The song selections, the magnificent performances, and the recording and sound engineering of this record all combine to produce the most beautiful choral recording I have in my collection. The album was recorded at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Kansas City, and the acoustics soar to heights I've never before experienced. As I noted in the following interview with Musical Director Chris Munce, choral recordings can sound muffled, and efforts to control the sound and reduce any echo result in a bland, lifeless recording. Not so with "To Bethlehem". The sound is astonishing. The singers voices blend and separate and come together and highlight individual parts and do everything that a wonderful choral performance should and I could go on and on about the vibrant resonance and the arrangements and and and.... but I must stop, and you should listen for yourself. Let me restate, it's by far the best choral recording I have in my collection (of which there are many).
Musical Director Chris Munce graciously accepted my offer to interview him on behalf of Kantorei KC about their remarkable new record. Following the interview are links to the group's website and online store. Oh! And, if you live near the Kansas City area, Kantorei KC will be performing a couple of concerts in December. Be sure to check their performance calendar.
Merry & Bright: Thank you for taking the time to enlighten the readers here at Merry & Bright about Kantorei KC and your “To Bethlehem” album. To start, can you tell us a brief history of Kantorei KC?
Chris Munce: Kantorei KC was born in 2009 as a consort of professional choral singers whose original function was to provide full a capella Latin Mass performances for a couple of Catholic Weddings in KC. After the 2nd wedding gig was over, the singers got together and suggested that we do a concert with all of this music we learned! So we did, and it came off very well. Then conversations moved toward coming up with a group name and formally forming an organization. Our first concert under the “Kantorei KC” banner was in 2010. Since then, we have grown to a regularly performing and recording professional ensemble.
MB: How did the “To Bethlehem” project come about?
CM: This is our third CD, and second on the Resonus Classics label. This project really grew out of our last one with Resonus. When we made “Music and Sweet Poetry,” and released in in 2014, we already had plans underway to release another album. We don’t have plans for a fourth one just yet!
MB: “To Bethlehem” includes a diverse mix of well-known traditional Christmas carols, rarely heard and/or recorded Renaissance works, and newer compositions such as “Dormi Jesu”. Tell us about the song selection process.
CM: As artistic director for this project, I felt it important to make a Christmas CD that has enough familiarity that it “feels like Christmas” to the average listener. At the same time I wanted the album to stretch our ears toward new sounds and ways of “hearing” Christmas. The next step was that I didn’t just want a random collection of Christmas songs. I wanted to actually tell the Christmas story. If you look carefully at the texts of the 17 tracks on the album, they loosely follow a chronological account of the story. Starting with prophecy, moving to the immaculate conception and journey to Bethlehem, (hence the album title!) then moving to the birth, the angels and shepherds, reflections on the miracle and finally, singing the newborn baby to sleep.
MB: The acoustics of the album have an astonishing resonance. Many chorale recordings have a tendency toward too much sound absorption in the recording process, while “To Bethlehem” allows the sound to, in a way, be itself, with remarkable results. I see in the liner notes that the recording was done at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City. Can you share with us insights about the recording sessions? How were you (and engineer Josh Williams) able to achieve such a beautiful, full sound recording?
CM: St. Peter’s is a perfect acoustic for our group. Our choir is 16 voices, (17 were used on the CD) so we look for a space that is large enough to be highly resonant, but small enough where a smaller choir will not be swallowed. Our producer Adam Binks, and engineer Josh Williams are EXPERTS in microphone placement and mixing the sound collected by those mics. The album, when played back on great speakers or really good headphones will give you a very accurate picture of what it sounded like in the room. I believe we used six or seven mics. I don’t remember exactly, but they were all over the room! Some were close to us to pick up the details of text and inflection, while some were in the back of the room to capture the resonance of the space. Then Adam works his magic to mix the right “dose” from each mic. It is pretty amazing to watch.
MB: The arrangements allow a striking simultaneous blending of harmonies with emphatic moments where the individual voices of your singers stand out. Please brag a little about this amazing group of singers – they deserve major kudos.
CM: Our roster of singers is a very special thing about our group. We have strived since the beginning to be a SINGER FIRST organization. So much so that I am a singer in the group as well as its Artistic Director. The only way this model works is to fill the group with highly trained, intuitive choral musicians. We are largely composed of people who direct choirs at various levels for a living. The result is a group of musicians who are self directing in all of the important ways. This frees me up to sing, but also to serve the role of a facilitator in rehearsal rather than a “director” in the traditional sense. I believe this all contributes to the resonant, highly blended sound Kantorei is able to achieve.
MB: Will Kansas City folks have a chance to hear the music from “To Bethlehem” in a live performance this season?
CM: They already did actually! Our Christmas concert last season served as a PREVIEW concert for the album. However, some favorite tracks will be performed again this season on Dec 17th and 18th at our Christmas concert to help promote the CD. The focus of the concert though will be the rarely performed “Missa Ave Maris Stella” by Josquin de Prez. www.kantoreikc.org/concerts will give people the details!
MB: As a Kansas City resident, I’m proud of the rapidly emerging arts community in our city, and the support of the city for our fine artists and musicians. “To Bethlehem” had 120 backers for its Kickstarter project, which seems to underscore how our community embraces the arts. Can you share some thoughts about the local support you have received?
CM: One word: grateful! We are a grassroots group in the KC scene for sure. We get very little support in terms of large grants, so we are COMPLETELY dependent on Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing. This is not a complaint at all! It is a wonderful thing that people are willing to chip in here and there to make sure these projects happen. Our backers, however, are from all over! We had supporters in several countries and dozens of states. Our record label is the UK. In a lot of ways we are a KC product export! In the grand scheme of the KC arts scene we are still a very young organization that is not very well known. We think that will start to change thanks to articles like this and thanks to our great group of singers and their dedication to their craft. That civic awareness and support for the arts in KC is what will help Kantorei KC become established for years to come.
MB: I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to answer a few questions about “To Bethlehem”. It is an astounding record for the upcoming Christmas season. Best wishes to you and to all of Kantorei KC!
CM: Thank you so much for your kind words about the album and for letting people know about it! Happy blogging!
Kantorei KC website
Kantorei KC Online Store