ChorSymphonica is different from the area’s other choral and choral-orchestral groups. What distinguishes the nonprofit professional ensemble, according to Richard Allen Roe, its founder, artistic director and conductor, is that it is project-based, which means its composition changes for each concert, and rehearsal time is minimal.
“We’re a group that uses a data base to pull together the singers and orchestra players based on who best fits the requirements of the concert, and who is interested and available,” Roe said.
Then there is the conversation concert format. Soloists, and chorus and orchestra members are employed to illustrate the points in Roe’s pre-performance lecture. In 20 minutes or so, he explores the musical and historical context of the work on the program “to make the composer’s efforts more accessible to our modern ears, and more relevant to our contemporary way of life,” he said. “Then we perform the entire work, uninterrupted.”
In choosing this format, Roe said he was inspired by the late Leonard Bernstein, who established the classical TV series “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in 1960. Bernstein created the show to expose young viewers — mainly school-aged children — to classical music, but also to various kinds of orchestral instruments.
Aside from Bernstein, a more immediate inspiration for the conversation concert format is conductor-organist Helmuth Rilling, one of Roe’s teachers and a “great Bach expert,” he said.
“Everyone loves Bach, but how well do we really what’s happening there,” Roe explained. “There’s so much depth and symbolism. He’s a big part of our programming, and people identify us as Bach specialists.”
The audiences of ChorSymphonica may not necessarily be young, Roe explained, but they are curious about the music they are hearing, especially when it may not be that familiar. A case in point are Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas, which are a staple of ChorSymphonica’s performances. These musical compositions often use a sacred text and are composed of recitatives [sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech with many words on the same note], arias and choruses.
One of Bach’s cantatas comprises the entire program of the ensemble’s performance on Sunday, June 30. Its title, “Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn,” or “Prepare the Pathways, Make Ready the Road,” comes from the Book of Isaiah.
“This cantata has stunning recitatives and very expressive arias,” said Roe. “The text focuses on the need to prepare oneself for the celebration of Christmas. The cantata was written on the last Sunday before Christmas 1715, when Bach was coming (musically) into his own.” It is the only Bach cantata without a chorus; all the singing is done by soloists.
Among the four soloists is mezzo-soprano Janna Elesia Critz, who has performed frequently with the ensemble. The Peabody Institute alumna, who studied both early and new music, has sung “a great deal of chamber music,” particularly by Bach, Handel and Monteverdi. She placed first in the eighth Biennial Bach Vocal Competition sponsored by The American Bach Society and The Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
One thing that drew Critz to ChorSymphonica is the Conversation Concert format. “It’s not a specifically original or unique idea,” she said, “but Rick’s Conversation Concerts are choreographed and very specific, in which the soloists and orchestra players know ahead of time which snippets of the program he has chosen.”
Critz also appreciates ChorSymphonica’s project-based work. “We don’t have to meet a lot, which is good for a freelance artist,” she said. “Plus, Rick always hires really great people; everyone operates on such a high level that it’s easy to put things together quickly.”
An orchestra member who plays frequently with ChorSymphonica is cellist Christopher Moehlenkamp. He is grateful that despite relocating from the DMV to Ohio, he can continue the association because of the project approach. “I can fit the rehearsals and concerts into the weekend,” he said.
Like Critz, Moehlenkamp enjoys the conversation concert format. “Rick gives several examples from each movement of the cantata (or other work). He does all the research and talking. The audience just has to keep up with where we are.”
ChorSymphonica is relatively new on the music scene. Roe founded the ensemble in 2011, drawing on musicians and singers from across the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond. ChorSymphonica is the house ensemble of The Rockville Bach Academy, a nonprofit in which Roe serves as artistic director. It presents two or three concerts a year.
Roe said he is particularly eager to get the word out now about the ensemble because the upcoming concert is their first in a new venue and they are performing under a new name. Formerly called The Advent Project, ChorSymphonica performs a repertoire that spans from the Renaissance to the modern era, “We offer traditional — non-lecture concerts — as well as the conversation ones,” Roe said.
Summarizing his sentiments about music in general, Roe likes to quote Rilling: “Music must never allowed to be comfortable, nor mushy nor appeasing. It must stir the soul, reach the people on a personal level, and bring them to contemplation.”
ChorSymphonica will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 30 at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church, 9601 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. Admission is free; a $20 donation is suggested. Call 240-888-1035 or visit www.chorsymphonica.org.