Throughout the early winter of 2018, Rice worked closely with Everett McCorvey, artistic director of The National Chorale to adapt the work for its New York premiere at Geffen Hall, expanding, as necessary, its sensibility and sound to the large size of the National Chorale and the large space of David Geffen Hall. Rice was in the audience at Thy Will Be Done’s recent performance; it was a happy experience for all, and Rice must have been deeply proud to hear her music so passionately, expressively and effectively presented.
Rice’s text, incorporating both Old Testament prophetic and foreshadowing passages and New Testament narrative passages, is built on an overview of the theology and history of Jesus’ ministries, condemnation, execution and resurrection taken primarily from the Bible. The underlying concepts of the piece represent the most familiar mainstream American Protestant understanding of the Easter story. Personal human will is at its most free when it is aligned with God’s creative and redeeming love; Jesus, in both his nature and his history, is the figure who makes God’s love manifest and intelligible to us and who reassures and inspires us.
Thy Will Be Done retains many of the core features of an oratorio, especially in its use of alternating solo arias and choruses to develop the basic story and in its development of choral music to reflect plot, universal human response, prayer and praise. In addition, as a twenty-first century American piece, Thy Will Be Done benefits from some vocal strategies imported from operetta and musicals. Ultimately, however, no matter what musical genre the work derives its core ancestry from, its most important feature is its generous accessibility.
Soloists with The National Chorale and Orchestra in Angela Rice’s “Thy Will Be Done, An Easter Oratorio” (David Geffen Hall, March 16, 2018) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)Several soloists, independent professional musicians, took major roles – tenor Gregory Turay/Jesus, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin/Narrator I, baritone Kenneth Overton/Narrator 2, baritone Anthony Clark Evans/Devil and bass Kevin Thompson/Judas – while nine other individual roles were taken by individual singers featured from within The National Chorale. Though the independent musicians had larger roles, all of the soloists were first rate, shining as they sang alone and smoothly integrating their own voices with the chorus as a whole when soloists and the chorus sang together. Particularly fine in ‘minor’ roles were all the Marys – Rebecca Farley, Gina Morgano and Erica Koehring – and Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming, whose Holy, Holy, Holy (movement 21) was marvelous.
Though divided by one 20-minute intermission, the piece flowed smoothly from beginning to end, accumulating power as it proceeded. Of the individual roles, the only one with perceptible character development was Jesus: Turay’s subtle characterization moved from Jesus’ humanity to his deity by means of an examination of his anguish during his trial. Rice’s most subtle and compelling writing – also the most technically difficult music in the piece – appeared in Jesus’ remarkable and beautiful Gethsemane (movement 23).
The cumulative strength of Thy Will Be Done’s conclusion – the last four ‘movements,’ Greater Love, Come Holy Spirit, Light of the World and Love is Patient functioning essentially as one organic whole – was splendid, and irresistible. No matter what one’s theological bent, the final huge American romantic sweep of salvation in the work’s end could only be understood as joyful.
Thy Will Be Done is not an extremely technically demanding work … though if it were performed by any group with less than high artistic standards, it could be a mere sentimental sprawl of optimism, amiable at best. But the score’s clean and immediate accessibility does not diminish its worth: excellence doesn’t depend for its existence on difficulty or abstruseness. As a whole, The Will Be Done is balanced and coherent. Over time, no doubt, individual choruses will make their way into both sacred and secular choral repertoire for performances on their own. Psalm 23 (movement 2) was fresh, poignant and clear; Glory to God (movement 9) was grand and gracious, with particularly lovely writing for the soprano voice; Oh, Mary, for Mary Magdalene and Chorus, was intimately moving.
Throughout the performance, Everett McCorvey’s musical leadership was deeply felt and artistically effective. As a conductor, he is alert to balances among sections, soloists and the orchestra, eliciting flexible, organic attentiveness from all the artists to each other. McCorvey conducted this new work with sturdy integrity.
This was a splendid evening: composer, conductor, singers and musicians should remember it with pride, knowing that its strengths are built on its accumulated successes from the past and that its artistic future shines.
The National Chorale and Orchestra: Angela Rice’s Thy Will Be Done, An Easter Oratorio (March 16, 2018)
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
10 Lincoln Center Plaza at 64th Street, in Manhattan
For more information: http://www.nationalchorale.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission