Jack Quinn

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The Cecilia Chorus of New York: Mangia! Holiday Music with the Flavor of Italy
By: Jean Ballard Terepka
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The Cecilia Chorus of New York

In his program notes, The Cecilia Chorus of New York's new music director and conductor, Mark Shapiro wrote, “With new beginnings in mind, we are venturing outside the standard repertoire, presenting unfamiliar but masterful music by several wonderful composers alongside a household name.” The evening was an entirely happy set of new beginnings.

The opening two works, motets about the Virgin Mary, were composed by Baroque composer Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704).

In the stunning creativity of new music in seventeenth century Italy, a number of women composers rose to prominence. Leonarda, one of these women, wrote prolifically, apparently beginning her career as a composer after the age of fifty. Her reputation was established long before her death: writer Lazaro Agostino Cotta praised her contributions to “the art of music” in his 1701 collection of biographies of contemporary musicians and composers.

Leonarda, an uncloistered Ursuline religious, wrote both instrumental works and choral works. Her large corpus of sacred vocal compositions is unified by her unostentatious command of innovative characteristics of contemporary music and her effective, easy wedding of text to musical phrasing.

For this performance of a Litany of the Blessed Virgin and a motet, Alma Redemptoris Mater (Kindly Mother of the Redeemer), the Cecilia Chorus of New York had more singers and instrumentalists than Leonarda herself might ever have had access to. Shapiro therefore asked contemporary composer, Raphael Fusco, whose newest work was premiered later in the program, to supplement Leonarda's original orchestration.

The result was lovely. The Litany was mellifluous and elegant. Leonarda's melodies are open-hearted and welcoming. Singers and instrumentalists responded warmly and expressively to Shapiro's conducting. The closing “Agnus Dei” was the most ornamented and dense section of the litany. The more fervid and plaintive Alma Redemptoris Mater followed naturally and smoothly from the Litany.

Equally natural was the transition from Leonarda to the mid-twentieth century The Christmas Story by Italian-American composer Peter Mennin (1923-1983).

From the opening vigorous choral exhortation, “Arise, shine,” to the narrative passages presented alternately by chorus and soloists, to the final grand, triumphant and gorgeous “Alleluiah” sung by all the singers together, this oratorio-like account of Jesus's nativity is a wonderful piece. This telling of the Christmas story embodies happy intensity: it's an important and momentous story. The women's chorus, “The People that Walked in Darkness,” moves in harmonies from darkness to optimistic hopefulness. The following chorus, “For unto us a child is born,” has a particularly urban energy to it: Christmas isn't just for shepherds.

Tenor Cullen Gandy's big, flexible voice was well suited to the drama of his narrative solos.

The most beautiful Mennin solo belonged to soprano Julia Bullock. With the chorus skillfully providing both story and context for the story of the shepherds' sighting of the angel, Bullock's assertion that there was no need for fear was compelling.

In portions of Mennin's writing for chorus and orchestra, there are echoes of Copland's wide open optimism, but the particular energy and harmonies are Mennin's own. Mennin was not a prolific composer, but the works he wrote deserve to be heard more often.

After the intermission came the premiere of Raphael Fusco's Divis Cetera: An Ode from Mount Soracte, commissioned by The Cecilia Chorus. It is a splendid piece, a mature and wise piece, from a quite young composer: Fusco was born in 1984.

Fusco's chosen text was the “Ode from Mount Soracte” by ancient Roman poet Horace (65 BCE – 8 BCE). The poem is Horace at his best and most subtle: it brings to the familiar notion that the present moment must be cherished a sense of wise wistfulness about days gone by. The ode simultaneously looks to the hopefulness of spring while wet, heavy winter snows burden the landscape. The lovely present moment to be relished is never quite here: it is gone, or yet to come. It is elusive. Horace's deft and elegant verses compel us not to drink and be merry, but to consider why we make the choices we do.

Fusco's music and Horace's text inhabit each other well; the chorus sang beautifully. The opening lyricism of the piece evoked Respighi, successfully locating listeners in a remembered Rome. Some passages of the piece were light and flirtatious; others conveyed gentle world-weariness. The very last stanza of the ode contains its most ephemeral images – the quiet laughter of an unseen girl, a dropped lover's token. The musical conclusion of the work, though still reminiscently pastoral, was the most complex and demanding part of the piece, an ending appropriate to the depths of Horace's meanings. Wonderful.

Vivaldi's Gloria followed. What better work could there be for celebrating the present moment? The bracing familiarity of the Gloria was a marvelous programming choice for the final piece. The Gloria's exuberant joy recalled the warm, welcoming tone of the Leonarda pieces at the beginning of the program. The content of the Gloria is the theological affirmation of the Christmas story's divine purpose. The “Laudamus Te” duet sung by soprano Bullock and mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson sparkled. The chorus, as a whole, singing clearly and cleanly, conveyed a sense of tremendous joy about both the content of the Gloria and singing itself.

From the Baroque to the contemporary, the works on this program fit well together. They were, of course, all Italian in origin or inspiration. The particular beauty of each was well matched by the beauty of the others.

Interestingly, the four composers – the seventeenth century nun, the eighteenth century priest, the twentieth century Italian-American conservatory president and the twenty-first century New Jersey-born, Italian descended composer, conductor and key-board musician – all share two interconnected characteristics. First, their music is accessible and pleasing. For choral and vocal music especially, the intelligibility of the text is paramount. It is the particular gift of Leonarda, Vivaldi, Mennin and Fusco that their music, inventive and innovative in its era, serves and illuminates the texts at hand. For these composers, like the best of their colleagues, musical accessibility never compromises musical integrity.

The second shared characteristic of these four composers lies in the fact that they are all educators; they are, in addition, competent – and in the case of Leonarda and Mennin, superb – institutional administrators. Leonarda and Vivaldi taught as part of their duties in the church. Leonarda's administrative career as an Ursuline Mother Vicar coincided with her composing career. Mennin served as director of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore before becoming president of Juilliard, overseeing its move to Lincoln Center in 1969. In addition, he was president and subsequently chairman of the National Music Council.

Fusco, though young and still early in his career, teaches at the new, non-traditional Mahanaim College as well as at Turtle Bay Music School. Fusco's multi-faceted musical activities, including international collaborative projects such as can be examined at http://www.raphaelfusco.com , can't be sustained without administrative and management skills.

If they are to be successful as professional musicians, choral composers – in the past as now – must know their way around the institutions that might employ them and must be savvy about the real world strategies required to find financial support for their creative projects. And even then, neither current prosperity nor admiration in posterity are ever sure things.

The December 22, 2012 Cecilia Chorus concert, “Holiday Music with the Flavor of Italy,” was a very fine beginning to the 2012-2013 season and to Shapiro's leadership of the chorus. The evening's beautiful music, including a new work, affirmed the fact that continued success of contemporary choral singing and composition in America depends, at least in part, on choral societies such as The Cecilia Chorus of New York. These choral societies bring together amateur and professional musicians and performers, rich and varied repertoires, including new works, and enthusiastic audiences.

The Cecilia Chorus of New York's performance in Carnegie Hall last week was festive and lovely. It also attested to this group's continued important place in the New York City choral music landscape.

The Cecilia Chorus of New York: Mangia! Holiday Music with the Flavor of Italy (December 22, 2012)
Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan
For more information, call 212-247-7800 or visit http://www.carnegiehall.org or http://www.ceciliachorusny.org

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