Choir melds poetry, philosophy

Seattle a cappella ensemble The Esoterics will perform at water-themed concert that also supports clean water efforts

Contributing writerFebruary 28, 2014 

A performance by acclaimed Seattle choral ensemble The Esoterics engages more than the ears. Performing poetry and philosophy set to music by contemporary composers, the a cappella chorus also engages the mind.

Founding director Eric Banks calls the group the thinking man’s choir.

“We do music that is new and undiscovered, or under-sung,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re trying to do new things with an instrument that has been around for millennia.”

On Sunday, the choir opens its 2014 season with a concert in Olympia, part of the concert series at St. John’s Episcopal Church. The group last performed here two years ago as part of the same series.

This season, the choir is not just aiming to stimulate thought: It’s taking action with a series of concerts themed “Three Choral Ecologies” that explore ecology and benefit nonprofits working on environmental causes.

“We could very easily just do music and have people pay their money and go home having taken this journey, but for me, I have to have more than that,” Banks said. “If we spend our entire lives just making art, we are missing out on something else.”

Sunday’s concert is “Oceana: Music of the Lakes, Oceans and Seas.” Part of the proceeds will go to Splash, a Seattle nonprofit working to provide clean water to children in developing countries.

“I want people coming to the concert to know that some of what they pay goes toward something more than art,” Banks said. That could be an important point, since the St. John’s concerts, unlike the choir’s Seattle performances, offer admission by donation.

“With the group, I have a kind of loudspeaker,” he said. “I wanted there to be some sort of social consciousness to the project.”

The group – which has four times won the Chorus America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming – has done concerts to benefit nonprofits in the past, but that’s now becoming a bigger part of the choir’s mission, he said.

The subsequent concerts in the series focus on forests and air, with some of the proceeds going to Cool Earth, which works to preserve the rainforest and the Audubon Society, respectively.

On the program for Sunday:

 • “Three Sea Visions” by Swedish composer Gsta Nystroem, in which the sea inspires contemplation of life’s ebb and flow.

 • “The Chorale of the Reef,” by Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina, which sets to music poetry by Pablo Neruda and honors the goddess Oceana.

 • “Sea Change,” by British composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, which explores the mystery of the sea through poems by Marvell, Spenser and Shakespeare.

 • “These Oceans Vast,” composed by Banks, which follows sailors’ journey through six poems by Herman Melville.

Banks composes many of the pieces that the group performs. Last year, Seattle Opera commissioned him to compose the music for “Our Earth,” a trilogy of short operas for children, also on an environmental theme. And that was just one of many recent commissions.

“These Oceans Vast” was composed in 2012 for the San Francisco choral group Clerestory. In her blog on artsjournal.com, Colorado Public Radio arts editor Chloe Veltman praised the piece.

“The Banks piece was the high point of the concert,” she wrote. “The six-movement song cycle, which traces a sea voyage (both physically and metaphysically) through easy and turbulent waters, showcased the singers’ ability to listen carefully to one another, bring out key lines in dense textures, and make every word of the poems by Herman Melville, upon which the cycle is based, heard.”

The Esoterics

What: The Seattle ensemble, which performs a cappella arrangements of poetry and philosophical works, offers a water-themed concert titled “Oceana: Music of the Lakes, Oceans and Seas.” A portion of the proceeds will be given to Splash, a nonprofit working for clean water for children in the developing world.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: St. John’s Episcopal Church, 114 20th Ave. SE, Olympia

Tickets: By donation

More information: 360-352-8527 or stjohnsoly.org or theesoterics.org

Also: Child care is available during the concert, and there’s a reception afterward with a chance to meet the artists.

Next at St. John’s: James De Leon, Steinway master pianist, performs at 3 p.m. May 4.

Next for The Esoterics: “Oceana” is the first concert in the chorus’s 2014 season, “Three Choral Ecologies.” Subsequent concerts in the series (performed in Seattle) are “Sylvana: Music of the Forests, Flowers and Trees,” May 9-11, and “Aetheria: Music of the Sky, Air and Atmosphere,” Oct. 4-6. The chorus closes its season with “Fine: Irving Fine Centennial,” Dec. 5-7.

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