Zachary Vreeman’s hands moved in the air as he silently sang the words to a choral piece. The choir grew louder as his arms swung higher and he leaned toward the singers in front of him.
Wyoming Choral Arts Ensemble paused for a few minutes Sunday evening in a classroom at Casper College as Vreeman went through each section’s entrance on a fugue portion of the complex, fast-moving piece “Peaceable Kingdom” by Randall Thompson.
Eight choir sections come in during the space of six measures. The altos start and the baritone tenors finish.
“I know this is very difficult stuff,” Vreeman told the singers. “But I know we can do it.”
Vreeman directs the choirs at Casper College, and he’s the choir master for Grace Reformed Church. He started the Wyoming Choral Arts Ensemble in the fall of 2016 for professional and other experienced singers to perform a variety of challenging pieces at a high level, Vreeman said. The ensemble’s spring show on Sunday spotlights 20th-century American music.
The program features “Peaceable Kingdom” along with spirituals, folk song arrangements and other unique pieces along the Americana theme, Vreeman said.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have enough to do when he started the choir, Vreeman said, laughing. But since the community didn’t have an auditioned adult choir, he decided it would be a good outlet for local singers and for himself.
“I wanted it to be the kind of choir that I would want to be in myself,” Vreeman said. “I think it’s really important for professional music teachers and other people to have a place where they can perform and feel like they’re getting a lot of work done very quickly, and also for some very talented amateurs in town.“
For instance, the upcoming concert features the choir singing challenging pieces completely unaccompanied. It’s a lot of music without a lot of rehearsal time, Vreeman said. The choir is project-based, and rehearses a few weeks before each concert, he said.
He wouldn’t throw an hour of acapella at his students, he added. They could perform the material, but it would be a longer project for them, he said.
The choir gives him a chance to work with different music he enjoys and to help singers to continue growing musically as well, he said.
“It’s music that I really want to conduct; it’s singers I really want to work with that don’t otherwise have a choir they’re in, and that makes it worth it,” Vreeman said. “I carved out a little corner for us. It’s not music that any of the other choirs in town were doing, so that gives the Casper audiences a different bunch of music to hear.”
The group includes Casper College music faculty, other music educators, local choir directors and other singers from around the community, Vreeman said.
Some are former students of his, like Karenna Booth, who now teaches high school English. The choir gives her a chance to continue sharing a love for choir music with other experienced musicians who feel the same way, she said. The music is often more strenuous than her college choirs, which is a chance to find continuous challenges, she added.
“It’s really a privilege to be part of a group like this, because we get to be together doing a thing that all of us mutually love,” Booth said. “Vreeman has always had a passion for it, and it’s nice for him to be able to share it with us.”
Vreeman settled on a career in choral music when he went back for his doctorate degree, he said. He also plays trombone and directed bands and choirs. He finished his doctoral dissertation on one of Thompson’s pieces, and even spent two weeks at Harvard digging through his personal files and reading his letters, he said.
“He said it’s no surprise that the greatest pieces of music that we look back over the history, many of them are choral pieces,” Vreeman said. “And at the same time most of them can still be sung by amateurs.”
“Peaceable Kingdom” is one of his favorite pieces, and he’s only conducted it one other time — with a large chorus in graduate school at University of Nebraska, he said.
It isn’t just challenging musically. The words describe prophesies from the biblical book of Isaiah about the judgment of the wicked and the exaltation of the righteous, he said.
“The language is really intense, and that makes it very intensely emotional thing to sing to because you’re portraying all of these emotions,” Vreeman said. “And if you do it well, it’s exhausting. It’s all about words — words are so great. I love instrumental music, but it doesn’t get me quite as excited if there are not words.”
The concert also features another Randall Thompson piece, “Alleluia,” which has held the title for the best-selling piece of music in the world, Vreeman said.
Vreeman loves singing and sometimes wishes he were performing with the group. But he also loves his spot at the helm.
“It’s thrilling, because you move your hands and things happen,” he said. “You move your hands and sound happens and beautiful things happen. It’s also terrifying, because it’s entirely out of your control, really. You can move your hands, but you’re not actually making any of the sound happen at all yourself. And so there’s a safety level there that goes away. Maybe that’s why we’re all addicted to it, because it’s great.”
The upcoming concert is Wyoming Choral Arts Ensemble’s fourth performance. The group debuted with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra in Vivaldi’s “Gloria” followed by Brahms’ Requiem last April, the group’s first solo concert. The emsemble performed again in November and at the tree lighting ceremony in December at David Street Station.
The choir continued to sing and concentrate on the Vreeman’s directions and occasionally laugh together through three hours of rehearsal on Sunday. The director’s own voice often rang through the choir room as demonstrated parts of the music.
The group is fun to work with and tackles the music he gives them, Vreeman said. He plans to keep the group a small chamber choir up to 30 singers, he said. It now numbers about 25 for each concert.
“We’ll keep growing, not in size, but as a choir, and continue to tackle difficult repertoire and do it really well,” Vreeman said. “That’s the overall goal, to constantly improve, and for every performance to be better that the last.”