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Originally published Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 7:06 PM

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Multilingual, multicultural — the Esoterics do some globe-hopping with their choral sound

Seattle's award-winning composer and choral director Eric Banks is having a busy year.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

The Esoterics

The Seattle chorus performs works by Thomas Jennefelt, 8 p.m. Saturday, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, 4139 42nd Ave. S.W., Seattle, and 2 p.m. Sunday, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 732 18th Ave. E., Seattle; $10-$20 (206-935-7779 or www.TheEsoterics.org).

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On a warm summer evening in a church on Queen Anne Hill, Seattle composer and choral director Eric Banks leads his ensemble, the Esoterics, through a rehearsal of a work by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt. Simple repeated building blocks of sound gradually grow busier and a lot more complicated.

You might say the same about the turn Banks' professional life has taken in the past few months.

In May, Banks learned that he and Austin, Texas-based chorus Conspirare had won the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award for a proposed choral work set to five poems by Greek-Egyptian Constantine Cavafy. The cash prize goes toward the composition of the new work by Banks and its debut by Conspirare in 2013.

The award raised Banks' profile in a big way: "It was announced, and then — boom! — I had five commissions."

One of those included an invitation from Lincoln Center to present another Cavafy-based work by Banks, this one a ballet he's working on with Pacific Northwest Ballet's Olivier Wevers and the Saint Helens String Quartet. Wevers' company Whim W'Him will present the piece in Seattle in 2012.

Banks is finding the flurry of success "all very strange — strange and good."

Still, he doesn't seem to have let it go to his head. In rehearsal, he keeps up a jokey repartee with Esoterics members, while also fine-tuning the Jennefelt piece, "Villarosa Sequences," for its West Coast premiere performances Saturday and Sunday.

Banks became aware of Jennefelt's work while on a Fulbright scholarship in Stockholm in 1998, studying under Swedish Radio Choir conductor Eric Ericson and his disciples. In fact, both Banks and Jennefelt sang together in the Swedish Radio Choir, although, Banks says, "I didn't really know him." But he was familiar with several of his works.

A decade later, when Banks contacted Jennefelt about performing "Villarosa Sequences" in Seattle, the Swedish composer remembered him. ("It's not that many Americans who sing in the Swedish Radio Choir," quips Banks.)

Why introduce Jennefelt to Seattle?

"The pieces are very beautiful," Banks says. "They fit the Esoterics' bill really nicely, just because they're contemporary pieces. And what Thomas has done with language is really interesting. ... He wanted to write pieces that redefined what language was."

Banks describes Jennefelt's work as "post-minimalist." "You'll have elements that sound like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, and then you'll have things that are sweepingly romantic."

The text, however, is "completely gibberish," Banks laughs. "He'll have a word that's Latin next to a word that's Swedish next to a word that's Italian, next to one that's Finnish. There isn't really a syntax. It's just about the sound of the words."

So it's several steps beyond "Jabberwocky"?

"It's way more abstract than 'Jabberwocky,' " Banks says. "I mean, 'Jabberwocky' has syntax." The Jennefelt pieces are, he suggests, "more hedonistic — just enjoying the sound of the words."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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