Our goal is to sound like one person singing... 

Based on the type of musical acts regularly profiled in the pages of this paper, longtime readers might be inclined to assume that most local musical groups’ influences can be traced back as far as perhaps 1935.

Okay, okay, maybe 1905. But that’s pushing it.

However, the members of one of the most respected groups of local musicians currently on “the scene” in Savannah finds much of their inspiration in the work of composers and performers who lived and died hundreds of years ago.

No, I’m not speaking of the sadly defunct Savannah Symphony. I’m talking about Ensemble Con Spirito.

This ecumenical vocal group was founded in 2001 by Cuffy Sullivan as “a way to find a more challenging musical experience,” and initially known as the Savannah Women’s Sacred Music Ensemble. They exist to perform and Renaissance, sacred harp and modern work of a similar nature.

Currently, the group is made up of eleven women – all of whom have come together out of a love for God and for the hymns, carols, chants and madrigals that have traditionally been used as songs of praise.

Their upcoming performance at downtown’s Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church is an annual event which generally draws the largest crowds of all their public concerts. This year’s show is a traditional service of carols and lessons that originated in England, and was made famous at King’s College in Cambridge. The program alternates readings with choral and congregational Advent carols, many of which contain an element of audience participation.

With this highly anticipated concert drawing near, I sat down with three members of the group: Managing Director (and alto) Cuffy Sullivan; Artistic Director (and soprano) Jennifer Dickinson; and alto Rebecca Faucette, to learn more about how they became involved with sacred music, what it represents to them, and what it takes to stage a show of this nature.

Connect Savannah: What drew you to this type of music in particular?

Cuffy Sullivan: I attended an all-girls high school in Rochester, N.Y, that was one of the last ones to focus on a capella music arranged for women. After college, I didn’t have much opportunity to sing, but once I married and settled down, I was in church choirs, but missed that unique girl-sound.

Jennifer Dickinson: The way it feels when you perform it. There is something indescribable about singing with other women. The sound is more inclusive, more familiar, I think. As with all-male groups, you can achieve a “singleness” of sound that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to produce in a mixed choir.

Rebecca Faucette: I’ve always adored Medieval and Baroque music. The simple and clear sound is so haunting and lovely. I used to listen to a CD of monks chanting and it was quite therapeutic. I guess singing this music speaks to my soul.

Connect Savannah: What got you started in singing? Church? School choir?

Cuffy Sullivan: Sang since birth! My mother was an opera singer who attended the Eastman School of Music. Her entire family was extremely musical (they’re all Welsh), and it was expected of us.

Jennifer Dickinson: I’ve been singing my whole life in small ensembles and church choirs, and have a degree in music composition and theory. I love music and especially singing. It’s how I connect with God. There is something about making music that allows you to express your faith and feelings like nothing else.

Rebecca Faucette: I sang in high school and at my church. About two summers ago I went to a week long choral retreat at Suwanee in Tennessee., and had the privilege to study under Malcolm Archer who is the choir director at St. Paul’s In London. That gave me the confidence to try out for this.

Connect Savannah: Who picks the repertoire, and where do you find material?

Cuffy Sullivan: I’m the Managing Director and handle all the arrangements. Jennifer Dickinson is the Artistic Director, she chooses music, plans the recital programs, and helps us find our sound.

Jennifer Dickinson: I choose the music, but usually after talking with Cuffy about what I’d like to see the group do. Music, for me anyway, is as much an emotional journey as a technical one. You know when a choir truly loves what they’re doing and when they don’t. That makes all the difference in performance. So, obviously, I try to find music that the group will want to invest themselves in. Also I try and choose music that challenges the group, helps it grow in some way. We are constantly striving to become better musicians and create a more integrated, cohesive sound.

Connect Savannah: What makes this show so different from the others?

Jennifer Dickinson: I think this is the first time we aren’t sort of flying under the radar. Beyond that, there’s been quite a bit of publicity, it’s an ambitious program for us, we’ve been invited to sing in a truly wonderful space and, in some ways, this is the culmination of several years of very hard work. Further, the literature is very challenging for a group of our size. Unison plainchant singing is very difficult to perform well. I don’t know that we would have attempted something so exposed just two years ago. So, I guess, this concert represents an arrival of sorts; a coming into our own. Which, of course, is fitting for the Advent season.

Connect Savannah: Are all the members very religious, or are some folks involved specifically for the music?

Cuffy Sullivan: We are a pretty ecumenical group, but what bonds us together is singing praise to God in a beautiful way.

Jennifer Dickinson: Cuffy is absolutely right. We are all “devout” in our own ways and each of us brings our own ideas, our own spiritualities, to the table. It’s so much more than that, though. What makes Ensemble Con Spirito what it is, is who we are. We are a collection of extraordinary women with diverse backgrounds and circumstances who come together every week to sing, share our lives and create this incredible communion. That spirit, that essence -- more than the desire for perfect notes or precise diction or a devotion to shared religious traditions -- binds us together.

Rebecca Faucette: The depth of devotion to God that each of our members has is personal and we are indeed an ecumenical group. The common mission is that we all love music and thank God for our talents by singing praises to Him. When we perform we’re able to share those talents.

Connect Savannah: What’s the most challenging aspect about singing this music? Is it the multiple languages?

Cuffy Sullivan: Singing a language doesn’t have much to do with speaking it, and that includes English. We’re thrilled to be doing a piece in Welsh and have found a native speaker to help us sing it correctly.

Jennifer Dickinson: The most challenging aspect from a technical perspective is creating and maintaining a “core” sound. Our goal is to sound like one person singing, not eleven individual voices. This becomes increasingly more difficult -- and more important -- the smaller your group.

Rebecca Faucette: I love it that we’re expanding our language skills. In this concert alone we’re singing pieces in Olde English, Welsh, German and Latin. The challenge makes it interesting.

Connect Savannah: What’s the biggest misconception about this type of music?

Jennifer Dickinson: I think people unfamiliar with “classical” music in general have the sense that it’s stodgy and boring, or that it won’t engage them in some way. Or, more specifically, that the “religious” aspect of the music we perform has no variety. However, the music we, and other groups like us, perform varies widely. It is exciting, mournful, beautiful, serene, introspective, and fun, depending on the context.

Ensemble Con Spirito performs Advent Lessons and Carols at 5 p.m. Sunday at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church (429 Abercorn St.). The concert is free and open to the public.


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Jim Reed

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