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Vermont Choral Union Commissions 50th Anniversary Song Cycle


Published April 19, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 19, 2018 at 9:04 a.m.

  • Courtesy of Christina Whitten Thomas
  • Christina Whitten Thomas

Vermont choirs are not exactly fly-by-night ensembles. The Burlington Choral Society is wrapping up its 40th season this weekend with performances of Johannes Brahms' powerful A German Requiem in Colchester and Barre. The Bach-oriented Blanche Moyse Chorale in Brattleboro will turn 40 next year. Oriana Singers of Vermont has been around for 43 years and will give a concert of Bach and Handel in Burlington on May 21.

Meanwhile, the Vermont Choral Union, based in Essex Junction, just turned 50. To celebrate, the VCU is taking a slightly different tack. The 35-member auditioned a cappella group has performed its share of Bach and other centuries-old music; it served as the Vermont Mozart Festival chorus from 1974 to 1987. But it has always aired new compositions, too. This year, it commissioned one for the first time.

The commission is a four-part song cycle called "Songs of Gold," by Middlebury College alumna Christina Whitten Thomas. Under the direction of Jeff Rehbach, the VCU will premiere the work at its anniversary concerts titled "Wings of Song," this weekend and next in Middlebury, Colchester and Montpelier. At the Colchester performance, the group's ranks will be augmented by 30 former VCU members who have been invited back for the occasion.

When Seven Days spoke to Whitten Thomas, who lives near Pasadena, Calif., she was sitting in a church drafting program notes for "Songs of Gold." The cycle's title, she says, came from one of three poems she set: "Green and Gold," by former Vermont poet Jean Killary.

"Green and Gold" was the impetus for the commission. Written while Killary was a patient in the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury in the 1940s and '50s, it lay undiscovered in the state archives until 2013. Artist Sarah-Lee Terrat found it and used it as inspiration for a 50-foot mural she painted in the former hospital building, now the state office complex.

The poem's two stanzas describe the difficulty of distinguishing between birch trees' golden leaves and the similarly colored finches flitting through them.

For Rehbach, who obtained permission from Killary's family to use the poem, the Green of its title represents Vermont and the Gold "the richness of our musicality," he says. In choosing a composer with local roots to set the work, he adds, he honors the Choral Union's founder and longtime director, James G. Chapman, who was known for his research into Vermont composers such as Justin Morgan. (The program for "Wings of Song" includes pieces by Morgan as well as by Maurice Duruflé, Hildegard von Bingen, Randall Thompson and others.)

Guided by a locavore sensibility and Killary's theme of gold — representing "nostalgia, remembrance, heritage," says Whitten Thomas — the pair also selected Middlebury College professor Jay Parini's poem "I Was There" and "Canticle" by Chittenden County poet and historian Abigail Carroll. A flute interlude between the second and third songs completes the four-movement work.

Whitten Thomas, 38, studied vocal performance at Middlebury but turned toward composing as an undergrad. She sang in the Middlebury Chamber Singers (now called the Middlebury College Choir), directed by Rehbach at the time, and the group performed her senior project, a composition for choir and orchestra. She continued studying vocal performance in a master's program at the University of Southern California while winning competitions for her compositions.

Says Whitten Thomas, "Being invited back to where it all started is the crowning moment of my career."

That career, as a successful choral composer with a musician husband and two small children, is remarkable in itself. Whitten Thomas will return to her alma mater as part of her trip back east for the premiere. There, she'll talk to students of Midd music professor-composers Su Lian Tan — a former mentor — and Peter Hamlin about the realities of a composer's life.

"I do have a lot of advice," Whitten Thomas admits. For instance, "Make sure you have diverse talents; don't expect you'll be composing for eight hours a day. And have good sight-singing abilities. You'll have to find gigs." The composer is the staff soprano soloist at a local Congregational church and gives private lessons in voice, piano and flute.

Rehbach has more than one gig, too. In addition to directing the Union since 2011, he has conducted the town-gown Middlebury College Community Chorus since 2000. The latter, incidentally, has been around since 1860.

As Carroll's poem "Canticle" puts it so memorably, audiences at the VCU's 50th-season performances are invited "to enter the concert ... the way the sky enters the glow of evening, the green-turning-flame of its song."

"Wings of Song": Vermont Choral Union 50th Anniversary Concert, Friday, April 21, 7:30 p.m. at Mahaney Center for the Arts, Middlebury College; Sunday, April 23, 3 p.m. at McCarthy Arts Center, Saint Michael's College, in Colchester; and Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m. at Unitarian Church of Montpelier. $12; Middlebury affiliates $10.

A German Requiem: Burlington Choral Society's 40th Anniversary Spring Concert, Saturday, April 22, 7:30 p.m. at Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester; and Sunday, April 23, 4 p.m. at Barre Opera House. $20-25.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Midd Alumna Composes for Vermont Choral Union's 50th Anniversary"