The Oratorio Chorale has adopted an aesthetic of adventure. It doesn’t shrink from challenges.

The community chorus will be tested this week when it presents composer Dominick Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale” at Falmouth Congregational Church.

“This is a very big effort. It’s a demanding piece of music,” said Peter Frewen, the chorale’s director for the past 24 seasons.

“This chorus is receptive to new ideas. There is something magical about getting a group of people together who are willing to make the effort to learn something that is daunting. We have developed the ethic of working hard.”

The chorus has been around since 1974 and is the artistic home to a robust group of enthusiastic singers. They all work for a living, and come together to sing for the joy of vocal expression and for the satisfaction of artistic accomplishment.

For the Argento piece, the chorus will number fewer than 40, with two vocal soloists, a narrator and a musical ensemble of nine, including an organist.

Tenor Timothy Neill Johnson will sing the Jonah role, and Daniel Cole will perform the voice of God. Suzanne Nance, an actor, singer and music director for Maine Public Broadcasting Network, will narrate.

Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale” is a retelling of the biblical story of Jonah, who is set on a mission from God. At its root, “Jonah” offers a lesson in patience and the cost and necessity of sacrifice.

The chorus will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and again at 3 p.m. May 23 at the Falmouth church. It’s a handsome Congregational church, constructed with brick and wood and lots of glass. The sanctuary seats about 250 people.

The church was chosen because of the presence of an organ, which is mandatory in the music. The church also is appealing because of its comfortable environment.

“It’s clean and elegant, with a lively sound,” Frewen said. “It’s going to make a lot of noise in the loud spots.”

Johnson has never sung “Jonah” before, but has performed other compositions by Argento. He considers the Minnesota-based composer to be the premier writer of contemporary choral music.

Argento is still active and living in the Minneapolis area. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has received a lifetime appointment as composer laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra.

Born in 1927, Argento wrote “Jonah” in 1973. The Oratorio performances will mark a Maine premiere of the piece, and the Saturday performance falls on the birthday of Argento’s late wife, Carolyn, to whom the piece is dedicated.

“It’s definitely difficult, it’s Argento,” said Johnson, a professional singer who lives in Cumberland. “It’s modern, and harmonically is very difficult.

“Argento is very skilled at writing for voice. He knows how to write for voice, but there is one part, a section known as ‘Jonah’s Despair,’ it’s the hardest thing to sing in the whole piece. He wants a certain thing, and I understand that. But I think, ‘Why did you put this here?’ You’ve already sung a lot, and that part really stretches you.”

Frewen has programmed Argento several times before.

“The more I study him and listen to him, the more impressed I am with his artistry and his direct impact on the audience,” Frewen said. “In this day and age, when we say someone is a romantic composer, there is a glaze of old-fashioned to that term. But Argento is not old-fashioned in the least. His techniques are current, but he is old-fashioned in the sense that music is meant to express directly from the heart to the heart.”

For Nance, “Jonah” represents a couple of firsts. It’s the first time she has performed with Frewen and the chorale, and the first time she has performed Argento.

Nance is host of the morning classical show on MPBN. A soprano, she has worked as an actor and singer across the United States and in Europe.

“I’ve wanted to perform Argento for a long time, and haven’t had the opportunity,” she said, adding that she’s long been enamored of him. “He’s an American composer with ties to Italy, and he married a soprano, which automatically gives him some credibility with me.

“I think he’s incredibly sensitive. He has a human element to his music that can pull you in, even though some of it is a little different sounding. He is warm and generous and sophisticated.”

Last weekend, while preparing for her performance, Nance got a bold streak and called Argento out of the blue. She had a few questions, and thought it would be helpful to talk to the composer.

She left a message, and Argento called back right away.

“We had a lengthy discussion about the piece, and he shared some insight about performance delivery and also talked about how to make sure the narration doesn’t get lost in the chorus, instruments and soloists, etc.,” she recounted in an e-mail. “I found the conversation extremely helpful and enjoyable.”

She said Argento called his “Jonah” a “comic-book version of the Bible in many ways” and emphasized to her that the narration can be exaggerated.

“He also said, ‘The piece is like macaroni, and I like macaroni.’ “

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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