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Master Chorale returns with virtual ‘American Voices’

Bill DeYoung

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The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay is comprised of singers from all walks of life – from retired or current professional vocalists and music educators to lawyers, plumbers and shop clerks. Along with every occupation in between.

Now in its 42nd season, the choral group is 150 members strong, all volunteers, and every one of them went through a rigorous audition process to get added to the ranks.

The sound they make together is giant, harmonious and, sometimes, otherworldly.

American Voices is the Master Chorale’s new production – it’s all virtual, and it premieres this Saturday (April 24). Featuring works by an array of American composers from Aaron Copland to Cole Porter (plus several works specially commissioned, from contemporary composer/arrangers), it will be available to stream for 30 days.

The 501(c)(3) Master Chorale of Tampa Bay is frequently partnered with The Florida Orchestra.

Artistic director Brett Karlin knows why the sound of large choral groups moves people in different ways – on different emotional levels – than symphonic music.

Brett Karlin

“It’s really because we don’t have a separate, inorganic conduit,” he explains. “An individual playing a string instrument or a wind instrument has to communicate through another, inorganic substance essentially – through their instrument.

“I think that choral music immediately speaks to individuals at such a proud entrance, formative level because of that. It is the original instrument. It’s an instrument everyone can empathize with, can model, can emulate. And it’s really extraordinary.”

Add a soprano or tenor soloist to the choral presentation, and the music becomes something even bigger.

At the regular Tuesday-night rehearsals, Karlin says, he often talks about this with his singers. “The most important distinction between and instrumental ensemble and a vocal ensemble or chorus is that we get text,” he’ll explain. “Instrumental ensembles get to communicate a little bit more vaguely; they get to communicate through metaphors, through sounds, through colors – but we have the privilege of communicating direct text.”

Of course, the ongoing pandemic has made direct communication a risky business – which is why the regular rehearsals have been online for the past year.

“I have a pianist come to my house, and I have an excellent high-quality microphone, dual monitors and a 4K webcam, and I conduct rehearsal from my house,” Karlin says. “The singers get the music as PDFs emailed to them, marked score, that sort of thing.”

The prep for American Voices, a full performance, was arduous. “It’s a very time-consuming and challenging, but in the end rewarding, process.”

Karlin and the Chorale are working with D.C.-based production company Arts Laureate, which pivoted from live concert recording to creating virtual choir videos once Covid scared everyone away from the concert halls.

Each singer – that’s right, all 150 – got recorded individually, at home. Karlin worked with them in advance on the material; when it was time to record, they got scrolling music on their screen, paired to a video of Karlin conducting each piece. Each singer wore a tiny earpiece with the sound of a metronome.

All videos were submitted, then painstakingly audio-mixed and edited together using a combination of digital acoustics (so that the “room ambiance” matched), lighting and more.

The end result, therefore, is a celebration of that most organic music – the sound of the human voice – delivered by modern technology.

Nothing was going to keep these volunteers from doing what they love.

“For a lot of our singers, being a member in the chorus and singing in an ensemble like this is their therapy,” explains Karlin. “It’s their faith, it’s their religion. It becomes that for a lot of these singers.”

Tickets and details here.

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