A few times a year, select musicians from all over North America come together in Kansas City.
Assembling with a few of their locally based colleagues just a few days before show time, they pull off an impressive feat: a concert encompassing centuries-worth of styles, and techniques both ancient and modern.
That is the model for the Spire Chamber Ensemble, one of Kansas City’s acclaimed professional choirs, which is preparing for a busy week: three different programs, incorporating seven languages, 90 percent a cappella and spanning 1,500 years of repertoire.
“One of our goals is to help the audience go through a journey," says Ben A. Spalding, Spire’s founder and artistic director (who is also director of music at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mission, Kansas).
“I really believe in the power of art and its importance in our society, especially choral music, because we have text. It teaches us to hold multiple truths," he says, "to be able to dialogue about our differences."
Along with its popular annual rendition of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” this versatile group of musicians has adapted, over the years, from its early history performing works for choir and organ at Community of Christ in Independence, Missouri, with organist Jan Kraybill.
Now, the ensemble more often presents monumental works: newly commissioned pieces and re-discovered early virtuosic masterworks, never or rarely heard in Kansas City, often performed in cohort with the Spire Baroque Orchestra.
This weekend, the ensemble closes its eighth season with “Signature Spire" on June 30, sharing the full scope of Spires’ skills in a taut seventy-minute concert at Visitation Church. It’s the official release party for Spire’s first album, too, an exemplary collection of 20th century works, featuring Frank Martin’s “Mass for Double Choir.”
Then, on July 2 and 3, the ensemble performs in Helzberg Hall for the national convention of the American Guild of Organists.
Saturday's concert is “a highly eclectic program, perhaps one of the most eclectic,” Spalding says, “but I think people will really see the threads that connect the sections.”
This musical code switching is, in a way, the very essence of Spire.
“We really feel very passionate about changing our color, our vocal production, our diction, to meet the style needs,” Spalding says, and to make the switch wholly and immediately — “that’s something that we do really well.”
“Signature Spire” draws its program from some of the ensemble’s best-loved performances. As is typical for their mixed-repertoire shows, Spalding organizes programs into thematic, through-performed sections, allowing one work to flow into the next, but mixing eras and styles.
“We really try showcase obscure choral works, but also give a breath of fresh air, after hearing something really difficult," says Spalding.
Within each section, applause is withheld between pieces as to not disrupt the flow. It makes for a riveting audience experience, where final notes of one piece ring into the beginnings of the next, and, instead of hammering palms together, audience members can bask in those reverberations.
It’s a bit like one of those choose your own adventure stories, jokes Spalding. The sources include both sacred and secular text, from the chants of 11th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, through Baroque motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, Psalm settings from the 1600s, and selections from Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1915 "All-Night Vigil," to works from the American songbook by Dolly Parton, Moses Hogan and Shawn Kirchner.
"I think it’s important that we preserve our heritage of American song, which includes jazz and gospel and spirituals,” Spalding says. “That’s really the only thing we can claim, as a country."
Performing new works is another tenet of Spire's mission. This concert includes snippets from work Spire has premiered and offers a sneak peak at a newly commissioned piece written by Spalding for the American Guild of Organists’ grand opening ceremony.
Inspired by Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," Spalding's "The Great War Requiem" honors the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armistice, weaving the writings of World War I-era poets into a partly composed, partly improvised framework.
And improvising choir is neither a common practice, nor easy.
"Most choirs can't do this," Spalding says.
It's new to Spire, too. Through the last few years they've developed a system, with Spalding directing changes via hand signals. (Next season, they intend to perform a wholly improvised setting of the St. John gospel.)
The full piece, slated for a sold-out crowd in Helzberg Hall on July 2, runs about 35 minutes. Then on July 3, Spire performs all six of Bach's motets, also in Helzberg Hall.
This week’s events showcase an ensemble that adapts and grows by invigorating obscure works at the same time as it encourages creation of new works. Spire's well-crafted niche in the Kansas City choral community and nationwide is a testament to those “multiple truths” of art that Spalding talks about – its ability to embrace old and new, secular and sacred, war and peace.
Signature Spire, presented by the Spire Chamber Ensemble, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 30 at Visitation Church, 5141 Main, Kansas City, Missouri 64113. Tickets are $25 general admission; student tickets $10 available at the door.