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A Night with the Phoenix Chorale: Transfixed by Tension

The line to get into Brophy Chapel

I had the pleasure of attending the Phoenix Chorale’s annual holiday concert last month.  My foursome spanned the gamut of choral experiences: myself, who was already fairly familiar with many of the pieces on the program, my wife who has only a passing interest in choral music but has some key pieces she truly loves, a 20-something co-worker who used to sing in a choir in high school and his wife who, while a very talented vocalist herself, wasn’t as familiar with the traditional choral world.  By the end of the evening, the impact of the shared experience would bring all of us to the same conclusion: we had experienced something stunningly beautiful.

It’s not just the fact that the Chorale picks beautiful music to sing – indeed Charles Bruffy was in top form in taking the audience on a sonic journey of Christmas literature through the centuries – but it’s that they execute those selections with such silky-smooth perfection.  My co-worker remarked early-on he was surprised that the Chorale was on the small side in regards to sheer numbers. He was right:  this is no mass of humanity like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  But the Chorale’s strength transcends that of mere numbers and arrives instead in the way of skillful navigation of the harmonies most other groups merely get ‘pretty much’ right. The Chorale more often than not gets them perfect and reaps the benefits of musical overtones that, in the reverberating acoustic space, multiply their sonic size until the sound is wrapped around the listener like a warm blanket.

Phoenix Chorale performing Ola Gjeilo’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium titled “Serenity.”

A highlight of the program was the Chorale’s tour of four different settings of O Magnum Mysterium.  Two in particular, the Ola Gjeilo and Morten Lauridsen settings, are textbook examples of the beauty that is achieved through harmonic dissonance and subsequent release.  Other choirs I’ve heard treat the dissonances as something to be endured until they can relish in the sonorous release that eventually occurs when major or minor triad chords are reached.  The Phoenix Chorale instead relishes the dissonances – the singers slide into close harmonies of major or minor 2nds like you or I might slide into a pair of favorite shoes and then brings them alive as dynamics swell or shrink and the choir breathes as one living organism.  The agitated sounds of the dissonances wash through the air, drawing every listener in as our triad-trained ears simultaneously get excited at the complex sound being created and subconsciously beg for resolution.  And then resolution arrives – not in a harried ‘I-can’t-believe-we-made-it’ way that a lesser choir may give the feeling of, but rather a feeling of finding exactly the place you were looking for after a long and passionate journey.

As the dynamics of these two pieces continued to rise and fall, the audience became more silent and exponentially more focused.  It wasn’t until the end of the Gjeilo piece that I realized I had been gripping my wife’s hand so tightly and my breathing had slowed as every part of me was transfixed by the sounds being created on stage.  As Charles Bruffy’s hands fell to his sides at the end of the Lauridsen I felt as though I had just finished watching an epic big-screen drama complete with conflict, love, strife and joy.

(l to r) Brendan Anderson, Jenna Anderson, Whitney Lutz, and Jonny Lutz

Very few things in this world seem to be able to command undivided attention anymore and I will be the first to admit that I do nothing to fight that trend.  My iPhone is never more than 6 inches away and all too often I see life events through the lens of what they would sound like if described in 140 characters or less.  But for those few precious minutes spent enveloped in the sound of the Phoenix Chorale’s expert navigation of dissonance and resolution, my mind was of one thought and one focus.  I am thankful that there are still experiences to be had such as this, especially during a season where split attention is all but demanded.

The Phoenix Chorale is the true cure for an overly-multi-tasked mind and a bastion of tranquility during a season gone mad.

– Brendan Anderson, Digital Media Consultant
and Ahwatukee Foothills Concert Band Music Director