CityBeat’s Anne Arenstein wrote this review in early December 2014 of the Cincinnati Camerata’s annual Marian concert tradition at Mother of God Church in Covington, Kentucky. Read more of Anne’s writing about local arts culture here!
By Anne Arenstein, December 3rd 2014. CityBeat.
Photo by Roy Marecki, @shuttersedge.
This time of year there’s an endless menu of Christmas music, from carols to oratorios to pageants, centuries old and newly composed. But Mary, an important character in the Christmas story, often doesn’t get more than one or two lines in any given song.
For the past 15 years, on the first Sunday of Advent, Cincinnati Camerata has presented a Marian Concert with music devoted to the Virgin Mary. This year’s program is entitled Totus Tuus Maria, Latin for “totally yours.”
Cincinnati Camerata is a volunteer choral ensemble of 27 singers who have been performing since 1993.
“The Marian concerts started 15 years ago, when we performed at St. Xavier Church downtown,” says founding member Penny Schenk. “We got a lot of encouragement from the priest and it’s now a part of our annual schedule.”
Camerata Artistic Director Brett Scott calls the program a celebration of the feminine and Mary’s role beyond the Christmas story.
“We imagine her as the focus of the holiday, and we present music that explores three aspects of [her] womanhood: young woman, motherhood and her participation in the life of Jesus,” he says. “This is what sets our concert apart from other holiday programs. It’s not the same carols or [Handel’s] Messiah. It opens up wonderful musical possibilities.”
The Virgin Mary has inspired literally thousands of compositions, starting with chants and evolving into hymns and extended works. Schubert’s “Ave Maria” may be the most familiar piece, but the Camerata’s programs consistently offer an intriguing mix of music from ancient to just off the press.
This year’s program spans more than 500 years, with works by Palestrina, Grieg, Pärt, Byrd and a newly commissioned piece.
Scott points out that many of the works are not strictly Christmas-themed.
There are three settings of the Latin “Magnificat,” known as the “Song of Mary” by two Baroque composers and contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
“Pärt’s ‘Magnificat’ is a wonderful example of his early style,” Scott says.
The Camerata will perform one of Grieg’s final compositions, a piece Scott says is his favorite. “There are sharp dissonances, sounds we really don’t expect from him. He was thinking ahead in terms of harmony,” he says.
He adds that Grieg was not a religious man but he turned to the highly erotic love poetry of Song of Songs as texts for his last works.
“We’re being brave and tackling it in Norwegian, because it only works when it’s performed in the original language,” Scott says.
A newer composition, “Where the Words Go,” by Michael Gilbertson, won the Camerata’s 2013 composition competition and is an Advent-themed work with lyrics written by poet Kai Hoffman-Krull. Gilbertson composed the piece as a reflection on how the words encountered through prayer and familiar stories “return us to a place of contemplation and waiting each year,” he says.
The concert concludes with Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s “Totus Tuus,” written for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1987. The program is performed without a pause, and will be interspersed with readings of poetry and meditations.
Appropriately, the concert venue is Mother of God Church in Covington, a setting Scott says reinforces the concert theme.
“There’s a wonderful clarity to the sound, and the different spaces offer different acoustic experiences,” he says, adding that the choir will utilize the spaces throughout the concert.
Camerata members are a mix of professionals and amateurs united by a love of choral music. Schenk, one of two original members still performing with the group, says the focus is always on keeping the group small but working on a varied repertoire.
Scott, associate professor of ensembles and conducting at the College-Conservatory of Music, was named Camerata’s artistic director four years ago. He praises the group for its dedication and high level of musicianship.
“They’re smart and they do the work to sing the music beautifully. We have a great time at rehearsals,” he says.
The Marian concerts have drawn large crowds — even last year’s snowfall didn’t deter 100 people from being part of the experience.
“We were so heartened by that response,” Schenk says. “It made it even more powerful.”
“People keep coming back because it’s a unique experience, not the standard holiday fare,” Scott says. “And in our world today, it’s important to remind ourselves of the role of women.”