Lauridsen, Copley, Arcosanti: The Colly Concert

To honor the legacy of Corolyn Woods Soleri, Paolo Soleri’s late wife, the 34th annual Colly Concert at Arcosanti this year provided an extraordinary evening of choral music by the composer Morten Lauridsen. An audience of 250 filled the East Crescent Amphitheatre to hear combined choirs of 240 voices performing an integrated program of music, poetry, dance, projected imagery, devised by artistic director, pianist Lynne Haeseler. You really had to be there….

But the single most powerful moment of the weekend with Morten Lauridsen at Arcosanti presented itself earlier in the day, on Saturday afternoon, 3:37PM, prior to the concert itself, in the process of a Choral Workshop. The great NAU Shrine of the Ages choir was stationed on its curving riser, its members dressed in jewel tones, shining in the angular desert sunlight, a perfect visual counterpoint to architect Paolo Soleri’s soaring, vaulted arches at Arcosanti. Conductor Edie Copley stood relaxed on the podium.

Following his generous custom, Morten Lauridsen addressed the afternoon audience, explaining a piece from his Madrigali that NAU’s choir was about to sing, a difficult unaccompanied composition entitled, “Ov’e, lass’, is bel viso?” At the end of his explanation, Dr. Lauridsen glanced at Edie and then at the choir as his hands gently struck the opening chord of the song on an electronic piano, giving the young choir its keynote.

That beautiful chord reminded Lauridsen of something more to say to prepare the audience; and he took the next few minutes to say it. When he stopped speaking, in courtesy he raised his eyes again to Edie Copley, his hands perched, about to strike the chord a second time.

Instead, “They have it!” the conductor whispered.

Lauridsen settled back in peace. Then, Copley inhaled, drew herself up, suddenly becoming inches taller, moving only her deep eyes to look intently at each choir member, every one of whom was already concentrating only on her, holding their collective breath in their lungs, their collective keynote in their minds.

Copley’s arms were crossed, hands folded almost in prayer, held close to her body, when suddenly her arms straightened, her clenched fingers flew open, and the choir exploded with music and emotion! ILLUMINATION!! No one witnessing this had ever experienced anything like it before. It was the Big Bang, the opening of a new universe, an amazing, dizzying moment in which even the composer, Lauridsen, was overwhelmed by the power and beauty of his own music.

At the end of the piece, as the choir whispered a final “…lass…” the whole of Arcosanti fell silent; the audience could barely speak, could hardly breathe. The entire experience lasted only a few minutes, yet those minutes – experienced so deeply by everyone who was there — will be carried and remembered for the rest of their lives.

There are conductors who command the stage, who understand a composer’s work and the needs of an audience; conductors whose gestures are grand, and who thus keep the attention of their choristers on the music. That’s one way: managing. It works.

There’s another way, one that is more rare: unfolding. On Saturday afternoon at Arcosanti, Morten Lauridsen’s music bloomed; it unfolded, opened right up through conductor Dr. Edith Copley and her Northern Arizona University choir. Here’s how:

When she conducts, Edie Copley is the music.

The efficiency and power of her minimal gestures seem hold each individual choir member in a kind of suspension. Yet they are all in this suspension together, as one. It’s in the eyes, really. Their eyes meet hers, an electrical connection is made, and for the time that connection lasts, we audience members, we mere witnesses, are all elevated to a realm of human potential, a realm of connection, that is truly extra-ordinary.  Thanks to the genius of Lauridsen and Copley, basking and framed in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vaulted arches, this is is how life unfolded at Arcosanti on a Saturday afternoon this past September, 2015.

“A hundred choirs have sung my music,” said Morten Lauridsen that day. “I’ve been in dozens of concerts with them, the music is recorded on 30 CD’s sung by some of the greatest choirs in the world, several of them nominated for a Grammy. The NAU Shrine of the Ages choir’s performance of the first MADRIGALI was the finest I have ever heard in my life. The passion and precision! What a gift.”  What a gift indeed.

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