UTOPIA EARLY MUSIC, “New Song: A Musical Reformation,” St. Mark’s Cathedral, July 2

Early music ensembles have an inherent problem: How can they appeal to audiences, who, if they even think about early music, envision robed monks singing Gregorian Chant in ancient, musty churches?

There are, to be sure, quite a few groups in the United States today that specialize in music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque with varying degrees of success. In Salt Lake City, there is Utopia Early Music, an ensemble founded several years ago that takes a rather liberal approach to what “early music” is all about. The group includes in its repertoire some of the earliest examples of Western art music (Gregorian Chant) but also embraces the music of colonial America. And they sing this repertoire with refreshing enthusiasm and robustness that give these works, which are mostly unknown to modern audiences, new life.

Thursday, Utopia presented an interestingly arranged program that juxtaposed Protestant and Catholic traditions, and that also showed how they’re related to each other. Protestants naturally had no musical tradition of their own at the time of the Reformation. By borrowing heavily from the Catholics they quickly developed their own distinctive music to be used in their services. Most of these live on today as hymns sung by the congregation. Four of these hymns were incorporated into the program, with the audience encouraged to sing along with the performers.

With very few exceptions, the composers of the pieces on the program are relatively unknown today, although many of whom wrote some exquisite music. A fine example of that is Heinrich Isaac’s secular “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” the tune of which Michael Praetorius (best known today for his set of dances called Terpsichore) much later took and set to the sacred text, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen.”

Known composers on the program included the Englishmen William Byrd and Thomas Tallis (remembered today for the tune he wrote that Ralph Vaughan Williams used for a set of variations) and the greatest of the Lutheran composers of the Baroque, J.S. Bach.

Joining Utopia co-founder and tenor Christopher LeCluyse Thursday were three other local singers: soprano Melissa Heath, mezzo-soprano Aubrey Adams-McMillan and baritone Michael Chipman. They sang with richness and resonance and blended wonderfully together as an ensemble.

They were joined by a quartet of area string players: Alexander Woods and Aubrey Woods, violin; Leslie Richards, viola; and Eleanor Christman Cox, Baroque cello. Rounding out the instrumental ensemble was guest organist Jonathan Rhodes Lee. All brought finely crafted expressions and feeling, as well as remarkable fluidity to their playing.

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About Edward Reichel

Edward Reichel, author, writer and composer, has been covering the classical music scene in Utah since 1997. For many years he served as the primary music critic for the Deseret News. He has also written for a number of publications, including Chamber Music Magazine, OPERA Magazine, 15 Bytes, Park City Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He can be reached at ed.reichel@gmail.com. Reichel Recommends is also on Twitter @ReichelArts.

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