Counterpoint, Vermont’s professional vocal ensemble, is well known for its performance of African American spirituals and folk music. For its March program, rather than focusing on genres typically associated with Black performers, such as spirituals, ragtime, or the blues, it features composers of color who worked in the western classical styles of their times.
“This program celebrates the stylistic diversity of composers with roots in Africa across a range of historical eras,” said Counterpoint Artistic Director Nathaniel G. Lew. “Classical ensembles are coming to terms these days with the gaps we have opened in the repertory through prejudice and neglect.”
Counterpoint will present “Living Water,” directed by Lew with Woodstock organist Lubbert Gnodde, featuring sacred music by composers of African heritage. Included are works from the 18th to the 21st centuries by José Maurício Nunes Garcia, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Florence Price and Trevor Weston, among others.
Performances by the 12-voice vocal ensemble will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Barre Unitarian-Universalist Church; at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at First Congregational Church in Norwich; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at First Congregational Church in Manchester.
“There’s a variety of composers, some well known, some less known,” Lew said. “Putting together a program like this takes several years. It wasn’t an impulse — it happened over time.”
Nunes Garcia (1767-30), a composer of mixed race who lived in Brazil, is strongly reminiscent of Mozart, whose music had been brought to Brazil from the Portuguese court.
“He’s a contemporary of Beethoven and worked his entire life in Rio di Janiero,” Lew said. “As far as I understand he was the official cathedral composer and he wrote over a dozen Masses. He wrote a beautiful Requiem that starts like the Mozart Requiem and wanders off in his own direction. He clearly adored the music of Mozart.
“If he had been in Europe his influence would have been either Rossini or Beethoven,” Lew said. “But because he was literally on the other side of the Earth, he must have had a shelf full of Mozart. And he captures it, but with his own fingerprint.”
Counterpoint will perform the Mass of St. Peter Alcántara (1809) by Nunes Garcia written to be performed with organ accompaniment.
“The other piece that came along that clinched it was due to the Florence Price (1887-1953) renaissance,” Lew said. “Somewhere along the line, I came across these movements that were essentially a Mass on YouTube or something. It was a really lovely piece that she wrote for her Presbyterian church. The problem with these editions is that they’re full of typos and you have to reconstruct a little bit.”
Price’s Mass (Communion Service) in F is very much in the style of mid-20th century American church music.
“It doesn’t make demands on the listener like her Second Violin Concerto, a much more characteristic Florence Price piece,” Lew said. “You can see she wrote it for her community — it’s really lovely —and it gives the organist a chance to use some nice colors.”
Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912) was an English conductor and composer who was deeply influenced by the Romantic works of Antonin Dvořák.
“If we were going to do composers with African roots, I didn’t want it just to be African American composers,” Lew said. “We ended up with an anthem, “Now Late on the Sabbath Day” (1901), by Coleridge Taylor. He worked in an Anglican church in Edwardian England, and his music is Elgar-like, post-Dvořák, very chromatic, very dramatic church music for that period. So we finish with a big organ part.”
Lubbert will also perform Coleridge Taylor’s Impromptu No. 2 for Organ, as well as the Pastorale from Organ Suite No. 1 (1958) by Ulysses Kay (1917-95) earlier in the program.
Lew still needed more for a full program.
“My friend Trevor Weston (b.1967), who I went to graduate school with, just had a premiere by the San Francisco Symphony,” Lew said. “He has an anthem, “Rivers of Living Water” (2003), which is the perfect opener. So, we’ll start with Trevor’s piece and do the two Masses, the Nunes Garcia and the Coleridge Taylor.”
Finally, Lew selected a 15th century Renaissance composer, Vicente Lusitano (1520-c.1562), who was also believed to be a person of mixed race.
“So, right in the middle of the program, between the two organ pieces, we’re going to do a short motet,” he said. “This Regina caeli (first part) is straight Renaissance pre-Palestrina style, beautiful, beautiful writing.”
“So, every single composer was a person of color,” Lew said. “I like that.”
Counterpoint was founded in 1999 by the late beloved Robert De Cormier. Under the direction of Lew since 2012, Counterpoint draws its roster of singers from across Vermont and New Hampshire. Its diverse repertory includes folk songs from around the world, African American spirituals, sacred music of many traditions, and works by classical and contemporary composers.
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