Oratorio Chorale will premiere ‘Jonah and the Whale’

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BRUNSWICK — The Oratorio Chorale will present the Maine premiere of “Jonah and the Whale,” an oratorio by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, on Saturday and Sunday, May 22-23.

The ensemble, under the direction of Peter Frewen, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Falmouth Congregational Church, 267 Falmouth Road in Falmouth.

 Featured soloists are tenor Timothy Neill Johnson, as Jonah; bass Daniel Cole as the voice of God; and Suzanne Nance as narrator.

Members of the Maine Chamber Ensemble, with guest artist Ray Cornils, Portland municipal organist and music director of First Parish Church in Brunswick, will provide orchestral accompaniment that features organ, piano, harp, three trombones and extensive percussion instruments.

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 Inspired by a 16th-century painting in a church in Härkeberga, Sweden, Argento chose a late medieval homiletic poem, “Patience,” or” Jonah and the Whale,” as the basic device to retell the biblical story. He then added biblical and Latin Mass texts, familiar hymns and 19th century sea shanteys and work songs to create a powerful epic that is at once familiar and freshly inventive.

 Argento wrote that the whale “gets the best tune in the work” because for him, the great fish, not Jonah, is the hero of the story. But that does not detract from the chorus, which for Argento represents the human soul. The “essence of humanity” is to be found in “groups of combined voices expressing whatever the text asks them to express,” the composer wrote.

Johnson performs with musical ensembles, including the Roger Wagner Chorale, Boston Cecelia, Handel Societies of Dartmouth and Baltimore and the Portland Symphony.

Cole is director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. He is an active soloist in opera and concerts, having performed in Lisbon, Amsterdam, Cologne and throughout the United States. Last year, he was the voice of God in a performance and recording of “Jonah and the Whale” with the Providence Singers and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

 Nance is music director for Maine Public Broadcasting Network  and host of “Morning Classical Music.” She is also a stage actor and soprano soloist, having performed in Prague, London, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. She has been narrator with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” and with the Daponte String Quartet, reading letters from Clara Schumann and family.

Argento is one of America’s pre-eminent composers. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. In 1997, he received a lifetime appointment as composer laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra. The Oratorio Chorale has previously performed Argento’s works, including several song cycles and “Peter Quince at the Clavier.”

Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door, half-price for students and free for children under 12. They may be purchased at Gulf of Maine, Brunswick; Now You’re Cooking and Magnolia’s in Bath; Maine Coast Books, Damariscotta; Treats, Wiscasset; Sherman’s Books and Stationery, Freeport; Clayton’s, Yarmouth; Books, Etc. in Falmouth; Starbird Music and Longfellow Books in Portland.

 For more information, visit www.oratoriochorale.org or call 725-1420.

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