This month marks the official passing of the baton at Choral Arts, one of the Northwest's finest virtuoso choruses. Taking over for founding...

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This month marks the official passing of the baton at Choral Arts, one of the Northwest’s finest virtuoso choruses.

Taking over for founding director Richard Sparks, who has relocated (he now conducts Pro Coro Canada), is a figure familiar to worldwide choral audiences, but not as well known here in Seattle: Robert Bode, who has been on the music faculty of Whitman College in Walla Walla for 21 years. Bode has found the Choral Arts directorship so enticing that he will commute the more than 250 miles between Walla Walla and Seattle.

Isn’t that going to be a substantial scheduling challenge?

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“This is worth the distance!” Bode exclaims of the Choral Arts opportunity, for which he was chosen after preparing and conducting one of last season’s concerts alongside the other director finalists.

“We’re moving to a more concentrated rehearsal schedule, with rehearsals and concerts within a period of three weeks.” Choral Arts presents four programs in the 2007-08 season, each repeated once back-to-back.

Bode knew of the ensemble’s excellence long before the directorship came open, but he said the early rehearsals surprised him.

“I hadn’t expected them to sing with such a smooth legato, or so beautifully in tune.” When the group sang through Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” — a challenging choral work written in 2000 — Bode says, “there was not a glimmer of shift in the pitch. I was surprised at how excellent they were.”

Choral Arts, composed of all music professionals, has 28 to 30 members, a size Bode calls “just perfect” for all kinds of repertoire. That’s a good thing, too, because he wants to branch out a little. The first pair of concerts this weekend will include seldom-heard works for double chorus by Gabrieli, Lassus, Giles Swayne and Seattle composer John Muehleisen (the premiere of his “Alma Redemptoris Mater”).

For “A Choral Arts Christmas” (Dec. 14-15), the program will feature some surprising juxtapositions: jazz, gospel, traditional and early-music selections, with some Gregorian chant. The March 14-15 concert reflects Bode’s belief that Choral Arts should be doing major works: Bach’s great “St. John Passion,” with member of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra.

Bode, himself a poet, has called the final program (May 2-3) “My Letter to the World,” with settings of famous poetry by Dickinson and Thoreau (including the latter’s “Walden Pond” with music by Dominick Argento). There’s also an “Emily Dickinson singalong.”

What on earth?

“Many of Dickinson’s poems fit the meter of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ ” claims Bode, who (perhaps coincidentally) holds a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.

“Having the audience sing along is a step toward making our music less formal and more interactive — helping people through the experience of approaching poetry and music, and giving them an opportunity to be inspired,” says Bode.

The conductor will have plenty to keep him busy between Choral Arts concerts besides his teaching and directing responsibilities at Whitman College. He also conducts the Mid-Columbia Symphony, where he has been artistic director for 15 years, and directs the Tri-Cities Consort Columbia chorus. Once every two years, he leads the Composer’s Reading Chorus in New York (“as a part of my commitment to promoting new music”). He also has guest conducted widely in Europe and Asia and is booked to lead an upcoming performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Bucharest, Romania.

This all sounds like a lot of conducting, but it is what Bode loves.

“I knew from as early as I can remember that I wanted to conduct. Our house was always full of poetry and music; both my parents were teachers. As a child, I would make visitors listen to a recording of Toscanini’s Beethoven Ninth finale, which I sang all the way through,” he remembers. His studies at the University of Texas were followed by a year in Cardiff, Wales, where he led the choir at University College, Cardiff. After that came the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where Bode received his doctorate and went on to Whitman College, where he’s now in his 22nd year on the faculty. Whitman colleagues and administrators “couldn’t be more supportive” of his new Choral Arts job, Bode says.

Ask him about future plans, and the new maestro has no shortage of ideas for Choral Arts. There will be more emphasis on educational outreach; this year, a “Bach to School” program will take portions of the “St. John Passion” to several area schools in March. Another goal: Within the next two years, Bode wants Choral Arts to be “fully paid, as the premier professional chorus of the region.” He’d like to do some touring as well.

Bode already knows Choral Arts has a substantial reputation: He was chosen from an applicant field that included conductors from Canada, New York and Florida. He says he’s lucky to lead a group of such “welcoming, friendly people who are really dedicated to singing.”

The title of the group’s 2007-08 season is “Listen Deeply.” For Bode, that says it all.

“I want our audiences to listen deeply to the music — to participate in a journey with us to the emotional heart of the music. It is an experience we can share together.”

Melinda Bargreen:

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