BRATTLEBORO—As Jonathan Harvey gears up for the first public performances as the Brattleboro Concert Choir’s new music director, he makes a sweeping proclamation.
“I have loved it so much!” he exclaims as he reflects on working with the choir, which will present “Mozart, Beginnings and Endings,” in two performances at the Latchis Theatre: Friday, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 12, at 3 p.m.
The choir will perform Mozart’s Requiem and Allegri’s Miserere.
“This group of singers in the Brattleboro Concert Choir is incredible,” continues Harvey. “The experience has been everything I have hoped for and more.”
Harvey found himself most struck with the Choir’s musical dedication.
“I don’t mean by that just talent,” he explains. “Although they have plenty of that, they also are willing to work hard. I merely have to point where they should go in the right direction.
“What I love best about this group could change tomorrow or was different yesterday, but right now what I would say it is their openness to new musical ideas. I have faced little resistance to trying anything new. They have a radical sense of giving whatever is before them all they’ve got.
“This first semester as I got to know the group better I was continually impressed by their strength and development. I found everyone working on a higher level, learning more quickly and having more fun with it all than I anticipated.”
Harvey feels that working with the Choir has felt a bit like joining a family.
“I’m still working to get to know everyone, but I feel very fortunate,” Harvey says. “I’ve felt such a powerful sense of ‘home’ with our singers. They’ve been so welcoming and excited. It’s a new chapter for the Concert Choir, and I hope it’s a long one.”
The new guy
After an intensive search, Jonathan Harvey last fall succeeded Brattleboro Concert Choir Music Director Susan Dedell, who announced her retirement last year after three decades leading the longest-performing ensemble of the Brattleboro Music Center.
Created by Blanche Moyse even before she established BMC, the Brattleboro Concert Choir performs an exciting and challenging repertoire, ranging from classic choral masterpieces to rarely heard and newly commissioned works.
Harvey is an assistant professor of music and director of choirs at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He earned a B.A. from Earlham College, an M.A. in music from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in musical arts from the University of Connecticut.
“Although I don’t live in Southern Vermont, Brattleboro is just an hour away, so the commute is easy,” Harvey told The Commons last September. “I have weekly rehearsals with the Choir, as well as other meetings at Brattleboro Music Center that will take me to Brattleboro. And, of course, during the week of our public concerts I will be in Vermont much more often.”
Harvey comes to Brattleboro Concert Choir with lots of experience. He has previously held music-director positions with universities, community music organizations, and churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Indiana.
Harvey’s commissioning projects, composer collaborations, and frequent performances of new and contemporary works are a testament to his commitment to ensuring that classical music is a living, breathing art form.
Harvey had long admired the work of his predecessor, Susan Dedell, with the Concert Choir.
“Besides the distinguished level of its performances, I was impressed by Dedell’s commitment to interesting programming for its concerts,” Harvey says.
He is continuing her legacy with Brattleboro Concert Choir with exciting and inventive programing of his own.
For instance, regarding “Mozart: Beginnings and Endings,” Harvey explains that “while the Requiem is often considered Mozart’s last work, Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus holds a special place in the lore around Mozart’s prodigious young talent. The piece was written by Allegri in the late 1630s specifically for worship in the Sistine Chapel, where he was employed as a singer.
“According to legend, the piece was kept guarded there until a 14-year-old Mozart visited the Vatican in 1770. Upon hearing the piece once, and being stunned by its sublime beauty, he transcribed it perfectly and brought it to the wider world.”
In describing the upcoming concert program, Harvey adds, “Any composer’s last work always holds a certain fascination, and Mozart’s Requiem is no exception — so many depictions of Mozart’s life posit that with the Requiem, he felt as if he was writing for his own funeral. The Mozart Requiem and Allegri’s Miserere may be separated by over 150 years and half a continent, but Mozart’s musical personality is what brings them together.”
An exciting start
Harvey believes “Mozart: Beginnings and Endings,” should be an exciting concert. “We have a really great group of singers in the Choir to bring it alive,” he says.
For the upcoming concert, Brattleboro Concert Choir will be joined by four illustrious soloists: soprano Junko Wantanabe, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hansen, tenor Peter W. Shea, and bass John Salvi.
Watanabe has performed widely in operas, oratorios, and recitals in the U.S. and in her native Japan. She has been featured as a soloist with the Boston Lyric Opera, Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, Chorus Pro Musica, and Masterworks Choral. Currently, Watanabe is on the faculty of Amherst College, Brattleboro Music Center, and Rivers School Conservatory.
Hansen is a magna cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College, has performed as soloist with orchestras and choruses throughout Northern New England, and has been a semifinalist in the Oratorio Society of New York Annual Solo Competition. She is choir director at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon and a cantor at St. Denis in Hanover.
Shea is a frequent tenor and baritone soloist with several area choral societies, and is a member of the vocal ensembles Cantabile and Illuminati. He worked as a cataloger at the UMass Amherst Libraries for 32 years, and recently retired to Northfield, Mass.
Salvi has appeared as a guest artist with opera companies and choral societies throughout New England. He earned his bachelor and master of music degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“When I am thinking about an approaching concert, I want it to be valuable and meaningful to the community,” Harvey explains. “What I mean by community is both the performers and the audience. I believe that those onstage and off can come together for a holistic experience that can be powerful.”
With this concept in mind when considering what pieces of music to perform, Harvey programs works with the entire season, so that the different concerts can complement one another. “I try to include different musical colors, styles, and eras,” he says. “I want a lot of variety each year.”
For instance, for the next concert program of the BCC in April, entitled “The Last Sunbeam: Music of Grief and Peace,” Harvey has programmed a very different type of evening.
The works he chose, White Key by Reena Esmail and Dona nobis pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, both “grapple with tragedy, and how we as humans process great loss,” Harvey explains. “The first is about tragedy on a personal scale. Dona nobis pacem is a piece about global tragedy, written in the years leading up to the Second World War.”
Although the Choir is already over 85 members strong, Harvey hopes there will be even more in the spring. He exhorts new people to apply to the Brattleboro Concert Choir.
“I want to encourage anyone interested in singing in any context to check us out to see how we work and discover how the Choir may fit into your life,” he says.
On the Wednesday immediately after Saturday’s concert, the Brattleboro Concert Choir will begin working on “The Last Sunbeam.”
“Those who come on Saturday and like what they hear can actually be part of our choir in several days,” Harvey says. “I hope that these concerts will pique the interest of some in the audience to join Brattleboro Concert Choir. We want to welcome anyone who is interested in singing to find out if the Choir works for you.”