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LISCA

LISCA performed at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi during a concert tour of Italy. Photo by Candice Foley

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.

Eric Stewart

“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.”

This year’s LISCA concert is in honor of the group’s late conductor, Gregg Smith, pictured above. Photo from LISCA

PROGRAM:

Felix Mendelssohn:

“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.

 

Eric Stewart

Eric Stewart will raise the baton on Saturday, May 13 when the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA) presents its annual spring concert, Masterworks by French Composers of the 19th and 20th Century at 8 p.m. at St. James Roman Catholic Church, located at 429 Route 25A in Setauket.

Stewart took over the role of conductor in January after Thomas Schmidt, the previous conductor of the venerable, nearly 50-year old community chorus retired after serving for 11 years.

Eric Stewart

Expressing his whole-hearted enthusiasm for the selected works of the upcoming program, Stewart said, “This wonderful, all-French program features delightful variety, despite the fact that all three pieces were written within one hundred years of one another (1865-1959). Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine is a beloved staple of the choral repertoire. It is short, sweet and features melodies and harmonies prototypical of French Romanticism.”

He continues, “Poulenc’s Gloria mixes light and playful moments with some deep and brooding passages. It is full of wit and beautiful contrast. The highlight of the program, Durufle’s Requiem, re-imagines Gregorian Chant, combining it with 20th century impressionistic sensibilities. Chant-like melodies and Renaissance inspired counterpoint are imbued with lush harmonies and sweeping orchestral gestures. I could not think of a more exciting program with which to make my debut with LISCA.”

Classical music was not Stewart’s first love. Dabbling with a variety of instruments as a child led to an intense focus in his teenage years on the guitar with a plan to pursue a music degree in performance of rock/jazz fusion style. An “aha moment” came at age 17 with the purchase of a CD of Mozart Piano Concerti.

“Struck so deeply by the music,” his focus changed completely. Piano studies followed, but a sense that it was too late to be pursuing a classical instrument for performance, his focus shifted to composition and conducting. A summer spent at Interlochen Arts Camp cemented his decision to pursue a career in classical music. Stewart studied composition and conducting at the Peabody Conservatory (B.M. and M.M.), going on to earn a doctorate in composition from the University of Toronto. His compositions have been performed throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

We look forward to introducing Stewart to our faithful audience of the past 49 years and extend a special invitation to those who haven’t experienced our concerts in the past as we anticipate our 50th anniversary next season. A reception with light refreshments will be held following the concert.

Tickets may be purchased through our website at www.lisca.org, from singers and at the door. General admission is $25, seniors, $20 and students are free. For further information, call 631-751-2743.

Submitted by LISCA member, Martina Matkovic

The LISCA singers take a photo break at the base of Kiek in de Kök, a 38-meter high cannon tower in Tallinn, Estonia. Built in 1470, it houses an extensive museum of the town’s weapons and medieval era life. Photo by Candice Foley

This past July, singers from the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association “took to the skies” for the ninth time in their illustrious, 50-year history as a community chorus, bound this time for an eight-day performing and sight-seeing tour of three Baltic countries.

LISCA’S conductor, Thomas Schmidt, shared his reflections and impressions of the trip. “LISCA’s tour of the Baltic states was filled with surprises. Most of us weren’t even clear on where Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were when we left from JFK. Was Lithuania the northernmost one? Well no, it’s the southernmost one, bordering Poland and Belarus, with Latvia to the north and Estonia even further north, across the Baltic Sea from Finland.

Lithuania is mostly Catholic, whereas Latvia and Estonia are mostly Lutheran, although few practice any religion. Russians are still a large percentage of the area’s population, as much as 40 percent, although even now few of them are citizens. For most of their histories these three little countries have been ruled by other countries, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Russia.

But one of the major ways that they retained their sense of identity was through their choral tradition. Every four to five years there are gigantic choral festivals in each country, with singers dressed in their traditional, regional costumes. We saw the outdoor festival theater in Tallinn which overlooks the Baltic Sea. The stage has room for a mass choir of 20,000 and the audiences number in the hundreds of thousands. The festivals were a major way these countries maintained their unique cultures, languages and civic pride during times of foreign occupation.

So, it was not a surprise that LISCA’s concerts, held in the old 1799 City Hall in Vilnius, the 12th century, Gothic St. Peter’s Church in Riga, and the equally ancient St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn were received enthusiastically by full houses of educated listeners.

Each concert was dedicated to the memory of LISCA’s founder, Gregg Smith, who died at the age of 84 after a long illness on the morning we departed for the tour. The audience was told about his long career as one of America’s leading composers and choral conductors. Each concert ended by singing his hauntingly beautiful canon, ‘Now I Walk in Beauty.’”

The overwhelming concensus of those singers who ventured to travel to this unique part of the globe was unqualified satisfaction and enthusiasm. The people were warm and welcoming, the medieval buildings stunning and beautifully preserved, vitality blossoming everywhere. Independent since the Soviets left in 1991, these countries are finding their paths to flourish in the global economy and yet retain their national pride and cultural heritage.

LISCA’s singers are presently preparing for their annual winter concert to be held on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. at the St. James Roman Catholic Church located at 429 Route 25A in Setauket. The program features Anton Bruckner’s “Mass in E Minor,” a beautiful but challenging and infrequently performed choral work accompanied by wind and brass instruments. It has been called “a work without parallel in either 19th or 20th century church music.” A Christmas Motet by Poulenc, two Gabrieli works with brass accompaniment and carols by Gregg Smith will complete the program.

Tickets are $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and free for students. For further information please call 631-751-2743 or 631-941-9431.

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