Maestro Lucas Richman picked very diverse programming for this Sunday’s Bangor Symphony Orchestra concert at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono, the final concert in its 2010-2011 season. So much so that Ludlow Hallman and Dennis Cox, directors of the University of Maine’s Oratorio Society and University Singers, respectively, have had to brush up on their Swahili.
That doesn’t mean necessarily that the orchestra and choruses might be readying anything from Richman’s eclectic, multilingual Grammy-winning album, “Calling All Dawns,” for the concert. Neither the BSO nor Hallman nor Cox can confirm or deny that such a thing might occur, though it is worth noting that, for example, Bach was not particularly fond of setting his choral works in Swahili.
“My Swahili is not as good as it ought to be. You don’t run across it very often,” said Hallman with a laugh. “It’s presented a little challenge, sure. Fortunately, there’s an international standard for choral pronunciation that helps us. It’s made things very interesting. It’s been a fun few weeks of rehearsal.”
Aside from any unannounced programming, Sunday’s concert features five pieces spanning nearly 1,000 years of music. The pieces range from Richman’s orchestral setting of 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen’s “O Filie Israhel” to Richman’s own composition “In the Day When I Cried Out,” written in 2000. In between, there’s a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”), and two choral pieces, including Bach’s “Christ lag in Todesbanden” and Anton Bruckner’s “Psalm 150.”
The Bach and Bruckner pieces present distinct challenges for the two choral groups. Where the Bach cantata is melismatic and emotionally fraught, the Bruckner piece is big, dramatic and exultant.
“Both the Bach and Bruckner are very demanding,” said Cox. “The Bach has some intensely deep, low passages that ask a lot of everyone. It’s like an athletic event. It’s like being a runner. It’s often performed around Easter, so it’s appropriate for this time of year.”
“The Bruckner is a big, big piece. It’s very dramatic,” said Hallman. “It’s such an enormous sound. I was not familiar with it, but Lucas really picked a wonderful, wonderful piece.”
Richman’s own composition, “In the Day When I Cried Out,” melds gospel and classical into an accessible but challenging whole. It is based on the Psalms of David, with original text from both Richman and collaborator Patrick Polk woven in. According to both Cox and Hallman, their respective groups have responded quite favorably to the piece.
“It’s eclectic. I’d say it has a gospel feel, and our students really like it a lot. It has a lot of energy,” said Cox. “One of the great things about Lucas is that he seems to be really interested in programming that is progressive and really interesting. It’s accessible to a lot of people, and it’s still very challenging and rigorous.”
For the first time since the 2004 performance of the specially commissioned “Penobscot River” symphony by Thomas Oboe Lee, an original work by a composer who will be present during the concert will be performed. In this case, the composer not only will be present, he also will be conducting.
“It’s of course exciting to have the person that actually created the music with you. The written music always leaves you with questions and decisions to make. It’s hard to have a chat with Bach or Massenet to ask what they were really thinking,” said Hallman. “But that’s what makes music interesting. You have to inform what you know already about the composer with your own decisions. It’s always interesting.”
There will be four soloists performing with the BSO and the Oratorio Society and University Singers. They are soprano Jennifer Barnett of Knoxville, Tenn., where Richman lives full time; baritone Ralph Cato of Riverside, Calif.; Portland’s own Kelly Caulfield; and well-known Bangor actor and vocalist Ben Layman.
Layman, who last was seen performing as Jinx in Penobscot Theatre Company’s “Plaid Tidings,” is no stranger to gospel, having sung with a gospel group at St. John Episcopal Church in Bangor. The Bach and Bruckner pieces present their own challenges, but Layman’s big, beautiful tenor voice is up to it.
“This is a first-time thing for me. I find Lucas’ piece more natural to me as a singer, because I’ve had that gospel experience, but the Bach is so beautiful and challenging,” said Layman. “I’ve been having a crash course in opera styling and German phrasing. I’ve always had a little pipe dream about singing in a more classical, operatic setting, and I’ve had a little bit of that, but I’ve never trained in it. So this is really exciting.”
The Bangor Symphony Orchestra, the Oratorio Society and the University Singers will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 10, at Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Tickets are available by calling 581-1755. For information, visit bangorsymphony.org.