When Axel Theimer, longtime director of Kantorei, a Twin Cities a cappella choir, contemplated the renewal that spring brings, the Austrian native remembered a phrase from his native language. “Alles neu macht der Mai” translates to “May, the month that makes everything new.”
That provided the framework for the 32-member choral ensemble’s upcoming concerts this weekend. Kantorei will perform on Saturday, May 2, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Park, and the following day at St. Paul Seminary’s Chapel of St. Mary in St. Paul.
Kantorei, which was founded in 1988, typically focuses on central European music, particularly that of Austria and Germany. For the next couple of concerts, however, it’s branching out with a mix of songs from across the globe.
Many of the songs are in English, though the singers also switch to Latin, Gaelic or Hebrew.
Overall, the pieces contain plenty of imagery from nature. In particular, water emerges as a main theme.
A highlight is “Light Upon the Water,” by local composer David Evan Thomas, which Kantorei premiered last fall.
The piece riffs off a poem with the same title by Minnesota writer and librettist Michael Dennis Browne. It’s “very singable. It has its own harmonic and melodic language,” yet it’s traditional, Theimer said.
“David created a melody that describes the flowing, sparkling water,” he said. “The collaboration between David and Michael seems to be one of those meetings of great minds, with the literary and musical side.”
The choir also debuted another piece from Thomas last year, titled “For God So Loved the World.”
Theimer said he’d like the choir to continue featuring his pieces, as the composer’s work just seems to strike the right notes for Kantorei.
‘Light Upon the Water’
Thomas stumbled upon the poem “Light Upon the Water” during a 2013 residency in Wyoming. “I sat down and wrote a piece in the morning,” said Thomas, who’s known the poet for around 15 years.
Surrounded by mountains, a flowing brook and vast blue skies, “reading a poem that talked about the reflection of the beautiful natural world, that immediately appealed to me,” Thomas said.
The text was written for a wedding. “I think it’s a very songful and meditative poem that tries to re-create the shimmer of light on the water and the sense of spirits coming together.” The words move from the meditative surface of the water to the launching of a new life together, he said.
His musical piece begins with humming low voices representing water. Soprano voices that come in over that become akin to the light playing on the water, he said.
It develops into polyphony, with four distinct voices, “having voices move in independent ways. It’s sort of a vision of eternity, that your mind is sort of dazzled by the effect of musical space,” Thomas said.
A place to find calm
Water as a metaphor, also comes up in “Shenandoah,” a traditional American folk song that refers to the Missouri River. Then there’s composer Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night,” set to the words of an Octavio Paz poem by the same title. It has become a favorite among choirs since Whitacre composed it in 1995, according to Theimer.
Characterized by the composer’s signature harmonic language, the piece “works with colors that are ever-shifting,” he said.
An Irish folk song called “Dúlamán” is about a young man returning home from the sea who wants to impress a girl. This arrangement by David Mooney has a fast tempo and rhythmic interest — the Gaelic verses go back and forth between male and female singers — which makes it “a real fun song,” Theimer said.
Several pieces from Robert Applebaum, which are sung in Hebrew, “describe the joy and longing of love, all within the setting of the Bible.”
Other images from nature also pop up, such as a weeping willow tree in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Willow Song,” from “Three Elizabethan Partsongs.” Vaughan Williams’ pieces have “clever and beautiful settings from the typical British choral traditions, with beautiful melodies and harmonies,” Theimer said.
The group is also performing Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home,” which touches on wind, rain and darkness, as a tribute to the late composer.
Maggie Akhavan of Coon Rapids, who joined Kantorei in 1994, said the group’s approach and style is a good fit for her.
“The way we actually sing can be compared to a pipe organ … others sing more like a piano, which is percussive,” she said. “You can hear every note. It’s clean, clear and crisp. The pipe organ creates sound that’s carried on the air. You push air on the pipes.”
In Kantorei, the physical mechanics of the voice, through the use of breath, create a sound that’s “carried on the air and surrounds the audience,” she said. As a result, “We don’t ever have to work on blending. It happens when it’s free and uncontrolled.”
As for the spring program, “it invites people into a place where they can be calm for an hour or so,” Akhavan said. “We’re all so busy, it’s a wonderful thing to be gifted with an hour and a half of peace and beauty, surrounded by sound, to recharge our batteries.”
Her favorite piece? “Whichever one we’re singing,” she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.