The Collegium Musicum of Rutgers University no longer exists, and yet it does. That is because conductor Daniel Spratlan continues to lead the ensemble, which has a new name and new home. Now called the Aura Polyphonica, the group — with unchanged personnel and repertoire — has taken up residence at New Brunswick’s Christ Church, where John Sheridan is director of music. The only major change is that Rutgers affiliation, which ended in January, 2014.
“John Sheridan was very gracious in welcoming us to Christ Church after we lost our facilities at Rutgers,” Spratlan says as he prepares for Aura Polyphonica’s opening of its 2014-’15 concert season, set for Saturday, November 22, at 8 p.m. in Christ Church, 5 Paterson Street.
The concert program highlights music by composers who made their reputations in 16th-century Spain and features Thomas Luis da Victoria’s masterpiece, “Officium Defunctorum,” as well as motets by Cristobal Morales, Francisco Guerrero, and Alonso Lobo.
Spratlan says during a telephone interview that Victoria’s longest and most mature piece is also highly “accessible and beautiful.” The work consists of a standard requiem mass, two motets, and a liturgical “Absolution.” The group of compositions is popularly known as “Victoria’s Requiem.”
“The requiem segment is often heard by itself,” Spratlan says. “It’s like hearing the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The ‘Officium Defunctorum’ is the greatest piece by the greatest composer of the Spanish Renaissance. Victoria was to Spanish Renaissance music like Beethoven was to central European music during the Romantic movement. The special quality of Victoria and his contemporaries was being in touch with the human spirit and having a great depth of emotion.”
Victoria wrote his masterpiece for the funeral of the Dowager Empress Maria, wife of Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II. She was the daughter of Charles V of Spain when Spain, the dominating European power, was making marital connections to the Holy Roman Empire. Two of her 16 children became Holy Roman emperors. Composer Victoria was the personal chaplain to Maria from 1586 until her death in 1603.
As noted the November 22 concert marks Aura Polyphonica’s first event as an independent ensemble and a new home that feels right. “The sound at Christ Church is right for the size of our choir. It has wonderful acoustics without the vastness of a cathedral. It’s intimate,” says Spratlan of the venue that comfortably seats 250.
Aura Polyphonica is an auditioned 20-person ensemble of both men and women. The age of participants ranges from 23 to 70-something. “We’ve used instruments in the past,” Spratlan says. “At present we’re a cappella for budgetary reasons.”
The ensemble rehearses on Monday nights for two-and-a-half hours. “We cover a lot of music,” Spratlan says. “Mostly, it’s 15th and 16th century. We also do some 14th and 17th century music. Music from the 14th century is very different from 17th-century music. What we sing is more sacred than secular. We cover the spectrum.”
Looking back, Spratlan says, “As the Rutgers Collegium Musicum, we were unique. We had professors, alumni, townspeople, and one or two students. It was a diverse group of professionals and volunteers. There were very few students; they had full schedules and couldn’t enroll in Collegium Musicum for credit.”
He notes that Rutgers dropped Collegium Musicum as a result of budget cuts last season. There was an unexpected phone call from Robert Aldridge, director of the music department of the Mason Gross School of the Arts in January. “It was the Thursday before our first rehearsal of the semester on a Tuesday. I sent an E-mail to all the members of the ensemble. They all came to the rehearsal. I asked ‘Shall we continue?’ and they all agreed to go on. There was no hesitation from anyone in the group. The university allowed us to use Kirkpatrick Chapel for the remainder of year while we figured out what to do. We gave our first concert in 2014 as the Collegium Musicum without the Rutgers name. I would no longer be paid. The professional singers in Collegium Musicum offered their services for free. Participants agreed to pay in order to sing in the group. We created a governing board and are in the process of becoming (an independent nonprofit).”
The change of name to Aura Polyphonica was decided by vote of the ensemble. “Dozens of names were proposed,” Spratlan says. “It was a pretty close vote. We wanted something that showed clearly that we were about early music, that we were all about polyphony. We played with Latin and English words. ‘Aura Polyphonica’ translates as ‘In the Spirit of Polyphony.’”
In a telephone conversation, Mason Gross Dean George Stauffer summarizes the thinking behind letting the Collegium Musicum go. “The (budget) cuts came in September and went into effect in January,” he says. “We had to look for redundancies and keep basic services available to students. We had to streamline programs, especially in the music department, which uses the largest portion of Mason Gross resources. We thought that the brass band and Collegium Musicum were terrific programs. Our decision to drop them had to do with finance, not with the quality of the programs.”
Spratlan was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1979. He comes from a musical family. His father, composer Lewis Spratlan, an Amherst College emeritus professor of music, won a Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2000. Spratlan’s mother, a soprano, taught voice Mount Holyoke College.
The Aura Polyphonica leader started piano at four; his first teacher was his grandmother. His exposure to clarinet came at age eight; to electric guitar, at twelve; and to acoustic guitar, two years later. At age six he joined the Mount Holyoke Children’s Choir.
Spratlan’s academic credentials include a bachelor’s degree in music from Indiana’s Earlham College, a master of music in choral conducting from Rider’s Westminster Choir College (2004), and a doctorate in choral conducting from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts (2014). As a Mason Gross graduate student Spratlan was simultaneously an adjunct faculty member, assistant director of the Rutgers Glee Club, the Kirkpatrick Chapel Choir, and director of the Rutgers Collegium Musicum.
Since July, 2012, Spratlan has been director of music at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill (PCCH), a half hour from center city, Philadelphia. PCCH has become a home base for a variety of musical entities. Spratlan says, “I have showed that the church is not just a host for music, but for different musical groups who put on their own series. I want to continue to improve relations between church and community.”
John Sheridan at New Brunswick’s Christ Church shares Spratlan’s ideas about church and community. And members of Aura Polyphonica have reciprocated by participating in Sheridan’s trial “compline” observance on November 9. Sheridan hopes that repeats of the service will become a regular occurrence at Christ Church and will have a wide non-denominational appeal.
“Compline is the last of the daily liturgical observances in monastic communities,” Sheridan says. He adds that the texts of this service give thanks for the day that is past and seek connection with God during the night to come. The service is done by candlelight. The congregation is completely passive, while a vocal group sings. It is a way to prepare for sleep on Sunday night before plunging into the work week.
Sheridan preceded that recent compline service by playing a solo 30-minute harp recital of varied music. The auditory effects of his recital were enhanced by the candlelit illumination. He is seeking out Rutgers music students to perform during the half hour before future compline services, and hopes that Rutgers students will attend in the future.
A close relationship between Christ Church and Rutgers is an ongoing affair. Mason Gross’ Stauffer observes, “We’ve had a fruitful exchange with Christ Church for at least 10 years.”
Mason Gross organ students have lessons at two locations on campus and also at Christ Church. They concertize in all the venues. Stauffer advocates rotating the locations so organ students can work out on different styles of instruments.
Understanding that a mutually supportive non-separation of church and state is helping music flourish in New Brunswick, Stauffer says, “Resources in the arts are limited. Collaboration is the name of the game for arts organizations that want to survive.”
Aura Polyphonica, Music of the Spanish Renaissance, Christ Church, 5 Paterson Street, New Brunswick. Saturday, November 22, 8 p.m., free will offering. Aura Polyphonica also performs Saturday, March 28, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, May 9, at 8 p.m. 732- 545-6262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.