Originally published by Marc Shulgold via The Scen3.
“We live in unusual times,” Tom Morgan observed, quietly stating the obvious.
As the founder and longtime music director of the Ars Nova Singers, the 59-year-old conductor has spent much of the past year keeping his group together while nimbly navigating through the ups and (mostly) downs of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Glad to report that he’s still here – and so is his 40-voice ensemble. On the brink of a new season of in-person and streamed concerts, Morgan and company are all smiles, as their founder has assumed full-time duties (having shed his music directorship at Boulder’s St. John’s Episcopal Church). In addition, there’s a new marketing campaign that’s packaged with a bright new theme, built on a single word: Made. “We’re out to expand our audience,” he said of the aggressive strategy. “And I think this is a positive approach to accomplish that.”
Ars Nova’s five concerts each have a title linked by that word. Following a September 25 kickoff virtual concert filmed at Lone Hawk Farm, the group will appear in Denver and Boulder in mid-October under the banner “Made Perfect.” Other performances, held mostly in Denver and Boulder, are titled “Made Merry” (December), “Made Fragile” (January), “Made Light” (touring programs in March and April) and “Made Real” (June).
Not that the organization is blithely ignoring the complex issues created by the pandemic. Masking will be employed by conductor and singers, while anti-virus rules and regulations at each venue will be studiously observed. “It’s different from county to county,” Morgan said of those rules. “The venues are all figuring this out, while trying to be consistent. Everything is different. And it’s all subject to change.”
There’s no denying the harsh realities experienced by performing arts groups attempting to keep their ships afloat – and yet, Ars Nova is feeling OK about life in the time of Covid. “It’s cathartic for them to be together,” the conductor enthused about his chamber choir’s emergence from virtual rehearsals. “The singers are so appreciative to be back. We filmed the (Lone Hawk Farm) program with a group of fully vaccinated singers, outdoors with no masks. It felt wonderful, and it made us determined to get back to this.”
The season officially begins with that “Made Perfect” program on October 15 at Denver’s St. Paul Community of Faith and Oct. 16 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. “It will be a one-hour program with no intermission, featuring Palestrina’s Missa Brevis,” Morgan said. “I think the title, ‘Made Perfect,’ captures what the Palestrina is. It’s music to swim in.”
Uplifting works such as that 1570 masterpiece will be sung by Ars Nova to provide a balm for those living through the ongoing pandemic. Programming Fauré’s heart-warming Requiem on January 29 and 30 is another example of the ways great choral music can be a healing presence. Sadly, Morgan knows first hand the need for that. In the past year, Covid-19 claimed a member of Ars Nova’s board, as well as the conductor’s brother, who had contracted a breakthrough infection.
Naturally, the ensemble is being extra-careful in rehearsals and performances. Singers will be wearing special masks designed to maintain a small gap away from facial contact, thus reducing the inevitable muffling caused by regular coverings. “There will still be some aerosols escaping,” the conductor admitted. “We also realize that audience members might have an amount of concern (about transmission of the virus).” And they’re not the only ones. “One of our singers who has young children stepped aside (from chorus participation), concerned about her safety,” he said, adding that some singers have briefly exited from rehearsals to take “psychological breaks.”
Being masked as he conducts, Morgan has had to make adjustments, since he is unable to mouth the sung texts to his singers. “Many (choral) conductors do that, but I’ve always tried not to. Now, you have to be more specific with your gestures.”
Indeed, as the conductor has noted, everything is different. The mood of society has darkened. “There’s pent-up community grief,” he observed. To give voice to that sadness, Morgan has included a brief work at the October concerts featuring the Palestrina Mass. It’s the late British composer John Tavener’s For the Fallen, drawn from his Exhortation and Kohima. The words are by Lawrence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.