When it comes to working with choruses, Artistic Director Aaron Howe looks for “people who are very energetic and excited about doing different kinds of music, who are open to variety.” Both the New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus and the Zia Singers, for whom Howe serves as artistic director, fall into that category, he says, although his 20 years of community music leadership in New Mexico includes myriad endeavors, such as co-founder in 2013 of the Rio Rancho Youth Chorus as its first artistic director; and current chorus master for Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest. He’s held his role with Zia Singers since 2016 and will conduct its winter concert Jan. 27-28 at the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art and Feb. 4 at Central United Methodist Church in Albuquerque (find tickets at theziasingers.com/public-events).
The 80-minute production of Tuvayhun: Beatitudes for a Wounded World by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen was first commissioned and premiered by the Manhattan Girls Chorus in 2018; its 2022 recording received two Grammy nominations. The Zia Singers’ performance will include Sevda Choir soloist Willa Roberts; soloist Katherine Garcia-Ortega from St. Michael’s High School; instrumentalists; and the Albuquerque Philharmonic Orchestra. The following interview has been edited for clarity and concision. (Julia Goldberg)
How did you encounter Arnesen’s music?
He’s actually quite big in the choral world. A lot of college groups like to do his music because it’s very emotional, and difficult and big…but he also, from what I’ve observed, has a passion for music that heals the world or is about the human struggle and is very much about lifting up the person who is discriminated against or oppressed.
We did his Magnificat [in 2022]…which all composers, from Bach to every modern composer, does, but his take was that he felt that Mary, when she sang that hymn in the Bible, was specifically trying to lift up the people who were hungry, who needed help, and so that Magnificat was filled with gentleness and sweetness and kindness, empathy.
For Tuvayhun [Arnesen]…specifically wanted it to be from the perspective of a young person who is empathetically experiencing the struggles of people who are going through war, oppression, death, hunger. As I said, he has lyrically and conceptually this passion for lifting up people and so this is a unique delve into that from the perspective of the beatitudes from the Bible: blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers.
The librettist for Tuvayhun, Charles Anthony Silvestri, once said he thinks choral music touches people’s spirits in a different way than other types of music because of the way the composer and the poet work together. Do you find that to be true as well?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I love Arnesen’s music a lot. But what really sold me on doing this was the text of Silvestri’s because it’s just so profound, just reading it silently gets you emotional. For example:
‘What is Peace?
Peace is not a silent state
That comes upon us from within—
Serene, detached, oblivious.
Peace is not a force like rain
That comes, unbidden, from above—
Gentle, enfolding, natural.
Peace is fire! Yes, peace is fire!
And peace is passion!
Peace requires a strength of will,
A certain courage, a heart of iron,
A force abiding to fulfill.’
I mean, that’s just good stuff. And there’s another one called ‘Song of Justice’ that really appeals to my sensibilities as a person, as a human.
When I listened to ‘Song for Justice’, I thought you might have to hand out Kleenex at the performance. What do you hope the audience will experience?
Even rehearsing this music, I get emotional. I imagine that people will be very connected. As part of this concert, we reached out to a lot of different social justice organizations and we created a little list that we’re including in the program to say, ‘if this music touched you, if want to help celebrate beauty and end suffering in the world, here’s some organizations that are doing that in the community and you can support them.’
In my 20s and 30s, it was all about just doing great music and doing it really well and everyone thinking my choirs were great. As I got in my 40s…I started to think to myself, ‘yes, it’s wonderful to do good music, but it has to connect to people for me.’ Healing is not just feeling better about all the horrible things; it’s about connecting the dots of empathy. It’s not just about crying during a concert, it’s what that leads you to do and how you are connected after that, and hopefully the ripples broadly effect things world-wide.