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Words and music: The Master Chorale returns this weekend

Bill DeYoung



The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay has performance Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4. Photos provided.

The human voice may be the most powerful – and visceral – musical instrument available to us. And Matthew Abernathy, director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, understands exactly why.

“For one, we get words,” says Abernathy, who joined the venerable vocal organization last August. “I think that’s really special. Because we can hypothesize what instrumental pieces are all about – ‘Oh, I think Rachmaninoff was writing about this’ – but nobody will ever really know.”

This weekend’s Master Chorale concerts will find the massive group performing, among other choral pieces, the world premiere of The Journey by American composer Joan Szymko (set to a poem by David Whyte), commissioned especially for Tampa Bay.

“I still struggle to find exactly the right way to describe this piece,” Abernathy says. “I keep coming up with the wrong words. And what I’ve finally decided to say is that it’s a piece where she sets the music and the words exactly the way they need to be set. And when you experience it you’ll say ‘Yes, I understand what that’s about.’”

Matthew Abernathy began as Master Chorale artistic director in August 2022.

The Journey, he says, invokes America’s Pacific Northwest, where the composer lives. “I keep trying to say things like ‘It’s very pastoral. It’s very still.’ There’s a sense of enormous landscape and yet incredible intimacy in this.”

The full program, Friday at St. Pete’s First Presbyterian Church, Saturday at the University of Florida Concert Hall in Tampa, combines classical vocal repertoire with more contemporary music. “We’re doing the Brahms Motet, with the words that are so inextricably linked to the sound,” Abernathy beams. “And we get to express them that way.”

Along with the Brahms piece (“Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen?”) and the commissioned Szymko work, the Master Chorale will perform “So Breaks the Sun” by Shavon Lloyd (giving the concert its official title), Florence Price’s “Resignation,” David Price’s “Invocation and Dance,” Boulanger’s “Hymne au soleil,” “Hold Fast to Dreams” by Joel Thompson and the St. Francis Prayer by Margaret Bonds.

This choir is internationally known for its innovative programming and commission work. Eric Whitacre composed Eric “Lux Aurumque” for the Tampa Bay Master Chorale.

Up in Minneapolis, where he was co-conducting the Minnesota Opera, that got Matthew Abernathy’s attention. “There are very few organizations, of this size especially, who can say ‘We’ve commissioned pieces that everyone else in the country wants to do now.’”

Despite a lengthy and impressive resume with operatic and choral groups in the cold, cold north, Abernathy found the opportunity for a Florida relocation too good to pass up.

And he’s crazy about the complex and emotional sound made by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.

“Singing is deeply personal, and deeply human,” he observes. “Because we don’t have an instrument as our filter. If you’re a violinist, the music’s ultimately coming out of this instrument – it’s transmitted through you, but there’s another layer between you and the audience.

Great singers and great choirs? It’s the singers directly to the audience. There’s no barrier between them. It hits you at such a human level because you could do it. You’re just one step removed from being a singer. Anybody is.”

For details and tickets, click here.

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1 Comment

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    Scott Simmons

    February 28, 2023at11:19 pm

    Something for everyone in your coverage Bill. Thank you.

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