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Performance of "A Servant’s Heart." Photo by Jill Fisher.
Music for me isn’t ALL about rock-and-roll, rhythm-and-blues, reggae or covering bar bands. There are times when I am in the mood to just open my ears to hear music that doesn’t automatically compel me to dance. Friday, Sept. 29, was one of those.
“A Servant’s Heart” – a Twin Ports Choral Project Concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was the first one of two performances this past weekend and I am so glad I chose to attend it. Choral music has held a special place in my heart since the days I sang in my church, high school and college choirs.
The human voice is magnificent and when a group like the Twin Ports Choral Project Chamber Singers combine their voices, it can almost take a listener out of one’s body to a celestial place, if even for just an hour and a half.
According to the program, this was the inaugural concert of the all-professional TPCP Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Ryan Deignan, Assistant Professor of Music at UMD. What a happy circumstance for me. St. Paul’s, with its superb acoustics for just this kind of music, also provides visual inspiration, a fitting venue for this program. (A bit more on the architecture of St. Paul’s below.)
For all the reservations one might have about Christianity and organized religion in general, it surely must be credited for having inspired many gorgeous, uplifting musical works. And Friday evening’s performance was ample evidence of that.
The Servant’s Heart program was divided into three segments: Serving the Lord, Serving a Cause and Serving Others. The first selection of the evening was “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” by 19th century composer Anton Bruckner. This piece announced the grandeur of the Christian music to come with the singers accompanied by three trombones (played by Zach Marley, Carmen Marley and Mark Jeffrey) and organ played by Tom Hamilton.
Next was a more contemporary piece (1990), “The Beatitudes” by Arvo Pärt, which Deignan introduced with the explanation that this composer plays with the use of silence in his pieces. Indeed there were distinctive pauses between the lines of biblical text, presumably to let their meanings sink in, especially this one: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The deep rumblings of the organ punctuated the verses enhancing the pauses.
“Little Innocent Lamb” was the third work, a jaunty piece that contrasts the activities of the Devil, Satan and the hypocrite with the true believers who are “gonna serve God.”
The fourth offering was “Gloucester Service” by Herbert Howells in two parts: “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Howells (1892-1983) was an Englishman known for his abundant production of Anglican church music. This was the comfort portion of the first set complete with beautiful “Amen” endings. Rounding out this portion of the program was “Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord” that featured soloists John Rynders (tenor) and Joe Kastner (bass).
The second section began with a brand-new piece by Benedict Sheehan, “God’s Grandeur” (2023) based on a poem by the 19th century English poet and Jesuit priest, Gerald Manley Hopkins. This selection is particularly relevant to today’s world of climate change with the lyrics stating that “…all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell…”
The chamber singers sang the national song of Estonia, in its original Estonian language, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (My fatherland is my love). Because singing this song was forbidden when the country was behind the Iron Curtain, it became a symbol of citizen resistance and Estonia became known as the Singing Country. (Google “Estonia Singing Revolution” for a fascinating 10-minute YouTube background and moving testimonial to the power of music to change the world.) Would the Ukrainian conflict only be ended this way.
The last piece in the second portion of the concert was a world premiere of the commissioned arrangement of an isiZulu text: “Senzenian”/”Sengikhumbula ikhaya la bazali bam” arranged by Thabo Matshego in 2023. The TPCP’s performance of it was uplifting and included outstanding solos by soprano Regan Hjelle and tenor Patrick Coleman, with the entire group swaying in time to their own foot beats.
Regan Hjelle and Patrick Coleman
Four more compositions were performed in the final portion of the concert titled “Serving Others.” It began with the 2007 “Messages to Myself III – Kirsten: Let love come in” by Christopher Theofanidis. The title says it all. Next was “Joy/Full” a short, bright piece based on quotes of Helen Keller (“Once I knew only darkness and stillness, Now I know hope and joy”) and Anne Sullivan.
Soprano Tasha Kapp was the soloist for “If I Can Help Somebody.” The tune and words were highly emotive and so soaringly beautiful it made my eyes well up – and others’ too I would guess. Kapp’s interpretation featured some gospel-inflected embellishments (sometimes referred to as “noodling”) of long-held notes.
For me it was the climax of the concert, though the final piece, “Oh What a Beautiful City,” really rocked with the singers clapping and repeating “Halleluiah” with ever-increasing enthusiasm, enticing the audience to participate and ending the concert on a high note.
For those of you who also appreciate choral music, keep tabs on this group at twinportschoralproject.org/performances.
A brief note about St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: Completed in 1912, St. Paul’s is one of Duluth’s most significant architectural treasures. It was designed in a nuanced Gothic style by the nationally renowned architect Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924), who was based in New York and considered the leading architect of his day. The interior is stunning with fine wood carvings, rich ornamentation and iconography. Those who love beauty should check it out.
Though I was completely satiated with TPCP’s performance, I nevertheless found myself racing over to Wussow’s this same Friday evening in hopes of hearing Slope City (Mike Smišek) and a brand-new band: Väder, led by Garth Anderson. I was too late to catch Slope City and all but two of the 10 original tunes Väder performed. What was interesting is that Anderson wasn’t playing the drums as expected but a Squire Telecaster guitar. It was Greg Antcliff on drums along with young Cotton Sumner (cool name) on keyboards. This is a jazz trio, that could be considered an off-shoot of the jazz group Landscapes, in which Anderson does play drums.
The two numbers I heard, “No Excuses” and “Klaus Dinger” made me think I’ll want to hear more of them in the future.
Before the week was through I decided some hot tunes and dancing were in order, so I headed out to the Powerhouse in Proctor to check out another band, The Reckoning, that was unfamiliar to me. Members of this group, which has only been together for six months, includes Shawn Bourgeault (electric guitar), his son Ryan (also electric guitar), Mike Thorene (bass) and Garrett Ness (drums). Both father and son sang lead vocals and Thorene chimed in with harmonies. Ness played drums with Whiskey Trail for two years before it broke up when its lead singer headed to Nashville. Wow, what can I say?
The Reckoning is a hard rockin’ group, playing raucous covers mostly from the 1980s such as “Turn Up the Radio,” “We’re Not Going To Take It” and “Nothing But A Good Time.” Now I’ve never been a big fan of heavy metal rock, but it was quite the show and it was great fun to dance to. The bar crowd appeared to be primarily of the generation that came to adulthood during the ‘80s, as many sang along or mouthed the lyrics to most of the tunes. Stay tuned to see how this band fares. It is pretty much booked for shows throughout this next year!
Another first I experienced was Tommy Wotruba’s inaugural playing of a recently acquired new Eastman guitar at the Breeze Inn on Sunday afternoon, Oct.1. It’s always great to hear this guy performing his wide range of covers and musical genres, with a gritty voice, southern inflections and easy pickin’ style. His original compositions aren’t half bad either!
Upcoming: It looks like there’ll again be many difficult choices to make as a full fall season of music lineups is on the horizon. Don’t miss Martin Zellar at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday, Oct. 7, if you can help it. And there’s lots happening at The West Theater now that the summer hiatus is over. I’ve mentioned Joyann Parker’s Patsy Cline tribute previously, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 12.
Another music event that is sure to be popular is Breeze Inn’s annual Oktoberfest Tent Event on Saturday, Oct. 14, at which both New Salty Dog and Feeding Leroy will perform. The action starts there at 4 pm. All the while, music at our favorite venues like Sir Ben’s, Cedar Lounge/Earth Rider, Rathskeller, Black Water Lounge, etc. continue to have lots on offer. I’ve also heard a rumor that Boku Frequency may be playing regularly at Carmody Irish Pub a couple Sundays a month. Now there’s some music I won’t want to miss!