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Ars Nova Sings About Love… For a Change – A Preview by Marc Shulgold

Marc Shulgold writes about Ars Nova Singers’ STARDUST concerts in his recent preview on theScen3.org.  Read about the commissioning project and composer Joel Thompson’s inspiration. 

Composer Joel Thompson

In these heavily political times, there seems to be no escaping commentaries on all sides of controversial social issues. Even in the concert hall. Composer Joel Thompson (b. 1988) is no exception, with his powerful choral work from 2015, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, honoring the lives of seven black men killed by police. But now, the American music-maker has turned to a softer theme: love.

The texts are drawn from Lonely Letters by Ashon Crawley, an associate professor of religious studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. In it, he shares his deeply personal thoughts on love for another – in this case, evidently another black man – and yet, as Morgan notes, those thoughts stretch into the realm of universal love in all its wondrous complexities. Indeed, as Crawley confesses of his emotions in a Youtube reading from his book, “And what I mean is this: It’s kind of beautiful and kind of scary.”

Thomas Morgan, Artistic Director

“I think Joel wanted to break out from a political stance,” says Thomas Morgan, artistic director of Ars Nova Singers. “The texts here are universal.” The conductor is referring to Love Songs from Lonely Letters, Thompson’s latest work, receiving its premiere Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11 in Boulder and Denver.

Love Songs followed a circuitous path to completion, created as a co-commission in 2019 with four other choirs: Grinnell College, Harvard University, Macalester College, and University of St. Thomas. Ars Nova was invited to join the project, which was shepherded by John Rommereim, who directs the Grinnell Singers. Actually, Morgan explains, it wasn’t that simple. “The piece went through a lot of iterations because of the pandemic. Originally it was going to be a collaboration between Joel and (philosopher-activist) Cornell West. But that fell through when West left Harvard.” It was finally left for Thompson to turn to the writings of Crawley.

Sphere Ensemble

The leaders of the five choirs let the composer have “free rein,” according to Morgan. Thompson had already acquired an impressive reputation through his well-received Seven Last Words as well as The Snowy Day, his first work for Houston Grand Opera, where he recently began a five-year residency. Morgan praised the composer’s harmonic language and his “American-sounding” score, which, he added, was equally admired by his singers. “In our rehearsals, they said, ‘That’s just like Ives!’ ” Written in two movements and lasting a little over 12 minutes, Love Songs is scored for chorus and string orchestra, Ars Nova joined here by the locally based Sphere Ensemble.

Morgan expressed delight at having the composer present for rehearsals and performances of Love Songs. In addition, both men will visit the CU Boulder campus to talk with composition students at the School of Music.

The concerts will conclude with Arvo Pärt’s Berlin Mass (last performed by Ars Nova in 1997) along with three shorter works by the Estonian composer – including a short audience participation piece, Morgan promised.

There are two opportunities (Feb. 10 and 11) to see “Stardust” live, and a virtual livestream, February 10-28. On Friday February 10, 7:30 pm, Ars Nova Singers performs in Boulder (click for tickets); on Saturday February 11, 7:30 pm, the concert is repeated in Denver. (Click for tickets)

Ars Nova is also presenting the acclaimed British vocal group VOCES8 on March 1 and 2, in Boulder and Denver. More information is available by clicking here.