Readers of my blog know my long-standing connections to the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra—two incredible ensembles I both love and respect. Well, I’d like to introduce you to another outstanding ensemble here in the Twin Cities… the Apollo Master Chorale.
I met them somewhat unexpectedly, but it was… well, love at first hear.
Let me tell you about it.
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My office is on the campus of St. Catherine University in St. Paul… it’s a gorgeous campus that combines an urban setting with sylvan beauty, perched on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. Several of the key buildings are connected via enclosed walkways (similar to the skyways found throughout downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul). Fittingly enough, the campus’s 100-year old chapel is a central hub for the system. As such, I cross through it several times a day.
Back in September we heard a vocal group had rented out the chapel to rehearse and record music for an upcoming CD; vocal music junkie that I am, I found a few more reasons to pass through the space. Between meetings, I quietly slipped into the back of the chapel to hear how things were going …
…and there it was.
A beautiful, soaring soprano line—ethereal and bright, filling the space. Below this, the lower voices swirled, filled out the music, and finally resolved.
There are few things more wonderfully gripping, more guaranteed to cause your goose bumps to snap to attention than hearing such sounds. It is magic that only the human voice to create… music created through the most elementary means that bewitches your ears and pierces your heart.
I was catching a few stolen moments from Robert Pearsall’s immortal madrigal, Lay a Garland, and based on what I heard, I knew I wanted to hear more.
As I hung back in the traffic way, I was quickly joined by several other people from the St. Catherine community. At a pause, one person leaned over and said, “Oh my God. I just love, love, love this. It doesn’t even feel real.”
The sentiment was confirmed by the actions of students crossing through the chapel. Without exception, once they heard the music they stopped, stared openly at the performers, set down their backpacks and settled in for a listen.
A few minutes later the group reset, and pulled out a more recent work: Dan Forrest’s Good Night, Dear Heart. And it was stunning. Although it’s technically a secular piece, the liturgical setting giving the lines a heightened, luminous spirituality.
All in all, it was an incredibly moving experience, and a fantastic way to while away the workday… until a mandatory meeting pulled me away.
I left convinced I should get to know the group better.
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In this the Land of 10,000 Choral Groups, is there room for another one? Of course. Especially when it is this fine. The Apollo Master Chorale is a professional ensemble that draws together top singers from the local community and the country at large, under the artistic direction of Dr. Sean Vogt. Sean’s goal for the new group is to create world-class art, and world-class collaborations, in a world-class musical community.
The project I snuck into was part of a push to release a debut album, which would help introduce the group to a larger audience. Yesterday, the CD release was featured on Minnesota Public Radio, where the group was introduced by Steve Staruch, with an online introduction by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu.
The new CD contains a diverse collection of songs, reflecting the group’s refusal to be “pigeon-holed” into a single style or genre. The result makes for a fun listening experience that draws the listener in and wanting to hear more.
Their rendition of Lay a Garland captures all the shimmering magic of the piece—nailing the expressive sonorities with a pure lightness and clarity of tone. It is a reading that truly captures the conflicting emotions of love and loss that are at the heart of the work.
Dan Forrest’s Good Night, Dear Heart similarly plumbs the depths of this profound work. The song was composed at a moment of familial tragedy; the composer’s brother and sister-in-law were in the process of adopting a four-month old girl from Ethiopia when they learned that the child had become ill and died. In response, Forrest wrote a gentle, final lullaby for the child. The Apollo Master Chorale gives it a heartfelt reading that glows with love and hope without ever overplaying its hand.
Their renditions of Charles Sanford’s The Blue Bird and Orlando di Lasso’s Surgens Iesus are strong and assured, showing strong interpretive flair… but perhaps my favorite selections is Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Pseudo-Yoik. The text is nonsense, and overall the work plays off (and with) the stereotypes of Sami folk music from northern Finland. It’s a devil of a piece, and can be surprisingly hard to pull off in performance—there’s a tendency to rip it off at the speed of light to make it truly insane. Sean avoids that trap here, leading a performance energy and lift, while never losing sight of the piece’s inherent fun.
A sneak preview of the music is here:
Overall, this is a fun CD, and a fantastic group—it’s a pleasure to welcome them to our choral community. Visit their website to learn more.