Madison Choral Project has been around for only a few years — but already the professional group has reached such heights that one of the biggest names in choral music is coming to town to lead it.
Dale Warland will conduct the Madison Choral Project in two performances of “Music of Our Time,” a concert held at the First Congregational Church at 7:30 p.m. Friday and again at 2:30 p.m. May 31.
“He’s a genius. And he really is one of the pioneers of American choral music,” said Albert Pinsonneault, a former student of Warland’s who is founder and artistic director of the Madison Choral Project.
Warland, who last conducted in Madison in 1994, was recently named to the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. From 1972 to 2004 he led the Dale Warland Singers, commissioning 270 new choral works. Today he is music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Chorale and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival Chorale.
Warland was in Madison earlier this month to rehearse with the MCP, a group launched in May 2013 with the idea of producing a single concert. (That concert was so successful that four more followed; “Music of Our Time” will be the group’s sixth.)
Though it’s still a young organization, “I have nothing but great things to say about this choir,” Warland said in a phone interview from his St. Paul, Minnesota-area home.
“It is a chamber choir, 22 voices, so in comparison to a lot of choirs it’s small. But it’s made up of singers with just outstanding musicianship, beautiful voices,” he said.
“And it’s made up of people, I’ve noticed, who care deeply and really are committed to making great music.”
After the rehearsal in early May, “I came away feeling there is just such a wonderful spirit and a positive attitude there that I think is key to any choir.”
Pinsonneault — who is also assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Chorus, artistic director of the Madison Chamber Choir and teaches music at Edgewood College — found his singers for the Madison Choral Project through a general audition in January 2013.
“I didn’t ask a single person to audition,” he recalled.
“We were astounded by the talented people who came out of the woodwork — many of which now I consider close friends — but had never met and didn’t know lived in this town. There are just such riches here of really amazing singers, and that’s one of the things that has made this work.”
Pinsonneault, 35, met Warland when he was working on his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. The two musicians crossed paths again when Pinsonneault was working on his doctorate at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, where Warland was in residence. Over the years, they kept in touch.
Bringing Warland, 83, to Madison, was a way for Pinsonneault to continue his own learning, he said.
“Here I am trying to start a professional choir in Madison, much like he did in Minneapolis in 1972,” Pinsonneault said. “How much can I learn by sitting beside him? I know the things that I try to fix in rehearsal, and here I can see what he does — and keep learning and growing.”
“I was so incredibly lucky and fortunate to get to be able to study with him, and he is an incredibly generous person,” Pinsonneault said. “I wanted to roll out the red carpet for him as a thank-you to him from me, and as a chance for him to come to Madison and a chance for me to learn and grow.”
For “Music of Our Time,” Warland chose a wide variety of choral pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries.
“I’ve been very careful about selecting things that are fresh, but also accessible to every listener,” he said. The mostly a cappella concert also will include instrumental touches by well-known Madison musicians Martha Fischer on piano, John Aley on trumpet and Eric Miller on cello.
The program includes Warland’s own composition “Always Singing,” inspired by the memories of a retired English farmer for whom life had been hard, but always filled with music. It was a story that Warland — who grew up on an Iowa farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse where the children sang every day — identified with.
“I think it fits so well with the legacy of who this man is — the idea that he spent a life with vocal music,” Pinsonneault said. “To have this piece ‘Always Singing’ by Dale Warland, and to be right there with the composer, how he envisioned it, is a real treat.”
In rehearsal Warland “is tireless. He is such a hard worker,” Pinsonneault said.
“And he just has very, very high standards and is wonderfully relentless. It never seems mean; it’s always gentle; but he just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing until the music gets to that next level. It’s so great to see someone at that level of his career still pushing so hard, and that inspires all of us.”