Burnsville, Sibley choirs take a journey through cultures

  • Article by: WILLIAM C. CRUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2012 - 5:14 PM

Choirs from Henry Sibley and Burnsville high schools will sing in ¡Cantaré! at Burnsville Performing Arts Center, where works written to forge connections between Mexican and American cultures will have their premiere.

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Aaron Kapaun directed a student rehearsal. Minnesota student choirs are working with Mexican composers to produce new musical pieces as a way to break cultural barriers.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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The soul pauses at river's edge, confronting its first challenge on the journey to eternity.

The Henry Sibley High School Concert Choir -- rehearsing its role in a musical reading of Aztec mythology -- fills the room with sound. "Now starts my way," they sing in Spanish. "This is the moment."

Composer Jorge Cozatl listens intently. He's thousands of miles away, in his home office in Mexico, but a video link all but puts him in the room with choral music director Aaron Kapaun's students.

The passage complete, they look to Cozatl, whose image fills a large screen at the front of the room. His lips are tight but his tone is gentle.

A particular phrase, he explains, means "without fear." The choir's presentation lacks commitment.

"It doesn't sound brave," he says.

Kapaun rallies his troops. They breathe deeply and put one foot forward, for balance and for emotional and psychological strength.

They sing again. They look back to the screen.

"Well," Cozatl says, "that makes a huge difference."

Choirs at Henry Sibley and Burnsville high schools, along with a St. Paul Humboldt Senior High choir, will sing in the premiere of Cozatl's "Mictlan" on Tuesday at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.

The performance is part of "¡Cantaré!," a project of the Twin Cities chorus VocalEssence. It teams Minnesota student choirs with Mexican composers to produce new works as a way to break cultural barriers.

Minnesota schoolchildren study Mexican traditions, such as the Aztec story of the soul's journey through the underworld. VocalEssence commissions and publishes the compositions, making them available to choral educators. Tuesday's performance includes Cozatl's "Mictlan" and works by Rodrigo Michelet Cadet Diaz, performed by elementary school students from St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Composer's touch

In last week's rehearsal, Cozatl tutored Henry Sibley's choir on the fine points of bringing out the musical tension -- the "contest," as he put it -- in a particularly intense passage.

"That make sense?" Kapaun asked his choir. "Really stretch it."

Later, Cozatl advised the basses to stay on pitch while singing softly through a descending pattern.

"That deep sound doesn't have to be very strong," he said, urging the students to meditate on the reflective nature of the passage as they sing: "The cold will fill my body / The heat, my heart."

Cozatl first met with the choirs in the fall. Kapaun said the score for "Mictlan" arrived in late January, and work commenced in February. Cozatl returned in March to work with the students, and he planned to be back for the week leading up to Tuesday's concert.

After last week's video rehearsal, junior altos Taylor Bagley, 17, and Kenna Pasquale, 16, said working directly with the composer gave them a unique emotional connection to the music.

"We've learned to trust an outside person and that's helped the choir grow," Bagley said.

Senior baritone Devonte Diamond, 18, said Cozatl helped him see why certain passages are fast, such as the loud, intense passing of the journey's ninth and final test, and why others are slow, such as the soft, reflective ending where the soul finally is at rest, at Mictlan.

'Text painting'

"The great thing about having the composer here is that he can tell the back story," said Martha Schmidt, choral director at Burnsville High School and a composer herself.

As a composer, singer and choir director, Cozatl "really knows all aspects of the process," she said. "He really conveys the text well through the music."

The story, comprising an introduction and nine movements, is sung in a mix of Spanish and Nahuatl, an Aztecan dialect. The choirs each have about 60 voices. Each choir has its own movements to sing, while they combine to sing others.

"The ending," Schmidt said, "is going to be stunning."

Back to rehearsal

Cozatl nods and watches his screen as the Henry Sibley choir runs through the ending for him.

Softer at the end, he says.

Kapaun has his choir stand. He plays the introduction, then steps from behind the piano to conduct.

The soul approaches the top of the last hill.

The students raise their voices.

"I listen to the singing / I see the flowers."

The crossing complete, the soul rests.

On the screen at the front of the room, a smiling Cozatl raises his hands in applause.

"Beautiful," he says.

William Crum • 612-673-7215

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  • ¡CANTARE! PRESENTED BY VOCALESSENCE

    WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday

    WHERE: Burnsville Performing Arts Center, 12600 Nicollet Av., Burnsville

    HOW MUCH: Free, but tickets (available at several locations) are required. Arrive early to be assured of a seat.

    MORE INFORMATION: 952-895-4680 or burnsvillepac.com

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