Skylark Vocal Ensemble of Greater Boston will premiere compositions by Gregory Brown, the brother of Dan Brown, the internationally-bestselling author of “The Da Vinci Code” and the recent “Origin,” during its Feb. 1 performance in Chatham.
“Greg wanted Skylark to premiere it,” Skylark’s Artistic Director Matthew Guard said during a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta last week. “We’re very happy and honored to be asked, you bet.”
The American Voices concert will also feature music by American composers Leonard Bernstein, Morten Lauridsen and Samuel Barber. This concert will mark the group’s third appearance in Chatham. It has also performed in Falmouth.
Guard, a 2002 Harvard University graduate, studied music theory and conducting while majoring in political science. He met his future wife Carolyn, who sings with Skylark, while singing in a Harvard chorus. After college, Guard attended business school in Atlanta, then went to work for Bain & Company. (The Guards co-founded and currently run the business Babiators, which makes children’s sunglasses and accessories.) While there, he took a sabbatical in 2011 to found Skylark. During its first years, the group was based in Atlanta and the Greater Boston area. Now the group performs west and north of Boston as well as on the Cape. Its program consists of music from medieval chants to music composed “yesterday,” Guard says.
Skylark is an a cappella group made up of 16 singers, all of whom are full-time musicians. Some are educators, directing choral groups at Boston Conservatory or teaching at the Berklee College of Music. Others are chamber musicians and vocal soloists. Listed on Skylark’s website are 25 singers with an additional five “frequent flyers.” A typical performance will feature between 10 and 20 singers. Sixteen will perform in Chatham, with Guard conducting.
Guard says he has been a friend of Greg Brown for several years. “He is a very thoughtful composer,” he says. “You can definitely tell the same type of attention to detail and structure that informs his brother’s prose.”
In fact, Brown inspired his brother’s most recent novel “Origin” with his composition “Missa Charles Darwin.” In it, he coupled the text of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” with the text of a Latin mass and gave it musical form. Skylark’s program of American Voices emerged from the idea of Brown’s pieces. “I wanted to do American composers – I began with Greg and moved to common threads,” Guard says.
The group will premiere Brown’s “Te Deum,” which was inspired by a Gothic-style stained glass window in the chapel at Phillips Exeter Academy, where Brown’s father taught math and where he grew up. Brown was in the chapel attending the funeral of a family friend when it struck him that he had also attended the friend’s baptism in the same chapel. “Te Deum’s” companion piece is “Sepulchrum Mutum,” based on a Latin poem by Catullus.
Guard has paired the two pieces with other American compositions: a psalm by Charles Ives and a neo-renaissance piece by 20th century Boston composer Randall Thompson.
The program includes three pieces Leonard Bernstein composed in 1955 for the play “The Lark,” about the life of Joan of Arc. Lillian Hellman had translated “The Lark” from French, and asked Bernstein to write incidental music for the play. The pieces he composed are “rousing, dreamy medieval pieces,” Guard says.
Following this is the Appalachian folksong “Pretty Saro” for tenors and bass. This introduces the idea of unrequited love, a “big theme” in music, he said. Next comes composer Lauridsen and three of his “Fire Songs.” These come from Italian renaissance poems about love, and represent Lauridsen’s version of a madrigal, Guard says. The madrigals to be performed represent varying moods: dark and brooding, light and lilting and sincere and beautiful.
Next follows Barber’s “Reincarnations” written in 1942 for an a cappella choir. The text is by the Irish poet James Stephens who had taken old Irish poems of the 17th century and translated them to English from Gaelic. Guard chose Barber’s compositions because he learned that Barber influenced Brown.
The concert ends with an arrangement of “Angel Band” by the San Francisco composer Shawn Kirchner.
Skylark, which has earned much critical praise, has also recorded three CDs, the most recent of which is “Winter’s Night,” released on Dec. 8.
The Feb. 1 concert will mark Skylark’s third appearance at St. Christopher’s, which Guard says is now one of his favorite venues.
“It’s not a huge room,” he says. “It has wonderful acoustics. It’s intimate. It’s a perfect venue for a choir of our size.”
Skylark will perform Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-concert talk by Guard at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 at the door for general admission and $10 for students and music educators. For more information visit www.skylarkensemble.org.
Skylark Vocal Ensemble of Greater Boston
At St. Christopher's Church in Chatham
Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $30, $10 for students and music educators