Karen P. Thomas, the artistic director of Seattle Pro Musica, doesn’t just lead her singers through their choral programs.
She sculpts their sound.
And at St. James Cathedral (the ensemble’s home since 2000), the three-dimensional touch she brings to her task makes the building as much a star of the show as SPM itself.
“St. James Cathedral is just one of my favorite places to sing,” Thomas said in an interview at her North Beach home last week. “It’s one of these acoustics that loves the voice. You can feel it, as a singer. … You can sing very softly and the sound will carry.”
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Thomas will be making the most of the cathedral’s sound-enhancing properties this weekend with a program titled “Lucis: Music of Light.”
“When you use the acoustic in the right way,” she says, “it makes it a really lovely experience.”
The program opener, Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s “Spheres,” is a case in point.
Gjeilo didn’t score “Spheres” for two different choirs, Thomas acknowledges. But its call-and-response format lends itself to splitting the ensemble and letting them sing from opposite transepts of the cathedral. The result is an ethereal-stereophonic treat, with left-hand bloomings of voices rising, subsiding and alternating with right-hand bloomings of voices.
The evening’s centerpiece, Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “Canticum Calamitus Maritimae,” is staged with equally dramatic effect. The 12-minute work commemorates the 1994 sinking of the ferry Estonia, in which roughly 900 lives were lost. It’s scored for a soprano whose mournful folktunelike solo opens and closes the piece; a tenor who sings the news broadcast about the event; and a full choir that, in Mäntyjärvi’s setting of Psalm 107, recreates a storm-toppled ship in sound.
The composer offers no specific instructions on how to handle these different components of the piece. But if you have space to separate them out, Thomas says, it heightens the effect of the music. In addition to being a well-known choral composer, Mäntyjärvi is an English-to-Finnish/Finnish-to-English translator, and his intense involvement in language, Thomas feels, is reflected in “Canticum.”
“It’s just like marvelous word-painting,” she says. His setting of Psalm 107, she adds, vividly reflects the plight of sailors who, as the text has it, “reeled like drunkards, for all their skill was gone.”
“Portions of the music have all these triplet figures kind of swaying up and down, using different scale patterns,” Thomas explains. “It’s very wrenching: beautiful, beautiful writing.”
One curious note: The tenor’s newscast is in Latin, not because it was translated from the original Finnish, but because, astoundingly, Finland has had a weekly newscast in Latin since 1989.
There’s more than one connecting thread between “Spheres,” “Canticum” and the other pieces SPM is performing. Everything on the program, Thomas notes, has “something to do with light.” Even “Canticum” has a distant gleam in it, as it quotes from the Requiem Mass for the Dead (“Lux aeterna luceat eis” — “May eternal light shine upon them”).
The other idea, she says, was to assemble works that are “just yummy in that acoustic. … Many of the pieces on the program are either for double choir or a choir that’s divided up in many parts. So you get a lot of large cluster chords or really rich textures throughout.”
This is a busy time for SPM, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and Thomas’ 25th year as artistic director this season. After this concert, they’ll join the Seattle Symphony, Northwest Boychoir and Seattle Symphony Chorale in a June performance of Britten’s War Requiem. They’re also hosting Chorus America’s annual conference here June 13-15.
Look for more info on both events in a few weeks.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org