Preview: Quire Cleveland: Carols for Quire Two
at Trinity Cathedral on December 3 & 4

Every year at this time audiences look forward to their favorite annual holiday events, whether it be attending a performance of Messiah or Nutcracker, hearing David Sedaris recite his Santaland Diaries, or if you find yourself in New York, watching the Rockettes kicking their way across the stage at Radio City Music Hall. Whatever our holiday entertainment tastes may be, we take comfort in these traditions. For arts organizations, programming these traditional events is a balancing act between keeping things fresh without changing something that has kept your audience returning time and again.

A relatively new concert tradition in the area will take place this weekend at Trinity Cathedral, when Quire Cleveland, under the direction of its artistic director, Ross Duffin, presents “Carols for Quire Two,” its second annual Christmas concert, on Friday and Saturday, December 3rd and 4th at 7:30 pm. The program once again features some of the most beautiful holiday music from Renaissance Europe to Colonial Mexico, New France, and America. These performances also coincide with the release of Quire Cleveland’s debut recording, Carols for Quire from the Old and New Worlds, recorded live during last season’s performances at Trinity Cathedral.

I spoke to the Quire’s artistic director by telephone to ask about the challenges of planning holiday concerts, to talk about the group’s debut recording as well as a recording made for Oxford University Press, and to hear about the ensemble’s exciting performance plans for the spring and fall of 2011.

I began by asking Ross about the success of last season’s performances, and what beautiful new carols we will hear this season.

Ross Duffin: Trinity Cathedral was very gracious to put us on their series last year, but we did not have a track record there, and we had no idea who would show up. But basically the church was filled for every performance. They even had to add extra seats for the Sunday matinee. So we are hoping that those people will come back and bring their friends, and we’ll give them another good show.

We also know that when you do a performance, people always ask, do you have this performance on CD? And we thought that since we are now getting our first CD that we would program about a half to two thirds of the same music, so that the audience will have a CD that reminds them of the performance. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of music out there and we certainly wanted to explore other pieces as well.

Mike Telin: Audiences do take comfort in knowing that their favorite traditions will more or less remain the same; that is why it is a tradition. For me, I know that if I went to a holiday orchestral concert and did not hear “Sleigh Ride,” I would ask for my money back.

RD: Yes, people want to hear their favorites because of the tradition and they want to be comforted. And we certainly want to provide them with their favorites, but at the same time we want to do new pieces as well. Then these pieces will become new favorites.

One is the opening carol from the thirteenth century, “Orientis partibus, or The Song of the Ass.” We are going to do the entire piece as it exists, plus add other verses from some surviving period manuscripts. It’s a very fun piece.

Another piece will be William Byrd’s “This Day Christ was Born.” There will also be a set of works that I heard growing up in the Anglican tradition that are some of my favorites. This includes my own setting of “Personent hodie,” [Gustav] Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Henry Walford Davies’ “The Holly and the Ivy.” I am looking forward to this set.

On the second half, we will be adding two French carols in a set with the “Huron Carol,” because the Huron Carol did come out of that same tradition. Jonathan Moyer will also play some Noëls on the organ. The German and American sets remain the same as last year.

MT: The program sounds absolutely beautiful and will sound fantastic in the Cathedral’s acoustics. On separate subject, this is your first season as Quire’s artistic director, however you bring a lot of well respected experience to the podium.

RD: Yes, I have a lot of experience in choral conducting. I have conducted the early music choirs at Case [Western Reserve University] for many years, and was a choral singer before that. I also have a lot of experience with the repertoire, so it seemed like a natural thing for me to take over. But at the same time, we were very sorry to see Peter Bennett go. He’s a fantastic musician, but as Quire Cleveland started to do more performances, it was taking a lot more of his time, and he needed to concentrate on musicology. He really did help to get the choir to the level that we are during the first two years.

MT: I understand you have a couple of great concerts planned for the spring and fall of 2011?

RD: We already have a couple of guest conductors lined up; Scott Metcalf will be here in April. Cleveland audiences already know him, since he performs frequently on violin with Les Délices, Debra Nagy’s group. But what Cleveland audiences don’t know is that in Boston, he is the director of Blue Heron, a fantastic group that performs Renaissance polyphony. The group has a couple of great recordings and have performed at the Boston Early Music Festival. He also teaches choral performance practice at Boston University. He was formerly the director of the Cambridge based Convivium Musicum, that concentrated on German music, and in fact, our program will feature works of Walther, Lechner, Schütz, and the three Bachs as well as others. It should be a lot of fun.

Our big coup in the fall is that Tim Brown will be coming in to conduct a program of English music. Tim has just retired after thirty years with the Clare College Choir, the mixed choir that was founded in Cambridge by John Rutter. Under Tim’s leadership, the choir produced what I consider to be the finest body of recorded mixed choral music anywhere. It is an astounding 60 or so CDs of just fantastic singing. When I found out he was retiring, I wrote him to say congratulations, and asked him what he was going to be doing, and he said he wasn’t sure but he hoped to be doing some freelance conducting. So I immediately wrote back and said he had to come and conduct Quire Cleveland. We are absolutely thrilled, because we are sure it is going to be a tremendous learning experience for all of us.

MT: The recordings that Quire Cleveland did for Oxford University Press sound extremely interesting. What a great opportunity for Quire. How did this project come about?

RD: You may know of Richard Taruskin’s six volume history of music for Oxford University Press. It came out a few years ago and it’s a magisterial look at the entire span of music history. Oxford decided to turn it into a one volume music history textbook, and its author, Christopher Gibbs, is working with Taruskin to do that. But they also wanted to produce three volumes of anthologies with annotations about each piece. So my colleague, David Rothenberg, was asked to do that. He was also asked to license recordings of everything in the anthology, and there were several things that he either could not find or could not license. So David proposed to OUP that Quire Cleveland record the missing pieces. So we wound up doing that, and we were surprised to find that it is an entire hour’s worth of music — most of it chant with a handful of polyphonic pieces. It was really quite an experience to record all of this music and to know that a generation or two of music history students are going to be listening to us sing.

MT: There’s no hiding now.

RD: No, there’s not, but it was a great opportunity for Quire to show how good we are. But really it was a win-win situation for OUP and David and Quire. Tom Knab was the recording engineer and he was really good. He seemed to take a personal interest in the project as well. It was a very gratifying experience to work with him, and we are very happy with the result. So the recording will be out as part of the anthology next year some time. It think OUP is hoping for what they call an “adoption” in the fall of 2011, which means it will need to be out in the spring so that people can see it, and choose it for their curriculums for the following academic year.

MT: Congratulations, that is so cool.

RD: Yes, it is really cool!

Quire Cleveland presents “Carols for Quire Two” on Friday and Saturday, December 3 & 4 at 7:30 at Trinity Cathedral, East 22nd & Euclid in downtown Cleveland. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (65+), $7 for students (full-time). 1 child is admitted free with each adult, senior, or student ticket. $5 for each additional child. Free parking is available at Trinity Commons; nearby parking is also available at Cleveland State University Lot SG (free with parking ticketed validated at Trinity).