by Theo Dorgan
When the great ships come back,
and come they will,
when they stand in the sky
all over the world,
candescent suns by day,
radiant cathedrals in the night,
how shall we answer the question:
What have you done
with what was given you,
what have you done with
the blue, beautiful world?
Tony Thornton began Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble in the fall of 2013, with a mission to create a professional-caliber vocal arts ensemble with the heart and dedication of an amateur chorus. Dr. Thornton is well acquainted with professional ensembles, as you can see from his biography.
The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble is beginning to realize Tony’s vision. A unique chamber chorus, we draw our volunteer singers from throughout Massachusetts and beyond. We have received rave reviews from audiences and newspapers, and have earned the respect of area cultural institutions.
The ensemble performs choral miniatures and masterworks from all periods and styles, and collaborates with other community/professional organizations.
“Performances at the level of Illuminati's give the listener a clear window into the composer's soul.” - Clifton Noble Jr, The Republican, Oct. 15, 2016
Active as a conductor, educator, clinician, and author, Tony Thornton received his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education and Voice from Westminster Choir College, a Master of Music degree in Choral Conducting from Louisiana State University, and his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Choral Conducting and Historical Musicology from the University of Arizona. He studied conducting with Joseph Flummerfelt, Kenneth Fulton, Frauke Haasemann, Margaret Hillis, Bruce Chamberlain, and Donald Neuen.
Trained first as a singer, Dr. Thornton has performed as a tenor soloist throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. As a member of the Westminster Choir, he performed at the Spoleto Festival in Italy and the United States, and he has recorded with Leonard Bernstein, Riccardo Muti, Robert Shaw, Claudio Abbado, and Zubin Mehta. He sang for seven years as a member of the Grammy Award-winning Robert Shaw Festival Singers.
As a guest conductor and clinician who is active on the national and international choral scene, Dr. Thornton has worked with over 300 women’s, men’s, and mixed choruses in public schools, colleges, churches, community, and professional organizations in 24 states, Japan, and throughout Europe.
Dr. Thornton is the author of The Choral Singer’s Survival Guide (giamusic.com) and he maintains a choral series in his name at Colla Voce Music. He is currently Director of Choral Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he oversees an extensive choral program, guides the graduate program in choral conducting, and serves as Director of the Choral Area for the UMass Summer Conducting Institute. He is the Founding Artistic Director of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble.
Dr. Thornton holds active memberships in the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM), National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), and the National Collegiate Choral Organization (NCCO). He is President of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Choral Directors Association.
Sarah Ehle received her Bachelor’s degree in Piano Performance from Wheaton College, and her Master’s degree in Collaborative Piano from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her experience includes working with choirs as well as collaborating with musicians of almost every instrument, working as rehearsal pianist for a student opera program, and playing for several student musical theatre revues.
Ms. Ehle is on staff at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she works with the UMass Chamber Choir and several studios. She also accompanies Suzuki group classes at the Northampton Community Music School, and has worked as a staff accompanist at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut.
Our sixth season continues with Magnificat, a program of settings of the Christian canticle beginning “My Soul doth magnify the Lord.” The concert will take place on February 23 at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Easthampton. Tickets are $20 general, $15 senior and $10 student, and are available below.
According to the prominent twentieth century musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, this passage from the Gospel of Luke (1:46–55) "has probably been set to music oftener than any hymn in the liturgy." In the Western European tradition, it is most often sung or recited during the main evening prayer service, Vespers. Our program will sample its historical variety, with works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), Francisco Lopez Capillas (1614 - 1674), Francesco Durante (1684 – 1755), Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933 – 2010), and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).
When Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) came of age, Italian music was dominated by the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). As a rule, Palestrina avoided excessive leaps between notes, and confined dissonances to weak beats, passing notes and suspensions.
Monteverdi did not fully conform to this style, and his music attracted criticism from theorists of his time, who felt the dissonance in his music could not be justified by reason or tradition. Monteverdi replied that his was a “Second Practice” that did not follow these rules, and thereby allowed for passionate expression. His brother Giulio Cesare further remarked that it was Monteverdi’s “…intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant…. “
Monteverdi reflected on these criticisms, and his music continued to develop. His final response came late in his career, in the preface to his 1638 collection Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (“Songs of War and Love”). In it, he described three moods that might be expressed in music, "agitated," "soft," and "moderate" (concitato, molle, and temperato). Monteverdi believed composers had insufficiently explored the potential of agitated expression, a sentiment entirely understandable in an Italy devastated by the wars of religion. His remedy was inspired by contemporary martial music, which contained rapid notes “…struck one after the other, and combined with words expressing anger and disdain.” He continued, “I recognized in this brief sample a resemblance to the passion which I sought, although the words did not follow metrically the rapidity of the instrument...”
In his final published work, the 1640/41 collection Selva morale e spiritual, ("Moral and Spiritual Forest”), Monteverdi applied this approach to sacred music. He mixes traditional practice and modern innovations as the text demands. Magnificat primo tuono à quattro voci da capella is taken from this collection, and is a perfect example. While much of it is quite conservative, even incorporating ancient plainchant, Monteverdi’s setting of “deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles ” (“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”) is bold, passionate and dramatic, and is striking even today.
Francisco López Capillas was born in Mexico City in about 1605. He was part of the first generation of Spaniards, and the first significant composer of European descent, born in North America. His Magnificat Primi Toni was rediscovered in the late 1990s by the musicologist Robert M. Johnson for a recording of mission music by the Los Angeles-based vocal group Zephyr. It is a wonderful example of the lucidity and beauty that brought Capillas fame even in Spain. Although it was composed after Monteverdi’s Magnificat primo tuono à quattro voci da capella, it is conservative for its time, and firmly in the late Renaissance style, what Monteverdi called “First Practice.” In the 17th century, the cathedral of Mexico City was not the place for innovation, but for comforting traditional music of the old world.
The Magnificat in B Flat of Francesco Durante (1684 – 1755), on the other hand, is a bold and innovative work of the late Baroque, which anticipates the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning with the text “omnes generations” (“all generations”) the traditional polyphony that had dominated music since the late Renaissance periodically gives way to a lucid and lovely homophony. Rather than a series of intertwining melodies, we hear a dominant melody supported by chords. In this context, the “deposuit potentes de sede,” which is in the agitated style of Monteverdi, seems almost old fashioned.
This work was so far ahead of its time that the 20th century musicologist Giuseppe Radicciolli attributed it to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Durante’s talented student. This misattribution lingers.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) composed Totus Tuus (“Totally Thine”) to celebrate Pope John Paul II’s 1987 pilgrimage to his native Poland. Totus Tuus was John Paul II's apostolic motto. The text is from a poem by contemporary Polish author Maria Boguslawska: “I am completely yours, Mary, Mother of our Redeemer. Virgin Mother of God, blessed virgin, Mother of the world's Savior. I am completely yours, Mary!”
While the music is in a style sometimes dubbed “holy minimalism” – devout, homophonic, simple and profound – it has a unique triumphal quality that reflects an emerging religious and political freedom. The Virgin Mary is the Patron Saint of Poland, and according to the critic William Helmcke, the melody is derived from Bogurodzica (“Mother of God”), the oldest recorded Polish hymn.
A decade earlier, Górecki had resigned from a prestigious university position in protest of the Communist government’s refusal to allow John Paul II to visit Poland. Just a year later, national strikes would lead to the end of the Communist dictatorship, and the first free elections in 70 years.
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) composed his Magnificat in 1989. While it too has been described as a work of “holy minimalism,” it reflects the composer’s reverent study of plainchant and his unique “tintinnabuli” style, inspired by the sound of bells, interplaying consonance and dissonance.
Pärt wrote of his approach: ""Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away.”
Our season culminates in June with the world premiere of "A Passion for the Planet" by the noted local composer Geoffrey Hudson, a 45-minute long work for chorus, orchestra, soprano and baritone soloists, and narrator.
The piece is in four large sections, separated by brief passages of narration. The first section celebrates the wonders and blessings of our planet. The second explores recent environmental destruction and devastation. The third section grieves for the damage that has been done. The final section builds on the words of the naturalist David Orr: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”
Hudson writes “We’ll never respond effectively to climate change until we, as individuals, grasp that climate change threatens us all. Choral music is a powerful emotional solvent. In composing A Passion for the Planet, I’m creating a space—sonic, aesthetic, and communal—where people can gather to hear, to feel, and to be changed.”
Entrance into the ensemble is by audition only (see audition process below). Dr. Thornton seeks singers with considerable choral experience. While perfect sight reading is not required, all singers must fully prepare repertoire before the first rehearsal. Illuminati makes music from the beginning.
Dr. Thornton is building an ensemble with a beautiful, communicative sound: tall, warm, vibrant, and round vowels; a wide dynamic palette; an inner rhythmic drive; and in-tune and balanced resonance. In the soprano section he is looking for lyric, energized purity; in the alto section a rich, full sound; in the tenor section a lyric, high/forward, yet warm sound; and in the bass section a rich baritone sound with forward placement that is not overly dark.
If you are interested, please complete the form here and we will email you an audition confirmation with possible times.
The audition takes approximately ten minutes. Singers will be asked to perform scales using a variety of articulations (legato, staccato, and marcato) and dynamics to demonstrate color, range, quality, and flexibility. A segment of the audition will emphasize sight-reading and tonal memory (with accompaniment). Finally, each singer should prepare his or her vocal part of this PDF excerpt from BWV 76 (Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, measures 20-36 only). The excerpt will be sung without accompaniment. Singers should perform as close to quarter=96-100 as possible. German is preferred, but a neutral syllable may be used.
If you have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Music is a primal art, central to every human culture, and singing is its most primal form: unmediated by any instrument, rising directly from our lungs, throats and souls.
But from this primal simplicity an extraordinary body of compositions has emerged over the centuries – the choral literature that weaves many voices together into haunting and sonorous tapestries of sound – one of the highest achievements of human civilization.
The singers of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble have for the past five years been preparing for our community concert programs of some of the most beautiful choral music ever written, because this music is our joy, a profound expression of the human spirit, and a light no darkness can put out.
Our concerts have been densely attended and keenly enjoyed. Clifton Noble wrote in his review of February 2018's Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil in February, “The breathless silence that blessed the cadence of the final movement before the church erupted in a lengthy standing ovation testified to the profound effect of the music on all those present.”
Though many of us are professional musicians, we are not paid for this work. We do pay our extraordinary conductor, Dr. Tony Thornton, for his leadership; we pay our accompanist and other instrumentalists; we pay for rehearsal and performance space.
The money you helped us raise will allow us to continue to explore extraordinary repertoire rigorously and with passion.
To donate, send a check to:
Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble
c/o Shirley Griffin
20 Beston St
Amherst, MA 01002
Greg Brown & Mary Hubbell
Bruce & Wendy Durfee
Chris Krueger & Jane Bryden
Stephen & Suzanna Adams
Martha & Newton Frohlich
Bruce & Alexandra Lyman
Robert & Silvia Brinkerhoff
Ronna & Neal Erickson
Manuel & Susan Andrade
Rachel Peterson & Roger Bird
Music has the power to move and inspire, to tell important stories, and to bring communites together. The Illuminat Vocal Arts Ensemble performs choral pieces and masterworks from all periods and styles, ofen in collaboraton with other musical organizatons throughout the Pioneer Valley. Our sold-out concerts atract a discerning audience that shares a passion for music performed at the highest level. Comments from audience survey last season speak of "ravishing precision," "superb directon," and "sheer love of beauty."
In our our sixth season, we will offer three programs exploring some of the enduring forms of choral music, culminatng in a world premiere in June of "A Passion for the Planet" by the noted local composer Geoffrey Hudson, a work that holds up the mirror of art to the dauntng challenge of climate change. For this excitng event we will be joined by members of other area ensembles and The Young People's Chorus.
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