New choral group finds a niche

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

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

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.)

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