For Erick Lichte, Chor Leoni’s upcoming concert with its Minneapolis-based counterpart Cantus is a chance to look back 25 years—and then jump two centuries into the future.
The nostalgic aspect of the program is that, at the very start of his professional career, the American-born singer and conductor played a key role in getting Cantus up and running, in the process learning many of the skills that are serving him well today at the helm of Vancouver’s popular men’s choir.
“I was one of the original four singers, and served as Cantus’s artistic director for many, many years,” he explains from his car, as he runs errands around the Lower Mainland. “I was with that group for over 13 years of my life, and got it to being a professional choir. So for me, personally, this concert has got sort of autobiographical connections. For one, Cantus is singing the Steven Sametz We Two pieces, which are a work that I actually commissioned and recorded with the group, back in the mid-aughts.
“They’re extraordinary pieces,” Lichte adds of Sametz’s Walt Whitman settings, “so it’s always a joy to see something that you’re a part of continue to grow and to flourish and to continue in new ways that you never expected.”
Commissioning new works remains a large part of Lichte’s responsibilities with Chor Leoni, and for the futuristic part of the choir’s upcoming show, he’s turned to its resident composer, Zachary Wadsworth. Wadsworth’s response has been to write a set of Future Folk Songs, which postulate what might be sung around the campfire in the year 2219—if, that is, there’s enough oxygen on Mars to support a blaze.
“He’s talking about things like global warming, trying to disconnect from your devices, automation and robots, space exploration… Things that are not your normal folk fare,” Lichte reveals. “I think the heartbreaker is the first piece that he wrote, which is called ‘The Mountain Song’. It’s about people fleeing to the higher ground because of the seas rising and global warming—which, god, could happen! And it’s a love song as well. I think he just really nailed the tone of these pieces. They’re not preachy, but they make you think, and they’re really beautiful.”
Beauty and melancholy also mix in Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Wandering Hearts, another Chor Leoni commission, based on the words of Leonard Cohen. It’ll provide a chance for the two choirs to sing together in a concert rounded out by selections from Cantus’s touring program Alone Together, a suite of songs from disparate composers linked by themes of technologically enhanced alienation.
A condition, the American group’s Paul Scholtz adds, that’s the exact opposite of people singing together in a room.
“I was just working with another ensemble and we were talking about ‘Why do we sing?’ ” the tenor reports, in a separate telephone interview from Minneapolis. “I think it’s because there’s a sense of community. And I also think that this choral art form has a way of breaking down barriers. You can deliver messages and texts through song, and they’ll be better received than maybe they would be in a different setting.
“You still have that text, that message, but now you’re adding something visceral to it,” he continues. “You know, our instrument is our body, and so when you’re adding tone and line and dynamics to the text, humans can viscerally relate to that. They may not understand the technical ins and outs, but it’s kind of like a heightened form of our human communication.”
Cantus and Chor Leoni perform at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday (April 12), as part of the 2019 VanMan Male Choral Summit.