Written by Mike Nelson:
To conclude its Oct. 21, 1994 opening night concert, the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza presented the rousing finale to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, featuring the Conejo Valley Symphony and local choirs conducted by Elmer Ramsey.
Among those participating in that performance was Wyant Morton, then starting his third year as professor of Music and conductor of the California Lutheran University Choral Ensembles. Nearly three decades later, Morton — now a highly regarded choral conductor, instructor and clinician — finally has the opportunity to re-visit Beethoven’s Ninth when his Areté Symphonic Choir joins Pepperdine University’s Concert Choir and New West Symphony (the successor orchestra to Conejo Valley Symphony) in NWS’ “Ode to Joy” concerts November 19 and 20.
“Beethoven’s Ninth is, of course, one of the great masterworks of all time,” says Morton, “and it will be a thrill to perform it with everyone — orchestra, soloists and choirs — because a bigger and more unified sound is always exciting.”
A Los Angeles native, Morton completed his undergraduate degrees at Gonzaga University and earned his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Arizona. Now in his 31st year at Cal Lutheran, he has served as Music Department chair, oversees the university’s Choral Ensembles, and has worked with premiere vocal ensembles and conducted in some of the world’s leading music venues.
In 2009, he founded the Areté Vocal Ensemble, an innovative professional group of 30 singers who perform a wide choral and vocal repertoire of works from all periods of music history.
“The model for Areté is a chamber choir,” says Morton. “I knew there were really talented singers who couldn’t commit to an all-week, every-day rehearsal schedule that some large ensembles have. In Areté, we have outstanding singers who enjoy preparing and singing a variety of interesting choral works with energy, passion, expertise and virtuosity.”
The Areté Ensemble will present a Christmas concert Dec. 18 at Cal Lutheran’s Samuelson Chapel, and join NWS again next April 15 and 16 to perform excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem. “When we join New West for the Requiem,” says Morton, “the chorus will be rebranded as the New West Symphony Chorus.”
The 60-voice Areté Symphonic Choir, founded earlier this year for larger symphonic works, makes its debut with the upcoming performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, and marks the latest collaborative effort between Morton’s choral ensembles (both Areté and Cal Lutheran) and NWS.
That collaboration began in 2015 with Marcelo Lehninger conducting Daphnis et Chloé by Ravel, followed in 2016 with Lehninger conducting The Planets by Holst. Then came Poulenc’s Gloria conducted by Kynan Johns in 2017, followed by the Leonard Bernstein Centennial program in 2018, with John Mauceri, one of Bernstein’s proteges, conducting.
“And in 2020,” says Morton, “we did Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with Michael Christie conducting, right before the pandemic.”
He welcomes the chance to work with Christie, for whom he has high praise and appreciation, professionally and personally.
“Michael has the great combination of being a fantastic musician and conductor, and a genuinely nice person who treats the orchestra members with great respect, as colleagues,” says Morton. “His attitude is collaborative and collegial.
“And from my perspective, it’s nice to work with a conductor who knows how to work with singers, as evidenced by his Grammy [for the opera recording of “The Revolution of Steve Jobs”]. That’s not always the case; not all orchestral conductors know how to treat choirs.”
That collaboration is one reason Morton looks forward to renewing his acquaintance with Beethoven’s Ninth, a work as challenging as it is thrilling.
“This is a challenging piece to rehearse,” he says with a smile, “not because of the difficulty of the music, necessarily, but because of the extreme vocalism it asks of its singers, both choir and soloists. At certain points, you are singing in extremely high ranges for long periods of time. So it is more difficult to sing and to rehearse — but when it comes together, it’s wonderful.
Join us November 19-20th for our Ode to Joy performances in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, click to purchase your tickets!