The Providence Singers continue their quest to bring forgotten choral works by American masters to the stage with a performance this weekend of Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale, an eclectic concoction that blends fugues, hymns and sea chanteys with a text that spans many centuries. Performances at Blessed Sacrament Church on Academy Avenue are slated for tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon, as part of the ongoing FirstWorks Festival.
The Singers have taken an interest of late in resurrecting neglected pieces for chorus and orchestra. Last year they staged and then recorded the Lukas Foss cantata The Prairie. The CD of that venture is due out this month.
Now the group has turned its attention to the dramatic 1974 score by Argento, a noted opera composer based in the Twin Cities. This, as far as anyone knows, will be its New England premiere, and probably the seventh performance in more than three decades.
Once again, the Singers will be collaborating with instrumentalists from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, or BMOP, the group that provided the backup for the Foss. In this case, the Argento calls for nine players — three trombones, who give voice to the whale in a lilting intermezzo, piano, harp and organ, along with three percussionists who play a battery of instruments. What the ensemble lacks in size, it makes up for in volume.
After this weekend’s performances, the Singers and the BMOP players will head to Worcester’s Mechanics Hall to record the piece on Nov. 16. “We’re interested in identifying neglected choral-orchestral works by major Pulitzer Prize-level American composers in hopes of generating interest in getting these pieces back in the repertoire,” said the Singers’ artistic director, Andrew Clark.
“In this difficult economic climate for the arts, it’s risky for a choral organization to go outside the boundaries of the most familiar and beloved masterworks from the past 400 years. But we’re hoping that through the collaboration with BMOP that every few years we can find one of these great works by master American composers that we can bring to light.”
Clark said he is also interested in acquainting listeners with the music of Argento, who has won a Pulitzer and a Grammy. He is one of this country’s “most celebrated and gifted composers,” said Clark.
Jonah tells the Biblical story of the man who was washed overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale. The story is told through a text that relies on a variety of sources, from a fourth-century prayer, a medieval English poem and contemporary writings by the composer himself. “Just from the text alone,” said Clark, “you have about six different sources.”
Musically, the piece is just as varied. It begins with a chorale, a sort of 20th-century take on the music of Bach. Portions of the score use old church modes, and there are folk tunes and sea chanteys woven into the mix. And when Jonah is upset he sings an atonal melody that uses a 12-tone row. When he’s repentant, he sings as sweetly as an Irish tenor or a Bach evangelist, said Clark.
And when he’s “whiney and petulant,” he said, he sounds like he’s part of a 1970s rock opera. Finding a singer who could encompass all these styles wasn’t easy. Argento wrote the piece with a certain singer in mind, someone who was comfortable with opera as well as musical theater. The Singers have booked a versatile English tenor named Daniel Norman, who is coming to the United States for the weekend’s performance and the recording.
The voice of God will be sung by bass Daniel Cole, who Clark said has a wonderfully low voice.
“I don’t know if it’s the water or evolution, but it very hard to find a low basso outside of Russia or Eastern Europe,” said Clark. “But we found one.” Local actor Tom Oakes will serve as the narrator.
The entire score takes about 50 minutes, but the Singers plan to supplement that with a 25-minute set of folk songs and spirituals about water, tunes like “Down by the Riverside.” At least that will be the case tomorrow night. Sunday’s concert is geared more for children, and will set aside some time to familiarize the audience with snippets of the Argento, then perform perhaps a couple of folk songs.
Even though Jonah is all over the map musically, Clark said the writing is masterful.
“There isn’t a drop of ink on the page that is superfluous or extraneous,” said Clark. Argento, in fact, ties together all the themes of the pieces in the final five minutes, in a coda that’s a musical tour de force, mixing a Protestant hymn with the trombones’ whale song and other interludes. “When I heard this piece for the first time on an LP that’s out of print, I was overcome with the remarkable inevitability at the end of the work that was so clever and inspiring,” said Clark. “This master craftsman was able to take all these elements and make the listener feel like they have traveled that journey with Jonah, that they have experienced all his ups and downs.”
The Providence Singers perform Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale tomorrow night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2 at Blessed Sacrament Church, 179 Academy Ave., Providence. Tickets are $26 at the door, $22 in advance, $16 for new audience members (see www.providencesingers.org for details) and $5 for students and children. Seniors and WGBH and WRNI members are $22 at the door. Call (401) 621-6123 or log on to www.arttixri.com.