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Classical Notes

Chorus directors share an urge to explore

Betsy Burleigh makes her debut Sunday directing Chorus pro Musica. Betsy Burleigh makes her debut Sunday directing Chorus pro Musica. (
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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2009

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Two of Boston’s many choruses are opening their seasons on Sunday, and both concerts mark important milestones in the groups’ respective histories. Musica Sacra opens its 50th season, which is also Mary Beekman’s 30th as music director. At Chorus pro Musica, starting its 61st season, Betsy Burleigh introduces herself as the new music director. Both spoke by phone recently about their ensembles, their experience, and the music they live with.

Because Boston’s choral scene is such a crowded ecosphere, ensembles need to present something distinctive in order to carve their own niche and survive. Asked to sum up Musica Sacra’s essence, Beekman harked back to an idea that was once in the chorus’s mission statement: to make music in a way that would “inform the human experience.’’

“It sounds like a hokey thing to say,’’ Beekman admits, but for her it has real meaning, going back to her undergraduate mentor at Harvard, John Ferris. “You felt like he was trying to get at the essence of the composer’s spirit. The musical expression is very important, of course. But it’s a springboard to the more important thing, which is the composer’s sensibility.’’

The main work on Musica Sacra’s program is Brahms’s “German Requiem,’’ a piece popular enough to draw audiences even though it is performed frequently. Beekman says that part of her reason for programming it is “to bring people in for something they know,’’ in the hope that they take to the concert’s other offerings, a motet by Heinrich Schütz and “Sleep’’ by Eric Whitacre, a contemporary composer.

“I love choral music - I’m very much a proselytizer for it,’’ she says. “There’s something about gathering together in song that is so powerful for those who do it and those who listen to it. My personal mission in this concert, as in a lot of them, is to bring people in for something they know and then say, now listen to this!’’

Burleigh, though new to Chorus pro Musica, is no stranger to Boston. She holds a master’s degree in choral conducting from New England Conservatory, and in the past directed the Longy Chamber Singers, the Cambridge Madrigal Singers, and the Master Singers of Lexington. Her mission with Chorus pro Musica is partly one of recapturing the group’s historical essence. Under former music director Jeffrey Rink, the group has been deeply involved with concert performances of opera.

“And I think that’s a wonderful goal, and it worked very successfully for him and for the group,’’ Burleigh says. “But I also think there’s a limit to the amount of opera repertoire in which the chorus plays a major role, maybe four or five operas. So I see one of my goals as bringing Chorus pro Musica back to its roots.’’

In part, that means a more exploratory approach to programming. The most familiar work on Sunday’s concert is Duruflé’s “Requiem’’; it’s rounded out by two obscure works by well-known composers, Brahms’s “Geistliches Lied,’’ opus 30, and Kodály’s “Laudes Organi.’’

“What I want us to do is to have a balance of known and less known,’’ Burleigh explains. She cites in particular the Kodály, which she says may be having its first Boston performance. “That’s very important, that there’s some really interesting, great music that’s slightly off the beaten path that deserves to be heard.’’

Burleigh will be dividing her time between Chorus pro Musica and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, an independent chorus that she prepares for performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. She says the choral groups form a perfect complement.

“What I find terrific now is the chance to take all the things you learn from [preparing for the orchestra] - the standards and the sound world - and now to be able to share those in a situation where I can see the process through from start to finish, is really fun. It feels like a nice balance, feeding and being fed, so to speak.’’

Both conductors have music they dream of doing with their ensembles. Burleigh nourishes a deep love of Haydn and wants to do “The Seasons,’’ his less popular yet highly entertaining oratorio. For Beekman it’s Benjamin Britten’s massive “War Requiem,’’ which she calls “the apotheosis of choral music.’’ She had wanted to celebrate the group’s two anniversaries by opening this season with it, but found it would be too costly and involving. So she “settled’’ for the Brahms instead.

“Was I a little disappointed? Sure. And was the first rehearsal a little [disappointing]? Yes. But then by the second rehearsal I was saying, oh, my God, listen to what he’s doing there. There’s always fulfillment in whatever you’re doing.’’

Musica Sacra: Sunday at Jordan Hall, www.musicasacra.org Chorus pro Musica: Sunday at Old South Church, www.choruspromusica.org

Osso and BQE
Though plenty of classical ensembles have incorporated pop music into their activities, it’s hard to find one with higher indie cred than Osso. The string quartet’s members have worked with Jay-Z, the New Pornographers, and Sufjan Stevens, among others. Last month, Osso released its debut album, “Run Rabbit Run,’’ a set of arrangements of Stevens’s electronica album “Enjoy Your Rabbit’’ by composers including Nico Muhly and Gabriel Kahane. Somehow, hearing Stevens’s electronic noises carefully transferred to a live quartet makes them sound even stranger.

Osso performs selections from “Run Rabbit Run’’ tonight at Tufts University. The show will also include a screening of Stevens’s “The BQE,’’ a film and musical suite about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, New York’s legendarily infuriating roadway.

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