A performance by acclaimed Seattle choral ensemble The Esoterics engages more than the ears. Performing poetry and philosophy set to music by contemporary composers, the a cappella chorus also engages the mind.
Founding director Eric Banks calls the group the thinking mans choir.
We do music that is new and undiscovered, or under-sung, he said in a phone interview. Were trying to do new things with an instrument that has been around for millennia.
On Sunday, the choir opens its 2014 season with a concert in Olympia, part of the concert series at St. Johns Episcopal Church. The group last performed here two years ago as part of the same series.
This season, the choir is not just aiming to stimulate thought: Its taking action with a series of concerts themed Three Choral Ecologies that explore ecology and benefit nonprofits working on environmental causes.
We could very easily just do music and have people pay their money and go home having taken this journey, but for me, I have to have more than that, Banks said. If we spend our entire lives just making art, we are missing out on something else.
Sundays concert is Oceana: Music of the Lakes, Oceans and Seas. Part of the proceeds will go to Splash, a Seattle nonprofit working to provide clean water to children in developing countries.
I want people coming to the concert to know that some of what they pay goes toward something more than art, Banks said. That could be an important point, since the St. Johns concerts, unlike the choirs Seattle performances, offer admission by donation.
With the group, I have a kind of loudspeaker, he said. I wanted there to be some sort of social consciousness to the project.
The group which has four times won the Chorus America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming has done concerts to benefit nonprofits in the past, but thats now becoming a bigger part of the choirs mission, he said.
The subsequent concerts in the series focus on forests and air, with some of the proceeds going to Cool Earth, which works to preserve the rainforest and the Audubon Society, respectively.
On the program for Sunday:
Three Sea Visions by Swedish composer Gösta Nystroem, in which the sea inspires contemplation of lifes ebb and flow.
The Chorale of the Reef, by Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina, which sets to music poetry by Pablo Neruda and honors the goddess Oceana.
Sea Change, by British composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, which explores the mystery of the sea through poems by Marvell, Spenser and Shakespeare.
These Oceans Vast, composed by Banks, which follows sailors journey through six poems by Herman Melville.
Banks composes many of the pieces that the group performs. Last year, Seattle Opera commissioned him to compose the music for Our Earth, a trilogy of short operas for children, also on an environmental theme. And that was just one of many recent commissions.
These Oceans Vast was composed in 2012 for the San Francisco choral group Clerestory. In her blog on artsjournal.com, Colorado Public Radio arts editor Chloe Veltman praised the piece.
The Banks piece was the high point of the concert, she wrote. The six-movement song cycle, which traces a sea voyage (both physically and metaphysically) through easy and turbulent waters, showcased the singers ability to listen carefully to one another, bring out key lines in dense textures, and make every word of the poems by Herman Melville, upon which the cycle is based, heard.