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University Chorale and Seraphic Fire top iTunes charts

Aug. 25, 2010

KALAMAZOO--A new compact disc by the Western Michigan University Chorale in collaboration with the professional singing ensemble Seraphic Fire has climbed to the top of the iTunes classical recordings charts, displacing new releases by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Photo of Western Michigan University Chorale. The recording of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 masterpiece, "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin," also known as the "1610 Vespers," was released on iTunes last week, immediately landing in the Top 10 classical recordings and prompting National Public Radio to feature the CD and the story behind its creation on the program "All Things Considered."

"It's really an amazing story," says Dr. James Bass, who just left WMU after serving as director of choral studies. "I'm so proud of the students at Western."

Here's how it all came about.

In addition to his former job at WMU, Bass serves as chorus master for the Miami-based professional choir Seraphic Fire. Its singers are spread across the country, flying to Miami to come together to rehearse and perform.

Bass came up the idea of recording of Monteverdi's Vespers with Seraphic Fire's conductor and founder, Patrick Quigley. First, 2010 marked the 400th anniversary of the 1610 masterpiece's release. They also had many of the pieces already in place. They developed a "dream plan."

"I knew we had a great choir at Western," Bass says, "and there's been a significant choral tradition at the school for many years. We wanted to come up with a true collaborative experience between the professional choir in Miami and the college choir that I had at Western."

Bass and Quigley began formulating their plan in 2008, two years before the anniversary of the publication of Monteverdi's piece, regarded as one of the greatest choral works of all time. The composition is almost always performed in grand style with an orchestra. But in Monteverdi's notes, the composer suggests another, smaller option. It was this manner in which Bass and Quigley decided to record it, using only four instruments--lute, theorbo, violone and chamber organ.

With the help of grant money, including an award from the WMU Cultural Events Committee, Bass and Quigley brought Seraphic Fire to WMU in 2009 as an ensemble in residence to perform and record with students. They also brought in Grammy Award-winning producer and conductor Peter Rutenberg of Los Angeles to oversee the project. But where to record?

Bass and Quigley investigated the landmark church chapels in the downtown Kalamazoo area. But passing traffic presented recording problems. Then they found the Holy Family Chapel, a little stone chapel on the former campus of Nazareth College. It was perfect.

With the recoding finished, Bass and Quigley set off on the second half of the plan, which called for release of the CD with a concert tour. The tour was launched last May in southern Florida and Mexico City, including performances at the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas, and Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico's Carnegie Hall.

Phase two of the plan also called for release of the CD on a major label that produces classical music. That turned out to be a hard sell, however, with the likes of EMI, Sony and Deutsche Gramophone turning down the project. They liked the recording, but didn't want to take a gamble on a little-known group backed by an ensemble of 41 college singers.

The story might have ended there if not for the opportunity created by the advent of the Internet. Bass and Quigley placed the release on iTunes and posted it on Facebook, inviting all who were on the recording to spread the word. The release began a meteoric rise on iTunes, and the publicity on NPR pushed it to the top.

"Now everybody wants a part of this disc," Bass says.

Bass, who has since moved on to the University of South Florida, is pleasantly surprised at how the CD has taken off.

"We knew that this was going to be a good disc once we got into the second day of recording," Bass says. " Peter told us, 'These are some very good singers.' So we knew we had a good product.

"We have one last goal for this entire project. We would really like for the disc to get a Grammy nomination."

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Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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