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Symphony of a thousand: Baltimore Choral Arts Society launches season with preview of upcoming January UK tour

Baltimore Choral Arts will perform their program of American music at Oxford University and London’s famous church-cum-concert hall St Martin-in-the-Fields, among other places.
Baltimore Choral Arts will perform their program of American music at Oxford University and London’s famous church-cum-concert hall St Martin-in-the-Fields, among other places. (HANDOUT)

What does an American choir sing when they’re in England?

This is not the set-up to a joke, but a serious question for Anthony Blake Clark, music director for the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. For him, it’s also one with an obvious answer: American music.

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On Nov. 3, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society will launch their season’s subscription series with a concert showcasing the breadth and depth of the American choral tradition. The concert also gives Baltimore audiences a preview of the repertoire that BCAS will perform while touring the United Kingdom in January.

“When we learned about our invitation, [we decided to] use this opportunity to be musical ambassadors,” Clark said in an interview. “I always find it funny when choral groups tour to a certain place and they bring the music of that place.”

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Instead, Clark has assembled a program ranging from folk hymns like “Hark, I Hear The Harps Eternal” to samplings of stage music in the form of a selection from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide.”

“We’re also singing some pieces about themes that are really important to us,” Clark added. “I’ve tried to make it about what values we want to lift up right now as a community, whether as a nation or as choral artists.”

Those values include honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. with an arrangement of Bono’s “MLK” and a nod to the centenary of women’s suffrage through the combination of pieces that either highlight female singers, were written by women or use text written by women; the text for Ēriks Ešenvalds’ “Stars” is by Sara Teasdale, whom Clark considers “one of the most accomplished lyrical poets of this country.”

Making an unusual appearance is Zoltán Kodály’s “Laudes Organi.” For this piece alone, Baltimore audiences should make an effort to catch this concert before BCAS takes it to the U.K. Kodály was a Hungarian composer who wrote “Laudes” as a commission for the Atlanta Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, who premiered it at the guild’s 1966 National Convention.

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Leo Wanenchak, Baltimore Choral Arts’ associate conductor and the organist on the Kodály, is “looking forward to the comic interaction between the chorus and the organ.” The text is a 12th-century Latin poem that offers a kind of guided tour of the instrument and a treatise on musicianship: At one point, the choir proclaims, “Musician, you must behave like a warrior!”

Humor aside, “Laudes Organi” presents Wanenchak the creative challenge of adapting the piece to the different instruments he’ll use during the tour. In the Kodály, he explained, “the organist gets to pick the sounds.” To prepare, Wanenchak has researched the specifications of the organs on which he’ll perform; beyond that, he’ll have about two hours on them before the concerts.

Baltimore Choral Arts hasn’t undertaken an international tour since 2007, and this one marks the first since Clark’s appointment as music director in 2017. Appropriately, it came about in part through his ties to the area: Clark studied in the U.K., and his former teacher Simon Halsey invited him and BCAS to take part in an upcoming performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.”

This alone would be worth the trip across the pond. Baltimore Choral Arts will perform their program of American music at Oxford University and London’s famous church-cum-concert hall St Martin-in-the-Fields, but their tour culminates in joining four other choirs and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under the baton of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand” for its massive forces, a performance of this work always requires collaboration between multiple ensembles. Baltimore Choral Arts has the honor of being the only international choir to join for this performance.

“In many ways, Birmingham is a mirror image of Baltimore,” said Clark. “I adored my time there. It’s an honor to share [this program] with Baltimore audiences first, and then with English audiences in the U.K.”

If you go:

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society performs “An American Suite: From Billings to Bernstein” at Johns Hopkin’s Shriver Hall on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $25.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.

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