By Sharon Smullen, Eagle correspondent April 14, 2022
GREAT BARRINGTON — Mysteries worthy of best-selling author Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” abound when Skylark Vocal Ensemble makes its Berkshires debut April 30 on the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center stage. The concert, “Hidden Symbols, Secret Codes,” is presented by Close Encounters With Music.
“What might happen if Robert Langdon, acclaimed [fictional] professor of Symbology at Harvard University, were enlisted to explore hidden symbols, secret codes, and long-forgotten historical connections buried in manuscripts of choral music over the centuries? I think audiences will be fascinated to find out!,” writes Matthew Guard, Skylark’s artistic director, in the program description.
Sixteen Skylark a cappella singers will perform in a multimedia presentation of live music and projected photographs, illustrations and animations, which includes recorded video introductions by Brown, and in-person commentary by his brother, composer Gregory Brown.
“In ‘The Da Vinci Code’ [movie], Tom Hanks [playing Langdon] gives a PowerPoint presentation showing symbols over the centuries. If that were applied to music, what would that look like? That’s the concept we came up with,” Guard said when reached by phone at his home outside New York City, freshly returned from the Grammy Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
“We were nominated for best choral performance for the third time in four years,” he said of the Grammy ceremonies. “We didn’t win, but that’s totally fine because there were six wonderful nominees.” The ensemble has released nine albums to date.
Guard, a former business management consultant, founded Skylark Vocal Ensemble a decade ago with his wife, Carolyn Guard, the ensemble’s executive director. The couple met singing in Harvard College choirs. Formerly based in Atlanta, they relocated to the northeast in 2020.
“It’s definitely a family entrepreneurial venture,” he said.
Five years ago, Gregory Brown — Matthew Guard was introduced to the choral music composer by a mutual friend — invited Skylark to perform a new piece at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where Brown and his brother Dan grew up on campus, the sons of a math teacher.
“We had a wonderful experience working with Greg,” Guard said.
A year later, while he worked on a fairytale storytelling project, Guard asked Gregory Brown if they could create a program “that is a hybrid of music and story and mystery, based around his and Dan’s work.”
When approached, Dan Brown was very open to the idea, Guard said, a big fan of the author’s books.
“The main character, Robert Langdon, studies symbols, uncovering them in history, art and architecture,” Guard explained. “There’s a lot of hidden symbols and structures in musical composition, often times not visible with the naked eye, or you would not hear them without knowing they’re there.”
Gregory Brown and Guard spent two years finding pieces “that have really interesting hooks, things that would be fun to bring to light,” Guard said, stitching them together “with a trail of clues, hidden things the audience wouldn’t necessarily understand, [like] the books’ reveal.”
The approximately 70-minute program is divided evenly between old and new works, the earliest being a Hildegard von Bingen chant that opens the concert.
“We have a really good mixture, wonderful renaissance music and also living composers,” Guard noted.
Works by famed composers such as Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar sit alongside lesser known names including Knut Nystedt, Sarah Rimkus and Fahad Siadat, and new pieces written by Brown and Melissa Dunphy.
Included is an excerpt from Brown’s “Missa Charles Darwin,” its melody derived from DNA from one of Darwin’s finches. The work, Guard said, inspired and is mentioned in Dan Brown’s book “Origin,” which addresses the fight between religious belief and science.
While the composer will appear in-person, Dan Brown will participate via pre-recorded video, as he will be in London for “The Da Vinci Code” play.
“All the music will be live,” Guard said. “The multimedia presentation runs throughout to help show some of these hidden symbols.”
Guard describes the program as part historical mystery lecture, part performance.
“It’s in that fun, mystery theme, uncovering things and being interesting to audiences,” he said. “We’ll have a world-class vocal ensemble performing at a very high level, singing [music] that is moving and beautiful.”
As is often the case in Dan Brown’s novels, though, the project’s course did not go according to plan. Just a month from its completion in 2020, “the rug got pulled out from under us,” Guard said.
“Carolyn and I were in Europe in February 2020 having meetings about a future tour to the UK and France, literally two weeks before the world shut down,” Guard explained.
The project sat on the shelf for a year and a half.
“About four or five months ago, we picked it back up and vastly restructured it, making it even better,” Guard reported.
The program will be rehearsed in residence at Phillips Exeter Academy prior to four public performances across Massachusetts during the last week of April.
Singers performing in this concert are drawn from Skylark’s roster of 25 to 30 artists. As few as four or as many as 26 are engaged based on repertoire and project needs, hailing from throughout New England to California and Oregon.
“The artists are all professional vocalists, full-time musicians or educators in the choral world who also perform,” Guard explained. “The vast majority perform in professional choirs or do solo work, opera, or voice teaching.”
Besides its Boston-based subscription series, the ensemble’s U.S. appearances include New York City, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. On its first international tour in 2018, the London Times called Skylark “the highlight” of a festival of leading UK choirs.
This concert is dedicated to the late John Stookey, longtime CEWM supporter and friend, who brought Skylark to the attention of Yehuda Hanani, Close Encounters With Music founder, artistic director and a distinguished cellist.
“He was a great lover of vocal music,” Hanani said during a phone interview. “This group is one of the finest in the country, and I immediately realized it belongs with us in our exploration of music and beyond.”
CEWM has a long history of adventurous thematic programming during its three decades in the Berkshires.
“We always look for unusual angles, things off the beaten path,” Hanani said. “The theme guides the evening, it’s more intellectually minded, more informative this way.
“We’re having an exceptionally exciting season. The concert following this, we’re presenting a very seldom heard piece by Benjamin Britten for unaccompanied oboe based on themes and tales from ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid. In June, we have an amazing Flamenco dancer who defected from Cuba, she is absolutely stunning.” That concert will also premiere a piece by Cuban composer Jorge Martin.
CEWM is no stranger to new music. “Every year we play at least one new piece,” Hanani said. “Many have become mainstream chamber music repertoire, played all over the world. We have a commissioning project [that] supports promising young composers and also established ones, major composers like Thea Musgrave.”
CEWM concerts are video recorded for streaming online, free of charge after a certain period, Hanani said, enabling them to reach people from California to the midwest.
Relieved on this occasion from his usual role of providing commentary during the program or performing on cello, Hanani will be able to enjoy the concert as an audience member.
“I’m looking forward to being enlightened myself,” he said. “I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ when it was a very hot book. I don’t know if it’s all factual, but it was fascinating all the same. It was like a detective story, so shrouded in mystery and suspense.”
“It’s not your typical concert,” Guard said. “I hope people will walk away with two abiding impressions: one, wasn’t that beautiful and virtuosic; and the other, that was incredibly interesting and cool.”
Find the original article here: The Berkshire Eagle.