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"There are so many different ways to be thankful, and so many ways to express it," Dr. Matthew Lewis explains when asked about the theme of St. George's Choral Society's 195th season opener, titled "For All Our Gifts--Music for Thanksgiving." "Music may not be what usually comes to mind when thinking about Thanksgiving," he adds, "but what better way to express its sentiment--gratefulness and the celebration of plenty--than with song?"
The conductor and artistic director, now in his ninth season with the group, has chosen a bold, contemporary program for the fall concert. He promises a new harmonic experience for both the choir and audience that will be, he says, "exciting and dramatic, strange and funky… and thrilling!"
Considering the fascinating variety of texts and composers on the bill, it's not likely he's wrong. From traditional Thanksgiving canon like psalm 100 ("Make a joyful noise unto the lord, all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness") to the chaotic and fevered religious poetry of Christopher Smart ("For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God"), the Choral Society will be presenting works that draw on aspects of nature, animals, thankfulness and praise--a universal celebration of forces.
The full choir of nearly 70 singers will perform Isadore Freed's Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord, Max Janowski's Hariu, and Jean Berger's The Eyes of All. The group will also present Benjamin Britten's festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, and the rarely performed Three Harvest Home Chorales by Charles Ives.
The Select Ensemble will present Pilgrims' Hymn and We Gather Together by Stephen Paulus, and Antiphon by Randall Thompson, two agile, exciting pieces that will showcase a finer and more delicately tuned sound.
But the most intriguing part of the program is a pair of commissioned pieces by James Bassi. a New York composer whose CV is full of premieres and performances at some of the world's most recognized venues—his One Hour to Madness and Joy, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, premiered at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for choir and organ, premiered at St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Several of his compositions premiered at Cathedral of St. John the Divine New York City, where he was staff musician. Barry Oliver and NYC Gay Men's Chorus have commissioned and premiered his choral work. So have Dennis Keene and Voices of Ascension.
"James Bassi is a wonderful composer who really knows how to write for a chorus. We're excited about this new work not only for our own program, but also for the life it will have beyond our fall concert. It's a way for St. George's Choral Society to give back to the rich choral community of New York City," says Dr. Lewis. "The idea of being thankful, of having gratitude--it's a good spiritual place to be. You can't sing without being grateful."
Bassi's work for the Choral Society, Two Anthems, is tailor-made for the group. "It's of paramount importance to understand the voice you're writing for. Every group has their own, unique sound," the composer says. "St. George's Choral Society is symphonic, full, and romantic. I wanted these pieces to capture that feeling." He chose "Thee God, I come from, to thee go" by Gerard Manley Hopkins and "O Lord, support us" from the Book of Common Prayer as the texts because of their complimentary reaffirmative and supplicative properties. "The dramatic structure spoke to me," he reveals. The result of that conversation is a pair of affecting pieces that meditate on the role thankfulness plays in our lives through beautiful and expressive harmonic lines—the signature of a Bassi composition.
"I'm grateful for the commission," he says. "To have the opportunity to write for musicians is an instant positive, part of the inspiration. And for someone like Dr. Lewis to have faith in me is a reaffirmation of the value of my work."
Two Anthems, for chorus SATB and organ, will be a showpiece in St. George's Choral Society's fall concert, adding not only an exceptional work but also the thrill of a world premier to the striking harmonic idiom Dr. Lewis has constructed with this program of modern choral music. Be there to hear it on Sunday, November 18 at 3 PM at Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tickets are $25 at the door, or $20 in advance.
Alisun Armstrong is a copywriter and soprano living in Queens who loves to bake birthday cakes. You can see some of her non-edible--but award-winning--work at onpage9.com/alisuna.