Contemporary classical music is alive and thriving. At least that’s the impression I got after talking with Shannon M. Chase, director of the Vox Nova a cappella choir that she founded in 2009. Born in Augusta, Chase received her doctorate from Florida State University and now teaches privately and as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine, from which she received her undergraduate degrees.

Vox Nova recently sang its winter program at Bowdoin, in collaboration with the DaPonte String Quartet, and both nights were sold out. In fact, some of the audience members on the second night were people who wanted to hear the concert again.

A lot of factors are involved in the burgeoning popularity of modern choral music, especially the rapid communication between composers and performers enabled by the Internet and the availability of audio samples. The most important, however, is the magical quality of the sounds that can be attained by a well-trained choir, one that has come to hear minor seconds, fourths and ninths as harmonious, regards Bartok as a traditional composer and has the ability to follow a score (or non-score) where nothing is measured.

The auditioned choir, which now consists of 36 voices – “I like to keep it small,” Chase said – is unusual in other ways. For example, it has more men than women. Like Boston’s first composer, William Billings, Chase regards a choir as a pyramid, of which the bass is the base.

“The piano is the enemy,” says Chase, laughing but quite serious. The intervals on a well-tempered instrument are all compromises, but for the full beauty of a score, traditional or contemporary, to emerge, true intervals, called just intonation, are necessary. The difference between a fifth on the piano and a real fifth is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. A string quartet collaboration is different because stringed instruments can sing at any desired interval.

A well-tempered conductor, though, is a necessity. No Romantic tantrums or finger whacking. “We want them to come to rehearsal every week.”


How does one begin to train such a choir? “We start off with what you might call a form of Gregorian chant, everyone singing a different pitch, listening for what happens when they converge, as they always do sooner or later, then trying to move away from that convergence again.”

Aleatoric (by chance) music is the final step, so far, but the choir was led up to it in digestible bites, Chase having pulled some compositions from the repertoire in the past “for the sake of morale.” “You have to establish credibility. What has been most important is favorable public reaction. They believe in audience response; now they’ll go anywhere with me.”

At present, Vox Nova is rehearsing its June 14-15 program, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” and the choral part of Daniel Sonnenberg’s new opera, “The Summer King,” to be staged by Portland Ovations at Merrill Auditorium on May 8.

For the future, Chase is looking for a larger venue; perhaps to do some touring, now that sponsors are coming forward; make a recording – expensive since none of the works Vox Nova sings are in the public domain – and more collaboration with artists such as the DaPonte.

Maine composer Vineet Shende is working on settings of Whitman poems for the 2014-2015 season of new works by living composers setting great poetry. Chase hopes to have all the composers on the program in attendance.

What she wants most, however, is wider exposure. “I want the quality of this music to be perceived. You can’t love what you don’t know.”

Come to the next concert; I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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