Do you love choruses and singing? Would you like to see one of the most prestigious singing groups in the country? If so, then there is good news for you! On Saturday, Oct. 29, a popular and unique group of talented singers will be performing on campus. This group is known as the Antioch Chamber Ensemble, which consists of 12 astute singers from the New York metropolitan area who perform an eclectic mix of musical pieces. Vassar is just one chosen venue of Antioch’s, out of many other notable performance locations. Based in New York City (NYC), the singers have performed at places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Medium and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) and the Festival des Choeurs Lauréats in France. The group’s unquestionable skill and talent have garnered both national and international acclaim, as they have performed at various locations in the Northeast of the U.S. and in Europe including France and Spain. At the Tolosa Festival in Spain, 2008, they won first place in both the sacred and secular music categories, competing with choirs from all over the world, just one out of many accolades the choir has earned.
Aside from the group’s more contemporary activities, one may ask how this musical force materialized in the first place, to evolve into such a powerful and refined collection of singers. A lot can be said about the group from its main artistic director Joshua Copeland, who has been with Antioch from its birth. In 1997, Copeland was one of the four co-founders who began Antioch as a quartet. The name “Antioch” was chosen as it is the tune name to the recognizable song “Joy to the World,” a message that founding soprano Kristin Sands, wife of Antioch’s Executive Director Stephen Sands, believes the singers strive to give their audiences. The four students, who attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, were the paid professional quartet at St. Bernard’s Episcopal Church in Bernardsville, NJ, a town about an hour from their now alma mater. Copeland amusingly recalled the commutes from their home in Princeton to the church—during the car rides, the young singers would rehearse their songs to pass the time. Copeland explained how from that small, fledgling quartet, emerged an octet for about two years, and finally a collection of 12 polished singers, consisting of six male and six female members. Almost all of the eight unoriginal singers were recruited through recommendations and connections, illustrating the group’s selectivity and prestige.
Indeed, the group has come a long way over the years, acquiring more singers, pieces and ideas, and has been referred to as one of the most exceptional choral ensembles in the country. Copeland remembers how the group formed and grew into what it is today. Reflecting on himself and the three other founding singers, he wrote, “We really had no idea where our singing would take us, but knew that we loved singing together and the joy we brought to others.” This echoes the meaning behind the group’s name. The actual formation and development of Antioch allowed the college students’ dreams of making choral singing their career become a reality. Copeland commented, “To still be doing this successfully twenty years later feels like an immense blessing.” Yet the choir’s irrefutable success has arisen from both Copeland’s and the group’s devotion to their music and work, which has only solidified over their nearly two decades of existence.
Antioch upholds a thorough and rigorous rehearsal schedule in order to prepare for their performances. For a typical show with previously studied or familiar pieces, the group will rehearse on average for about five to six hours. New music that steps outside the singers’ repertoires will require either more intensive or lax rehearsal schedules, depending on the pieces’ length and complexity. Sands detailed the preparation sequence, which includes multiple three-hour practices and a dress rehearsal. She shared, “It’s as exciting to work together before the performance as it is to perform…the rehearsals are where the magic begins.” The veteran Antioch elaborated on the developed cognizance of each of the singers, who almost instinctually can anticipate the dynamics of a song and the coordination of breathing, skills that have become visceral over 19 years of dedication to the art.
The singers present as a chamber choir, which is relatively small compared to other singing groups. This small size surprisingly renders it more powerful, as it endows the singers a greater degree of adaptability. They exhibit an enduring skill of being able to accommodate multiple different types of music. Copeland noted, “Our specialty has always been to present a diverse musical program to engage the listening audience.” Despite its foundation in religious music and hymnals, Antioch is unique in that it prioritizes tackling a diverse collection of music crossing multiple genres. In addition to the artists’ commitment to diversity, one of the main reasons for such a refined flexibility is the entry of the group into the world of recording. In fact, Antioch singers have been the targets of multiple composers from around the world who covet the group’s irreplaceable sound. Matthew Brown is a rising composer based in Los Angeles, whose choral works will be the first to be recorded and produced by Antioch. The young composer affirmed, “Having a choir that can adapt to different styles of music is very important because not every tone works with every kind of music.” This is a skill that Copeland and the other 11 singers have jointly honed over the years.
While sought after by multiple composers, Antioch itself makes an effort to reach out to a wider audience, partially by using their YouTube channel. “I have received a lot of submissions from all around the world thanks to our presence on YouTube,” Copeland explained. Antioch also has utilized Facebook and Twitter to help propagate itself through the world of social media. It is through their online presence that the choir hopes to garner more supporters, awareness and success. Sands shed light on some of the logistical challenges that face the choir, one of them being sufficient funding, since they are not associated with a subsidizing institution. She wrote, “We rely on donations, grants, concert fees, and recording sales…developing a strong base of support is ongoing work.” This work is assisted by publicity efforts via technology and other various projects that are currently being planned.
The performance at Vassar could be viewed as one of those efforts, a pro for both the school and the choir. Both Sands and Copeland expressed their excitement for the performance, which will showcase a unique sequence of pieces. Copeland himself will be both a singer and director this Halloween weekend, alluding to his earlier days when he’d fulfill those two roles for every show. The concert will feature Jonathan Dove’s 2000 composition “The Passing of a Year,” which consists of a double choir song cycle with piano accompaniment provided by Christine Chang. The group will also be performing novel works by composers Brown, Ivo Antognini and Zachary Wadsworth. The program will include more traditional pieces to balance out the newer compositions, such as the “Trois Chansons Bretonnes” by Henk Badings. This piece is what Copeland describes as one of his favorite pieces that combines piano and voice. His enthusiasm certainly never wanes, and nor does that of Sands and the remaining 10 choir members, who have been able to pursue their passions for singing and music in such a rewarding and significant way.
Indeed, for some members, Antioch means everything. Sands specified, unequivocally, “[Antioch] provides the greatest, deepest outlet to pour my soul into making music and communicating with people I cherish.” For her, the choir holds such a profound place in her heart because of its ability to satiate her passion and grace her with invaluable social experiences. She suggested that this combination could not have been replicated elsewhere. Sands also demonstrated the enlightened view she has cultivated throughout her years singing with Antioch, sharing an important lesson. “I want to encourage all of the musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and artists to stay bold and focused with your passion … 20 years from now, will you still be true to your passion?” Sands’s statement and question begs Vassar students to never suppress or abandon their passion, a belief that the world needs people who have come alive through enacting their talents and creativity. Antioch stands as a prime example of the effects of such personal fulfillment.
The performance will take place in Skinner Hall at 8 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 29. It is free and open to all members of the Vassar community