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Skylark Vocal Ensemble Emerges from the Silence

Skylark Vocal Ensemble faces the camera in a beautiful park
Sasha Greenhalgh
Skylark Vocal Ensemble

The vocal ensemble Skylark emerges from 19 months without concerts, releasing a brand new album, “It’s a Long Way.”

And it’s wonderful to hear music expressing the feelings of those months – feelings of fear, loss, disruption, and isolation – along with feelings of hope and the possibilities for growth and change, as we get together again, to make music and to listen.

This collection of choral and solo-vocal music spans the centuries, from the Renaissance to the 21st Century, and uses Psalm 91 as a theme, with three settings of that text at the beginning, middle and end of the album.

Album Cover for Skylark's album, "It's a Long Way"
Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Album cover art

Also interspersed through the CD are the three parts of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s "Nunc Dimitus," a biblical text about the acceptance of mortality. It’s challenging music to listen to. Skylark’s Artistic Director, Matthew Guard, says he thinks of this piece as “… a sonic representation of some of the pain of the pandemic.”

But then there is joy and hope as well, represented by contemporary and traditional music – pieces like Nell Shaw Cohen’s setting of “It’s a Long Way,” a hopeful text by William Stanley Braithewaite, which also gives the album its title – and like the traditional farewell, “The Parting Glass”.

When I ask Matthew what message Skylark is trying to get across with this album, he says it’s not so much a message – more like an “Artistic expression of what it might have been like to endure these last 18 months or 2 years… Sometimes our music is meant to make a certain statement or to entertain or to comfort, and I think this is more about providing space to just experience and process what we’ve all been through, using music as a lens.”

Listen to our conversation, about Skylark and “It’s a Long Way,” including some music from the album, in the player above.


Skylark [00:00:00] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:00:13] Can you take me back to the beginning of Skylark? It'd be great to hear the the story.

Matthew Guard [00:00:19] Of course, yeah. So Skylark is almost 10 years old at this point. The first experiment in what became Skylark was about 10 years ago, and I was not a music major in college. I don't have a music degree. I went to business school and was working in management consulting, and I decided to try to get back into music, which was my passion, where I spent most of my time in college. I didn't go to class very often. I spent more of my time in a cappella group, and I got some friends together for a long weekend to try to get back into conducting and with the thought that perhaps I might try to apply to a master's program in conducting. And so we got together during the the weekend of Hurricane Irene in Boston, which was not great timing.

Alan McLellan [00:01:09] Oh wow. Yeah.

Matthew Guard [00:01:13] But we rehearsed for a couple of days, performed a concert for, I think, exactly five people, but had a great time. And people in the group that weekend who were friends, who were also great musicians, encouraged me and said, "You know, you could go back to school for this, or you could just kind of start doing it and see where it goes, and you can learn on the job." And that's what happened. And over time, people figured out this group was their passion, and we've now had a very consistent group of singers for a number of years. As a result, we have a lot of shared experience together and a lot of shared rehearsal and concert and recording time.

Matthew Guard, Artistic Director of Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Sasha Greenhalgh
Matthew Guard

Alan McLellan [00:01:53] I imagine it becomes quite a tightly knit group.

Matthew Guard [00:01:56] It does. It definitely feels a lot more familial at times. It's a very close group and that, I think, in an art that requires a lot of trust, like a cappella singing, is really helpful.

Alan McLellan [00:02:10] I think there are singers from various different locations that come together, right?

Matthew Guard [00:02:16] There are a number from Boston and from the New York area. But it really is a national roster. And that's partially because people have moved over time and partially because we just drew from a national pool. It's all professional musicians. The vast majority of people in the group make their full time living singing. There are some people who are full time educators in the choral arts or vocal arts who then sing with Skylark as one of their other activities, but they are also full time musicians. And so we have this really wonderful mix of people who are professional ensemble singers, professional soloists and also conductors. So it's a really rich experience pool of people in making music together,

Alan McLellan [00:02:59] And it's a collaborative process too. And I'm very impressed with the way that you describe these things. Not as Matthew Guard's genius project, but as Skylark's project, and as a kind of collaborative effort with ideas from each of the members.

Matthew Guard [00:03:21] Oh, absolutely. It would be an incredible act of hubris to think that one person could have more knowledge or experience or ideas to bring to bear on these projects than 25 people combined. And perhaps because I came into this without a degree in music and with basically no idea what I was doing, if I'm going to be honest, I come at this from a situation over time of trying to figure out how to get a group to work together more as a group and less as a top down organization.

Alan McLellan [00:03:53] It's amazing what can come of a collaborative process like this, and it's very exciting when when it does. And this album is a great example of that, I think. Fantastic kind of collection of things that are woven together in an amazing way. Tell us a little about the origin of the album in the pandemic, I guess.

Matthew Guard [00:04:14] Yeah. Yeah. So we, during the last year and a half when we haven't been able to do concerts in person, we've done a variety of things to keep our organization going and keep our artists as employed as we could during the time period where we didn't have concert revenue streams, so we had a streaming service online where our subscribers subscribe to pay a monthly subscription and our artists produced content online, either solo recitals or small group recitals. We had a couple of quarantine recording projects where we got a small group together to record for that platform. We also did a number of educational modules where we created educational content for a lot of choirs in high schools and colleges who weren't able to meet in the last year. So we kept ourselves busy, but we didn't have a really authentic artistic outlet for what we usually do. And when it became possible, we might be able to get a group together to record around Memorial Day weekend, which was when a lot of this was recorded.

Alan McLellan [00:05:11] That was 2021 Memorial Day weekend.

Matthew Guard [00:05:13] Yeah. This idea kind of hatched and got to full fruition in like six weeks because it was a very short timeframe once we realized, OK, we think we have enough people where we could have a fully vaccinated group to get together and and record an album. And that's when this came about. And then it was, what is the project that can most artistically express what we've experienced in the last 18 months, not being able to be together? And that's the genesis for this. The idea was it's in a variety of formats. So we did get a group together to record a lot of the choral content during that Memorial Day weekend, early part of June, but we weren't able to assemble our full roster. And so we actually have two pieces on the album where we have 26 artists from across the country contributing their parts recorded in isolation, so not during that week. That's the Josquin canon and the Greg Brown piece. We have six solo pieces in the album from people who, some people were able to be there in person for the recording session. Others did not. We had sessions for them individually, and then we actually had a large group performance for the final track, the piece by Evelyn Simpson Curenton that was actually recorded by a 20 person group in August at our recording session for our Christmas album because we wanted to have a really big, amazing group for that. Actually it was 22 people for that piece. So it was a logistical nightmare to get people from all over and to put a project together that is not just everyone showing up and recording it, but I think it was worth it.

Alan McLellan [00:06:56] Right. Yeah. So it's this logistical thing where you have to find out where people are coming from, whether they feel comfortable traveling and what your needs are for the particular music too.

Matthew Guard [00:07:07] Oh, absolutely. And we did not want to exclude anyone from taking part in this project because of their personal risk assessment or because of health conditions and their family or inability to travel or anything. So we didn't want to just choose people who were, you know, more risk loving, who wanted to get together.

Alan McLellan [00:07:28] Yeah. So about the album itself, it's just an amazing kind of comfort. The word I I think of is comfort, when I listen to it, just as an overall experience. If you listen to the the whole thing in one sitting, there's just this, this kind of warmth that spreads from it. And was that the intention?

Matthew Guard [00:07:54] That's a really interesting perspective, and I think that's wonderful. That's what you feel. It absolutely is. I mean, the intention was to if you go through the experience listening to the whole thing, start to finish, which really is how we think about our albums and our programs. We don't think about them as individual collections of pieces. We think about them as an arc and an experience.

Alan McLellan [00:08:13] I was wondering about that,

Matthew Guard [00:08:14] But it really is meant to be a bit of a gauntlet in terms of going through some periods of music that are pretty difficult to listen to. But then coming out of it at the end with a real sense of calm and comfort and assurance. But there definitely is a pretty gnarly middle section in terms of the music in the center of the album.

Alan McLellan [00:08:37] Yes, it has its gnarlyness, too. That's right. Psalm 91 is a big part of it. And is that a Psalm that's important to you particularly?

Matthew Guard [00:08:48] It never had been. But when I was first thinking about this project, I was thinking through a couple of lenses. First of all, was what type of text or piece is relevant for a pandemic. That was one element of it. And the other one was what are pieces that could be done without people being in the same room? And one of the pieces that I discovered, or rediscovered, in looking through those lenses was this Josquin "Qui habitat" canon, which is a canon in 24 parts. So it has six sopranos, altos tenors and basses. Six of each voice part.

Alan McLellan [00:09:26] And I have to say it's an astounding piece.

Matthew Guard [00:09:29] It really is. It really is quite something.

Skylark [00:09:52] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:09:52] You know, each part is a six part canon, so the soprano part is just one soprano part, but it's six people singing, you know, at an interval, like a round, essentially, and that happens in every single part. And the text of this is Psalm 91, and Psalm 91 has these verses, which are very plague-driven. You know, "thou shalt not be afraid of the pestilence by night." It's really all about fear of disease and famine and plague.

Skylark [00:10:36] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:10:37] I discovered that piece and thought, "Wow, this is amazing." This is a 24 part piece. Because it's Renaissance music and it's a canon, there really isn't any room for rubato or tempo change, which is actually the thing that is most problematic for trying to record something remotely. And so it's a piece that actually lines up as being, we actually can do this with people not being in the same room, because as long as we have a constant tactus of, say, 60 beats a minute, everyone can record their part without having to be together.

Skylark [00:11:06] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:11:18] Wow. Yeah. And then Psalm 91 became kind of a theme for the whole album.

Matthew Guard [00:11:24] Yeah, yeah. And so I first came across that Josquin piece and then I thought, "Wow, this Psalm 91 is really perfect for this time period." And I then learned about this piece by Evelyn Simpson Curenton, who's a living composer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Skylark [00:11:38] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:11:57] And I just heard this piece. Actually I was looking through, I think, Spotify lists of the same text, and I heard this piece, a different recording and I thought, "Wow, that is unbelievably joyous in the sense that it it is incredibly homophonic." Everyone singing together through a lot of it, it really celebrates a rich texture of a full choir. And I thought that that piece really encapsulated the joy that we would experience when we got a large group together to sing again.

Skylark [00:12:45] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:12:46] In the middle, there's another Psalm 91 piece.

Matthew Guard [00:12:49] Correct, correct. So once we had those two bookends, I knew we were going to have the Josquin at the beginning of the album and this Simpson Curenton piece near the end, we were looking for another piece that we could record in this remote type setting with a large group. And I spoke to my friend, composer Greg Brown, about this idea, and he got really excited about the idea of composing a piece for the setting where people can't hear or see each other.

Skylark [00:13:18] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:13:32] And composing a piece that is not meant to be engineered within an inch of its life to sound like we were together, but instead that is artistically about the fact that we are not together and composed in that rubric. And so we talked about text, and he really was drawn to the idea of keeping this Psalm 91 thread. And he focused on a couple of verses of that Psalm to compose that piece. And I think it's really effective and very cool and disorienting and wonderful and all the things that I hoped it would have been when he set about writing it.

Alan McLellan [00:14:19] Yeah, it's wonderful. It's called "Feathers," and it uses a section about being covered by wings, right?

Matthew Guard [00:14:26] Yeah, there's this really kind of trippy verse of Psalm 91 that draws this analogy of basically the almighty as a giant bird and being sheltered under the wings of this giant bird. And that idea, Greg thought, was really evocative and kind of could create a lot of ideas about, "What is that? What would it sound like to be sheltered under the wings of a giant bird?" This sounds a little bit tripped out, but I think it's really amazing.

Skylark [00:15:00] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:15:16] I couldn't help but have Emily Dickinson's "Feathers" poem come to mind. "Hope is the thing with feathers..."

Matthew Guard [00:15:24] Oh, totally totally.

Alan McLellan [00:15:25] Yeah. And just the imagery of feathers is wonderful. You don't usually, I guess, I don't usually think of it as a biblical concept. So that's great.

Matthew Guard [00:15:35] No, no. Yeah, it's interesting.

Alan McLellan [00:15:37] And then in between those three kind of pillars, I guess you might say, are a whole variety of things. Can you just bring out some highlights for you that really kind of epitomize what this group is doing with this album?

Matthew Guard [00:15:54] Oh, yeah, of course. I think the other thread that I would call out that goes through the album is there's three different sections of a piece by Arvo Pärt, his "Nunc Dimittis."

Skylark [00:16:06] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:16:30] A really beautiful but somewhat difficult to listen to piece. I thought of it as a sonic representation of some of the pain of the pandemic, and it's spaced out so that it gets introduced pretty early on in the album as kind of breaking the feeling of just ignorance and bliss that we had before this all started. And then it comes back later on in the album and finishes near the end of the album. And I think of it as just this thing that comes in waves that won't go away. And that's how I thought about that Pärt piece, and I think that's one of the important threads of the album that holds it together.

Skylark [00:17:19] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:17:26] And then in addition to that, it's a bit all over the map. I mean, like many of our albums and concerts, we're not trying to necessarily stick to a particular genre or style of music, and we have solo art songs at the piano. We have a Celtic folk song with an Irish whistle.

Alan McLellan [00:17:44] I know and I love that. That's great. And the Bodhrán is in there.

Matthew Guard [00:17:49] Yeah, yeah. So it's really meant to have some individual voices in there so you can hear the individual voices that make up a part of the Skylark whole, and the fact that they were for the last 18 months just individual voices out, you know, in their homes and not able to make music together. And I think that's a powerful analogy or metaphor for what we've all been through.

Alan McLellan [00:18:13] One of the most gorgeous of those, I think, is the Samuel Barber, "Sure on This Shining Night."

Matthew Guard [00:18:19] Oh yeah, just one of the nearly perfect art songs. It's gorgeous.

Skylark [00:18:29] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:18:43] Yeah, and there's a period in the album there in tracks, call it 5 through 10, which have this kind of night falling theme to them there's the "Sure on This Shining Night," there's a Thomas Tallis chant for the coming of evening, and there's the Reger "Nachtlied." And it's this feeling that we are entering a time of darkness. And that Barber piece is a moment in that darkness where you have a little bit of perspective and light. And I think that tenor Nate Hodgson does a beautiful job with David McGrory, the pianist and really making those two minutes something very special.

Alan McLellan [00:19:21] Absolutely. It's gorgeous.

Skylark [00:19:29] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:19:33] And then there's a Schubert solo in there as well, with Enrico Lagasca.

Matthew Guard [00:19:37] Yeah, he is one of our basses. He is a phenomenal singer. And I asked him if there was a peace that he found meaningful that had a bit of rage in it, to be honest, something that's really unsettling. And he came up with this Schubert art song that is just stunning. Really powerful.

Skylark [00:20:06] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:20:22] And that's almost in the middle of the album, and it's, I think, a kind of a cry of pain that we all experienced at some point in the last 18 months. And I think his performance is quite powerful.

Alan McLellan [00:20:36] And then there's also an Eric Whitacre setting of a story that I used to read to my kids. It's beautiful.

Matthew Guard [00:20:43] Yeah. "Goodnight Moon."

Skylark [00:20:44] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:20:53] And again, you might think, "Gosh, what a strange thing to include in this album." And it's there for a couple of reasons. First of all, Alissa Ruth Suver, the soprano who sings that piece, I've heard her sing it before, and there's no way that I can listen to her sing that piece and not get emotional and just start to cry because it's just, she sings it so beautifully. And I wanted to have that be part of the experience of this album and the way that I think about it in the terms of this progression of being a pandemic themed album. And why are we singing "Goodnight Moon," you can even argue, a kind of a cheesy children's book.

Alan McLellan [00:21:29] No, it definitely is.

Matthew Guard [00:21:32] But we have, my wife and I, we have two young children. We have a six-year-old and a two-year-old, and there are millions of parents out there who over the last two years have been trying to make sense of what's going on and put on a brave face and be a parent in this strange time. And even though the world is upside down, you've got to sit down in the chair every night and read a children's story to your young child and provide a sense of comfort. And that is what I think this piece is about in the context of of this progression, is understanding that that is a part of enduring a time of great trouble.

Skylark [00:22:10] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan [00:22:27] And that's followed immediately by a work by a Canadian composer, Eleanor Daley. That's an amazing piece as well. "In remembrance," from her "Requiem."

Matthew Guard [00:22:38] Yeah, it's one of the great combinations of music and text. It's a beautiful text that many people will know. It's a poem that begins with the text "Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep." And it's a gorgeous, simple, two minute movement from her broader "Requiem" that she composed in the 1980s. And it's really a gem.

Skylark [00:23:07] [MUSIC]

Matthew Guard [00:23:22] It's been special to us over several concerts, and we think about that as an offering to all people who have lost someone during these last two years.

Alan McLellan [00:23:34] Yeah, it's so important to remember, and yet to realize our purpose here is not to just stand there and weep. So that's a fantastic image and it's a great tribute to those who have passed in this.

Matthew Guard [00:23:52] Absolutely.

Alan McLellan [00:23:53] Is there an overall message that you think Skylark is giving in this album?

Matthew Guard [00:24:02] That's a great question, I think about it less about a message that we're trying to get across in terms of a "do something" or "be something," but more about an artistic expression of what it might have been like to endure these last 18 months or two years and to perhaps provide some comfort and beauty and perspective to people who would like to use music to process it. I think that's how I think about this. Sometimes our music is meant to make a certain statement or to entertain or to comfort, and I think this is more about providing space to just experience and process what we've all been through, using music as a lens.

Alan McLellan [00:24:48] Well, fantastic. I really enjoyed listening to it and I hope that many, many people do as well. "It's a Long Way" is the name of the album and the group is Skylark. And I've been speaking with Matthew Guard, the artistic director. Thank you so much, Matthew.

Matthew Guard [00:25:03] Thank you, Alan.

Skylark [00:25:03] [MUSIC]

Alan McLellan is a host and producer for CRB.