Rosy Holidays

The Tucson Chamber Artists think Tucson's sophisticated enough for a professional choir

After obtaining music degrees from a small Lutheran college in Minnesota and the University of Iowa, plus a doctorate in choral and orchestral conducting from the University of Arizona, Eric Holtan knows one big thing: "If you want to become a good conductor, you have to conduct a good group."

And so, remaining in Tucson to direct choirs at Dove of Peace Lutheran Church, he resolved to create a professional choir on the side that would keep him on his toes. So about a year ago, he founded the Tucson Chamber Artists.

"This group has challenged me like I've never been challenged before," Holtan says with satisfaction.

It's a 20-member choir billed as "all professional," including musicians who have performed with the likes of the Dale Warland Singers, London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, St. Olaf Choir, Santa Fe Desert Chorale and Phoenix Bach Choir, including some UA graduate music students.

"It's a highly selective group," Holtan says. "Any time you try anything new, it's a little scary, but through my contacts at the UA and TSO and in the community, I was able to get enough people interested to do this, and do it well. We've quickly established a following.

"Tucson is ripe for a professional group like this. As Tucson is growing, so is the cultural scene. There's an artistic sophistication here, and I think our ensemble fills a niche that hasn't been filled by anyone else yet."

So what kind of sound does Holtan try to draw from his singers? "In general, I like a real resonant choral sound, but I don't believe that there is one sound you can use for every piece of music," he says. "The repertoire dictates what kind of sound you pursue with a group."

He and the Tucson Chamber Artists have their work cut out for them if they're going to build their audience base this month; every choir in town, from kiddie groups to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus (of which Holtan is assistant director), is giving some kind of holiday concert.

So the Tucson Chamber Artists are setting themselves apart by offering two performances this weekend of music that's not particularly easy to sing, in a program whose texts emphasize the rose, the queen of flowers, a symbol of Mary in the Christian tradition. Threading through this assortment of everything from unaccompanied Renaissance pieces to tone-cluster modern works will be several familiar carols.

Holtan explains that the concert falls into four sections. The first deals with the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with the news that she will soon give birth to a particular son. This segment includes a Renaissance motet by Hassler and a Romantic Russian Orthodox composition by Rachmaninov; being Russian, it places heavy demands on the basses. "We're fortunate to have a couple of guys who have a low C and can stay there long enough that I can hold that penultimate chord as long as I want," Holtan says.

Next come several rose pieces, including the old Renaissance favorite "Es ist ein Rose entsprungen" in a modern reharmonization by Sandström. "It poses a challenge for us in that at one point, it calls for 15 parts, which means nearly one person to a part in our group," Holtan says. In other words, there's no place for individual singers to hide.

Third is essentially a manger scene, with carols as well as contemporary items. Finally, says Holtan, "the last set pulls back and deals with what does all this mean, and ultimately, we talk about glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth. We end up with 'Midnight Clear,' the traditional text with a different melody than we usually hear. So here we are with a song that's about the song the angels sing about peace, yet here we are in the middle of so many world conflicts. If we'd just shut up and listen to this song of peace, maybe we could achieve peace here on Earth."

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