Striving for diversity and a broad across-the-board audience base while maintaining artistic integrity has always been the goal of the Madeleine Festival. It hasn't always been easy, festival co-director Drew Browning told the Deseret Morning News, but he believes that he and the festival committee always manage to succeed.
"We always pull a rabbit out of our hat, but each year we wonder if we're going to be able to do it again," he said in a phone interview.
This year marks the festival's 20th anniversary. Looking at the concert lineup, it's apparent that Browning and his committee have once again achieved the impossible.
The anniversary festival features a group new to the festival, along with soloists and other ensembles who have performed at the Cathedral of the Madeleine's premiere arts event in the past. Their music ranges from the renaissance to the 20th century, from American folk music to black spirituals. The only things missing this year are a visual arts presentation and a humanities lecture.
"They aren't a big draw, not like the concerts, so we decided not to have them this year," Browning said.
Opening the festival today, and making its local debut, is one of Germany's premiere a cappella groups, the Calmus Ensemble. Consisting of four men and a woman, the ensemble, based in Leipzig, sings a wide spectrum of music from Gregorian chant to contemporary works.
"They're actually on tour in the U.S. at the moment," Browning said. "We're excited about having them come here. The purity of their unaccompanied voices in the cathedral will be great."
The four men in the Calmus Ensemble (countertenor Sebastian Krause, tenor Tobias Poche, baritone Ludwig Bohme and bass Joe Roesler) are graduates of Leipzig's renowned St. Thomas Choir School, best remembered today as the school where J.S. Bach was director.
When the four graduated in 1999, they decided to form an ensemble. Two years later, they invited soprano Anja Lipfert to join them in order to expand their range and repertoire. Now the ensemble has branched out far beyond its sacred repertoire and performs experimental jazz and commissions works by today's pre-eminent composers.
For today's concert, however, the Calmus Ensemble will stick closer to its musical roots. The first half of the concert will consist of baroque music by Heinrich Schultz and Bach, while the second half will feature 19th and 20th century German sacred pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, Kurt Thomas and Hugo Distler.
"This is a great program," Browning said. "I'm looking forward to it. We haven't had an a cappella group at the festival since the Concord Ensemble a few years back."
Other concerts spotlighting sacred vocal music at this year's five-week, six-concert festival is the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choir, under Brady Allred, performing Claudio Monteverdi's epic Vespers (April 13), and the Cathedral of the Madeleine's adult and children's choirs and cathedral orchestra, directed by Gregory Glenn, in a program of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Verdi and Ralph Vaughan Williams (April 27).
Allred opened the Madeleine Festival a couple of years ago, and Browning has looked for an opportunity of bringing him back. "It's been such a joy to work with Brady in the past, we wanted him back again," Browning said. Although several wonderful recordings of the Vespers are available, Monteverdi's monumental work is rarely performed live, no doubt owing to the large choral forces involved, that are supplemented by nearly a dozen soloists and accompanied by a sizable orchestra. "The chancel area will be jam-packed with performers."
Prior to the concert, at 7 p.m., noted Monteverdi expert Jeffrey Kurtzman from Washington University will give a lecture on the Vespers in Scanlan Hall, adjacent to the cathedral. He'll discuss the work's background as well as its musical characteristics.
One of the highlights of the cathedral choirs' concert will be Vivaldi's "Dixit Dominus," a work that had been thought lost, but which resurfaced in 2005. Browning said that this performance will be one of the few the work has received worldwide since being rediscovered. "I'm very excited that we were able to get the music. I'm looking forward to it."
There is one other classical concert on May 4. Cathedral organist Douglas O'Neill will play two works by Olivier Messiaen to celebrate the composer's 100th anniversary: "L'Ascension: Quatre Meditations Symphoniques" and "Les corps glorieux: Sept visions breves de la vie des ressuscites." At the concert, Glenn will discuss each work and place Messiaen's works in a musical and liturgical perspective.
Rounding out the festival will be two concerts that underscore Browning's goal of making the festival truly cross-cultural.
On April 20, Boston-based soprano Christina DeVaughn will join the Salt Lake Chamber Singers from the Salt Lake Community College, under the direction of Lyle Archibald, for a concert of black spirituals, hymns and folk songs.
"This will be a real nice evening that will run the gamut of African-American music," Browning said. "We've done similar programs in the past, and it's a nice acknowledgement of the importance this music has on our culture."
Finally, Utah composer and performer Phillip Bimstein and his blue haiku ensemble (Bimstein on guitar and vocals, Charlotte Bell on oboe, Flavio Cervino-Wood on violin and Harold Carr on acoustic bass) round out the musical events with a concert May 11. They'll be joined by folk musicians Kate MacLeod, violin, guitar and vocals, and Hal Cannon, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and vocals, in a program called "Red Rock Rondo: A Trek Through Zion Canyon."
"Blue haiku played at the festival two years ago, and we always enjoy what Phillip and his group do," Browning said. "The title of the program says it all. It's a real crowd pleaser with lighter fare, and I think it balances things out very nicely."
Browning hopes this year's festival, as with festivals in years past, will reach out to new audiences. "We're always trying to expand our audiences. I think we can be proud of what we do here. I don't know if you can find the slate of concerts of this caliber elsewhere in Catholic cathedrals here in the U.S. or in Europe."
Besides the festival, the Cathedral of the Madeleine each year honors a local artist for his or her contribution to the arts. This year's recipient is Glenn, founder of the Madeleine Choir School and director of music and liturgy at the cathedral. He will be presented with the 2008 Madeleine Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts and Humanities at a dinner May 25 at 6 p.m. at the New Yorker. For reservations, contact the cathedral at 328-8941.
If you go
What: Calmus Ensemble
Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple
When: Today, 8 p.m.
How much: Free