St. Luke’s Church sponsors two concerts of ‘Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day’

One of the delights of writing this column is how often new and fascinating artistic organizations are constantly being formed in Western New York.

People who live in other locations, even those who live in major cities, are often amazed by the opportunities for artistic participation to be had here.

One of our newest musical groups is the Saint Luke’s Festival Choir. That choir is an extension of the regular adult choir which performs regularly for the services at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, in Jamestown, and includes soloists and choir members who are not members of the church, as well as the regular ensemble.

This is the third year in which the new choir has celebrated the last Friday before Thanksgiving by performing a major work of music with soloists and instrumental accompaniment. This year, they will perform “Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” by Georg Frideric Handel, on Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. The date of Nov. 22 is St. Cecilia’s Day, on the Calendar of Saints.

Those who will not be available to hear the performance on the 22nd, or those who find it more convenient to attend a performance in Olean, are welcome to attend an identical performance, tonight, at 7 p.m., at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 109 Barry St., in Olean.

I recently sat down with Andrew Schmidt, who is Director of Music at St. Luke’s, and with three of his soloists, to discuss the concert, so I could share it all with you. Let’s look at what they had to say, then give some background about St. Cecilia herself and about Handel, who wrote this work three years before his most famous composition, the oratorio “Messiah.” Schmidt pointed out a number of similarities between the “Ode” and “Messiah,” so those who love the familiar work are likely to enjoy this one, for the same reasons, although they may be surprised to find that this work is secular in nature, and ranges from segments with serious, religious content to some which are downright silly, and intended to entertain, rather than to inspire.

DIRECTOR AND SOLOISTS

Schmidt recently celebrated his third anniversary of playing on St. Luke’s excellent pipe organ, and leading the church’s adult choir and children’s choir. A native of Jamestown, he is the son of Paul and Merrillee Schmidt, and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, with a degree in piano performance.

The “Ode” was written by Handel to be performed by a tenor soloist, three soprano soloists, and an alto soloist. Singing the tenor solos will be James Beal, a retired professional singer of opera and a regular member of St. Luke’s Choir. The soprano soloists will be Victoria McIlvain, Ruth Yancey Walton, and Caitlin O’Reilly. Catherine Way, of Jamestown, will perform as alto soloist.

The singing ensemble has 25 members. Yancey Walton and O’Reilly were unavailable to speak with us, but we enjoyed learning from the rest about their coming project.

I learned that Beal first suggested this piece of music, last spring, when plans were first being made for this concert. “Jim Beal had sung this work, back in the 1960s, when he was a student at Franklin and Marshall College, and again at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh. He sang it again, in Europe as a professional guest soloist, and he thought it was something our local group could do successfully, which might be a welcome new experience for local audiences,” Schmidt told me.

“I think our Festival Choir has grown and matured very much, in the three years it has been singing,” Beal said. “I would love it, if we could one day be singing major works of music, like the Brahms “Requiem,” or Haydn’s “The Creation,” but I know that choirs grow, step by step, to be able to do those works, and I felt this would be a good reach for us, toward that goal.”

Schmidt went out and purchased three different recordings of the “Ode,” and after hearing all three, was convinced that it was the right work for 2013. “The text is by English poet John Dryden. Some of it is humorous, in a style often used by the Monty Python Troupe of performers from England. Handel loved to paint the subjects of his lyrics with his music, so descriptions of the flutes or the violins not only describe the instruments, they sound like them, as well. On the other hand, the work concludes with a grand fugue which is every bit as glorious as the one at the end of “Messiah.”

The director quoted the cover of one of the recordings of the work, which said Handel is a man of plain and decent belief, who could approach the idea of the Last Judgment with unclouded optimism, something which he believes makes the piece of music so enjoyable for listeners as well as performers.

Catherine Way is a member of the regular St. Luke’s Choir, as well as the Festival Choir. She said she believes that Schmidt has challenged the singers to try bigger and more demanding works than they have been used to performing, and has caused them all to grow.

“The Festival Choir idea was started by St. Luke’s previous organist, Ron McEntire, together with the Rev. Eric Williams, who was then Rector of St. Luke’s. McEntire is now organist at Christ First United Methodist Church, in Jamestown, and the Rev. Williams has moved on to a calling in Michigan, but their replacements, Schmidt and the Rev. Elizabeth Simmons, are continuing to boost the program of annual performances of challenging major works.

Schmidt reported that St. Cecilia’s Day, or Nov. 22, is also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the program will begin with a brief memorial to the slain president. “We’re still discussing whether it should be a read passage or a vocal or instrumental performance, or one or more patriotic hymns, performed by the choir and the audience, but it will last about 10 minutes, at the very beginning of the program, and will be followed by the “St. Cecilia Ode,” which lasts about 50 minutes. We expect the entire evening to take about an hour,” Schmidt said.

Performing with the choir will be a small orchestra, invited to perform by Schmidt, specifically for this concert. Instrumentalists will be violinist Cathy Regis-Green, violinist Sadie Anderson, cellist Daniel Johnson, tympanist Craig Ridgeway, and organist Jack Bollman. Bollman is the organist at St. Stephen’s, in Olean. Tonight’s concert will be held in his home church.

“We’re going to add at least one more instrumentalist, but anyone who has tried to put together an ensemble of musicians will understand why that remains uncertain at the time of this interview,” Schmidt said.

THE NEWCOMER

The soloists whom I’ve named, but haven’t described yet is soprano Victoria McIlvain. She is a voice student of James Beal, and is currently a senior at Jamestown High School, in the process of applying to colleges and conservatories for the 2014-15 scholastic year. Her applications will be to the Juilliard School, in New York City; the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester; the music department of Mercyhurst College, in Erie; the program at Ithaca College, and that of the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Beal admitted that it’s hard for a singing teacher to pass along one of his most talented students to other teachers. “Singing is such a difficult and fragile thing, and we’re always worried that someone else will assign things which will over-use the voice or damage the vocal chords. But, getting instruction from various teachers is good for any student, and it’s important that singers move forward. She sings like an angel,” Beal said.

Schmidt added that the solos she has been assigned include one in which she is required to hold a high A-natural for 16 beats, without a breath – a feat beyond the ability of all but a handful of singers, in the world.

She is currently studying with Beal through Jamestown Community College. Everyone present was quick to speak with enthusiasm about her talents, including the critic from the local newspaper, who was delighted by a recent exquisite performance at St. Luke’s of the “Pie Jesu” from the “Requiem” of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Beal described her as one of the most talented sopranos with whom he has worked in his long career as a music teacher.

The young singer reported that even as a very young child, she wanted to be a singer, although her original goal was to sing rock music, until she grew into high school and came into contact with classical music and opera.

The soprano most recently was soloist at the inauguration ceremonies for the new president of JCC.

Admission to both concerts is free of charge, although a free will offering will be taken both evenings for the purchase of future sheet music and other expenses of the performances. Hear them tonight at St. Stephen’s, at 7 p.m. or Nov. 22 at St. Luke’s at 8 p.m. I recommend either performance to you, with all my heart.

ST. CECILIA

According to one church-sponsored web site, St. Cecilia lived in Rome, in the Fourth Century of the Common Era. She is viewed as a saint by the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Eastern Catholic Church.

She was a life-long Christian, who was betrothed by her parents to a noble, young Roman, who had been raised a pagan. She is traditionally viewed as the patron saint of music, and especially of church music, and in art, she is often portrayed playing a musical instrument. She is claimed to have converted her husband and his brother, even though publicly accepting Christianity resulted in a death sentence, in those days. A Roman soldier named Maximus was sent to arrest her, and on meeting her, he also accepted Christianity and martyrdom. In the 16th Century, an uncorrupted corpse was discovered which was claimed to be hers.

She is one of only seven women, other than the Virgin Mary, to be mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.

St. Cecilia’s Day was a major holiday in the historical period in which Handel was composing. Poems were dedicated to her by Dryden and by Alexander Pope, among others. Works of music were devoted to her by Henry Purcell, G.F. Handel, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Charles Gounod, Benjamin Britten, and Gerald Finzi, among others.

HANDEL

Georg Frideric Handel, whose name has many spellings, was born in Halle, Germany, in 1865. Also born that year, one month later than Handel, was Johann Sebastian Bach. The two are usually considered the greatest composers of the Baroque Era.

Handel’s family members were not music lovers, and they opposed his seeking a career in the artform, but his success as both a performing musician and as a composer was such that they agreed to his study in Halle, and later in Hamburg, and then in Italy. One popular story about him — which is almost certainly partially or entirely invented — is that as a young man, he was signed to a contract to compose and perform music for the Elector of the German city-state of Hanover. When his talents outgrew the Elector’s budget and his willingness to support music, Handel skipped out on his contract and fled to London, where he eventually formed three separate opera companies to perform his compositions,

Ironically, not long after his arrival in England, Queen Anne died, leaving no living children, and her throne was inherited by a distant cousin who turned out to be the Elector of Hanover. He ruled England as George I. The degree of the enmity between George and Handel has been described by different historians as everything from undying hatred and threat, to mild annoyance, on the King’s part, for Handel’s abandonment of his contract.

At any rate, Handel lived in England for 50 years, during which he composed operas, oratorios, anthems, and concertos. When he died, in 1759, he was buried in the floor of Westminster Abbey, one of the greatest honors England has paid to artists, throughout the years.

Handel is nearly always included in lists of the greatest composers of all time. For many years, in the 20th Century, his operas faded almost completely away, especially because it was a Baroque tradition to compose operas for castrati, that is, men who have been castrated as a child, which gives a singer a high, pure, child-like voice, but with the projection and the resonance of an adult. As the past century drew to a close, increasingly the heroic roles in Handel’s operas have been sung by women, and by countertenors, who are intact men who have trained their voices to sing in ranges normally used by women.