In 1983, Nathaniel Lew sang in the premiere of “The Bells”, Erik Ewazen’s setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, while a student in the pre-college program at the Juilliard School of Music. Thirty-nine years later, now artistic director of the Montpelier-based professional vocal ensemble Counterpoint, Lew brings “The Bells” to Vermont – with the composer.
“It was an amazing experience,” Lew said. “I remembered that score. I can hum it. It had a big impact on me and my musical imagination. Rediscovering this piece gives me childlike joy.
On the program of “The Bells”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis, two other major choral works that share a similar sound universe. Hence the title of the concert “Tintinnabulations”, a fantastic word, popularized by Poe’s poem, for the sound of bells.
Lew will lead Counterpoint in performances of “Tintinnabulations: Voices, Pianos, Bells”: 7:30 p.m. Friday at the McCarthy Arts Center at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 2 at First Congregational Church, Manchester; and 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 3 at Christ Church at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Pianists Samantha Angstman and Alison Cerutti, as well as percussionists D. Thomas Toner and Nicola Cannizzaro, members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, will join the expanded ensemble of 20 voices.
At the time of “The Bells” premiere, Ukrainian-American Eric Ewazen was a recent Juilliard graduate – and Lew’s music theory professor. Since then, Ewazen’s career has progressed and he is now one of America’s leading composers, particularly known for his brass music. For many years Ewazen was a pianist and composer for the Craftsbury Chamber Players of Vermont.
According to Lew, Ewazen’s score brilliantly translates into music Poe’s poetic celebration of silver sleigh bells, gold wedding bells, brass alarm bells, and iron funeral bells:
“He orchestrates every mood of Poe’s evocative poem. Around the lyrical vocal lines, he builds an array of shimmering, resounding, resounding reflections, with intricate piano textures and extensive writing for vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, chimes, gong and other percussion.
Written for four percussionists, it was reduced to two by the composer.
“I worked with Eric on reducing the number of (percussion) instruments,” Lew said. “We had to make trucking reasonable.”
The opening of the program will be Bernstein’s Missa Brevis.
“Once I knew we were going to hire percussionists, I immediately thought of The Bernstein, who uses some of the same instruments as ‘The Bells’,” Lew said. “It is a work of thrilling vocal intensity, the last piece he completed before his death, but based on ideas from the peak of his career.”
Robert De Cormier, the founder of Counterpoint, was very fond of Bernstein’s backing vocals in “The Lark,” Lillian Hellman’s 1952 play about Joan of Arc.
“At the end of his life, in 1988, Bernstein took this piece and reverse-engineered it into the Missa Brevis,” Lew said. “It’s light percussion and choirs, and it’s a very, very vibrant, very high-pitched work, very high-pitched, percussive, extravagant range.”
Earlier, Stravinsky composed three sacred a cappella works in Latin and Church Slavonic. All three are movements absent from the Bernstein Missa Brevis: Pater Noster, Credo and Ave Maria.
“So we’re going to do them, sprinkled with Bernstein, in part because it gives the vocals a rest between the Bernstein’s high range,” Lew said. “I love the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, but they don’t happen often. I think they are wonderful.
The concert ends with Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”, composed in 1930, in the version for two pianos and percussion.
“It is one of the most beloved works of the choral repertoire, dating from the same period as some of Stravinsky’s most beloved works,” Lew said, calling it “a universal masterpiece, profoundly moving and transporting, whose last pages are timeless”. song of praise, with their own bell-like quality.