« Naturally a cappella | Main | Big opportunity for singing groups. »

February 6, 2006

Choral music has it's own NPR show

Winston-Salem Journal (NC):

"Here is music based on Mary's song of praise to God: The Magnificat," says Stephanie Wendt, her smooth, crisp voice beckoning from the radio. "'He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.'" Ethereal voices then fill the airwaves, rising and falling in a rich melody written by Flemish Renaissance composer Nicolas Gombert, and, thanks to Wendt, in some context.

Wendt is the host of Sacred Classics , a choral-music program that National Public Radio began offering to its affiliate stations on Jan. 1. Sunday-morning listeners can revel in haunting motets and cantatas that span the centuries and learn a little something about what inspired them.

"It's not about a lecture," said Wendt, an Australian chamber pianist with 15 years of radio experience. "It's really the music that's doing the talking." But she's excited that a general audience can now hear and learn about sacred choral music, some of the earliest surviving music of the Western world. "They feel like it's an oasis," she said. "We're bombarded by images of violence, power, money and sex. People need something that feeds them in the opposite way."

Human voices, especially in combination with other human voices, she said, are nurturing and evoke the spiritual. Though the music was often written with a specific religious purpose, Wendt said, its power is not necessarily based in theology. "People with all kinds of beliefs, even lack of beliefs, have a sense of the holy."

Most of the music on the show is Christian. The church had the resources to write down and preserve its compositions even in the 11th century. But the show's producers keep an eye out for recordings from other traditions, Wendt said. She recalled "some beautiful Yiddish music" she played on a special preview show Dec. 25, the beginning of Hanukkah last year.

The decision to go national marks a major increase in the show's distribution. Before January, only 51 NPR stations aired the program through an agreement with Classical Public Radio Network, which produces the series. Now it's available to all 815 NPR affiliates throughout the United States. "NPR is constantly looking for new programs," said Eric Nuzum, NPR's program and acquisitions manager, "to expose new people to public radio."

Expanding the distribution of Sacred Classics was not so much about a modern trend toward the spiritual, he said, but about quality programming. When you look at classical music, he said, "the most significant music has been sacred." Learning about the music's religious history infuses the listening experience with context and depth, said Nuzum, two things he calls "the defining principles of public radio."

One of the greatest things that can happen for a listener, he said, is when someone presents a piece of music in "a way that permanently changes the way you listen to it." The smallest "tidbits" of information, he said, illuminate a song.

Fascinating tidbits abound on the show. In introducing "Regina Coeli," Wendt tells her audience that Wolfgang Mozart "absorbed some characteristics of Italian opera into this sacred work. You'll hear the prominent solo soprano part and the rich and elaborate instrumental writing. The words begin 'Queen of heaven, rejoice, hallelujah.'"

Wendt even throws a little gossip into the mix. Before playing "Vespers of 1610" by Claudio Monteverdi, she dishes, "He dedicated this to the pope with hope that he'd find employment in Rome, but nothing came of that." Though the focus is on the classical, the show plays modern recordings from such contemporary vocal ensembles as Anonymous 4. The female quartet has sold close to 1.5 million albums of medieval sacred music and some early Americana.

Member Marsha Genensky said that the group had an immediate fan base in the core community of choral-music enthusiasts. But she has noticed that as more people are exposed to their music, the group is attracting some unexpected devotees. Her favorite was a young man of college age. "I used to be a deadhead," she remembers him saying. "Now I'm a four-head."

Not being raised in a religious tradition herself, Genensky relates to the way that sacred choral music can stir the spiritual - in the listener and the singer.
"I feel that I am moved by what faith inspired someone to write a song that I'm singing," she said. For as many traditionally religious fans as Anonymous 4 has, Genensky has seen just as many that are agnostic, or "seekers." With this new show, NPR welcomes all types of sacred-music fans to its secular stations.

"Every week, millions of Americans join their voices together in a fellowship of song in choirs in communities, colleges and houses of worship," said Benjamin Roe, NPR's director of music initiatives. "With the acquisition of Sacred Classics, NPR will be able to extend that fellowship throughout the nation's airwaves."

The program will be free to NPR's affiliates for a short time in hopes that the listener base will grow and fans will support the program with contributions. There is no way of knowing yet how many stations will choose to air the show.

Wendt said that it's about time radio responded to the need for sacred vocal music and its restorative possibilities. Bishop Ambrose of Milan had it right in the fourth century, she said, when he wrote that singing "makes friends of those at odds, brings together those who are out of charity with one another." "For some reason on radio we've ignored this for so long," she said. "It's a matter of dusting something off."

Be sure to let your local NPR station if you would like to listen to the show

Posted by acapnews at February 6, 2006 9:53 PM