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New choral group finds a niche

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Now might not seem the time to launch a new arts organization, with the stagnant economy. Especially an arts organization with a circumscribed artistic focus.

Or perhaps niche is what works nowadays.

Ensemble VIII — a new professional choral group devoted solely to small ensemble Renaissance and Baroque vocal works — seems to bear that out.

For its debut concert in May, the group nearly sold out the 350-seat venue that's become its regular home, the acoustically resonant chapel of St. Louis Catholic Church.

Ensemble VIII — founded by James Morrow, director of choral activities at the University of Texas' Butler School of Music — performs its second concert Friday. And it's likely to be another close-to-capacity crowd.

Austin has no shortage of longstanding non-professional choirs. (Chorus Austin and Texas Choral Consort, among them.)

Of course the absolute choral juggernaut in town is Conspirare, the professional group that in a little more than a decade has racked up an impressive five Grammy nominations for its recordings, as well as a large and loyal audience.

Morrow believes it's precisely because Austin has proven to be a choral-loving town that his choir has already garnered audience and critical praise.

The niche he has defined for Ensemble VIII will give it a distinct profile, he says.

Morrow talked about his new venture over coffee one morning last week. At 48, he has salt-and-pepper hair and speaks with a slight twang. Morrow sings bass and baritone and has a long performance resume in addition to his credentials as a conductor. For Ensemble VIII's first concert, he did both — conducting and singing as one of the eight vocalists.

Morrow cherry-picks his singers from around the country, hiring those professionals with a particular specialty in early music. The ensemble will never total more than eight singers. (The personnel for each concert varies, and some concerts may be accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble.)

And Ensemble VIII will perform solely Renaissance and Baroque repertoire.

"I wanted to be niche-specific," says Morrow.

The rich polyphonic (multivoice) textures and clear yet complex harmonies of early music have an immediate emotional appeal, Morrow says. And the early music repertoire is vast.

It's a repertoire, too, with its ethereal yet crystalline sound, that's found increasing resonance with today's audiences. Noted minimalist composer Steve Reich, after all, has often spoken of the influence Baroque music has had on his ground-breaking compositions. Ditto with composers Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt.

Perhaps that in part explains the other wildly successful choral program Morrow launched: The Bach Cantata Project. Soon after the Blanton Museum of Art opened its new gallery building in 2006, Morrow and an ever-changing ensemble of singers and instrumentalists (mostly UT graduate students), began a regular gig, performing a different Bach cantata in the Blanton's soaring atrium. The noontime concerts (on the last Tuesday of the month during the academic year) quickly drew a crowd. Now, it's standing room only, with several hundred turning out for each concert.

"I never expected the crowds would be what they are," says Morrow.

Bach wrote more than 200 cantatas. And Morrow has no plans to discontinue the Cantata Project any time soon.

(Austin is home to two longtime early music ensembles as well, La Follia Austin Baroque and Texas Early Music Project, who have also cultivated the local audience.)

For Friday's Ensemble VIII concert, Morrow spotlights the giants of Spain's Golden Age — Cristóbal de Morales and Tomás Luis de Victoria.

After the Austin show, the group will head to San Antonio on Saturday to perform the same program. Morrow planned regional touring as part of Ensemble VIII's mission from the start. Later this season they'll take their concerts to Houston and Dallas, as well.

"With so small of a group, it's relatively easy to consider touring," says Morrow, who adds that the organization's annual budget is a slim $64,000, with contributions coming from individual local donors. (Ensemble VIII is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.)

In December the group will perform the complete, small-chorus version of Handel's "Messiah," accompanied by a chamber orchestra of Baroque period instruments. The concert will be recorded by classical music radio station KMFA for a Christmas Day broadcast.

Music hundred of years old stretches its legs all the way to contemporary Austin and stands tall, it seems.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘Siglo de Oro: Spanish Polyphony of Morales and Victoria'

When:7:30 p.m. (pre-concert lecture at 6:45)

Where: St. Louis Catholic Church Chapel, 7601 Burnet Road

Cost: $25-$35 ($15-$25 seniors, $10 students)

Information: www.ensembleviii.org

Bach Cantata Project

When:Noon, Oct. 25

Where: Blanton Museum of Art

Cost: Free with museum admission ($5-$9)

www.blantonmuseum.org