Full stage with Twin Ports Choral, pianist Emily Valine, and the Highland Quartet. Bret Amundson leads the ensemble.
Full stage with Twin Ports Choral, pianist Emily Valine, and the Highland Quartet. Bret Amundson leads the ensemble.

How does it happen that in a small city north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, we can listen to exquisite choral music performed by five very fine choirs? Three of them are university-based, the other two are semi-professional. This February, both the Arrowhead Chorale, led by Stanley Wold, and the Twin Ports Choral Project, led by Bret Amundson, shared a wide variety of choral sounds, nearly all of it written by composers alive and well and still writing.

Since I wrote about the Chorale concert a couple of weeks ago, this week I’m writing about the Twin Ports Choral Project, since they performed at Mitchell Auditorium at The College of St. Scholastica last Friday night. They took this program over to Ashland, WI, on Saturday evening, as part of their desire to share around the region.

Mid-Winter Songs featured seven choral compositions, and the hasty madrigal about the roguishness of Winter (Yver!) by Claude Debussy was the only piece by a composer of our (recent) past. Most of the program focused on darkness, silence, and love - despite the falling snow.

Young and Wonderful Composers

Giselle Wyers, conductor and composer from the University of Washington chose to set a poem by Wendell Berry, The Dark Around Us, Come. These luscious choral sounds flowed back and forth across each other, very subtly sharing the joy that ‘all the earth shall sing.’
Selections by Eric Whitacre, Eriks Esenvalds, and the late Stephen Paulus followed. Esenvalds’ River of Light featured Courtney Ellian quickly singing two Sammi folk songs about the northern lights, while the choir created a river of energy, until celebrating the dying embers, when nothing could be heard.

Powerful Cycle by M. Lauridsen

CSS pianist Emily Valine joined Amundson and the choir for two extended pieces about winter and reflection. Morten Lauridsen is a well-established California composer who chose five very meaningful poems about winter by the late British poet Robert Graves. This 1981 cycle has a rich and flowing piano part, as well as the much-anticipated layering of voices and very meaningful choice of word arrangement. Sometimes the piano created falling snowflakes; other times nostalgic interludes gave the choir a short break, occasionally repeating phrases like ‘despite the falling snow’ and ‘spare October a little longer.’ Having deep poetry and richly interpretive music for twenty minutes really warmed the Friday evening.

Darkness is also part of love’s secret

The concert closed with a pulsating tribute to darkness, love, and the light that burned in the poet’s heart. Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of the Cross) was composed by Ola Gjeilo, a young Norwegian-born composer who lives in New York City. The choir and piano were joined by the Highland String Quartet (Steve Highland, Laurie Bastian, Ron Kari, Betsy Husby) to perform this work with six contrasting sections. A driving opening, with a pulse of seven beats, created an urgency expressed in the poem. Chimes and lovely melodies kept shifting as the piece progressed. The third and fourth sections, dealing with darkness and security, allowed the choir to share this intimate text. A final hymn to the light within brought the evening to a very satisfying finish.

The choral presence in Duluth-Superior is exceedingly rich at the moment. Watch for postings from UMD, CSS, and UWS, as well as Arrowhead Chorale and the Twin Ports Choral Project. If you enjoy the combination of words and music, you won’t be disappointed.