What happens when you take the first and most fundamental of all musical instruments, the human voice, and combine it with other voices? You get a choir.
And Charleston’s got its fair share of them, including three professional or semi-professional chamber choirs that perform regularly in area churches and on concert stages.
One of those choirs, The King’s Counterpoint, is brand-new. Another, the CSO Spiritual Ensemble, is nearing its eighth anniversary. The Taylor Festival Choir was founded in 2001.
They might be the brightest gems in Charleston’s choral crown, but not the largest.
There is the venerable Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, arguably the wellspring of all the rest. It began (thanks to Emily Remington) in 1978 as the Charleston Singers Guild, a group of volunteer singers who helped beef up the symphony’s Masterworks concerts. Its mission these days is “to promote enjoyment and appreciation of choral music.”
The all-volunteer CSO Gospel Choir was formed in 2000 by Lee Pringle to put on a special Christmas show, and it’s been at it ever since. (The Spiritual Ensemble was made from its rib.)
The Charleston Men’s Chorus got its start in 1990 and now boasts around 70 volunteer singers. It, too, has become known for its energetic Christmas show, as well as its Memorial Day concert and its student scholarship program.
And in Mount Pleasant, the Choral Arts Experience ramped up in 2013 to give listeners east of the Cooper a chance to revel in the sound of multiple voices. Its choral director Michelle Graham also sings with the CSO Gospel Choir and Spiritual Ensemble.
There are more: Churches such as Grace, First (Scots) Presbyterian, Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist, Bethel United Methodist, Mt. Zion AME and a few others have important choirs that can make a joyful noise.
Spoleto Festival USA collaborates with the Westminster Choir, which wows audiences every spring.
The College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University each have fine student choruses. The North Charleston Pops sometimes assembles a choir. And the Charleston Renaissance Ensemble specializes in early music.
Pringle arranged to introduce Charleston audiences to the Charleston International Festival of Choirs each April. The festival, which began in 2008, features choral performances by myriad ensembles and exposes singers to the talents of a guest choral clinician. This year it will be David Morrow of Morehouse College.
The Colour of Music Chorale could be the next group that forms. It is set to make its debut in Charleston in 2016, then perform in Detroit and other cities, Pringle said.
The local choral scene is evolving, he said. “It’s slowly transitioning from community to high-caliber professional. And as high school choirs become technically proficient, the whole level (across the Lowcountry) is edging up.”
David Acres and Judith Overcash Acres are now settled down in her hometown and working feverishly on their newest choral venture, The King’s Counterpoint.
The couple married last year, after they’d established the vocal ensemble Contrapunctus in Cleveland, Ohio.
Both have accumulated decades of singing and choral experience. He started his career at Exeter Cathedral in England, became a prominent countertenor and went on to work with a variety of choirs in the U.K. and U.S.
She has been singing a wide range of vocal repertoire, from Medieval to contemporary works, for decades.
The King’s Counterpoint, which quickly recruited a roster of about 36 singers, gave its first concert at Christmas last year. It performs with 20-24 singers at a time.
“We’re creating something that hasn’t been here, using primarily local-grown talent,” David Acres said, adding that he was impressed by the caliber of talent he’s discovered in Charleston.
Judith Acres said she continues to receive queries from people interested in auditioning.
“We have heard so many wonderful voices since we’ve come to town,” she said.
It’s a professional group, which means the singers get paid — often not very much, perhaps $20, perhaps $100 — and they receive a share of ticket revenue, the Acres said. They rehearse efficiently, three times the week of the concerts, then perform twice. They get the music weeks in advance and come to rehearsal well prepared.
The Acres are so delighted with The King’s Counterpoint, they plan to make it the focus of their musical efforts.
“It’s not a community choir, but it’s for the community and by the community,” Judith Acres said.
Last month, the group was named ensemble-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.
The Taylor Festival Choir, named for director Rob Taylor’s father, Bob Taylor, originated in Little Rock, Ark., whose old-time music was informed by Celtic and Scottish traditions.
The group sings all kinds of repertoire, but it emphasizes music from the British Isles, largely because of Taylor’s fondness for the music of his heritage and matrimony.
He will insist James MacMillan of Scotland is the world’s greatest living composer.
The Taylor Festival Choir has a roster of 50 “core” and “principal” singers; 24 are deployed for each concert. Most are South Carolina residents, but about a third of them are flown in from all over the country, Taylor said.
The nonprofit Taylor Music Group covers travel, room and board.
All are professional musicians, capable of conquering some of the most difficult vocal repertoire there is, Taylor said.
They’ve toured Ireland and made a documentary called “From the Lowcountry to the Old Country,” issued a well-received Christmas CD, collaborated with sister organization Na Fidleiri, the Celtic violin ensemble, and presented concerts during Piccolo Spoleto Festival and on other occasions.
The ensemble will join the Westminster Choir during the 2015 Spoleto Festival for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
The Delos label soon will release the choir’s recording of Michael McGlynn’s Celtic Mass and MacMillan’s Mass.
More recordings are in the works, including performances of music by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk David and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
“(The choir) was formed with the idea of being an artistically elite chamber ensemble,” Taylor said. “And I wanted to honor my daddy.”
The CSO Spiritual Ensemble was formed to focus more on sacred music and black spirituals, Pringle said. It’s smaller and nimbler than the Gospel Choir, and it’s been involved in the local discovery of the music of Joseph Boulogne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a black Frenchman and contemporary of Mozart who was as adept at swordplay as he was at composition in the Classical style.
Speaking of Mozart, the Spiritual Ensemble will perform, for the second time, his famous Requiem at 6 p.m. Feb. 28 at St. Philip’s Church, 142 Church St.
The concert features guest conductor Edward Higginbottom, professor emeritus of choral music at the University of Oxford and organist emeritus and fellow at New College, Oxford.
Higginbottom hooked up with the Spiritual Ensemble thanks to the intervention of part-time Charleston resident Murray Forbes Somerville, another British organist and choirmaster of repute who sometimes works with the Grace Church choir.
The Requiem will be presented in a somewhat stripped down form, Pringle said.
Choral singing in Charleston currently has become robust and multifaceted, Pringle noted, but certain challenges remain acute.
Community choirs can stumble over scheduling constraints, and professional choirs must forever chase their sources of funding, he said.
To succeed, the group must remain relevant, and to remain relevant, a choir must constantly reinvent itself in order to remain unique, Pringle said.
“If you don’t reinvent yourself, you’ll become extinct in this town with so many options,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.