I’ve never been into narcotics but have long had access to a truly sublime high. My discovery of this cosmic dimension coincided with a post-adolescent yearning for new layers of being and meaning, one I think most all of us seek – a spiritual or existential sanctum beyond the clang of daily life.
The source of Nirvana I found is the sound of perfectly blended voices rising skyward, weaving almost viscerally into the soul, joyous, tragic, ecstatic. The notion of “song” is shed and resonant harmony suspends the listener in a wondrous glow. Though most of us cannot sing well, we all know the hum of breath in our throats; perhaps this is what makes the sound of ephemeral voices so personal.
San Antonio has known such otherworldly choral music from the time monks filled our missions’ chapels with chants and, before that, shamans hummed through peyote-induced transmogrifications.
Nowadays the reigning sources of regional choral music – excluding several universities, colleges and churches with outstanding music programs – are the 144-member San Antonio Mastersingers, which have sung with the San Antonio Symphony since 1944; the 80-voice San Antonio Choral Society; and the San Antonio Chamber Choir. Occasionally, San Antonians also get to levitate to the Austin-based Conspirare ensemble, known for its innovative programming.
Of these nearby, the San Antonio Chamber Choir has the distinction of not only auditioning but also paying its singers, and last year was named the resident choral affiliate of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Full disclosure: I serve on this group’s board of directors, wanting to share its power with others.
While the Mastersingers and Choral Society are both marvelous and critically acclaimed, some patrons believed San Antonio needed an ensemble of professional singers. In 2005, Trinity University choral director Scott MacPherson founded the San Antonio Chamber Choir to fill this void, focusing on music from the 15th to 21st centuries. It was their early music that first seduced me at a concert in the Greek and Roman galleries of the San Antonio Museum of Art. The marble relics of antiquity never seemed so human and endearing.
Last year MacPherson stepped down as artistic director after leaving San Antonio for Kent State University. A nationwide search brought Rick Bjella, director of choral studies at Texas Tech University, to the helm. Six weeks before leading the Chamber Choir in its last (upcoming) concert of the current season, Bjella conducted the New York Masterworks Festival Chorus in Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers” at Carnegie Hall. Sublime music making, indeed.
For the upcoming concert, the San Antonio Chamber Choir has invited area singers to join them in performing “Summertime” by George Gershwin and a Congolese folk song, “SI, SI, SI.” “The Drumbeat of Vacation” program will utilize percussion instruments for music of Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.
Another opportunity for vocal transcendence is nearly here. I hope you won’t miss this cosmic (and sometimes purely entertaining) travel.
But lest you remain unmoved, hearken to Paul McCartney: “I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity, to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.”
Concerts are May 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Tobin Center’s Carlos Alvarez Theater, and May 17, 3 p.m., at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 315 E. Pecan St. Tickets are available through tobincenter.org or at the Tobin Center Box Office, 210-223-8624. Cost is $20 general admission; $15 military, senior and student; or $25 at the door.
*Featured/top image: The San Antonio Chamber Choir during a recent rehearsal. Courtesy photo.