Vocal Currency

In multiple tongues, Eric Banks' choir creates a new music sensation.


St. Joseph's Church and Town Hall, 344-3327, $17 Sat., Oct. 12-Sun., Oct. 13 and Sat., Dec. 14-Sun., Dec. 15

If there are still any local ensembles that avoid 20th-century music using the self-serving rationalization that audiences aren't interested, they should consider the Esoterics, who pack the house performing nothing but contemporary work. This 40-member a cappella choir led by Eric Banks has built a loyal following without the benefit of opera's glamour, chamber music's prestige, or the orchestra's sonic glitter.

The group's two fall concerts will reflect several of Banks' particular enthusiasms. His support for local composers (me, for example; they performed a work of mine in 2001) is unsurpassed by any other Seattle conductor—both concerts will consist of locally commissioned premieres. Banks chose a nine-poem cycle by the Greek philosopher Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) describing the planets, and another cycle by the Roman poet Manilius (ca. A.D. 10) describing the zodiac, then offered each poem to a different composer to set to music, using the original Greek and Latin. (For the second concert, each composer was assigned a poem matching his or her own zodiac sign.)

Banks likes to program choral works using texts from ancient to modern times, and from as many cultures as possible; Chinese, Sanskrit, and Hungarian turn up regularly on Esoterics' programs. But he also shapes them into an intelligent thematic whole, elegantly expressed in striking one-word titles. The group's first season, 1992-93, consisted of a Christmas concert on the subject of Natus (birth); Missae was a program of musical settings of the traditional Mass text; and Flora gathered music evoking flowers. These themes help make the unfamiliar repertory less forbidding. Other choirs' programs "consisted of a bunch of pieces kind of thrown together, without anything really tying them together," says Banks, "and I watched the audience just sit there and applaud politely—for me, that's not what I wanted to do as an artist. I was interested in having a narrative flow in a concert, so I found myself programming pieces in an order that made sense. . . . I wanted a choral concert to be more like theater or opera."

All this takes a lot of work—Banks is continuously researching old scores and looking over new pieces sent to him by composers from all over the world. The Esoterics is a full-time job for him; he's also the group's business manager. Banks first convened the group while a UW grad student, as a pickup choir to perform on his three required degree recitals. But the singers' enthusiasm, and the niche they filled in the choral scene, persuaded Banks to take the group out of academia: "There were a lot of people interested in the challenge, and there was a possibility of bringing in an audience and actually making something of it," Banks says. "A need was not being met. . . . There were lots of big choirs, but not lots of small choirs, and lots of choirs doing common-practice music, but not a lot doing contemporary music."

Over the years, the Esoterics have experimented with, and refined, every aspect of concert production. The music itself covers the stylistic spectrum from conservative neo-tonal Americana to improvisation and all manner of outr頶ocal techniques. Playing with blocking and stage placement, Banks has arranged singers in circles, horseshoes, in the balconies, and down the aisles—anything to avoid what he calls "the choral blob." During a 1996 concert with the d9 Dance Collective, the singers even danced.

Between pieces, Esoterics members offer poetry or personal reflections further evoking the concert's theme; at one Christmas concert, for example, we heard latke recipes and gossip about composer Francis Poulenc's sexual preference. "It's often the case that people who are good singers are also really good public speakers, so that was part of the audition process—I would look for people who had lots of stage presence. . . . I don't want to call it 'multimedia,' because for me it's all within the medium of sound." Even the posters and programs, the work of Banks' partner David Gellman, are a sophisticated cut above the rest.

But perhaps more than anything else, what's drawn appreciative listeners for 10 years, three CDs, and more than 130 performances, is their concerts' atmosphere of enveloping goodwill, the warm enthusiasm for choral music that Banks and the singers transmit to the audience—who aren't just subscribers, but genuine fans, people who wouldn't dream of missing a concert. The Greek word esoterikos describes a person who belongs to a close-knit community; yet, as Banks puts it, "the whole point of the group is to subvert its name, to turn people onto [contemporary choral music] because it is a really beautiful and rich art form."



The Remembrance. The idea started in Seattle: a worldwide musical commemoration of Sept. 11. Choirs and orchestras in as many time zones as possible would perform Mozart's Requiem, each starting at 8:46 a.m. local time, the moment of the first attack. This "Rolling Requiem" will circle the globe over the course of the day. Two free performances are planned in the area, one by the Seattle Symphony and the other by the Seattle Choral Company. Safeco Field and Center Court at Bellevue Square, www. rollingrequiem.org. Wed., Sept. 11.

The Iconoclast. The Northwest Chamber Orchestra offers consistently polished playing, but its programming has never been cutting-edge. So its new choice for music director, contemporary-friendly Finnish pianist Ralf Gothoni, was a pleasant surprise. His tenure opens promisingly with a premiere: Philip Glass' new harpsichord concerto, commissioned for the NWCO. Also on the season opener, Gothoni himself will solo in a concerto by Russian postmodernist Alfred Schnittke. Benaroya Recital Hall, 343-0445. Sat., Sept. 21-Sun., Sept. 22.

The Choral Challenge. The buzz around London's music scene in the summer of 1567 was all about visiting Italian composer Alessandro Striggio and his motet Ecce beatam lucem, a piece written for 40 voices—that is, 40 singers singing 40 different lines at once. English Renaissance composers were renowned for their contrapuntal skill, and the challenge to national pride was too strong to pass up; Thomas Tallis responded with his own Spem in alium, also for 40 singers. Both works are gotta-hear-'em-to- believe-'em experiences—ravishing, rippling clouds of vocal sound. (The Kronos Quartet has recorded a string version of the Tallis by overdubbing them- selves nine times.) The Tudor Choir, under Doug Fullington, will open its 10th-anniversary season with these two showpieces. St. Mark's Cathedral and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 323-9415. Sat., Oct. 19-Sun., Oct. 20.

The Operatic Genius. UW opera director Claudia Zahn seems to hit the nail on the head every time—in the past few seasons, she's produced a transcendently lovely Hansel and Gretel, a gripping Dialogues of the Carmelites, a breezy Cosi fan tutte, and a sharp and bawdy Threepenny Opera. This fall's production will be The Secret Marriage by Domenico Cimarosa, the Viennese hit of 1792 (at its premiere, Emperor Leopold II asked, as an encore, to hear the whole thing again from the top). Among Cimarosa's contemporaries, only Mozart could surpass him in comic fizz. It's not the usual boy-gets-girl romantic plot; Paolino and Carolina are already married as the story begins, and they somehow have to keep the news from scheming relatives and an amorous Count. Meany Hall, 543-4880. Opens Wed., Nov. 13.

The Court Jester. Last April, after a lifetime of sonic innovation (he turns 89 next week), composer Henry Brant finally got a Pulitzer Prize, for his work Ice Field—a piece for steel drums, jazz band, and organ, in addition to an orchestra of nearly 100. He's known for leavening the seriousness of the American avant-garde with a little puckish wit (selected titles: The Marx Brothers, Revenge Before Breakfast, Encephalograms II) and for vast multicultural sonic spectacles using diverse instrumental groups separated in space. In 1932, Brant composed Angels and Devils for flute choir; 70 years later, he's getting around to a sequel, Ghosts and Gargoyles, commissioned by flutist Paul Taub and the Seattle Flute Society. For this concert, the SFC hopes to gather 100 flutists (that's right, two zeros). Town Hall, 652-4255. Sun., Nov. 17.

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