By Kevin Redding
A Stony Brook University-born singing ensemble is celebrating its 50th anniversary on a high note.
The Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA), formed in 1968, will take to St. James Roman Catholic Church in Setauket on Dec. 8 for its most grandiose performance yet. The nonprofit group, made up of roughly 70 diverse members ranging in age from early 20s to 80 who have put on concerts around the world, will deliver a program of works by Igor Stravinsky and Arvo Part, to name a few, in honor of its late, great founder Gregg Smith, an internationally renowned choral conductor and composer who died last year.
“We designed this to reflect the many different kinds of things we have sung over the 50 years of our existence,” said Norma Watson, a member since the group formed. “The mission has always been to present excellent performances of not frequently heard music. We’ve done premieres of great modern composers and sang the pieces of Renaissance masters. It’s been fun to go back and sing these songs again. I’ll never get tired of singing with this group. ”
Among the highlights of the upcoming concert, which will run about an hour and a half and culminate in a giant meet-and-greet reception in the church’s downstairs, are “Heilig” (Holy) by Felix Mendelssohn, “O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, “Ave Maria, “Pater Noster” and “Russian Credo” by Stravinsky, and the Long Island premiere of “A Mary Trilogy” composed by Smith himself.
Smith, who died of a heart attack at 84 in July 2016, served as LISCA’s conductor from 1968 until 2005. The mantle was then passed over to Thomas Schmidt, who conducted through 2016. Since January, the group has been led by 32-year-old Eric Stewart, a composer-in-residence at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City and conductor of the Tzu Chi Youth Chamber Orchestra on Long Island whose own work was recognized and encouraged by Smith.
As a Stony Brook University student and member of the University Community Chorus in the late 1960s, Watson met Smith when he arrived as director of choral music. Soon after being hired, the conductor — who established new standards of professional choral singing with the Gregg Smith Singers, a group founded in 1955 and famous for showcasing the music of contemporary American composers and not doing “the usual sort of choral programs,” as Smith told The New York Times in 1977 — changed the name of the college’s choir to LISCA to broaden the group’s ambitions and welcome collaborations with symphony orchestras.
“We weren’t really singing challenging stuff initially,” Watson said of the choir before Smith came on board. “What made me want to sing were the ambition he had to make us a really great choir and sing interesting pieces we weren’t used to singing.”
One of the group’s first concerts revolved around a major piece by Stravinsky, a composer Smith knew well who was in attendance to see their performance. Smith’s other acquaintances included Dave Brubeck and Elliott Carter, now legendary composers who watched the choir sing their charts. They have performed concerts in Spain, France, England, Ireland and Iceland.
“Gregg had such an exciting and unpredictable approach,” said Joe Dyro, the president of LISCA and a singer in the bass section since 1980. “He had a brilliant way of making things turn out right for the performance, helping us singers blend. I feel very honored to be part of a group that has such a large legacy.”
Dyro said he was singing while waiting to pay at a restaurant at the Smith Haven Mall when he got a tap on the shoulder from a member of LISCA, who extended an invite to join the group.
“I’m humbled because I know that many of the singers in the group are much better musicians and much more learned. I’m trying my best to keep up with the rest of the crowd,” Dyro said, laughing. “And Eric is a young, exciting conductor who, I think, is going to bring new vitality to the choir.”
Sidonie Morrison, a soprano in the choir since 1981, also spoke highly of LISCA’s new leader. “He’s very enthusiastic and fun to work with. We’re looking forward to a different kind of concert with him,” he said.
It will be an especially poignant night for Stewart, who made his LISCA debut when he conducted the group’s May concert. He points to Smith as the first person to seriously look at his original compositions when he first moved to New York City in 2010. Smith was so taken by the young musician’s work that he made sure to perform it with a professional ensemble.
“It’s because of him that I saw how amazing a choral ensemble could sound,” Stewart said. “He really opened up a whole new mode of expression for me as a composer and meant a lot to me on my path to becoming a professional musician. It’s truly an honor to pay tribute to him and his contributions with LISCA, with whom I’m extremely impressed. Some of these pieces are quite difficult and they’ve been able to take on the challenge. I’m quite excited about it.”
“Heilig” (Holy) for double choir
Arvo Part: “Magnificat”
Giovanni Gabrieli: “Beata es Virgo,” “Jubilate Deo” and “O Magnum Mysterium” for double chorus and brass Morten Lauridsen: “O Magnum Mysterium”
Gustav Holst: “Christmas Day” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Igor Stravinsky: “Ave Maria,” “Pater Noster” and “Russian Credo”
Gregg Smith: “A Mary Trilogy” and “Alleluia: Vom Himmel Hoch”
The concert begins at 8 p.m. at St. James Roman Catholic Church, 429 Route 25A in Setauket on Friday, Dec. 8. Tickets, which are available at the door and at www/lisca.org, are $25 adults, $20 for seniors, and free for students. For further information, please call 631-751-2743.