A skylark is a small bird found in Europe, Asia and northern Africa, especially known for singing while in flight. And conductor Matthew Guard — inspired by a P. B. Shelley poem called “To a Skylark” — chose the lark as his choral group’s namesake, classifying it as Atlanta’s only chamber choir featuring world-class artists flying to Atlanta from around the United States to practice their art.
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble, an a cappella group founded in 2011, has a roster of 30 professional singers based in Boston and Atlanta. Guard fashioned it after similar groups such as Seraphic Fire and Tucson Chamber Artists. The group follows a project-based model and comes together five weeks a year, featuring only 16 to 18 singers at a time. Skylark performs a repertoire as varied as plainchant, which dates back to the Middle Ages, part-songs from late Romantic composers and jazz standards by Cole Porter.
“My intention was to create a group for mixed voices that could achieve the same caliber as Chanticleer,” says Guard, referring to the men’s group considered the top male a cappella group in the world. “I’m attracted to music that requires a high degree of musicality and nuance.”
This year Skylark will embark on its first-ever tour convening in New York City, Tulsa, and Boston. But it kicks off its season with “A Skylark Christmas: King James and Carols” on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. They’ll repeat the concert on Friday at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church.
The concert will span over a thousand years of music, beginning with 21st-century composer John Tavener’s “O, Do Not Move” followed by a 10th-century plainsong setting of “Divinum Mysterium.” Carols will be interlaced with Christmas readings from the King James Bible.
Skylark will also offer one of Guard’s favorites, Jean Mouton’s “Nesciens Mater.” It’s an opus for eight voices, yet only notated for quartet. The second choir actually sings two measures behind and a fifth apart from the initial four voices, a hidden choir conceived as an allegory to the Virgin birth.
In keeping with their mission to support music education this Christmas, Skylark is offering free admission to students and music educators. General admission tickets can be purchased online and at the door for $30. Seniors can get tickets at a discount for $20 each.
Two additional offerings will follow this season in Atlanta venues. A concert titled “From Winter to Spring” will feature Francis Poulenc’s “Soir de Neige” as well as Benjamin Britten’s “Flower Songs” on January 24 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church. The program will be repeated the following evening at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.
Later in the year, Skylark will sing a concert with the theme, “The Many Languages of Love” on March 20 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church, and on the following evening at a location to be determined. It will be a tour of the love song throughout history, with many genres in many different languages.
Fans can also look forward to the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s first CD, recorded last month in Boston. Both the album title and release date are to be determined, but judging by the group’s high level of artistry last season, the endeavor is more than just a lark.