When it comes to performing new works, Arizona Repertory Singers Music Director Elliot Jones seeks out the art in the song.
“A lot of music now I find kind of to be homogenous where it’s so heavily influenced by pop music … that it just doesn’t speak to me,” he explained as his 47-voice choir prepares to perform its annual winter concerts “Heaven Full of Stars.” “But once in a while I come across music that is meant to be art. I’m not slamming pop music, and I’m not being a snob, but I tend to steer more toward the art music side.”
Which could explain why he jumped at the chance for his ensemble to be the ones to perform the world premiere of New York composer Karen Siegel’s new piece “Festival of Lights.”
The score for the unaccompanied piece opens with three pages of “Light”; it is the only word on the page and the only word sung until the song segues into Siegel’s original poem based on an ancient description of Chanukah and religious freedom.
“It starts out sounding a little baffling. It’s not entirely tonal; you don’t really know what key you are in until the poem starts,” he said. “It’s a very vivid setting of the poem.”
Jones was the only music director to take on Siegel’s work, which she pitched to conductors around the country. Jones, in his second season with Arizona Repertory Singers, seems to relish a challenge, like performing a new work that has no template; no one has performed it publicly, so he has no examples to follow.
ARS will set the example and will become the historical footnote attached to Siegel, an award-winning composer whose win in the Manhattan Choral Ensemble Commissioning Project Competition led to her piece “Saguaro,” inspired by the desert landscape and history of Tucson.
“Heaven Full of Stars” also will be a mix of iconic and contemporary choral works including a percussionist and guitarist accompanying the group on the Chanukah standard “Ocho kandelikas,” sung in Ladino, a dialect that marries Hebrew and Spanish; English composer Wil Todd’s new piece “I am Changed”; and Eriks Esenvalds’ “Stars,” which features the choir members holding and playing tuned wine glasses.
“It’s just stunning; it’s absolutely beautiful. The wine glasses make this kind of a halo of sound,” Jones said.
In the concert’s second half, the choir will perform a blend of Christmas carols from around the world and Josquin des Prez’s “Ave Maria … virgo serena,” before ending with the inspiring and sobering Leonard Cohen masterpiece “Halleluia.”
ARS will perform “Heaven Full of Stars” four times over the next two weekends.