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Pilgrim Festival Chorus commissions new work to mark Plymouth’s 400th anniversary

Music director Bill Richter leads the Pilgrim Festival Chorus, which he founded 21 years ago.
Music director Bill Richter leads the Pilgrim Festival Chorus, which he founded 21 years ago.Michelle McGrath

For the first time in its 21-year existence, the Pilgrim Festival Chorus is ordering up a new choral work for an upcoming performance.

The 80-member Plymouth-based chorus commissioned composer Clifton Jay Noble Jr. of Amherst to write a choral piece that will be performed in a concert to celebrate Plymouth’s 400th anniversary later this year.

The regional chorus that typically performs to audiences of more than 500 at St. Bonaventure Church in Plymouth’s Manomet Village, was forced to cancel its 2020 concert season because of the coronavirus. Also canceled were the live celebrations planned for the 400th anniversary of the town founded by the Pilgrims in 1620.

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“In lieu of singing during the pandemic, we’re thinking ahead and strategizing to optimize the premiere of this new work once mainstream performance for our choral-loving audience is reinstated,” chorus director William Richter said. “Even though we can’t be together, we are actively and passionately looking forward to the future.”

Typically, the nonprofit ensemble presents a major choral work each spring, a holiday season concert, a Messiah Sing in December, and summer concerts featuring pops-style programming.

Noble’s work will provide a musical setting of excerpts from two texts written by the Plymouth Colony’s famous governor and chronicler, William Bradford. The excerpts are from Bradford’s account of the colony’s early years, “Of Plimoth Plantation,” and his poem, “Providence and the Pilgrim.”

The chorus “had history” with Noble, Richter said. It performed one of his works, a setting of English poet John Dryden’s 1687 poem, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” in conjunction with Mozart’s “Requiem” in a well-received concert in 2019.

This time, with the Plymouth 400 anniversary celebration in its sights, the chorus proposed a commission for a piece with the same instrumentation — two trumpets, two trombones, harp, and piano — required for the program’s featured work, “Melodious Accord: A Concert of Praise,” by Boston composer Alice Parker. Parker’s piece consists of a compilation of “shape note” hymns with instrumental accompaniment. Shape note composition is a 19th-century notational system employing different shapes for notes for easier recognition by singers lacking musical training.

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Richter described Parker as “a force” in the musical world, having composed five operas and 47 choral suites, among many other works.

Noble responded to the chorus’s proposal for a new work with a plan for a musical setting for Bradford’s writings that includes his account of the Pilgrims’ first landing. “After a long beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod, the which being made,” Bradford wrote. “They were not a little joyful.”

The chosen text concludes with words more than a little thankful, a hymn-like setting of “And then all tears wipes from their eyes. For whom He loves He doth chastise.”

Richter said the practice of orchestras and choruses commissioning new works for live performances “helps keep the art alive. And it gives us some ownership with really fine music.”

After a year spent, like so many other performing groups, seeking virtual alternatives to live productions, the chorus is looking forward to performing the commissioned work at a concert to be presented some time next fall. None of the group’s 2021 dates have been chosen yet, Richter said, because there are still too many variables.

“It depends on how the vaccine rolls out,” Richter said. “How comfortable the people in the chorus feel about being in close contact, and then how comfortable the audience feels. It could be a long time coming back to what we took so much for granted in the last 20 years.”

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The virus and the need for restrictions on social gatherings undermined the raison d’etre of live performance ensembles in 2020, the choral director said. “What we do,” Richter joked, “is illegal, immoral, and fattening.”

The pandemic has been a challenge personally, too, he said: “The difficulty is chorus is my livelihood. I direct choruses in five schools.” These groups have all moved to “second best,” becoming virtual choirs.

The Pilgrim Festival Chorus also will be turning to virtual means in the spring to make a recorded program highlighting choral works created by women and others outside the traditional classical canon. The production involves members singing at home and recording themselves on iPhone or iPad, Richter said, compiling all these recordings, and then “putting the visual on top.”

“We’re still around,” he said. “We just can’t make music [together] at this time.”

Until they can, the organization looks forward to performing its newly commissioned work, board president Greg Martin said in a statement. “Someday, hopefully soon, the show will go on. Until then, we will keep our eyes, hearts, and voices focused towards the prize of being able to make beautiful music once again for the public and ourselves.”

Given lost concert revenues in 2020, Martin stated, the chorus is raising funds for the concert program that will include Noble’s piece. The concert will be called “A Pilgrim Journey, Songs of Faith and Courage, Celebrating Plymouth 400.”

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Donations can be made through pilgrimfestivalchorus.org.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

The Pilgrim Festival Chorus has commissioned a new work for a performance in 2021.
The Pilgrim Festival Chorus has commissioned a new work for a performance in 2021. Pilgrim Festival Chorus