Voices of loss, grief and transformation: Illuminati Ensemble concert includes nod to local Black history

  • The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, which performs Feb. 11 at Mount Holyoke College, rehearses recently at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Arianne Abela, interim artistic director for the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, leads the group at a recent rehearsal at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel. Abela is also the college’s director of choral programs.  STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Accompanist Gregory Hayes rehearses with The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble on a recent evening at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, which performs Feb. 11 at Mount Holyoke College, rehearses recently at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, which performs Feb. 11 at Mount Holyoke College, rehearses recently at Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel. STAFF PHOTODAN LITTLE

  • Michigan-based composer Brandon Waddles has created a piece for the Feb. 11 Illumintai Ensemble concert that’s based in part on music performed in Florence in the 1840s — a concert that was witnessed by famed writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Image courtesy Brit Allbritton

  • The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, seen here at a performance last fall in Easthmapton, will offer a program Feb. 11 entitled “Mercy” that included works that “grapple with the problems of loss, grief and transformation.” Image courtesy Brit Albrittron

  • The Hampshire Young People's Chorus will join the Illuminati Ensemble at the Feb. 11 performance. Image courtesy K.C. Conlan

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 08, 2023

David Ruggles and Frederick Douglass, two of the most notable Black men to come to Northampton in the first part of the 19th century, left behind a strong legacy as committed abolitionists, writers, and speakers. Ruggles also lived in Florence in the 1840s, and Douglass, a friend of Ruggles’, visited the town several times during that era.

Now a Valley choral group is set to debut a new composition that’s been dedicated to Ruggles and inspired in part by a time when Douglass, visiting Florence, heard a popular singing group of that era perform a song about the brutality of slavery.

The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, which will perform its show “Mercy” on Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Mount Holyoke College, specializes in what Brit Albritton, president of the group’s board of trustees, calls “choral minia tures” — basically shorter pieces — that can include classical masterworks and plenty of contemporary compositions.

Those latter works, Albritton notes, are in the classical canon but can also be highly influenced by other sounds, from jazz to African drum music.

“A key mission of Illuminati Vocal Arts is to promote the work of contemporary American choral composers,” he said in an email.

The chamber chorus, started in 2013 by Tony Thorton, the former director of choral studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, brings together a range of professional and skilled part-time singers from the Valley and beyond — from college students to senior citizens.

The goal, according to the group’s website, has been to create “a professional-caliber vocal arts ensemble with the heart and dedication of an amateur chorus.”

“We do our best to have it both ways,” Albritton said. “To be friendly but exacting, to hold ourselves and each other to high standards, but within a nurturing community. That’s where the magic happens.”

For the Saturday concert, which takes place in Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke, the 37-member group will be joined by the Hampshire Young People’s Chorus. Albritton says the Illuminati Ensemble regularly collaborates with other musical groups, including the Arcadia Players, the Valley Baroque instrumental ensemble.

A key part of the concert will be the debut of “The Beauty of Color,” a piece by Brandon Waddles, a Michigan-based composer and music director/teacher who Albritton says is considered an expert in Black sacred music.

Arianne Abela, the Illuminati Ensemble’s interim artistic director — she took over for Thorton last year after he left the area to teach at Oklahoma State University — says she’s known Waddles for a number of years and greatly admires his music.

For this concert, she says, she was looking for something to complement two other pieces in the program: “The Little Match Girl Passion” by David Lang, a contemporary New York composer; and “Musikalische Exequien” by Heinrich Schütz, generally considered the greatest German composer before Bach.

“The Lang piece in particular is very intense,” said Abela, who directs choral programs at Amherst College. “It has some bleak passages that reflect an atmosphere of hopelessness … I was looking to counter that.”

Lang’s composition, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is based on the 1845 story by Hans Christian Andersen about a dying child’s dreams and hope, and it’s also influenced by Bach’s “St Matthew Passion.”

In composing “The Beauty of Color,” Waddles has drawn in part on the broad history of slavery in the U.S., using elements of spirituals that speak to “the belief held by many of the enslaved that true freedom would perhaps only be found in the afterlife,” as he writes in program notes.

But Waddles has also made connections to local history for his piece, in particular an account from the 1840s when a popular singing group of that era, The Hutchinson Family Singers from eastern Massachusetts, performed in Florence, where Frederick Douglass heard them.

One of the group’s songs was a musical arrangement of “The Negro’s Complaint,” a poem by 18th-century English poet and hymn writer William Cowper that explored the evils of slavery. Waddles has incorporated elements of that work in his piece, Abela explains.

“He uses the voices of the children’s chorus to introduce the theme, then he brings in the full (Illuminati) chorus in a really striking way,” she said. “There’s almost a bit of dissonance that speaks to people’s suffering.”

“The Beauty of Color” also includes the final chorale to Bach’s “St Matthew Passion,” linking it to Lang’s piece, before ending with a final chorus “that is both hopeful and joyous,” Waddles writes, with some amended text “to represent … the triumph of our evolution as a people.”

Abela notes that the Schütz piece, a requiem written in the mid-1600s, is based on biblical texts and ends with a soul ascending to heaven, assisted by two angels. “It’s really quite beautiful,” she said.

Albritton says many of the Illuminati Ensemble performances are a cappella, though the group was also backed by a full orchestra a few years ago for a performance of “A Passion for the Planet,” a piece by Pelham composer Geoffrey Hudson.

For the Feb. 11 show, the group will use some limited percussion for “The Little Match Girl Passion” and what he calls some “very cool early instruments” for the Schütz piece: a theorbo, a long-necked lute; a viola da gamba; and a portative organ, a mini pipe organ.

For her part, Abela says she’s really enjoyed working with the Illuminati Ensemble — “they’re such a dedicated group of singers” — and wouldn’t mind being considered for the permanent position of artistic director.

“We have the opportunity to work on some really special music, like we’re doing for this show,” she said. “I like being part of that.”

Tickets for the Feb. 11 show range from $11.50 to $21.50 and can be purchased at illuminatiensemble.org or at the door.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.