VOCES8 tenor Blake Morgan’s Polaris, for double choir SATB/SSSAATTBBB a capella was premiered in a high school choir festival at St. Michael – Albertville High School last October. The commissioning conductor, composer, and a senior choir member provide perspectives on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this Minnesota high school choir. Also included are the commissioned text, and representative score pages.

Interview with Conductor Joseph Osowski

Star of the North Joseph, we were entranced by the wonderful Oct. 30, 2023 concert that featured Voces8 and Scholars with your St. Michael – Albertville HS singers and guest HS choirs from that day’s clinic. The world premiere of Polaris by Voces8 tenor Blake Morgan that you conducted with Voces8 and Scholars with the STMA Concert Choir was magnificent. Your colleague Paige Armstrong’s elegant and intimately effective conducting of the full 200+ voice clinic choir was also astonishing.

Can you sketch quickly for us how the concert, commission and clinic came about?

STMA Concert Choir Conductor, Joe Osowski: I had the pleasure of contracting Voces8 in 2019 for our first collaboration. My hope with this event was to provide a choral festival where students would have the opportunity to collaborate with a world class ensemble and choristers of all ages and backgrounds in a non-competitive choral experience. At our first festival, we hosted almost 2000 singers and audience members.  Given the success of this event, inviting Voces8 back for our 23-24 season seemed like a logical choice.

The commission piece, “Polaris” was something I had requested earlier that year for us to perform as an invited choir to the 2024 Regional ACDA Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. I have known Blake Morgan for a number of years. We first met, when he was a member of the Minnesota based professional tenor/bass ensemble Cantus. After that, we have stayed in contact both professionally and as friends. During the 22-23 academic year, the STMA Concert Choir performed Blake’s stunning arrangement of “Caledonia” on our annual tour. My students and our audiences loved that piece. Blake and I were randomly chatting on Facebook Messenger (which officially makes me middle-aged) and I just asked him if he would be interested in writing for us as part of the Voces8 Concert and with our invitation to the 2024 Regional ACDA Conference.

How does the STMA choral program reflect and relate to the school and community?

The STMA Choral program is the flagship program for the STMA School District. With nearly 1000 students in our program grades five through twelve, our members represent all walks of student life in the STMA School District. This year in fact, our Concert Choir President, is also Captain of the Football team. Our district does an outstanding job of cultivating well-rounded students and our staff works very hard to help students find their passion and set them up for success for the future. We have phenomenal support and patronage from our community, local businesses and our District. Our concerts often sell out in just a few days and we have a 1500 seat auditorium. Choral music is alive and well at STMA.

What is the program’s commissioning philosophy and history?

Commissioning is a relatively new endeavor for the STMA Vocal Music Program. We have been fortunate to be part of a few commissioning consortiums. More recently, we have given regional premieres of larger works. Our first regional premiere was in 2022 as we presented Eric Whitacre’s “The Sacred Veil” on our annual tour. May 20th, STMA Concert Choir will give the Midwestern premiere of Christopher Tin’s “The Lost Bird”, on a Masterworks Concert with our Vivace Treble Choir performing Andrea Ramsey’s “Suffrage Cantata”.

Have you hosted choral clinics before? How were participating choirs engaged? Why Voces8?

Since 2020, we have tried to host at least one choral festival a year. These festivals center around contracting a guest ensemble to collaborate with our students. Over the years, we have worked with The Aeolians of Oakwood University, Chanticleer, Apollo5, The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists, and The Jason Max Ferdinand Singers. The majority of our guest choristers are middle school and high school choir members, however all are welcome to be part of our event. I advertise our events through social media, mailings and email. Voces8 was my first festival because of my friendship with Blake Morgan and professional relationship with American Public Media and their leadership.

Commissions usually cost money. How did you settle on a fee? Did the money come from departmental funds, parent or community supporters, a grant, or combination?

We settled on a fee through a conversation. Funding for the commission came from a grant and the STMA Music Boosters.

Why Blake Morgan? 

I think Blake is a brilliant musician, vocalist and composer who was familiar with the sound and capability of the STMA Concert Choir. He is also a very kind person who has a passion for education.

The composer is the only American in Voces8, and a Midwesterner from Michigan. Did this affect the process or product?

I don’t believe so. I am pretty new to commissioning so I can’t speak too confidently on that. I can say that our experience was very positive and something I hope to continue to do with Blake as well as other composers and arrangers.

What were the parameters you gave the composer?

I had asked Blake for a shorter, upbeat, “opener” type piece that wasn’t too difficult to open our program at ACDA. What I received was a longer, texturally thick, stunning double choir piece.

Did he send you sketches or a completed score for your input?

No, he did share the stunning text he landed on which was written by Voces8 Soprano Andrea Haines specifically for this commission. I received the completed piece in August and we began learning the piece in early September with our premiere performance at the end of October.

How did the composer interact with the choir during preparation? Was there a post-performance feedback session?

We shared messages with Blake during the learning process and had some time with him during the day of the Voces8 festival.  The students and I reflected on the experience after the concert and most shared that this experience was a highlight in their musical experience at STMA.

What was the students’ response initially, and then after learning the piece, and performing it?

The students loved the experience and are excited to perform it on tour this year as well.

What did you learn from this project that would influence future commissions?

My biggest take away was how incredible the opportunity to bring a piece to life was. I hope to continue to make this part of our choral experience at STMA.

What is your advice for choral conductors considering a commission?

I would encourage choral conductors to not be afraid to reach out to composers and arrangers with their ideas. My students benefited greatly from the experience and it was a lot of fun.

What is your advice for composers interested in writing for high school choirs?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to choirs you hear and people you might want to work with. Most experiences provide opportunities to learn and grow and these types of collaborations can be quite positive.

Polaris notes for ACDA

Blake Morgan

Composer, tenor –  VOCES8

In 2023, one of my dear friends Joseph Osowski approached me with an idea for a new piece based around the concept of “home”. Joe and I have been friends for the better part of a decade– I first met him in 2014 during a season I spent singing with the Minneapolis-based group Cantus, and he’s been a generous supporter of my work since, performing several of my pieces over the years with his superb high school choirs at St. Michael- Albertville. These days, as a member of VOCES8, I do most of my composing and arranging for the ensemble itself and similar professional groups (Take 6, The Kings Singers, Conspirare, Chanticleer, etc) but I am always gobsmacked by the advanced standard of repertoire Joe and his students champion; it’s a lucky privilege to write this piece Polaris specifically for his choirs and not once have to worry about the level of difficulty! They bring the standard of high school choral singing in America to new, dizzying heights.

For centuries, Polaris (also known as the North Star or the Polar Star) has hung high in the night sky, serving mankind as a trustworthy point of reference; for navigation to lands afar, for inspiration as a symbol of steadfastness, and for illumination as we make or find home again. In this composition, the star itself is depicted musically by the repetition of a Middle C – flickering in and out of focus, gradually growing brighter and then fading again – sometimes unseen or unheard, but ever constant. In addition, this repeating Middle C is not always a consonant member of the harmony sounding beneath it, but serves as the compass and musical axis for the entire piece, illuminating the path home.

In my search for the right text to set, I began speaking about the commission with my colleague and choir-mate Andrea Haines (who happens not only to be a soprano superstar but also a secretly stellar poet). Whilst on a particularly long VOCES8 tour, she suggested she might try her hand at writing something special and I was elated to include her collaborative efforts. When I first read her poem, I was struck immediately by the unique portrait of “home* she paints; it is not always a place or a person, nor is it confined to being a physical thing at all. Home can be a feeling – a sensation we take with us to any corner of the world. Sometimes we just need to search the sky for our very own North Star, and follow the glow.

“…home is wherever I sail/Beneath your sight.”

VOCES8 Soprano, Andrea Haines’ commissioned poem

Polaris

The celestial compass gleaming bright

So I may go travel and strive

Even by night.

Polaris

Here, a steadfast consort I behold

A glittering eye of the heav’ns

Usher my soul.

Polaris

Lending mesmerising winks of light

So home is wherever I sail

Beneath your sight.

My Polaris.

Andrea Haines, used by permission

Voces8 Experience Essay

Lucas Benker

Senior, St. Michael
Albertville HS Concert Choir

I have been given the opportunity to have many amazing experiences during my time singing in the St. Michael-Albertville Concert Choir, and working alongside Voces8 to prepare Blake Morgan’s Polaris was no exception. Morgan’s piece was commissioned by my director, Joseph Oswoski, after our choir had performed and grown attached to his piece Caledonia. The piece being centered around this idea of The North Star allowed my choir to foster a sense of home, being from “The North Star State” of Minnesota. Going into rehearsals and being able to sing about this sense of belonging, no matter where we were in the world, was such an overwhelmingly heartwarming experience to finalize my senior year in the program.

Along with the wonderful message and meaning of the poem, my choir was actually given the opportunity to hear direct feedback from Blake Morgan and Andrea Haines, the lyricist of Polaris, while we were still in the rehearsal process and putting the piece together. My choir director would record videos of our practice runs of the piece and show them to Blake and Andrea. Because of this system, we could get immediate feedback on the tone and emotions of the piece. One of my personal favorite parts of the piece is the underlying bass rhythm that beautifully captures the continuity of Polaris in the night sky with a low rumble and consistent pulse to the song, and the bass part has such a wonderful contrast to the whimsical, almost mystical, sound of the Voces8 singers.

Being able to rehearse the piece and get feedback from the composer was amazing, but actually being able to perform the song with the composer was absolutely a different level of fantastic. We were given less than twelve hours to bring the whole piece together after practicing by ourselves without the voices of the Voces8 singers for a month. It wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined to add their voices, but it was interesting to hear the different ways their parts line up with our own. Hearing Voces8 live, alongside my own voice, was such a surreal experience that is beyond any level of comparison I could think of. I am so incredibly grateful to have gotten this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I could not have asked for a better way to cement my senior year into St. Michael-Albertville Concert Choir’s history.

Polaris full score, pp 1, 7 & 8 (used by permission)

About Joe Osowski

Joe Osowski is the Director of Vocal Music Education at St. Michael – Albertville High School. He holds a Masters of Music Degree in Music Education from North Dakota State University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Vocal Music Education from the same institution.

At STMA High School, Osowski directs three curricular ensembles and one co-curricular ensemble. Mr. Osowski is also the conductor of Bring the Sing, a community singing initiative sponsored by Classical Minnesota Public Radio, Choral Director of  the Minnesota Ambassadors of Music and Director of the Central Choir at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Previously, Osowski served as Choral Director in the Worthington and Anoka – Hennepin School Districts. He also has served as Choral Director at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka, Minnesota, First United Methodist Church in Worthington, Minnesota, Artistic Director of the East Central Minnesota Chorale and the Worthington Chamber Singers. He was a staff member of the René Clausen Choral School and a Board Member for The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists.

Osowski is in demand as a guest conductor, clinician and adjudicator. He has served in these roles throughout the Midwest and Central America. Osowski is an active member of the Minnesota Music Educators Association and the American Choral Directors Association, most recently serving as the Northeast District Chair for ACDA-MN. Choirs under his direction have performed at numerous invitational festivals and state and regional conferences of the American Choral Directors Association and Minnesota Music Educators Association.

Joe Osowski received nominations as a Minnesota Teacher of the Year Candidate in 2016  and 2024 by Education Minnesota and was selected as a conducting delegate representing the United States for the 2017 International Conductors Exchange Program sponsored by the American Choral Directors Association. Joseph lives in Albertville with his Wife, Erin, a fellow Choral Music Educator and their two cats, Gus and Joey.

About Lucas Benker

Lucas Benker was born in Monticello, Minnesota, in 2005. He has lived in St. Michael his entire life, even after his parents divorced in his early life. As the youngest of five children in his house, he was surely not the quiet one. He spent much of his school time involved with the St. Michael-Albertville music program from day one. When he was young, he was often found dancing and singing front and center at his elementary music concerts. As he grew older and his voice developed more, Lucas was able to participate in ACDA Honor Choirs twice in his life, once in 2020 and again in 2022. High school choir is a consistent highlight in his life, and it brings so many new musical experiences into his life. From being involved in the Midwest Premiere of Eric Whitacre’s The Sacred Veil to being invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York and Regional ACDA in Omaha, Nebraska, choir has always been a driving force in Lucas’s creative expression in life.

In his freshman year, he started participating in the theater program as well, with his first on-stage show being Legally Blonde: The Musical. In his high school years, he has been involved with theater every step of his life. He began to grow in his acting skills, even making the competitive varsity team for the One Act competition as a sophomore, being the only senior to fully participate in One Act every year of his high school career. Lucas was even recognized by Spotlight Education as an Outstanding Lead Performer in the musical Tuck Everlasting for his role as “Man in The Yellow Suit”. After his Junior year, he even ventured into different styles of acting and worked as a scare actor at The Dead End Hayride this past fall, and he was nominated as actor of the night twice while working there.

After he graduates high school, Lucas plans to attend Iowa State University and major in Food Science, while also singing in one of ISU’s many different choirs and acting in their on-stage productions.