There are writers' writers and artists' artists. In Solaris Vocal Ensemble, Burlington has what might be called a choristers' chorus. Founded three years ago by Dawn Willis — the impresario of the popular women's chorus Bella Voce — Solaris is a mixed chorus of 24 singers, several of whom are choral directors themselves. Two are longtime choral instructors at Burlington and Essex high schools, just retired. One conducts the Vermont Boychoir. Others teach at Vergennes, the Shelburne Community School and the Lake Champlain Waldorf School.
That professionalism was evident in the precisely blended sound and unusually passionate singing of Solaris members at a recent rehearsal. When Seven Days entered the College Street Congregational Church, they were singing Hubert Parry's thrilling and stately 1902 English coronation anthem "I Was Glad" (last performed at Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding). The singers' volume easily matched resounding organ accompaniment by Susan Summerfield. (The church floor probably helped: Its carpeting was stripped following a 2013 fire, which greatly enhanced the acoustics, according to Willis.)
Solaris will perform the anthem at its spring concerts this weekend, at the Burlington church on Sunday afternoon and at the Waterbury Congregational Church on Saturday evening. Called "In Full Bloom," the program includes works by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late American conductor Robert Shaw. The pieces will be sung a cappella, accompanied by organ or, in the case of an Irish tune arranged by Willis, pennywhistle.
The Burlington area has a number of auditioned choirs, but Solaris covers ground the others don't, said Willis. The Burlington Choral Society, led by Dick Riley, generally performs larger works written for 80 to 100 voices. Bill Metcalfe leads his Oriana Singers Of Vermont in mostly baroque works. Counterpoint, led by Nat Lew, is a primarily a cappella ensemble of 10 singers. The 35-member Vermont Choral Union, led by Jeff Rehbach, also emphasizes a cappella. Bella Voce is a women's ensemble.
"I wanted an SATB [soprano-alto-tenor-bass] ensemble that could do a whole repertoire not being performed in this area," explained Willis. Solaris, she said, is for singers "who want to join a high-end, experienced group which can do a variety of styles." (Auditions are in June by appointment.)
For Solaris soprano Christina Kelsh, the middle school music teacher at Shelburne Community School, one of the ensemble's main draws is Willis herself. "She's very passionate about what she does, and she always picks really good music," said Kelsh.
Willis counts important conductors among her mentors. She got her conducting start in Burlington in 2005 as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus assistant conductor under Robert De Cormier, whose arrangements of folk music are never far from her repertoire. Earlier, Willis sang in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Shaw.
"I knew probably the best choral conductor of this country in his prime," Willis recalled. She sang twice at Carnegie Hall under Shaw's direction, and she conducted there in 1999. Willis drew the second half of the spring concert program from among Shaw's many arrangements, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Shaw studied with the renowned Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell. Likewise, Willis passes on her expertise to Vermont's young professionals through Bella Voce's mentoring program for conductors-in-training. Sunday's concert in Burlington will include an even younger generation: Choral students of Solaris member Steve Olson, who teaches at the Waldorf School, will sing a piece of their own.
Solaris — the name means "of the sun" in Latin — includes many young nonprofessionals, too, such as Christine Richards. The soprano's clear, bell-like solo floated over the chorus during a rehearsal of "The Blue Bird," an ethereal a cappella part-song by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. The piece showed off Solaris' ability to achieve a pure blend at low volume. It also augured a concert that seems the perfect way to welcome spring.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Here Comes the Sun"