Outside St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Charleston. Photo by Andy Brack.

The word “choir” evokes a group singing in unison, with maybe a few solos sprinkled throughout the performance. Such is not the case for “Spoleto Festival USA Chorus: Density 40:1,” which  will perform Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in alium” on June 7 and 8 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston. 

Each singer in the 40-person choir will have a part highlighting different vocal styles. “Density 40:1,” which is an exploration of sound and how it works in a space, begins with English composer Tallis’ most notable piece, as it was written for 40 voices.

Molly Getsinger, personnel manager for the Spoleto Choral programs, said unlike a typical chorus piece that might be written for a specific voice type, there might be four parts with a couple of splits in the parts. 

“For the most part, the entire choir is singing maybe four lines of music, but with ‘Spem in alium,’ it’s 40 individual lines,” said Getsinger. “So, every singer has their own part at one time and then throughout the concert, it’s just a variation of different voices.” 

Conducting ‘Density 40:1’ is Joe Miller, director of Spoleto’s Choral activities since 2007. He will also be conducting Handel’s “Dixit Dominus.”  He is also conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Symphonic Choral as well as professor of conducting and chair of choral studies at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

“It really is an exploration of density,” Miller said in an interview. “We’re allowing the audience to see that change of density between everybody singing their own individual part, down to 32 singers singing in two parts.”

Miller said he had been exploring the idea for quite some time, and much of its success relied on acoustics. His fascination with acoustics was the catalyst for putting this concept into motion through this program. 

“The acoustics of how voices react to a space that they’re in, the acoustics of  how many people it takes to produce enough sound like if you’re working with an orchestra,” he said. “How many voices does it really take for the choir to be heard with the orchestra?”

In addition to “Spem in alium,” the musical selection for “Density 40:1” features work by contemporary composers like David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Jonathan Dove. Miller wanted music that spoke beautifully in many parts, and Shaw and Lang’s pieces have exactly what he was looking for.

“They are so good at setting this very lush texture,” he said. “One of their pieces is in 12 parts, and one is eight parts. They take those, and it just sounds very transparent and lush at the same time.”

On how to listen

During the 75-minute program, Miller plans to guide the audience through how to listen. For someone who has not experienced a choral concert, this is an excellent performance to attend, he said.

Kev Schneider, featured vocalist in “Density 40:1” and Handel’s “Dixit Dominus,” said the “Density 40:1” performance is one to watch and adds that the program changes the idea of how a typical choir concert starts and ends. 

“This concert kind of changes the notion of that and starts with literally as many parts as you can,” he said. “Everyone singing their own individual part going down to just one voice. And I think that’s a really brilliant idea.”

Rehearsing for the coming performance has been fun for Schneider, as he can sing in different vocal ranges, from tenor to alto. 

The audience at “Density 40:1” will feel like they are being engulfed in sound, similar to a surround sound experience, said Schneider. A feature that will make the performance invigorating from the beginning. 

“I think that this kind of concert is going to continue to help change how the world sees choral music, and how programming choral music at the Spoleto Festival moves forward,” said Schneider. 

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  Tickets range from $48-$60. Shows are at 5 p.m., June 7, and 5 p.m., June 8. St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 405 King St.  

Tania Ortiz is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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