Ember Ensemble Makes Choral Music Come Alive

The group's upcoming New Jersey concerts are on March 3 and May 19.

Courtesy of Ember Ensemble/Peter Chollick

This past Veteran’s Day, the Ember Ensemble filed into Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the choir’s new Montclair home, with something different up their sleeves. Cloaked in black, accented by red-poppy pins, the 25 singers didn’t form rows on the altar. Instead, they stood in the outer aisles, inches away from patrons, to perform their opening songs. 

“If we didn’t have individual voices that could stand up on their own, it would not work,” says Deborah Simpkin King, conductor and artistic director for Ember, a collective of paid and amateur performers. The intimate experience created a surround-sound effect for listeners, especially during a piece by composer-in-residence Cheryl Engelhardt, for which soloists chanted individual words in sequence.

The 1 ½-hour concert included a multimedia presentation with lyrics on the screen, historic war photographs, and snippets of a 2013 interview with military veteran James Woolsey.

Not all Ember concerts have these bells and whistles. But King asserts all choral music can be exciting. “Whatever your expectation is, it’s probably inadequate,” she says. “People hear “choral music,” oftentimes they think, Oh yeah, that’s religious songs, and that’s such a small piece of it.”

King, who grew up in Texas and holds a doctorate in musicology from the University of North Texas, took a position at New Jersey City University in the 1990s. She started a choir at the school, but it was disbanded when she left after four years. When some of those singers reconnected with King, she founded Schola Cantorum on Hudson, a nonprofit that is the parent organization for the Ember Ensemble and Project: Encore, a free online catalog of contemporary choral music. 

Conductor and artistic director Deborah Simpkin King says the Ember Ensemble’s performances exceed expectations for choral groups. Courtesy of Ember Ensemble /Dan Howell

Ember’s 24th season, Coming of Age, is a celebration of the second half of life. “We build worlds, we build families, we build careers, we build homes, we build our public personas…to make our contribution to the world,” says King. Then, as we near retirement age, “we can increasingly shed the responsibilities of life…[and] remember what is foundational.” To put that theme into practice, Ember is collaborating with the New York City program of Encore Creativity for Older Adults Chorale, a choral organization for singers over 55. The group will perform in Ember’s March 3 concert at Caldwell University’s Alumni Theater. The final Ember concert of the season will be at Our Lady on May 19. Ember also holds performances at St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church in New York City. Tickets for all concerts are $20 in advance at emberensemble.org, $25 at the door, $15 for seniors and students; children 18 and under are free.

Ember currently has about 50 singers. To make a score come alive, King dissects and discusses the text with the vocalists. “There’s always a give-and-take when you’re really finely tuning an art,” she says. “And it has a lot to do with helping the singers connect what is in the score and what is within them.”

King sees Ember’s role as using music to move people.

“The message is always strong,” she says. “We almost always have some people leave in tears, some that are speechless, and we hope that there are plenty of chuckles along the way.”

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