One of the soloists in the annual "Messiah" benefit concert is freshly returned from his second performance at Carnegie Hall this year.
Stephen Kalm, a professor of music and dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Montana, was invited to sing during a performance of composer Meredith Monk's "Night" with the American Composers Orchestra on Friday, Nov. 21.
The baritone said the power of the piece is that by using wordless vocals Monk bypasses the language center and goes "straight to your heart."
The 25-minute "Night" was excerpted from a longer work, "The Politics of Quiet."
Kalm was one of eight singers backed by a chamber orchestra, which included unusual instruments such as harp, psaltery and E-flat clarinet.
The concert was part of Carnegie Hall's yearlong series on Monk as its composer of the year for the current season.
In a review of the concert, New York Times classical critic Anthony Tommasini said "every moment of this boldly episodic, mystical, playful piece sounded authentic."
In preparation, Kalm flew to New York for a vocal rehearsal in October, and spent a week there for the concert itself.
Monk personally invited Kalm, who was a member of her Vocal Ensemble during the 1990s. The group performed her works at venues in Europe and the United States, including the premiere of her opera "Atlas." Monk originally wrote "The Politics of Quiet" as a vocal piece for this group.
The orchestration was added later.
"It was tremendous to work with such great musicians," Kalm said of his trip, noting that he hadn't performed with some of them in a decade.
Kalm is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a bachelor's in vocal performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a master's from Queens College, and a doctorate from the City University of New York.
He was based on the East Coast for some 15 years before he moved to Missoula for a job as assistant professor of voice and opera at UM in 1994. In 2002, he became director of the School of Music, and in 2009 he became dean.
The professional connections he forged back East were also behind his performance at Carnegie in April in Harry Partch's opera, "The Wayward."
"Both these opportunities occurred because of things I'd done earlier in my career," he said. "It's always nice to be asked back."
The iconoclastic American composer wrote the 45-minute mini-opera for instruments of his own design built with found objects. He divided the octave into 43 tones instead of the usual 13, meaning they can't be played on traditional instruments.
Kalm performed "The Wayward" at Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village in the early '90s with an ensemble called the New Band, which later became the Harry Partch Institute.
In addition to the unusual instruments, "The Wayward" has an unconventional text. Partch drew on the words and experiences of hobos that he met while riding the rails in the 1930s, after he returned from studying abroad and couldn't find work.
Kalm said "The Wayward" is challenging to performers on many fronts.
For one, he could practice only with the one-of-a-kind Partch instruments.
Second, it requires professional training to sing it well, he said, including a good ear and musicianship because of the microtonal writing. But you can't sing it in normal Bel canto fashion, he said. Singers must capture the "grittiness" of the characters' experience, which matches the "funky" "rock 'n' roll" feel of the music.
In Tommasini's review of the Carnegie performance he called Kalm "a dynamic performer."
Kalm said both projects have been highlights of his career.
"I had a traditional training as an opera singer, and I feel fortunate to have been able to interact with these artists and material," he said.
Both have "expanded my thinking and my creative toolbox," he said.