Hagerstown Choral Arts marks 15th anniversary with East Coast premiere of composer's new work


HAGERSTOWN -- Do you celebrate an anniversary by strolling down memory lane or by venturing into something new and exciting?

For Hagerstown Choral Arts' 15th anniversary, music and artistic director Gregory P. Shook chose both.

The group performed an anniversary concert Saturday afternoon at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown, opening with pieces it has performed over the years and closing with the East Coast premiere of "Mass for a New Millennium" by contemporary composer Richard Nance.

One old favorite revisited was "Praise the Lord (Cameroon Processional Song)," arranged by Ralph M. Johnson. The piece played on rhythmic aspects of African music, in contrast to the harmonic and textural focus typifying Western tradition. It began with a simple melody carried by the women of the choir, then added percussion and finally layered in harmonies.

Another of Shook's favorites with the choir was the ironic "Alleuia" by Randall Thompson, a slow anthem that is intentionally not joyous.


Before the Nance premiere, Shook thanked the audience for attending the concert despite the rainy weather.

"I'm so glad you're here on not such a beautiful day, but the beauty will be in here," he said, alluding to the music to come.

What followed was a nuanced mass in 10 movements accompanied by harp, oboe, percussion and organ, and featuring solos by soprano Elisabeth Turchi, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Christoforakis and tenor David Gonzol.

Shook said he had done some smaller works by Nance in the past and "really liked his style." For the 15th anniversary concert, Shook contacted Nance and asked if he had any new, larger works.

"He sent me the score and a recording of his choir. I decided on it for us and it was a very good choice. The audience response was receptive and enthusiastic," Shook said. "It's just sad to do all this rehearsal and it's over in such a short time."

Tenor David Ridenour said the piece was one of the most challenging the choir has done.

"It has meter switches and some pulling notes out of the air," Ridenour said. "The soprano soloist started from scratch without any (accompaniment) notes at all. She had to find it on her own, out of midair."

Oboist Sarah Hurd originally is from Hagerstown and currently lives in Pittsburgh. Hurd has played with Hagerstown Choral Arts numerous times over the years and did so again Saturday.

"The whole mass was exemplary of what new music can be," Hurd said. "I love Bach and the old masters, but it's nice to recognize and perform the masters of today. It's such a unique sound. Very fresh and exciting. And it's not every day Hagerstown gets an East Coast premiere of such a great piece."

Joy Dodson of Rouzerville, Pa., and her husband, Steven, took Joy's mother, Bette Gates, to the concert as a surprise for her 78th birthday.

"It was a very good prelude to Easter -- uplifting and spiritual," Joy Dodson said.

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