How many of us never pursue our calling, our true passion, because we play it safe, opt for the more familiar route that certain forces, whether from without or within, urge us to follow?
This was the situation facing Matthew Guard in 2011. Guard had discovered his passion for choral conducting about a decade earlier, as a Harvard undergraduate. He’d sung in various groups and taken music theory and conducting classes. He loved it all. But rather than pursue music after graduating in 2002, he’d opted to go to business school in his hometown of Atlanta and start a career in management consulting. There, he sang in church choirs and planned to return to music seriously. Someday.
“After seven or eight years of that, it just became untenable,” Guard said by phone recently from Atlanta. He had been working at Bain & Company — “pretty much the opposite of making music,” he quipped — and in 2011 convinced the firm to let him work an unusual part-time schedule that afforded him a pair of two-week breaks each year. For his first sabbatical, he convened a group of singers he knew from both Atlanta and Boston, rehearsed a program over a few days, and put on a concert at Old South Church on Aug. 28.
As luck would have it, that was the weekend Hurricane Irene roared through the Northeast, and the audience was in the single digits. No matter — Guard had rekindled something essential inside him. He considered going back to school for a degree in choral conducting, but friends advised him that he could “just learn by doing.” So he put the same concert on again in Atlanta.
What evolved from those early performances was Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a professional choral group that includes some of Boston’s best singers. Originally based both here and in Atlanta, it has over the last couple of seasons centered most of its activities around the greater Boston area. The preposition is important: Skylark largely avoids metro Boston, saturated as it is with high-quality musical offerings. Guard has focused on taking the group to its outskirts: Next week they perform a program called “Clear Voices in the Dark” in Falmouth, Wellesley, and Marblehead. (They will give the same concert in New York and Washington, D.C.)
What distinguishes this group among others? There is, Guard said, a level of technical proficiency that allows it to prepare five to six programs a year with minimal preparation, usually just a few days. And all of his programs are thematically based, bringing an unconventional approach to history and context. This, Guard realized, was the greatest asset he could bring to a group whose collective musical experience would always outweigh his own.
“A lot of my work that brings value to the group artistically is done out of the rehearsal room, out of the concert,” he explained. “What I learned over time that would be different or engaging for people is to really think through how to create an experience in the program that speaks to the audience in a different way.”
One example is “Crossing Over,” Skylark’s 2016 album, which mixed a diverse set of pieces to create an imaginary sketch of the final moments of life. Another is “Clear Voices in the Dark,” next week’s program. At its core is “Figure Humaine” (1943), Francois Poulenc’s wildly difficult cantata composed in occupied France on secretly published resistance poems by Paul Éluard. Guard had long wanted the group to perform the 20-minute piece but struggled to find an appropriate program companion. Yet in 2015, struck by that year’s anniversaries of the ends of World War II (70th) and the Civil War (150th), he imagined an unconventional concert in which movements of the Poulenc are surrounded by arrangements of Civil War songs. Not only do the songs’ straightforward harmonic language provide a foil for the Poulenc’s knottiness, but the whole program “gives gravity to the extent of the suffering people went through then,” he said.
Even for an ensemble that’s had such a bright start, hurdles lie ahead. Financial viability is no easy task for a group with around 19 core members. During its first few years as a professional ensemble, it was largely funded by the business Guard and his wife started in 2011. “It feels like the musical side got to a high level before the organizational-funding side did,” said Guard, who added that their contributions to the group have lessened substantially since the group has gotten its board in place and ramped up its fund-raising and institutional partnership efforts.
There is also the question whether a group that works in bursts several times a year, with an artistic director who lives out of town, can sustain its artistic momentum and group identity.
“Each time we come back, something is better,” he said. “It feels like it’s on a good path, and we’ve had enough time together that it always feels like we’re picking up where we left off.”
Skylark Vocal Ensemble
At St. Barnabas Church, Falmouth, April 23; Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, April 24; Old North Church, Marblehead, April 25. Tickets $10-$30. www.skylarkensemble.org