A capella Group Brings Rare Music to Life

A collective effort by an a cappella group in Asheville brings life to complex, rarely performed music.

Pastyme performs everything from sacred and secular music of the Renaissance to classical jazz, its vocalists trained in the traditions of church choirs, opera, and musical theater. The Italian term “a cappella,” from the Latin a capella, means to sing in the style of the chapel. 

Tenor Jeff Klonz said Pastyme’s first version grew out of an Asheville vocal group called the Mountain Madrigals. Originally becoming popular in the Renaissance era, madrigals are secular music compositions performed by up to eight voices without instrumental accompaniment.

“One of the madrigals we sang was called ‘Pastyme With Good Company’ by King Henry VIII, so we decided at the time to make Pastyme our name.”

Klonz said most of the music they perform now is from the 20th and 21st centuries. “For example, we sing Benjamin Britten, and Arvo Pärt. There is a renaissance today of choral composition, the music of people like Eirc Whitacre, and Ola Gjeilo. We have done some edgier avant-garde compositions. David Lang’s “I Lie” was structurally difficult to sing, very repetitive in a minimalist kind of way.” Pastyme has also performed compositions by Philip Glass, considered one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century.

“There are eight of us in the group, the only vocal ensemble of our kind in Asheville. With a group of this size there has to be a bond greater than just making music together, so we care of each other too. We are all good friends socially with long-term relationships. Some of us have been singing together for 20 years,” Klonz said.

Pastyme soprano Pamela Miller explained, “We operate without a director, in the style of chamber music, so each of us brings music to the group. We talk about it, and collectively make decisions about our repertoire. It’s not just about looking at a page and singing the notes. To present a moving performance we explore what we’re trying to say, what we really feel when we sing it, and the picture that materializes in your mind.”

Miller continued, “Even when we disagree, we have an amazing dynamic of support and desire to perform fantastic work. I relish the general excitement of when we read through a brilliant new piece that comes in and decide that we just have to perform it.”

This remarkably versatile ensemble is available to perform at parties and gatherings of every description. Pastyme performer Ken Wilson said they even sang carols for Candlelight Christmas at Biltmore House, and for Christmas Family Night at the Biltmore Forest Country Club. “When Santa Clause arrived at our music introduced him to the children.”

One of music enthusiasts’ greatest attractions to Pastyme is a love of high-quality choral singing from a variety of periods. “Although others are performing contemporary music, ours is going to include some music that is very different from what other ensembles are doing. A lot of the classical music that is performed in our region is of the classical and Romantic periods, especially at the symphony. They may perform some contemporary repertoire, but it’s largely dominated by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky,” Klonz said. For many listeners, Pastyme may be an introduction to something completely new.     

Klonz said Pastyme is putting together a concert program about loss, healing, and hope in response to the violence that has been part of our world for the past few years such as the shootings in Charleston, Orlando, San Bernadino, and elsewhere. We want to expand community awareness, and honor victims and survivors of violence.” Miller offered that compositions under consideration include “Spread a Little Light” by James Taylor, “Drop Slow Tears” by Kenneth Leighton, and “MLK” by U2. “’Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ by Dolly Parton will definitely be in the program,” Miller said.

An adaptation of Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” explores how chirping frogs in the pond and birds singing would continue after an apocalyptic war where mankind has become extinct. “The realization comes that after all this is over and we are gone, they will still be here,” Klonz said. 

The plan is to present this program in May 2017. Pastyme performs regularly at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asheville, All Souls in Biltmore Village, and St. Giles at Deerfield Retirement Community. Miller said they would also like to present this program at the Basilica of St. Lawrence, and maybe in Atlanta or Charleston, S.C.

For scheduled performances and more information about Pastyme, visit their website at www.Pastyme.org.

By Mark-Ellis Bennett