In Concert: Perfect Tenn

Choirmaster Mark Simmons prepares his University of Tennessee choirs for Saturday concert
By Ted Mills, News-Press Correspondent
January 4, 2008 11:12 AM
Something of a globetrotter in his younger days, choirmaster Mark Simmons has made a point of imparting the importance of traveling on his students.
“Last year they saw the Atlantic coast,” he says, “This year I thought they should see the Pacific.”
Both Simmons and the two choirs he brings to Trinity Episcopal Church this Saturday hail from the landlocked University of Tennessee at Martin. A little dose of Bach and a breath of sea air add up to something like a well-rounded education for the choir.
“I think choirs should tour,” Simmons says. “For one night we get to get the message out about our university.”
Simmons brings with him the 43-member University Singers and the smaller New Pacer Singers, the latter all members of the former.
“The smaller group deals with the more complicated and harmonically challenging works,” says Simmons, ” and the larger one with the more traditional and spiritual.”
Simmons, who counts minimalists like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and especially John Adams as closest to his heart, leaves room to explore the choral works by Healey Willan (“An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts” ) and John Rutter (“Hymn to the Creator of Light”).
Both of these modern composers raised the profile of choral music in the 20th century, and Simmons considers these two selections very important works.
“Willan was a Canadian and an Anglican by denomination and it’s a coincidence but appropriate we are performing in an Anglican church.” The coincidence extends to Simmons’ Anglican faith, but Trinity Episcopal was chosen primarily for its acoustics. The area where he teaches and performs counts itself primarily Bible-belt Baptist. “Of course that means there’s plenty of places to perform,” he notes.
Born into a musical family (both parents taught choir) in Indiana, Simmons spent his childhood traveling, living in Saudi Arabia at one point when his parents taught in English schools. Back in the States, his education took him to New York, Oregon, Iowa, and Michigan. He finally settled in Martin, where his wife teaches clarinet at the university.
With an expanded mind comes the expanded repertoire, but that doesn’t mean the choir skimps on the Bach — also on the program with Motet No. 6 “Lobet den herrn.” “I’m partial to Bach,” he says. “It’s intrinsically teaching (students) all the time. There’s so much musical experience in one piece that it’s a major step to get through it.” Bach wrote six motets, and Simmons plans to perform them all, one a year, working backwards. “They don’t get easier,” he laughs.
The students who Simmons and his wife take on tour will be put up by Trinity Episcopal and All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal, and, as Simmons notes, the students underwrite most of the trip’s expenses themselves. The whole trip is broken down into traveling, performing, and exploring (the tour finishes in Las Vegas), and Simmons says that in four years of touring, there has been little drama.
“We’ve once or twice left someone behind on the first bus out of Martin,” he laughs, alluding to the inevitable late-sleeping student. “But that’s an education in itself — a hard lesson, but an education.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Trinity Episcopal Church,1500 State St.
Cost: Free
Information: 965-7419,
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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