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Article Published May 8, 2018
GMChorale Thrills Audience with Rarely-Heard Early Baroque Oratorio Jephte
By Marcia Bliven
More than a third of those in the audience were first-time attendees who had come to hear what a choral concert is like. The pre-concert talk by Dr. Neely Bruce was attended by more than 200 people.
MIDDLETOWN, CONN. (May 8, 2018) — The GMChorale knows its audience. This ensemble, now in its fifth decade, and with more than 80 dedicated singers from 34 Connecticut communities, is known for taking a chance on lesser-known music and presenting it with such commitment and verve that the audience asks for more.
On April 29, the singers of the Chorale, under the direction of Artistic Director Joseph D’Eugenio, performed "Jephte," the exquisite but rarely-heard oratorio by early Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi. After the performance, members of the audience who gathered in the lobby of the MHS Performing Arts Center in Middletown asked why this moving music is not performed more often. About a third of the audience were first-time attendees, some of whom had never before heard a concert of choral music.
The GMChorale has a long history of presenting “classic” choral masterworks, but also embraces new music, especially in the form of commissions and special collaborations. In 2013, the GMChorale premiered a new oratorio, "Letter from Italy, 1944," that had been commissioned by the Chorale of Connecticut Grammy nominee and composer Sarah Meneely-Kyder. Music has also been commissioned from well-known choral composers such as Gwyneth Walker, Eugenie Rocherolle, Peter Niedmann, Colin Britt, Ellen Gilson Voth, Lee McQuillan, and Henry Mollicone.
“It’s easy to program familiar music,” said D’Eugenio, who has led the ensemble for twenty seasons. “It’s easy for the singers to prepare familiar music, and it’s easy for an audience to come to listen to an old favorite like Handel’s "Messiah." And we love "Messiah," too, and plan to perform it again soon. But at the GMChorale, we are also looking for every opportunity to broaden our experience as musicians, and to offer a wide variety of great choral music to the community, including music that other ensembles do not perform. Presenting "Jephte"was a great opportunity to make this happen.”
“In choosing to present 'Jephte,' we knew we were taking a bit of a risk,” he added. “Who has even heard of this music, except for music scholars? Many of our singers were unfamiliar with the vocal techniques required to perform music from this period. And we knew that our audience might not know what to expect. So we took time to learn — and to share what we had learned.”
In a series of informative newsletters, easy-to-understand printed program notes, and a well-attended pre-concert talk by Dr. Neely Bruce, Professor of Music at Wesleyan University, the GMChorale shared information about Carissimi’s life, the stories behind his composition of "Jephte," and how this music has had a profound influence on other composers, including Bach and Handel. Behind the scenes during the Chorale’s weekly rehearsals, D’Eugenio worked with the singers, providing guidance on how to understand and perform this old, rather obscure music.
“When our singers performed this music with joy and passion, and when our audience responded so warmly and with genuine curiosity, we knew that the risk had been worth it,” said Nancy Schultz, a member of the ensemble and president of the GMChorale’s Board of Directors. “We were at first shocked, then thrilled, to see more than 200 people arrive early for Dr. Bruce’s pre-concert talk; clearly, our listeners were as eager as we were to learn more about this interesting, very beautiful music.”
Following the concert, members of the audience were invited on stage to get a closer look at the Baroque-period instruments. Dozens took advantage of the opportunity, including children, lingering long after the final notes had died away to talk with the singers and with Baroque keyboard specialist Edward Clark, who encouraged everyone to peer inside the portative pipe organ and to learn a little about how a harpsichord works.
In addition to "Jephte," the program included a selection of springtime madrigals and the effervescent "Te Deum" of Franz Joseph Haydn. The singers of the Middletown High School Concert Choir joined the GMChorale to perform the madrigals and the "Te Deum." The younger singers also took center stage with a lively madrigal sung on their own under the direction of MHS Choral Director Stephanie Zak, who also sings in the GMChorale.
“Rehearsing and performing alongside these young singers is a wonderful experience,” said Joyce Kirkpatrick, a charter member of the GMChorale and head of the organization’s development and fundraising programs. “They are the future of choral music, not only as singers, but as teachers and supporters and members of the future audience. We are grateful to make music with them, to share our love for the choral art, and to be inspired by their young voices.”
The concert was the final appearance by the GMChorale in the “Resounding Voices” 2017-2018 season, a series of concerts that highlighted some of the most strikingly beautiful music in the choral repertoire. A concert on June 3 by Alchemy, the 24-voice vocal chamber of the GMChorale, takes place on Sunday, June 3, at 4:00pm, at United Congregational Church of Tolland. The church’s chancel choir will join Alchemy for several selections on the program. Artistic Director Joseph D’Eugenio conducts.
The GMChorale’s next event is on Sunday, June 10, when members and friends of the Chorale will gather at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown for a festive gala to celebrate the successful concert, mark Maestro D’Eugenio’s 20th season as Artistic Director, and share news about the upcoming season. The public is invited to attend this special event; tickets are $75 and reservations are required by May 26, 2018. Information is at www.gmchorale.org.
The GMChorale’s 2018-2019 season will be announced soon. Music lovers are encouraged to join the GMC’s mailing list for earliest notice of next season’s programs.