At the conclusion of last year’s performance of Angela Rice’s Easter oratorio, “Thy Will Be Done,” at the Singletary Center for the Arts, conductor Everett McCorvey looked at the Winchester composer and said, “This is ready to go.”
Rice wrote the piece, which primarily uses Biblical scriptures as a text, to fill what she saw as a void in the music world: No broadly performed Easter oratorio on par with the ubiquity of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmastime. Yes, “Messiah” does carry a substantial portion that addresses the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yes, there are works like Théodore Dubois “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” which receives occasional performances around Easter.
But Easter needed something of its own, Rice thought, so she penned the oratorio with Jesus as a central character that was premiered by the Bluegrass Opera in 2012 at Central Christian Church with University of Kentucky graduate and Metropolitan Opera singer Gregory Turay in the central role as Jesus.
It has been performed in Lexington every year since, under the direction of McCorvey since 2014. And it is McCorvey, having concluded it is ready, who is leading the big move for “Thy Will Be Done” this year.
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Friday night, “Thy Will” will make its New York City debut in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall with the National Chorale, which McCorvey has directed since 2014.
Joining the production will be a number of familiar faces to Kentucky music audiences, including Turay and Anthony Clark Evans who, like Turay, was a winner at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as the devil. Other singers with Kentucky ties include Rebecca Farley, Amanda Balltrip, Matthew Pearce and Jeryl Cunningham Fleming, among the ranks of soloists. Also, three members of the Lexington Singers are joining the choir for the performance: Sally Horowitz, Cathy Lavender and Mary Janice Towles.
For Rice, Friday’s performance fulfills an ambition to move “Thy Will Be Done” beyond Lexington and have it heard by a broader audience.
“I was hoping to get it to a major market like New York City,” Rice said Monday, after the work’s first rehearsals in New York. “Everett provides opportunities for so many people, and I’m just another lucky one that he was able to open the door for.”
For McCorvey, “Thy Will” helps fulfill a mission of presenting more works — particularly new works — by American composers with the chorale.
“This music is dynamic,” McCorvey said, Monday. “It lives and breathes. We got to a place today where the way that the Hallelujahs were written, we wanted to change it to produce a better finale of this one piece. So it’s great — and a little scary — to have a composer sitting in the room when we say, ‘OK, this doesn’t work. We’ve got to do this.’
“That’s the beauty of working with Angela and composers that understand that they want their music to live well after them. In order for it to live, it’s got to feel right to the people that are producing it, producing the words, producing the sounds. And these are all professional singers ... so sometimes they have a suggestion, and I think, ‘Oh, that’s a good suggestion.’ I don’t want my ego to get in the way of a good suggestion. It’s a great collaborative opportunity.”
“Thy Will” has been growing and changing since it’s inception. Rice says she gets new ideas with each performance of the work.
“It’s not high classical music,” Rice said. “It’s such a combination of sounds, such a combination of music I have been hearing all my life. I want to make it accessible.”
That’s in part because it is important to Rice that the audience hears and engages with the scripture quoted in the music.
“It’s done in a classical manner, but the tunes are beautiful,” McCorvey said. “In order for a piece to survive, you have to have great tunes. And you have to be a classically trained singer to sing it in the style Angela has written.”
Some of the adaptations this year are for the larger venue — making larger musical gestures to fill the more than 2,700 seat Geffen Hall; the Singletary Center had 1,500 seats, for comparison. With the National Chorale at its disposal, McCorvey says a particular focus was on beefing up some of the choral side, to give the singers a bigger role in the drama.
The other way Rice and McCorvey hope “Thy Will” grows is in awareness. Many members of the chorale are choir directors, and performing it in New York will place it before many influential ears.
“It’s accessible to church choirs,” McCorvey said. “I am sure there are people out there who would love to do it.”
And Rice hopes it will return to Lexington in coming seasons because one trade off this year is “Thy Will Be Done” will not have an in-town performance.
“It’s certainly something I look forward to doing more,” McCorvey said. “We have so much talent in Kentucky, and I love to have the opportunity to showcase that talent and have it mix and mingle with international artists.”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes