North Iowans find a joyful sound after a year of silence
Una Vocis Choral Ensemble returned to live, in-person concerts in December 2021 after a two-year absence.
“The pandemic did silence us for a while,” said Dennis Lee, the group’s Artistic Director. “That was really hard. We realized that singing was a very important part of our lives. We missed it a lot.”
Una Vocis is a Mason City-based auditioned adult choir. Its members come from all over North Iowa, with a wide range of professional and personal backgrounds. The thing that unites them is their love of singing. Members have told Dennis that having Una Vocis as a musical outlet is an important part of their being and staying in North Iowa. Una Vocis, which is Latin for “one of voice,” was born out of a series of presentations of Handel’s “Messiah” that Dennis directed at the First Presbyterian Church in Mason City, where he serves as Director of Music. The performance featured singers and orchestra members from all over North Iowa. The singers wanted more, and looked to Dennis for opportunities.
“It was more of a realization that there was support and interest in doing it – more than just singing “The Messiah” every year,” Dennis said. “It was encouraging that there were people in this area that wanted to do great choral music.”
Dennis, a Mason City native, has a degree in music from Iowa State University. One thing that Una Vocis has allowed him to do is to dig into a stack of music that he has collected over the years. “While in college, and between college and starting Una Vocis, I had a stack of music that kept growing and growing. That’s how the first Una Vocis programs came into being. By forming Una Vocis, it was a way to do that music that I had been wanting to do for a long time.”
Not all of that music has been performed in the years since Una Vocis’ founding in 2005, but the stack continues to grow. The focus has shifted to supporting and encouraging new composers. “We’re embracing new music and emerging composers,” Dennis said. “We’re being part of music history. It’s a rather humbling perspective.”
Being involved in the creative process has its rewards. “Bringing new music to life for the first time – (witnessing) the evolution of a piece from its first ideas – working with composers through their creative process all the way through to its first performance” has been a real highlight. “We’ve had so many experiences,” Dennis said. “We’ve worked with some of the most well-known composers that are alive today.”
They’ve also worked with composers who are not yet well-known, “encouraging them by commissions, helping them find their voice in the composing world,” Dennis added. Una Vocis has commissioned many works by various composers. “The very first commission was with Stephen Paulus. (He) was such a gracious person. He wanted my input on the text, my feedback on it as it evolved,” which Dennis said encouraged him as a musician. “It was really cool – always one of the highlights for me. Working with other composers is really special.”
One commission that stands out for Dennis was working with composer Timothy Takach on “Joseph,” a piece Una Vocis performed for the second time in its recent Christmas concert.
“I really felt I was pulled into that creative process more than others.”
An especially emotional partnership was working with Alice Parker. Funds for that commission came from the memorial for Dennis’ mother, Glennis Lee, an accomplished accompanist and organist. “To work in honor of my mother was really cool. Alice Parker writes accessible music. She’s extremely talented as a composer, but she’s everyone’s grandma. Getting to know her one-on-one was truly a special experience.”
Una Vocis presents two major concerts each year in the acoustically-resonant Holy Family Catholic Church in Mason City. “I want there to be something that people will enjoy regardless of their background listening to choral music,” Dennis said. Even those “who were ‘dragged’ there.”
At every concert, people admit they had no idea there was a group like this in North Iowa, telling him “I don’t expect to hear music like this except in the big city.”
The recent Christmas concert, streamed live on YouTube, reached a global community. “Several of us from Una Vocis leadership have attended conferences over the years, and participated in virtual choirs, and through that have gotten to know people outside of our area. This was the first time many of these people were able to experience Una Vocis in a live concert experience.”
“We’ve recognized that streaming is an important part of reaching audiences beyond North Iowa. We will continue that.”