Dolce Canto's new artistic director, Yong Mao, will make his Missoula debut this weekend.
The 35-year-old moved to the Garden City while finishing up his doctoral degree in choral conducting at the University of Oklahoma, and expects to graduate in the spring.
Mao's first concert with the auditioned choir is titled "Unheard Voices," and comprises everything from a 17th century Mass written by an Italian nun and composer to contemporary works by writers in Australia, China and more.
This weekend brings a rich selection of options for holiday concerts: Dolce Canto, the Misso…
That's par for the course for the group, and Mao's taste is a good fit. His favorite genres are Renaissance and Baroque choral music at one end, and contemporary and modern at the other. "I kind of take the extremes," he said. "Either too early or too late."
The "voices" in the title has multiple meanings for him. For one, it's an introduction for him, an international voice, to the community. Second, it spotlights lesser-known composers. Music history, like history in general, favors major figures, and can be seen as a subjective competition between composers, he said.
"Most people know about Bach, about Beethoven, about Mozart, [but] they don't know other composers well," he said. Yet "there are other people who should be remembered" and helped contribute to the history of music as a whole. Women composers in particular are left out of textbooks, he said.
The major piece on the program is a Mass by Chiara Cozzolani (1602-1678), who wrote at a convent in Milan.
He found the Mass interesting because she wrote and published the work for a mixed choir of male and female voices. However, the choir at her convent, a highly respected group, was women-only. The professional choirs at nearby churches would be male-only, he said, with the high notes covered by either male sopranos, castrati or boy singers. That segregation means it's unclear whether Cozzolani ever heard the work as she intended, complete with bass lines, with a mixed choir.
He's also included two works by Bach. Not Johannes Sebastian, but his relatives Johann Michael and Johann Ludwig, who are vastly overshadowed by their famous relative.
The second half of the program shifts to contemporary composers. He coined the term "environmental pieces" for a set of three works: "Kondalilla" by Stephen Leek, an Australian; "The Hollow Mansions," by Thomas Morgan, an American; and "The Cataract of Mount Lu," by Chen Yi, of China. The pieces will be sung without counting time, which he said gives them room to incorporate sounds of wind, crickets, and birds; and try out overtone singing techniques that create two pitches at the same time. They're familiar in traditional music from Tibet and Mongolia, yet are becoming more common in contemporary music, he said.
He's linked two pieces by composers from different parts of the world that use the same text, a poem called "Bitter for Sweet" by Christina Rosetti. "I'll Be Seeing You" was written by his friend Wei Cui in Mao's honor when he left his old choir in China. (She's now based in Canada.) A fellow Canadian composer, Stephen Chatman, wrote a piece, also called "Bitter for Sweet," with the same words.
Mao applied for the director post after the departure of Peter Park, the choir's co-founder and longtime director. He had informed them that 2017-18 would be his last season, and after the Missoulian investigated allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct in February, he was suspended and the board began looking for a replacement.
Mao applied for the job, drawn by the wide range of music the choir performs and its quality. The group has performed in Carnegie Hall and toured South Korea.
Mao originally studied electrical engineering at Tianjin University. It was upon hearing two Renaissance pieces that Mao decided to pursue choral music: Thomas Weelkes's "As Vesta Was" and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli."
After finishing school, he directed the student choir, of engineering students, called Peiyang Chorus, for six years. He brought the group national honors and invitations to perform around the world.
He was able to achieve that as "totally an amateur conductor" competing with trained professionals, which led to his decision to pursue an advanced music degree.
He was accepted on scholarship to the University of Oklahoma despite having no undergraduate training in music. He said he had to work quite hard to make up for the deficit, but is a "straight-A student."
He has ideas for helping the choir improve, although he's looking at ways to cater to individual needs, since everyone involved is a volunteer.
In the future, he'd like the choir to be able to reach an even wider swath of the community, including people who can't come to their concerts, such as senior citizens or people with disabilities.
He believes the spirit of choral music is "to care and to share."
"I believe a choral community is a very ideal one," he said, one in which "we care about our neighbors and want to share with people."
The example he gave is the common choral technique of "staggered breath" that allows choirs to create a long, sustained vocal line. Singers monitor their "neighbors" and take turns to create the illusion of a continuous line. "You are caring about people's breath," he said. "How subtle is that? You have to know your neighbors well enough. You know exactly when your neighbor is going to take a breath.
"So that's why I say our choral spirit is to care and to share, and that's why I think it will make our society a better place," he said.