Fraser Valley commuters have nothing on Erick Lichte: his one-way journey from home to office takes a minimum of seven hours, most of it spent on a bus transiting from Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, B.C. Fortunately, he only makes the trip twice a week—and he’s found a good way to occupy himself whenever he’s not staring at the I-5 scenery.
“It’s actually a wonderful time,” he tells the Straight, on the phone from the Portland end of his weekly migration. “I spend a good deal of it doing my score study. One of the things conductors really need is just that time alone—no distractions, no nothing—to just be able to spend time with the music and the scores. It’s invaluable, and a real luxury.”
Lichte has yet to compute how many pages of sheet music he’s dissected during the first full year that he’s been artistic director and conductor of our city’s leading male vocal ensemble, Chor Leoni. But he has figured out that while his arrival here is the result of a small tragedy—the choir’s founder and leading light, Diane Loomer, died at the end of 2012—it’s been an otherwise joyous development.
“This has honestly felt like a dream job for me,” he enthuses. “They are by far the most amazing group of individuals that I’ve ever come across, just as individual men. And the organization is so well put-together. It has its heart in the right spot, and most of the time it knows exactly how to do the best thing. That is such a rare commodity, especially considering that this is an ‘amateur’ musical ensemble.”
Lichte is aware that he has inherited the reins of a well-run, disciplined, and much-loved choir. But Chor Leoni’s 2014–2015 season, announced last week, shows that he’s also not afraid of putting his own stamp on the group. Like Lichte himself, the upcoming season seems energetic, innovative, and likable. Productions like the “a cappella musical” All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, which Lichte helped create, and the self-explanatory Chor Leoni Idol play off seasonal and pop-culture memes, respectively, but other offerings focus first and foremost on the music. Lichte flags April’s The Dream We Carry as a case in point: in addition to new works by Canadian luminaries Imant Raminsh and Jocelyn Morlock, it will feature the world premiere of an as-yet-untitled composition by Latvian choral superstar Ēriks Ešenvalds, with texts by Leonard Cohen.
“I think Ēriks is writing the best choral music of any living composer right now, and so we secured him for a commission to set the words of Leonard Cohen from his Book of Mercy, which is essentially a collection of modern psalms that he wrote in the mid ’80s,” Lichte explains. “They are these incredible and very personal texts that deal with some of his own struggles of faith, and they’re absolutely wonderful.”
Before the new season starts, however, Chor Leoni has four more concerts to deliver at Bard on the Beach’s waterfront tent. Manely #1’s is a concept Lichte inherited from Loomer, indicating that his populist bent is not entirely new to the choir.
“It’s like the easiest theme imaginable: ‘Let’s pick the best songs ever!’” he reports. “A lot of it is not taken terribly seriously, but it certainly is a lot of fun. The whole reason for us to do this show is so that the audience can really, really, really connect with the men of the choir, and it helps when you have songs that people know.
“I get the benefit of working with these guys every week, and I know how wonderful they are,” he adds. “So I want our audience to see a glimmer of who they are as individual men, and this show does a good job of that.”
Chor Leoni presents Manely #1’s at the Bard on the Beach main stage at 3 and 8 p.m. on Monday (June 23) and again on June 30.