30 Years Bach: The Utah Baroque Ensemble

Ask Martha Sargent, director of the Utah Baroque Ensemble, how the group began nearly 30 years ago and she smiles. It’s a question she’s heard often. “The choir really began with Douglas Bush and the Utah Bach Choir,” she says, “but when Doug got too busy to continue leading the group, I was approached about taking over as conductor. I knew that an opportunity like this wasn’t likely to come up again if I said no, so I agreed to direct the group even though I was busy raising my kids, teaching a lot of oboe students, and finishing up my master’s degree at the time.” Their first performance in Zion Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City saw a small audience of 12 people, but their audience has grown and continues to grow every year.

Based on the choir’s name alone, audiences might be forgiven if they come expecting a program filled with Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi. Instead, the repertory is as likely to include a folk hymn or the latest piece by contemporary Norwegian composer Gjeilo as it is to include Bach. “It’s never just Baroque music,” Sargent continues. “Of course, we always include Baroque pieces in our concerts and we always include Bach in our repertoire. But we also know the audience needs variety, so we program everything from Renaissance to contemporary works, too.

“We also sing a great deal of sacred music in the choir,” Sargent says, “partly because sacred choral literature works so well in the LDS chapels and in the other church venues where we perform. We feel at home when we sing sacred anthems, motets, and cantatas—just as we do when we sing folk hymns and spirituals. When we performed at the ACDA convention [American Choral Directors Association] in 1996, a respected choral director complimented the choir by mentioning the honesty of our performance. He could tell we really believed the words we sang. To me, that was a huge compliment. Some of the most meaningful moments through our history have come when the group knew it was touching others’ hearts. Or, moments when we hear audience members tell us that they have grown to love Bach by attending our performances. Nothing is better!”

For the first number of years the Utah Baroque Ensemble had no money — a situation that created several challenges for the group. Playing Bach and other Baroque works required the services of a first-rate organist, but without adequate funds, it was hard to keep a good organist for long. Eventually the choir’s reputation—plus a little needed funding—attracted a range of instrumental talent including Jim Kasen, Walter Whipple, and even a young Andrew Unsworth prior to his tenure with the Tabernacle Choir. But it is Jeri Bearce whose influence has been most lasting.

“Jeri was with us the longest,” says Sargent. “She sight-read like a dream, but she also read my mind, knew which sections of the choir were having trouble, and just always knew what needed attention. She played piano as well as she did organ. Jeri also devoted extra time to administrative matters, including grant writing and helping with our Baroque music competition, which we’re really proud of.”

Nearly 30 years for an organization naturally produces a lot of memories. The choir has traveled abroad on tour three times during its history; first, to Germany; next, to Wales and the UK; and in more recent years, to Italy. Choir members would say that each performance was memorable—but not always because of its quality venue or instrumental accompaniment. Sargent laughs at the memory of one German performance. “The organ was pretty terrible,” she admits, “and its tuning was so bad that our string players had no idea how to adjust their own tuning to the situation at hand. That certainly led to some creative listening during the performance. And during our Italian tour, we were accidently up against the World Cup (coincidentally in Italy at the same time) during a performance in Florence. We probably had a dozen people in the audience for that concert, and we were so hot that we sang with the doors open—with mixed results. The swallows out in the square probably sang more loudly than the choir.”

Of course, mixed in with the humorous or dire situations familiar to touring ensembles were the truly meaningful and life-changing experiences such as performing in Westminster Cathedral and again at St. Paul’s in London. “Choir members will never forget how it felt to sing in Westminster Cathedral with the organ reverberating through the chapel,” Sargent says, “or how we felt when we performed in venues like St. Paul’s Cathedral or Bath Abbey. No less meaningful was our performance at the Kodaly festival in Leicester. We were the only American choir to participate. The choir members probably wondered at my sanity for choosing a Hungarian piece sung at 200 beats to the minute. But in the end, we were pleased with our performance and the warm responses we received.”

As a nonprofit organization, the Utah Baroque Ensemble offers more to the community than performances alone. Recognizing the talents of high school musicians through an annual Baroque performance competition is just one way the choir gives back to the larger community’s musical life. It’s clear that this annual tradition means a great deal to the UBE, which offers a Baroque music master class early in the calendar year. Topics might focus on bowing technique or the best approach to improvisation, but at its heart the master class is meant to foster a love for Baroque music performance. Every March, young instrumental musicians (grades 9–12) submit an audition on YouTube, culminating in a finalists’ recital at the Orem Library. The top two finalists receive cash prizes to encourage them in their musical studies. “By holding this competition annually, we hope to encourage even more students to feel the joy of performing baroque music,” says Sargent. “It’s a glorious tradition.”

These days, the Baroque Ensemble is preparing for its 2016–2017 season, starting with a performance for ACDA Utah on October 22nd at the University of Utah’s Libby Gardner Hall. To whet the audience’s appetite for variety, the choir plans to perform a Renaissance motet, the opening chorus of J.S. Bach’s Cantata 77, and an African-American spiritual. These three works also factor into a full concert on November 5th in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, rounded out by larger works for choir and organ, works by Byrd, Tallis, and Weelkes, and contemporary works by Ned Rorem and others. Traditionally in November, the choir also performs two concerts on the second and third Sundays of the month. For 2016, those concerts will take place at the LDS Grandview East Stake Center on November 13th, followed by a performance on the 20th at the Orem Cascade Stake Building on Center Street. In keeping with UBE tradition, both performances are free to the public, although donations are always welcome.

Each December, the Baroque Ensemble culminates the first half of its performance season with two back-to-back Christmas concerts at the Orem Library. For 2016, these concerts are slated for December 5th at 6:00 and 7:30 p.m. “After scheduling only one Christmas concert in previous years, we had so many audience members who had to be turned away that we decided to perform two concerts in a row,” says Martha Sargent. “Our audiences see these concerts as a cherished part of their holiday season, partly because we always invite them to sing along to some of the carols we perform.” To add to the variety of the evening, the choir likes to cull Christmas carols from less-known sources. “This December, we’ll feature a lovely piece called the Villançico de la Falta de Fe by Eduardo Falú of Argentina. In this charming carol, the text speaks of the wise men paying heed to the signs they see. But (as the translation goes), ’men, being only men, see and don’t notice.’” Other contemporary carol settings are by David Conte (Pat-a-Pan) and Carl Schalk (Before the Marvel of This Night). The remaining carols will feature settings familiar to most audience members.

With so many choirs in Utah, one might wonder why some singers choose to sing in one over the other. It’s not uncommon for choral singers to move around from group to group, or even sing in multiple groups simultaneously if their schedule allows it. Utah Baroque Ensemble sees personnel changes like any other community choir, but many members have sung with the group for years. In some cases, UBE alums have gone on to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or other ensembles throughout the state. Interestingly, many Tabernacle Choir alums have later returned to sing UBE after retiring from the larger group. “Both Rob Rowberry [composer] and John Lamb [emeritus BYU professor] sang with the Tab Choir for years, only to come back to sing with the Baroque Ensemble,” says Sargent. “For one thing, as a smaller choir we get to perform works that would be less successful in a large choir; besides, choir members really bond with each other over the years—they like returning to a community of friends. One of the hallmarks of the UBE is the fact that we really like each other. It’s common to see people linger after rehearsals—particularly in the summer when it’s still light out at the end of the evening. We just enjoy each other’s company, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

This profile appeared in the September 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.

Ruth Christensen writes full time for Imagine Learning, an education-based software company in Provo. She also works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher after having taught vocal music for many years at BYU, UVU, and SUU.

Categories: Music

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