Notebook: Thy Will Be Done world premiere

Bluegrass Opera artistic director Lorne Dechtenberg, composer Angela Rice, soprano Lori White and tenor Gregory Turay in the sanctuary of Central Christian Church. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

If you walk away from this week’s world premiere performances of Angela Rice’s Thy Will Be Done wondering what else she’s written, we’ll save you the trouble.

Nothing.

The performance program notes her achievements as a performing musician and an arts supporter with both her money and time. But as her voice teacher, Lexington music icon Phyllis Jenness notes, “until last September she had never written a lick.”

Yet, Sunday afternoon, the audience in Central Christian Church was treated to an hour of her works: the Thy Will Be Done and a shorter work, Martyred Maid, based on the story of Joan of Arc. We also heard an Italian version of the Lord’s Prayer, O Padre Nostro, which appears in the English cantata.

While Rice has not composed before, it is fair to say that someone who has been involved in music as much as she has probably has developed a good sense of what makes a piece of music work. Not everyone, of course, can translate that onto sheet music, but Rice appears to have the knack.

No, this is not the new Handel’s Messiah, but then what is? In the grand scheme of church cantatas, Thy Will Be Done is a solid piece of work that should certainly be able to stand with a lot of other offerings on the church cantata market. It’s a straight-forward, scripture-based work that tells the story of Jesus Christ bookended with the promise of Psalm 23 and the instruction of the beatitudes. The instrumentation is piano-based with flourishes from small instrumental ensemble, and it requires a small choral ensemble with a few strong male and female soloists.

Now the ensemble assembled by the Bluegrass Opera for Sunday’s world premiere, which will be repeated Wednesday at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church, sets the bar pretty  high.

Most churches will have a tenor soloist, but precious few have one as strong as Gregory Turay, who led this production as Jesus Christ.  In his performance, Rice’s version of the Lord’s Prayer seemed like a plausible alternative to the Albert Hay Malotte version that is often the default setting of the prayer. It Rice’s interpretation, it is lighter and more lyrical than Malotte’s take, which can be driven to grandiose levels.

Rice’s setting of Greater Love also seems to be an ideal hit single in the church choir world.

There are some sterling moments specific to this work too, including the blend of Anabelle Wright-Gatton as Mary and Amanda Balltrip as Elizabeth in Mary’s Song and Duet. Director Lorne Dechtenberg and Turay also navigate Rice’s most dramatic moment, Christ’s plea on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me,” a dramatic and forceful statement, immediately followed by Jim Smith’s much more subdued narration. He and Sarah Klopfenstein were solid narrators throughout the performance, Klopfenstein sounding as authoritative as she ever has.

It was a little hard to get past the staging of Martyred Maid to hear the piece. Soprano Lori White was very busy following stage directions of dubious importance that drew attention away from what was a melodic and dramatic piece.

Thy Will could do with a little more dramatic and stylistic variety, but a composer’s first offering this strong and of this scope is fairly unanticipated. This debut performance whets the appetite for what could be next from Rice who, in an interview last week, sounded as anxious to get back to writing as she was to hear this performance.

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