Vocal Area Network logo VAN Feature

Are we Amused?
by Carol McD. Wallace for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 16, 2004

Amuse logoOn three Sunday afternoons in June, St. Michael's Church (99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan) is hosting concerts of music for treble voices. Leading off the series on June 13 is Amuse, a chamber group of sixteen experienced amateur women, led by St. Michael's Associate Organist and Choirmaster, Barbara Bruns.

Amuse is relatively new on the New York vocal scene, having been founded in the fall of 2002 by Lee Ryder who was looking for a different type of vocal challenge. She approached Bruns, who is also the director of St. Michael's Parish Choir, a mostly volunteer group that had attracted some highly capable singers. Bruns worked on the repertory and Ryder worked on the funding for the debut concert in September 2003.

Singers were recruited by audition from St. Michael's Parish Choir members and other experienced women singers. One of the appealing factors of Amuse is the short-term commitment. Rather than signing up for a regular weekly gig, singers signed on for a few intensive weeks with a performance at the end. The concert was so successful that Amuse is back for a second season, with a September 19 program of sacred music to follow the June concert date.

Of course the compressed rehearsal schedule isn't the only appeal for Amuse singers. Some relish the camaraderie and intimacy of a sixteen-voice group. Others, like Ryder, appreciate the musical challenge that Bruns has built into the repertoire. Some enjoy spending the time with a group of women, all focused on a common goal. (Certainly some are happy to get out of the house for a few hours in the evening.) And all are glad to sing music beyond the standard SATB repertoire.

In fact the repertoire is a paramount concern for Barbara Bruns as well. Bruns, who got her master's in music at the New England Conservatory and had been organist and choirmaster in several churches before coming to St. Michael's, puts an enormous amount of time and thought into selecting material for Amuse. Text is a major concern for her. The program for the June 13 concert includes works with texts by Dryden, Shelley, Ossian and the German poet Eichendorff as well as Gustav Holst's Hymns from the Rig Veda which features Holst's own translations from Sanskrit. The core of the program as she developed it was the Brahms Four Songs, which she had been involved in recording while associate conductor of the Boston Cecilia. They are written for female voices, two French horns and harp. (In June's performance, Peter Reit and Cathy Canfield Shepard will play the horns and Alyssa Reit the harp.) The Holst was a natural complement, with its harp accompaniment.

"People love to sing madrigals and I have a huge selection of those," says Bruns, "so that was a natural addition. And the Rebecca Clarke piece was natural also, since she's a woman composer." Clarke was a pioneering woman in English music, having been Sir Charles Stanford's first female student. She performed frequently as a violist and composed songs and chamber music in the 1920s, then again during World War II. Many of her compositions never received a performance during her lifetime, but are just now being published. Her lovely five-part a cappella Chorus from Shelley's "Hellas", part of the June 13 program, is copyrighted 1999, twenty years after her death. Also on the Amuse program is a set of Shaker songs arranged by Nina Gilbert, the Director of Choral Activities at Lafayette College, who has produced a number of choral arrangements and editions as well as commenting on choral topics for NPR's "Performance Today."

This may sound like a fairly serious line-up, but a hallmark of Amuse as a group is its witty quality, evident in its name, its advertising and its programs. Lush compositions like Holst's double-choir Ave Maria are balanced with those aforementioned madrigals. No wonder people like singing them, with texts like

"What can we poor females do, when pressing, teasing lovers sue?
Fate affords no other way than denying or complying.
What can we poor females do, when pressing, teasing lovers sue?
And resenting or consenting does alike our hopes betray."

And though we may not think of the Shakers as the most playful religious group (one of the songs Amuse is performing begins "We will walk with Mother and weep…"), it may be time to adjust that notion. "Hop up and jump up and whirl round, whirl round, Gather love, here it is, all round all round" sounds more like a top forty lyric than the usual choral text. That's exactly the kind of unexpected twist the members of Amuse (and their audiences) enjoy.

The treble chorus series at St. Michael's continues on June 20 with Superius, featuring sopranos Jennifer Ellis, Jolle Greenleaf and  Dominique Surh performing seventeenth-century Italian "Cantatrices Amoris" or "sacred songs of love." The Treble Chorus of New England (performing June 27) is a children's choir with more than a hundred members aged five through eighteen. Under the leadership of their founder Marie Stultz, 40 of them will make the trip to New York City to perform works both familiar (Fauré's Messe Basse and Britten's Friday Afternoons) and less well-known. Tickets for the entire series of three concerts are available through St Michael's Church for $35, $25 for students and seniors. Individual tickets, available at the door on the day of each concert will be $15, $10 for students and seniors. To reserve in advance, call 212- 222-2700 x29, and give your name, date of the event and the number of tickets you want to reserve. Tickets will be held until ten minutes before the concert and can be paid for by check or cash at the door.

Carol McD. Wallace is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Opera News, Brides, The New York Times and many other publications. She sang in Amuse's first concert. This is her first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Carol McD. Wallace.
Revision Date: May 16, 2004.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

 Vocal Area Network logo