Minnesota choirs await return of live performances

The Minnesota Chorale rehearses.Courtesy of the artist

May 06, 2021

With the COVID-19 pandemic abating, vocal ensembles in “the Land of 10,000 Choirs” have come a long way. They still, alas, have a long way to go. 

Few vocations and avocations face more challenges, more unknowns. After all, these folks are accustomed to scrunching together and belting out vocals unencumbered by a swath of cloth covering their mouths. But from octets such as Cantus to enormous ensembles like the Lutheran National Choir, these troupes are forging ahead.

They are a ways from accurately having “glee” attached to their names, but “diligent,” “determined” and “dogged” will do for now.

“Let’s be frank: [What we’re doing now] is just a substitute,” says Bob Peskin, executive director of the Minnesota Chorale. “But I’m optimistic that solutions will be found.”

Like other choirs, Minnesota Chorale is working on a 2021-22 schedule despite many variables, and it has emerged with new ways of reaching audiences virtually.

“All the technology that we realized was there early on [in the COVID-19 era],” Peskin says, “that stuff is not going away.”

Cantus
Cantus
Nate Ryan

Virtual concerts have given groups a positive during the pandemic: more geographic reach. The National Lutheran Choir has new fans “from Europe and from both coasts,” artistic director David Cherwien says. Cantus tenor Alex Nishibun says his group has received “feedback from Canada, the Netherlands and 42 states for each show.”

In the nonvirtual world, ensembles slowly and steadily are finding more ways to rehearse together in at least smallish gatherings. The vaccine rollout has helped. So have new masks that, in the words of VocalEssence artistic director and founder Phillip Brunelle, “sit up a bit away from your mouth in a way that’s much more comfortable.”

That’s a crucial evolution, Cherwien says. At the pandemic’s outset, standard masks “made our singers feel like ducks … but the new support system is much better.”

Still, any mask “muffles the high-end frequencies,” Peskin says, “especially consonants. That is going to have to be solved.”

Another challenge with masks is the visual effect.

“No one can see your mouth,” Brunelle says. “Therefore your eyes must tell the story. We keep telling them, if the music is happy, your eyes need to look happy. The only way to see expressions is the eyes.”

Until masks no longer are needed, physical distance is paramount. Some choirs are taking advantage of large venues to practice — the Ordway Center in St. Paul for Cantus, St. Michael-Albertville’s 1,500-seat auditorium for its school district choir — and even to perform: VocalEssence covered works by Minnesota composers in a February show at the IDS Tower’s cavernous Crystal Court.

Size matters for Cantus in two ways: having only eight members and ample space in some venues to perform mask-free. Early on, Nishibun says, “we were fortunate to be at Westminster [Presbyterian Church in  Minneapolis], not wearing masks in eight circles with 6 feet of distance for recording.”

Then the members devised a game plan for getting physically closer.

“We would take two weeks of quarantine at home, with grocery delivery and not seeing any people,” Nishibun says. “Then we would get tested and, when that came back negative, retreat to a space and then do a livestream, Camp Cantus.”

It was a bit disconcerting, he says, to be singing in Ordway Center without any audience reaction. That will hold true at a June 11-13 tribute concert (Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and other 1970s artists) and will be rectified to a degree on June 20, when Cantus will perform a Father’s Day show at the Lake Harriet Bandshell.

VocalEssence ensemble singers
VocalEssence
Courtesy of the artist

This summer should afford other choruses a chance at least to rehearse outdoors with less distancing. Artistic director Janice Hinton says the Our Voice Twin Cities Women’s Choir will get together in July at Veterans Park in Richfield with hopes to perform for an audience soon thereafter.

No one can say for certain how big (or how masked) audiences might be, but choir leaders are planning to get in front of them as soon as possible, while hewing to a pair of rules, Peskin says.

“One is what the science tells us, and the other is what our singers are comfortable with,” he says.

VocalEssence’s season is “all planned but we haven’t announced,” Brunelle says. “The question is what we will do in terms of audience. I am sure there will be an audience.”

The St. Michael-Albertville School District has “an exciting year coming up,” choir director Joe Osowski says.

“We host a lot of guest ensembles, and we tour,” he says. “We hope we can get back to be ‘normal,’ but like this year the theme is just to be flexible and cheerful.”

The National Lutheran Choir has its season “pretty well planned,” according to Cherwein, and has slated an Earth Day 2022 premiere of a Steve Heitzeg piece in Seattle.

“It’s extra-important this year to kind of light a little fire of our coming together.”