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“If you sing the music enough, sometimes you stop realizing how it is that you begin and end together. As a matter of fact, there are many times when I have no idea how we all get off at the same time. It’s just a kind of thinking together–it’s really very weird and wonderful. That comes with familiarity, not only with the music but with each other.”

And the disadvantages of performing? “Well,” says William Chin, director of the Oriana Singers, “that we can’t do it all the time. And that there are limitations, to our voices and our bodies–that we can’t do everything we’d really like to.”

This weekend the Oriana Singers will appear in an unusual venue for them: the Civic Opera House. The six-voice a cappella group will be onstage, briefly, with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre (JHCDT), singing three Aaron Copland motets for a dance premiere that had its beginnings a year and a half ago.

It was summertime, the city wanted to celebrate something, and it was the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The ad hoc cultural committee convened included among its members Alexandra Nelson, Oriana’s managing director, and Shirley Mordine, director of Mordine & Company, the resident dance troupe at Columbia College. “Nothing concrete was coming out of the committee to involve the smaller Chicago performing groups,” says Chin. “Shirley thought maybe we should put something together–just do it.” Chin made a tape of a cappella music from a variety of composers, all of whom had some connection to France–Copland is American, but at the time he composed these motets he was a student living in Paris. Each of the three dance groups connected with the committee chose some music from the tape and choreographed a new work to it. The result was a lunch-hour performance at Daley Center Plaza in which the Oriana Singers accompanied Mordine & Company, Ballet Chicago, and JHCDT.

For that performance Randy Duncan, artistic director of JHCDT, chose two Copland motets from the tape because they were unfamiliar pieces by a composer he loved. “They were very spiritual,” he says, “very quiet and beautiful and stirring.” When Harriet Ross, JHCDT’s associate artistic director, saw the dance Duncan had choreographed, her response was, “We can’t lose this–we have to put it in the repertory.” To expand the piece, Duncan added a third motet to the original two; it’s now the middle section of Copland Motets.

“A motet,” says Chin, “is a piece of sacred music that’s sung. I don’t know if you can get more exact than that because motets have been many different things at different times. Way, way back, in the Middle Ages, it was a specific form of music, a certain combination of voices, a certain shape. As time went on, motets could have two or more different texts being sung at the same time. They finally did away with that–which was much better for our general understanding of the piece. By the Renaissance it was one single text again. But in the Baroque period, it became huge; the motets of Bach are very, very long compared to earlier works.”

The Copland motets each use one text, Chin says. “The first two are very–penitent, let’s say. They’re slow in tempo and kind of introspective, and the texts ask for help, or for mercy. The third piece is much more joyous–it talks about singing praises to the Lord. It’s fairly spare music, not very thickly textured.”

Though Copland’s motets are not as complicated to sing as the a cappella pieces of Benjamin Britten or Francis Poulenc, Chin says, “there are challenges nevertheless. It almost doesn’t matter how difficult or simple a piece is harmonically, there are still lots of other issues that we as musicians have to deal with: singing it together, that we’re all there at the same time; that we’re singing in tune; and that we’re giving it life, not just singing the notes. That’s probably the hardest thing to do. And you’re supposed to do it all on a stage, in the semidark I suppose, and make it work with a bunch of dancers–well, only three in this case.”

Chin says the singers don’t get to watch the dancers as much as they might like. He generally supplies the necessary cues, sometimes a nod or a breath. “It’s equivalent to what a pit orchestra does in a ballet–the director is facing the stage and everybody else is facing out, into the house.” Chin says the experience of accompanying dancers can be nerve-racking because “somebody else is depending on you to be very steady.”

For Copland Motets, some degree of coordination is necessary. “Randy has designed into his piece places where it stops [between motets]. And it’s up to the dancers to be ready to go on when we go on. But it’s also up to us to make sure there’s just enough time–not too much and not too little–when those places happen.” Though the Oriana Singers and JHCDT had one rehearsal together at the beginning of February, they will not rehearse together again until the day their engagement opens. “I try not to worry,” says Chin.

Despite the risks, everyone involved seems confident and excited about the collaboration. “There’s a certain acoustical ambience to a live performance that’s very different from tape,” says Chin. “It’s just a little more human, I think. In one sense it’s old-fashioned, but in a very nice way.”

The Oriana Singers will be standing off to one side of the stage during Copland Motets. “We’ll be wearing some kind of cloaks, hooded cloaks,” says Chin. These will be supplied by Hales Franciscan High School. “A bunch of friars have been using them, and we’re going to borrow them. They have cords and everything that tie around the waist.” The three dancers, two men and a woman, will wear long, flowing skirts. “I guess it all fits in with Randy’s idea of what the piece is about.”

JHCDT will also premiere Duncan’s Sparring Partners, with an original score by Chicago composer Tom Kast. The rest of the program is Duncan’s Bittersweet Av, Women’s Work, and Aretha, a 1983 Duncan collaboration with Holmes (who died in 1986). Performances are tonight and Saturday at 8 PM at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; tickets are $10 to $22. Call the Oriana Singers at 262-4558 or Ticketmaster at 902-1500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.