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Singing Sacred & Secular

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 13th, 2018

James M. Fitzwilliam, left; Christine Howlett, right

Saturday evening at Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie, Christine Howlett led the Cappella Festiva Chamber Choir in a program entitled “Light through the Darkness.” Even though our dark winter days are incrementally increasing in January, this Manichean theme remains a January favorite as we grow weary of winter woes.  

The program was divided into two halves: sacred and secular. The sacred was dominated by a long, single Cantata with music by Vassar’s Barefoot organist and pianist, James M. Fitzwilliam, who played his own music, based upon the chorale tunes of Martin Luther, with impeccable timbre. Lyrics by Christophe Arnold were based upon Scripture passages that focused on the theme of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is strength; forgiveness is power” was an appropriated contemporary theme. These are indeed times when we would do well to discover that forgiveness “empowers us.” The ghost of J. S. Bach sometimes sounded like it floated like an archival anchor that kept the ship afloat. Luther’s powerful tune “A Mighty Fortress is our God” invited the audience to stand and sing new lyrics to the famous tune .Through solo and choir singing, a persuasive emotional pitch rang through the church. This local musical gem should have legs for future performances in churches with fairly large choirs; it is a significant contribution to the tradition. Psalm 84 in German, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen functioned as a sacred postlude, acclaiming the lovely dwelling places of the Lord!  

Emily Dickinson’s short lyric “Had I not seen the Sun” with the lines “I could have borne the shade / But Light a newer Wilderness / My Wilderness has made” followed. Daniel Elder’s “Ballade to the Moon” came next as it painted a Romantic landscape of forest and the distant moon, inviting the distant moon to “Come sing with me!” Elder’s “Lullaby” came next with the convincing hope that a lullaby does indeed put children to sleep.

The most bitingly topical lyric of the day was Emily Dickinson’s “I had no time to hate.” While the audience relished the short poem, perhaps it should be required daily reading by government workers.

“Light of a Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton dwelt on a woman’s resolution to be rived by a bright sunrise. An African spiritual, “Hope for Resolution: A Song for Mandela and DeKlerk,” with a rather jazzy rhythm brought out the best of the evening’s singers. (There are several versions of this song available and a video of it can be found below.)

They concluded with Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Everyone Sang,” a rousing number to end a performance, yet the absence of its political context—British troops celebrating the Armistice of World War One—makes the lyric feel strangely adrift when war is so pervasive.

Cappella Festiva Chamber Choir will next perform at Vassar’s annual Modfest Celebration with the Treble Choir and Cor Capriccio on February 10th at Skinner Hall, 3 pm.