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For this Providence choir, an emotional return to live music: ‘It could be overwhelming’

A still from Ensemble Altera's COVID-era "Amazing Grace" video.Courtesy Ensemble Altera

For the first time since before the pandemic, Providence-based Ensemble Altera is preparing to give a live concert.

Sunday’s “We Remember” COVID-19 memorial program features music of reflection, repose, and renewal that the professional chamber choir hopes will foster a process of healing — and not just for the audience. For the group’s members, singing together is more than a profession; it’s a soul-sustaining passion.

“I think the human voice speaks to us in the same part of the soul or brain that empathizes with others’ emotions, and when you multiply that effect by more than one voice all singing at the same time, the impact is magnifying,” said ensemble founder and conductor Christopher Lowrey. “The saddest moments in music, the most joyous, most peaceful, most powerful … I find them all in the choral repertoire.”


In a phone interview, Lowrey said he’s actually a little nervous about the impact the concert might have on the singers. “We’ve been starved for live music for so long, I’m wondering what effect it might have on them emotionally. It’s potentially so powerful it could be overwhelming, but hopefully in a positive way. And once we dip our toe in, we’ll remember and not take for granted what we might have done before.”

Seating for the concert will be socially distanced, at 50 percent of the church’s usual capacity. Unvaccinated audience members are requested to wear face coverings, while the program’s 20 vocalists will sing without masks. Though they will have been cleared through daily COVID-19 testing, singers will be set back 25 feet from the nearest audience members for added safety.

“We Remember” is constructed as parallel journeys: One traverses the centuries chronologically with music from the Baroque through the present day. The other uses musical themes to guide the audience through a process of remembrance, reflection, and ultimately renewal. Los Angeles composer Daniel Gledhill’s “For the Beauty of the Earth,” winner of the choir’s recent composition competition, is expected to be a concert highlight. Lowrey called the work’s setting of poet Folliott S. Pierpoint’s mid-19th century text “… gorgeous, in an extended jazz harmonic language.”


The adventurous range of Ensemble Altera’s repertoire has been built in from inception. A self-described “huge choral nerd,” Lowrey founded the Rhode Island chorus in 2010 as a way to keep his choral aspirations alive while he developed an active international solo career as a countertenor.

Born and raised in Johnston, R.I., Lowrey earned degrees from Brown University, the University of Cambridge (where he was a choral scholar with the famed Trinity College Choir), and London’s Royal College of Music International Opera School. With his solo career based in London, Ensemble Altera became a semi-professional passion project of mostly Rhode Island-based friends who loved to perform together. For years, the organization remained small and flexible, just covering expenses.

However, when COVID restrictions shut down operatic performances, Lowrey shifted more energy into the choir, which became a kind of laboratory to try new things with new people. “The pandemic opened this window, and I jumped through,” he said.

Other elite singers from cities around the Northeast joined in as well, significantly raising the group’s standards and facilitating fund-raising, incorporation, and the formation of a board. “Now I believe we’re one of the top 10 choirs in the country,” said Warwick, R.I.-based bass Michael Garrepy, the choir’s artistic adviser. The group is also gaining notice, Garrepy said, for its distinctive profile — a combination of the precision and impeccable detail from the great British choral tradition with the warmth, blend, and sense of vocal freedom for which top American choirs are known.


From left: Ensemble Altera founder and conductor Christopher Lowrey and artistic adviser Michael Garrepy.Courtesy Ensemble Altera

While “We Remember” marks the first time Ensemble Altera has performed live in front of an audience in a year and a half, the group has hardly been silent. In addition to a virtual Christmas concert last year and a luminous version of “Amazing Grace,” arranged by Garrepy and filmed around Little Compton’s scenic ocean vistas, the ensemble recorded a series of digital concerts in what Lowrey called the “concrete cathedrals” of empty open air parking garages.

But singing in-person with others for others offers a much deeper human connection. “When you’re blending your voice with fellow singers, it’s so collaborative and collective, bringing beautiful pieces of music to life through that combined effort,” Garrepy said. “The theme of this program is to bring healing, peace, and maybe some closure to people affected by COVID. My hope is that we can perform with remembrance of the past but also hope for the future.”


Presented by Ensemble Altera. July 11, 8 p.m. Blessed Sacrament Church, 239 Regent Ave., Providence. $15-$60, www.ensemblealtera.com

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.