During 30 years, Olympia's premier choral ensemble has grown: From 40 to 100 voices, from classics to newly commissioned works, Masterworks has established a firm vocal presence in the city's arts scene.
This Saturday, the choir celebrates its success with an anniversary program of music by its director, Gary Witley – his 2006 “Come, Union” and a brand-new work, “Wingspan.” But for long-term choir members, the real joy of Masterworks comes from singing together as a community.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” says Witley, who has been with the group since the beginning in April 1981. “We started as a nonauditioned choir of 40 people, with no budget and staffed by volunteers. Now we’re an auditioned choir with 100 people and we have a $100,000 budget, though we’re still a volunteer-driven nonprofit. That’s a huge achievement. There’s been tremendous improvement and growth.”
The choir has also grown in repertoire. Early seasons concentrated on the choral classics – the “masterworks,” in fact, by composers such as Brahms, Bach and Haydn.
“Our sole purpose at the beginning was singing dead white male European composers,” Witley says.
As the years went on, however, the group tackled medieval songs, Renaissance polyphony, world music, P.D.Q. Bach, Elton John. There was an Australian tour in 2002, collaborations with local and national groups, and performances at the governor’s mansion. The group honored the community with its annual Salute to the Arts award, community choral clinics, and partnerships spotlighting local businesses.
The ensemble also began to commission new music. Since 1990, Masterworks has commissioned works from local composers such as David Kechley and Gloria Swisher, as well as Masterworks director Gary Witley, whose “Come, Union,” with lyrics by his wife Vonda, premiered in 2006.
The piece, along with a previously commissioned work, was so successful, Witley says, that they decided to do a similar program for this weekend’s 30th anniversary concert: a new Witley piece “Wingspan,” again to Vonda’s poetry, along with a reprise of “Come, Union.”
Both pieces, scored for choir and orchestra, are highly spiritual in nature. “Come, Union,” a play on the word “communion,” is an eight-movement song cycle subtitled “An Exploration of Living in Gratitude, Being of Service,” and explores general themes of humanity. “Wingspan” describes in five movements the flight of an eagle: “Resting,” “Rising,” “Soaring,” “Descending” and “Landing Again.” Each begins with a soloist singing a couplet, such as the opening to “Soaring”: “Eagle glides to golden heights/A shadow framed in healing light.”
“It’s contemporary, like a tone-poem in which each movement is a journey unto itself,” Witley says. The tonality rises one third every movement, changing modality (major, Phrygian, Mixolydian, Locrian and Dorian) but ranging widely within each movement. Orchestration is by Mark Thome, and soprano Eva Gheorghiu will sing the solos.
At the time of the commission, Witley’s wife was working on a poem inspired by the movement of golden eagles she’d seen in the Methow Valley, and he suggested they collaborate again.
“In many cultures, the eagle represents the perspective of spirit,” says Vonda, who works as a graphic designer. “For me, it became a symbol of the spiritual journey, the arc of a lifetime or a day.”
For Gary Witley, celebrating 30 years of choral community with an all-Witley program seems appropriate. “Bringing new music into the world is our mission.”
But for longtime Masterworks member John Godfrey, the celebration is about the joy of simply singing together as a group.
“There’s nothing like it,” says Godfrey, who first came across Masterworks while working at Kinko’s, where Witley would go to photocopy music. “With Gary’s instruction, it’s a real community. We all have various backgrounds and musical experience, but it all comes together. It’s a beautiful moment.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com