at our annual fundraiser, I auction off a custom Christmas carol arrangement,” Morgan says.

“By the early fall they tell me what their carol is, I compose the arrangement and put it together with the choir for the Christmas program. About Christmas Eve I deliver a signed copy of the score and a recording of their carol, which makes for a unique gift for somebody!” 

As varied as the program is, Morgan is quick to point out that there’s still a lot of Christmas music for audiences to discover. “There’s just an extraordinary amount of music written for this time of year,” he says.“We’ve just barely scratched the surface on what’s out there.”

Check out pg. 38 for holiday concert listings.