The devastation of war, followed by the sanctity of peace; it is an old theme. One that conductor Erick Brunner explores with the Taos Community Chorus’ “Into the Light” fall concerts. The program was built around the scriptural Latin phrase “Dona nobis pacem,” which translates as “Grant us peace.”
Brunner, who has a long history of choral conducting, leads the Taos Community Chorus (TCC) in Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” and J.S. Bach’s fugue of the same name. Claire Detels, a retired musicologist who now resides in Taos, will be providing piano accompaniment.
“Into the Light” will be performed four times. It will be offered Saturday (Nov. 11) at First Presbyterian Church, 215 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; Sunday (Nov. 12) at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 205 Don Fernando Street; and Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 18-19) at St. James Episcopal Church, 208 Camino de Santiago. All performances begin at 3 p.m.
Tickets are $15 at the door on the day of the performance, $12 in advance, $10 for seniors and free for those 18 years old and under. Advance tickets are available for purchase from TCC members. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit taoschorus.org.
In a last minute development, the chorus board decided to offer complimentary tickets to veterans of all wars the first Saturday and Sunday of the concerts (Nov. 11-12) in appreciation of “their service to our country.” This coincides with Saturday being Veterans Day.
Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) was an English composer who was at the forefront of the 20th century “Renaissance of English music” according to Detels.
In her program notes, Detels explained that during World War I, Williams volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and Greece. The wounds of war he witnessed led him to write the cantata, “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which was also an expression of his concern about what seemed to be the stirrings of a second major war with facism rising in Italy and Germany, and Spain’s civil war. Although Williams described himself as an atheist and later an agnostic, Detels writes that he used religious texts for this work. In addition, Williams integrated an anti-war speech by politician John Bright, and poetry by Walt Whitman, who had served as a nurse in the Civil War, and wrote about his experiences.
“It’s an amazing combination of pieces of text, especially Walt Whitman’s are extraordinarily difficult to hear because of the content,” Brunner said.
It was because of their textual content that Brunner chose the Vaughn Williams cantata.
“I needed to do something utterly timely due to the state of the world,” expressed Brunner. “I felt we needed to sing music whose text and music compositely were scenes of war and our ability to move past this. So, Vaughn Williams came up immediately. It occurred to me we couldn’t not do it.”
For the “Into the Light” concert, Brunner paired Williams’ six-movement cantata with a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) from his “Mass in B Minor.” The fugue is also titled “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
Although he himself was a Lutheran, Bach often composed sacred music in the Catholic tradition such as his “Mass in B Minor.” “Dona Nobis Pacem” is from the traditional Agnus Dei movement of the Catholic Mass.
“It is a great fugue, the form for which Bach is justifiably best known, in which the main subject follows a smooth largely stepwise Renaissance-style of counterpoint,” writes Claire Detels in her program notes. “Emerging from the single climbing D-major melody line of the basses, all parts enter to form a powerful prayer for peace: a notable end to this great work, and we hope, to this concert.”
Asked how the chorus responded to the music for the fall concerts, Brunner said, its members have shown an amazing willingness to perform the pieces. “People are pretty excited about this – it’s moved them deeply. I can tell by the way they sing it, and have rehearsed it. I’ve been very proud of the chorus.”
Brunner also had praise for pianist Detels. “Claire’s role in the community chorus is huge. She has to function as a symphony orchestra or chamber orchestra … Claire is not only a fabulous historian. She is a consummate and wonderful pianist.”
In addition to Detels, Mary Gates will be playing a piano part for the “Into the Light” concerts. Gates is the assistant organist at St. James Episcopal Church and “also a very fine player,” Brunner said.
Vaughn Williams’ piece features two soloists: soprano Elizabeth Calvert and tenor Mark Jackson. Brunner is also making use of a reader for the Vaughn Williams’ text.
“I incorporated a reader into the concerts to give the audience more than one opportunity to hear the words,” Brunner explained. “I was really fortunate to get Dylan Smith to do this. He has an absolutely spectacular speaking voice.”
Brunner said it was important to him to have a young person read the text. Smith is in his 20s.
Brunner studied organ and choral conducting at Westminster Choir College (WCC), which is the principal choral ensemble for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. While there he worked under Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Eugene Ormandy, William Steinberg and Robert Shaw. He continued graduate work at WCC and sang under Shaw’s guidance during the summers.
In the 1970s, Brunner moved to Boulder, Colo. Over the course of the next three decades, he was involved with a number of the larger church music programs. He founded the chorus for the Colorado Music Festival, and rehearsed many choruses for the Boulder Bach Festival. Brunner also taught voice lessons from his large private studio for many of these years.
Brunner moved to Taos 12 years ago. He conducts the choir at St. James Episcopal Church in addition to the Taos Community Chorus. This spring he will be leading the TCC in Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus.” Brunner plans to continue conducting the TCC at least through the upcoming 2018-2019 season, its 40th season.
On conducting, Brunner said, “It’s my single biggest musical passion. I love it, I get lost in it.” He added, “I’ve been more than slightly impressed by the quality of singers in Taos.”
The Taos Community Chorus is made of volunteer singers from Taos County and surrounding areas who range in age from their early 20s to their early 80s. For questions or information on how to become a member of the TCC, visit taoschorus.org or email email@example.com.