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"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. . ." Those words, made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem Ulysses, take on new meaning on November 13 and 19 when Melodia Women's Choir holds the first concerts of its ninth season.
The program will feature the world premiere of a piece called The Journey, by New York-based composer Catherine Aks. Tennyson's text urges us to "sail beyond the sunset," though "it may be that the gulfs will wash us down." With this encouragement, the 35-voice choir has tackled the intricate melodies and deceptive rhythms created by Aks, who will be in attendance at the concerts.
Also featured will be a rarely-performed work by America's first critically successful female composer, Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach (1867-1944). Her piece, The Chambered Nautilus (1907), borrows its text from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem of the same name. Beach, a woefully under-performed composer who grew up in New Hampshire, was quite famous in her time. She began a promising career as a piano soloist in 1883, but stopped two years later when her new husband demanded that she perform only one public concert a year and focus instead on composition.
Although written over 100 years ago, Beach's The Chambered Nautilus remains relevant--not only as a stirring metaphor for growth and improvement ("Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul. . . Leave thy low-vaulted past"), but as an anthem to a magical mollusk whose logarithmic spirals mimic the patterns of other galaxies-- a creature whose existence is now in peril due to overfishing. Just as the nautilus outgrows its cramped quarters and moves on, Beach left the "low-vaulted past" demanded by her husband and embarked on a European concert circuit after his death in 1910. Employing innovative harmonies, the piece's rolling, sometimes turbulent accompaniment pairs naturally with an exaltation of the "silent toil" that fuels any transformation. In keeping with the concert's "journey" theme, Melodia will perform three Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda -- Second Group” by Gustav Holst, a dynamic voyage through fire and water. And Melodia is proud to present the New York debut of Cecilia McDowall's Ave Maria, an apt and haunting setting of the classic liturgical text. The Virgin will make appearances in two other of the evening's offerings: Verdi's a cappella Laudi alla Virgine Maria,” and Fauré's two-part Maria, Mater gratiae, a simple prayer begging mercy at the hour of our death. "The power of growth and change is our journey's connecting thread," says Artistic Director Cynthia Powell. "The centerpieces of our program from Amy Beach, a neglected giant of American music, and Catherine Aks, a gifted voice of the present, have their work set to the words of two poets who pay tribute to the indomitable human spirit and exhort us to think and act beyond limitations." Add to that some classical celebrations of the Holy Mother, and a little Hindu mysticism for good measure, and you've got quite a trip.
In the words of Tennyson's Ulysses: Come, my friends!
Melodia will perform Sunday, November 13 at 3 PM at West End Collegiate Church (West 77th and West End Avenue), and Saturday, November 19 at 8 PM at Holy Apostles Church (296 Ninth Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets) with receptions to follow. Tickets and information: www.melodiawomenschoir.org.
Rachel Quimby is a writer and radio producer in New York City.