By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Give them points for sheer courage.
The fall concert of the Te Deum Chamber Choir, opening at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City, will consist of three of the most difficult works, spanning four centuries, that any choral group could undertake.
It will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Motet No. 3 in E minor, BMV 227, “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, My Joy), written in 1723 in Leipzig for the funeral of Johanna Maria Kasin, wife of the city’s postmaster, and is based on the Epistle to the Romans.
The program will then jump to the 20th Century to Benjamin Britten’s recently “discovered” treatment of seven sacred poems and prayers of Victorian poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is entitled “A.M.D.G.” the abbreviation of the Jesuit motto “Ad majorem Dei gloria” — For the greater glory of God.
After performing the first two-thirds of the concert a capella, the 20-voice choir will then move from the altar podium to the cathedral choir loft to join organist Karen Engebretson for the final piece of their one-hour performance, “Te Deum.” Written by the devoutly Catholic and Scottish composer James MacMillan for the 2002 celebration of the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, “Te Deum” borrows its text from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The concert will be repeated at 3 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Village Presbyterian Church, 6601 Mission Road, Prairie Village, Kan., and that will be it. The choir will then begin work on its spring concert.
Best news of all — both concerts will be free to the public.
It’s an ambitious program for the three-year-old Te Deum Chamber Choir, but their members will have it no other way.
“I love to sing. It’s an outlet,” said tenor Tom Assel. “This is a much higher level of music, much more challenging.”
Alto Natalie Parish said she has been singing in church choirs since the sixth grade.
“Eleven years of choirs, and here I am,” she said. “I love to sing. I just adore it.”
Tenor James Levy teaches music in the Kansas City, Kan., public school system.
“This is a clinic for me to be singing at a high professional level with a professional-level ensemble,” he said.
That’s what Te Deum is all about, said Matthew Shepard, conductor and artistic director who first pulled the choir together in 2008.
“I had been singing in a number of groups and assistant conducting in others, and a number of people would approach me and say, ‘Why don’t you start your own choir?” said Shepard, a Catholic whose day jobs include conductor of the Benedictine College Symphony and associate music director at Village Presbyterian.
But Shepard didn’t want just another choir.
“Kansas City has a lot of choirs,” he said. “The city didn’t need another choir doing things that were already being done. So I came up with ‘Te Deum,’ which means, ‘To you, God.’ We wanted to do sacred music in a sacred context.”
And Te Deum wants to do sacred music not often heard in Kansas City.
Britten’s “A.M.D.G.” is a prime example of Te Deum’s willingness to stretch itself. Composed in 1939 while Britten was living in the United States, “A.M.D.G.” wasn’t heard anywhere in its entirety until Aug. 21, 1984, eight years after the composer’s death, when the London Sinfonietta Voices offered it in the intimate Purcell Room of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Even after that posthumous debut, Britten’s original score wouldn’t be published for another five years until 1989.
Now a staple of spiritual choral music for the most demanding choirs, Britten himself suppressed “A.M.D.G.” because he considered it too challenging and difficult.
But that is exactly the kind of challenge Te Deum is willing to take on, Shepard said.
The choir’s mission statement on its Facebook page states the purpose clearly: “Te Deum Chamber Choir’s mission is to present sacred choral music in a context that is both musically inspiring and spiritually stirring, and to strive for a choral product of the highest levels of musical refinement and beauty.”
Shepard said he had no problem finding the talent to fit that lofty goal. His chamber choir consists of five sopranos (Rachel Basham, Cory Ganschow, Meredith McFarland, Rebecca Roper, Terri Teal), five altos (Parish, Josepha Haden Chomposy, Rachel Gilmore, Ann Lewis, Lynn Thorman), five tenors (Assel, Levy, Chris Gilmore, Alan Murray, Kristopher Taylor) and five basses (Andrew Cunard, Justin Greene, Cory Reames, M.J. Stockton, Alex Tracy).
Though most of the singers are in their 30s, they range in age from the 22-year-old Guy Fawkes look-a-like Tracy, to the senior Stockton, who will celebrate his 72nd birthday exactly one week before the Cathedral concert but is still more than able to endure a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal on his feet.
Though culled from church choirs, Te Deum includes a combined 16 university degrees in music including three doctoral degrees. Six of the members also work full-time in music as church choir directors and as teachers.
“It’s intimidating to me as conductor,” Shepard joked. “They all know what they are doing.”
To prepare for the two-performance fall concert, Te Deum has spent nearly 20 hours in rehearsals together, plus countless hours on their own learning and perfecting the music, their timing, their phrasing, and the intricate weaving of each voice into a product even greater than the sum of its parts.
But all the hard work — and no pay — is worth it if the audience buys into the mission, Shepard said.
“Sometimes, choirs are forced to hold back the sacredness of the music. They don’t want to feel like they are preaching,” he said.
“We don’t hide or hold back anything,” Shepard said. “We hope the listener has not only a wonderful aural experience, but maybe a spiritual one, too.”