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BUILDING BRIDGES: Friends concert will use transcontinental technology to join choirs and audiences

The pandemic of recent months has inspired a number of remarkable innovations among Kansas City’s performing-arts groups, from livestreamed concerts and “Zoom theater” to high-tech ventures combining seemingly disparate art forms. Yet for all that, the Friends of Chamber Music and the Kansas City Chorale may have come up with something that is unique: A joint live-virtual concert involving the Chorale (performing live on the Folly Theater stage) and the London-based chorus, Stile Antico, which will be presented simultaneously on a video screen above the stage.

This project, possibly a Kansas City first, was set into motion when the Friends learned that Stile Antico, which was scheduled to make its fourth series appearance this December 9th, was unable to obtain travel visas in time for its concert, A Renaissance Christmas.

Stile Antico consists of a dozen singers who perform without a conductor and have received international acclaim for performances and award-winning recordings of Renaissance music. / Photos by Marco Borggreve

 

The Friends’ leadership, which finds itself in the process of reexamining the organization’s mission and its role in our community, decided to turn this into an opportunity to create something unprecedented.

“It was this gorgeous program that we were so excited about,” said Leia Barrett, who has served as the Friends’ acting executive director since the departure, earlier this year, of Founding Director Cynthia Siebert. “And this is the second time we’ve had to cancel it due to COVID-19.”

Leia Barrett / Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Leia and her board pondered the idea of presenting a sort of hybrid, “where we would find a really outstanding local choir to alternate with video from Stile Antico,” she said.

The benefits could be threefold: The concert would have a live feel to it, it could showcase Kansas City’s own Grammy Award-winning choir, and it could offer audiences the chance to hear two different approaches to choral sonority side-by-side.

“To say that we were delighted to get the call to perform on this concert is an understatement,” said Charles Bruffy, the Chorale’s artistic director since 1988. “The Friends is known for bringing to Kansas City the ‘best of the best’ in ensembles from around the world, and for us to be a part of this, especially with Stile Antico, is a joy for us.”

Soprano Kate Ashby, who help establish Stile Antico in 2001, is equally delighted “to be creating a new way of presenting choral music,” she said, and with an American group she knows well through its world-renowned recordings on Chandos and other labels.

“We were so disappointed when the decision was made to pull the plug on the December tour,” she said. “It was our fifth U.S. tour to be canceled since the start of the pandemic, and we are itching to get back across Stateside.”

Kate Ashby

Kate is fascinated with the idea of presenting Stile Antico’s choral sonority alongside that of the Chorale’s more distinctly “American” sound. “We will be staying true to our own personal style,” she said, “and the audience will have a great opportunity to compare and contrast the American and British choral styles side-by-side.”

Although the technical plans for the concert are still being ironed out, there is a chance that the choirs might perform “together” in at least one of the pieces.

Of course any professional chorus has the ability to adapt its sound to correspond to the needs of a given style, and both choirs expect the result to feel seamless to the audience. “In our rehearsals,” Charles said, “we are crafting this ancient polyphonic music to deliver a finished product of complete authenticity.”

Charles Bruffy / Photo by Jen Rogers Photography

A few years ago, in fact, the Chorale performed locally with The Sixteen, another prominent British choral ensemble, “and we rejoiced in the contrast,” Charles said. “It was really a fun and rewarding experience.”

The live-virtual interaction is a “first” for the members of Stile Antico as well. They, too, were intrigued by the idea of a dual concert spanning the Atlantic.

“We had thought about performing ‘live,’ ” Kate said, of the prospect of direct-streaming the London portion of the program. “But the time difference would mean it would be the middle of the night for us, which is not the best time to be singing!”

The program of music by William Byrd, Josquin des Prez, Hans Leo Hassler, and others, is structured according to the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols: a service that normally uses liturgy to trace the Nativity: from the angel’s visit to Mary to the journey of the Magi.

“We have put a bit of a twist on this, and replaced the bible readings with some of the finest poetry and prose from 16th- and 17th-century England,” Kate said. Thus instead of liturgy, these masterworks of Renaissance music will be melded with verse by Emilia Lanier, George Herbert, John Donne, and others, as read by Kansas City Actor Robert Gibby Brand.

Stile Antico is known for innovative, thought-provoking approaches to music, and thus is an ideal ensemble for such a venture. “They really embrace multi-sensory presentations,” Leia said. “They like to integrate speech, video, imagery.”

Kansas City Chorale / Photo by Jana Marie Photography

 

As both the Friends and the Chorale are focusing on a future of expanded diversity, collaboration, and inclusion, projects such as this help underscore the process. “We have to move forward,” Leia said. “And frankly there are so many Kansas City groups that have really risen in their performance abilities … and in the innovative nature of their activities. It doesn’t make sense for us not to extend a hand and dedicate ourselves to being collaborative partners.”

As the Chorale marks its 40th year, the Friends recently marked its 45-year milestone and looks forward to a half-century celebration in a few years. Its leaders have tried to use the pandemic hiatus to formulate new goals going forward.

“It is a joy to welcome the thoughtful re-emergence of all the performing arts,” said Nancy Lee Kemper, the Friends’ board chair since 2007. “And the Friends of Chamber Music is elated to be presenting the exquisitely creative joint concert of Stile Antico and the Kansas City Chorale. … Let us experience chamber music at its finest, with great live performances for all.”

—By Paul Horsley

For tickets to A Renaissance Christmas,go to chambermusic.org or call 816-561-9999.

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).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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