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A ‘MESSIAH’ LIKE NO OTHER: Spire employs unique model to build world-class performances

Spire Chamber Ensemble, now in its 10th season, distinguishes itself each year for what can quite honestly be described as one of the most bracing versions of Handel’s Messiah one can hear anywhere in the nation.

Spire’s singers / Photo by Andrew Schwartz

A peculiar alchemy can result when you bring musicians of the caliber of the Juilliard School of Music’s Elizabeth Blumenstock (one of the world’s leading Baroque violinists) and the Curtis Institute’s Leon Schelhase (a harpsichordist and prominent early-music specialist) to join choristers and instrumentalists from around the nation—and top local musicians—for the city’s only “historically informed” performance of Handel’s holiday favorite.

Kansas City is teeming with choirs, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Our Town sports at least two dozen well-established choruses, ranging from gifted community-based ensembles to a handful of groups that perform on a professional, or near-professional, level. (The Kansas City Chorale, with its fistful of Grammy Awards, is only the best-known of several top-tier groups.)

Ben Spalding / Photo courtesy of the artist

But in 2010, Spire identified a niche that was unique not just for Kansas City but for the whole United States. Founded by Ben Spalding, a 35-year-old Gardner native who studied at Emporia State and in Philadelphia and Great Britain, Spire is a “hybrid” chorus: It consists of top musicians imported largely from around the nation for each of its four annual presentations, yet it performs solely for audiences in our region and is funded by the Kansas City community.

“These are the very best musicians for this repertoire in the nation,” said Ben, who is also director of music and arts at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mission. “You would have to go to London or Berlin or New York City to hear what’s happening right here, right now.”

Spire was initially connected to the Community of Christ Church in Independence, and later to Trinity Lutheran, but it now functions as its own separate 501(c)3 and operates on a sizeable budget. (Its board president is National World War I Museum’s Matthew Naylor.) Ben came to Kansas City originally through the auspices of Jan Kraybill, currently organist-in-residence at the Community of Christ World Headquarters.

“She’s one of my dearest friends,” Ben said. “And she’s been a great encouragement, too.” Eventually the Spire Chamber Ensemble (which drew its name from the Temple’s unique stainless-steel roof) broke off and became its own non-profit. From the start, an important part of the group’s mission was its Messiah, which since its first appearance in 2011 has become its most visible activity. As buzz has built around it, the funding community has responded: The group has now garnered a National Endowment for the Arts grant and large contributions from local foundations and individuals.

Spire at Helzberg Hall / Photo courtesy of Spire Chamber Ensemble

In response to criticism about hiring so many outside musicians, Ben responds that education on the local level is an essential part of Spire’s mission. “With these amazing artists in town, for the last couple of years we’ve been doing master classes that specialize in Baroque techniques,” he said. “So in addition to doing a lot of music that is fresh and vibrant and cutting-edge … we’re also helping students be exposed to this style.”

This year’s Messiah, a 90-minute family-friendly version, takes place from December 20th through the 22nd at three area churches. It features a choir of between 16 and 18 singers (who also sing the vocal solos) and an ensemble of 13 instrumentalists. (“One newspaper article from the first Dublin performance of Messiah said there were 16 singers,” Ben said.)

Elizabeth Blumenstock / Photo by David Tayler

As many Baroque ensembles have discovered, performing this music with smaller forces, and in a lighter style, can open up new worlds of sound and color. “If there is any criticism of my work, I would rather be that it’s too fast, that’s it’s too emotional and too dramatic,” Ben said, “rather than that it’s not enough.”

Anyone who has watched Spire’s YouTube videos (several of which are readily accessible) knows that Ben’s tempos can take your breath away. “There are few groups in the country right now that can go that fast,” the conductor said with a laugh. “Because it takes just the right singer, the right lightness.” Still, he added: “Every year it’s a little different. I’m always trying to take a different approach, difference nuances.”

Spire musicians perform on such a level that they can arrive on a Wednesday, rehearse Messiah for six hours on Thursday, and begin performing the next day. This is possible not only because they are all consummate professionals but also because they are loyal: Some 80 to 85 percent of Spire’s musicians return year after year to perform in all or most of the group’s programs.

Leon Schelhase / Photo courtesy of the artist

“My goal is to hire the people who have been working with me for the last nine or 10 years,” Ben said. “They’re my best friends, and we’ve created a community.” His goal is to make each year’s Messiah more exciting than the last: “to make this music come alive in ways people have never experienced.”

The annual Messiah is just one in a long list of Spire’s activities. The roster of works it has performed in just a decade is staggering: More than 100 Bach cantatas, the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the B-minor Mass, the Magnificat, all of Bach’s motets and his Easter Oratorio, and works by Brahms (the German Requiem, which they have recorded), Bernstein, Britten, Jonathan Dove, Duruflé and Fauré (the Requiems), Handel (Israel in Egypt and Dixit Dominus), Haydn, Kodály, MacMillan, Martin, Monteverdi (the 1610 Vespers), Mozart, Arvo Pärt, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, and Vivaldi.

*Messiah is performed at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka (December 20th), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (December 21st), and St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church (December 22nd). For tickets go to spirechamberensemble.org.

* Spire rounds out its 2019-2020 season with performances of Bach’s B-minor Mass (March 6th in Omaha and March 7th at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral) and a mixed program of works by Sir James MacMillan (the Cantos Sagrados), Jonathan Dove, Nicos Muhly, Herbert Howells, and Brahms (May 30th at Visitation Church and May 31st at Village Presbyterian Church). Organist Jan Kraybill, who is currently a multiple Grammy Award nominee for her CD The Orchestral Organ, will join Spire in the latter program, which includes the premiere of a work by Ben himself.

— By Paul Horsley 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

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