On this website, the term cantata is used to designate those shorter musical works of mine that have a unifying theme or plotline. These cantatas sometimes include solo singers, choral ensembles, and accompaniment of piano or a small instrumental ensemble.
Penn State in the 1990's had a respectable art museum on campus, the Palmer Museum, founded in 1972. The Palmer also owned one of my favorite paintings: Santa Rosalia by the Colombian painter Fernando Botero. To celebrate the opening of a newly constructed wing to the museum in 1993, I decided to set my favorite painting to music and write a piece based on Botero’s work. I asked Jason Charnesky for a text, and I stipulated that the piece should include (or quotes from) a couple of published interviews that I had read in which Botero discussed his works. Charnesky and I researched the historical Santa Rosalia (the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily) and the many legends about her. Armed with the results of our research we interviewed the artist himself at his New York apartment on Fifth Avenue. At first he had no memory of the painting we came stuffed with facts to talk about. Finally the artist said: “Ah yes, she was one of my nun paintings.” He told us that he typically painted his works first and only after they were finished did he come up with a name for the completed work. When asked why he chose Santa Rosalia as the name for this work, he simply said: “Because I liked the sound of the name.” It seemed like all of our research into the background of the saint had been for naught, until Charnesky hit upon the idea of making one of the themes of the piece be the way interpretations of a work of art often obscure as much as they reveal. Our quartet of singers – all from the voice faculty of the School of Music – became characters in the story as well as “academics” informing the viewing audience about the “meaning” of various aspects of the painting. The cantata became a celebration of the saint, a tribute to her role as patrona, and a sly commentary on the profession of art criticism. Santa Rosalia: Cantata for Vocal Quartet, Woodwind Quintet and Harpsichord based on the painting by Fernando Botero was premiered in the new galleries of the Museum in front of the painting. I believe she was very proud to have such a tribute to her.
I am indebted to Lyle Merriman, the head of the School of Music, who lobbied long and hard for WPSX to film the cantata, which was done primarily in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Victory Church in State College, PA. We are pleased that our work lives on in this fine video.
Santa Rosalia has had additional performances: one for the international meeting of the Association of Colombanistas: one for Music at Penn’s Woods; and one for the 40th Anniversary of the Museo Botero in Bogotá, Colombia, for which it was translated into Spanish by my friend Professor Robert Lima (1935-2022).
Santa Rosalia Cantata for vocal quartet, woodwind quintet and harpsichord based on the painting of Santa Rosalia by Fernando Botero. Text by Jason Charnesky.
Commission and Premiere: The Palmer Museum of Art, October 31, 1993 with Susan Boardman, Suzanne Roy, sopranos; Richard Kennedy, tenor; Norman Spivey, baritone; June Miller, harpsichord; and the Pennsylvania Quintet: Eleanor Duncan Armstrong, flutes; Tim Hurtz, oboe and English horn; Smith Toulson, clarinet and bass clarinet; Lisa Bontrager, horn; Daryl Durran, bassoon and contrabassoon.
Music at Penn's Woods Chamber Music Series, July 14, 1995. Eisenhower Auditorium.
Opening ceremonies of the International Conference of the Association of Colombianists, July 30, 1997. Recital Hall. Penn State.
Performance for the 40th Anniversary of Museo Botero, Bogotá, Colombia. English text translated into Spanish by Professor Robert Lima.
Dedicated to those with HIV and AIDS.
Videotaped by WPSX-TV for PBS broadcast 1996.
View the full score. Read the notes.
Listen and watch the WPSX video.
Sometimes a cantata served as a first working out of musical themes and dramatic ideas that would later find full realization as complete operas. Such was the case with The Last Voyage of Captain Meriwether Lewis, a cantata for soloists, TTBB chorus and piano quartet, written and premiered in 1999. The cantata has been adapted for mixed chorus, and has been transformed into a song cycle for solo voice. Each tells the tragic but ultimately inspiring story of the life and demise of Meriwether Lewis. The limitations of the cantata form both heightens the drama and presents the story in high musical relief.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF CAPTAIN MERIWETHER LEWIS
Dramatic cantata for men’s voices, baritone, soprano, bass and piano or piano quartet.
Text by Jason Charnesky. Based on the Journals from the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery (1894-1806). (35 min.)
Commission and Premiere: Penn State Glee Club with Mark Whatley, baritone, Elisa Matthews, soprano, Korey Jackson, baritone; Penn State Glee Club with the Castalia Piano Trio with Timothy Deighton, viola. Homecoming Concert, November 6, 1999.
In the depths of despair, Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) is suffering through his last night when he doubts that his exploits and life have meant anything. The ensuing eight songs follow the explorer as he remembers the exciting days with the Corps of Discovery, the beautiful never-ending Missouri River, and York, the only African American on the expedition and Sacajawea who guided the Corps to the Pacific. Finally the treacherous crossing of the forbidding Bitterroot Mountains. In the last song Lewis, in a grand operatic scena, takes courage in his accomplishments and then departs this life heroically, knowing that he will be remembered as a great explorer and scientist.
Read the notes. The recordings are from the premiere performance.
Ann Shields, Director of the HUB Art Gallery at Penn State, was presenting an exhibition of works by women artists, and she suggested that I write a new work based on the words, works and paintings by the artists. But I found more powerful inspiration in Rachel Carson, the Pennsylvania writer and scientist who sounded the alarm about environmental dangers in a way that the American public finally noticed and took to heart. At the end of her life, though battling cancer, she testified before a very hostile congressional committee, demonstrating her determination to present her scientific findings, primarily from her seminal text about the dangers of pesticides and chemicals on the environment, Silent Spring. My cantata, One Life: the Rachel Carson Project, was written for and performed by the Oriana Singers, soloists, and chamber ensemble, all led by our beloved Lynne Drafall (1955-2021). The work was premiered on November 17, 2000 in Heritage Hall in the HUB-Robeson Center at Penn State.
Once again the form of the cantata was a perfect vehicle to present the life and writings of this great scientist and artist.
One Life: The Rachel Carson Project Cantata in nine movements for women’s chorus, alto and soprano soloists, speaker and piano or chamber ensemble (flute, horn, violoncello and piano) with optional video projections. Text by Jason Charnesky, based on the life and writings of Rachel Carson (1907-1964).
The original cantata was scored for women’s voices and has been adapted for mixed voices. The audio clips below are performed by the Oriana Singers, Discantus and two soloists: Elisa Matthews, soprano, and Jan Mianulli, mezzo-soprano.
Download narrator’s script and lyrics. Download piano-vocal score.
Individual movements may be viewed or listened to below.
My most recent cantata was proposed by Julia Kasdorf, a professor and poet at Penn State. Her interest in local history turned to the Garbrick Brothers of nearby Centre Hall, PA, founders of Garbrick Amusements, who have provided the carnival rides to fairs throughout the Northeast for the better part of a century, including the Grange Fair. She proposed an hourlong historical, immersive and multimedia oratorio celebrating the creativity of Vernon Garbrick (1907-1987). The work is to be performed inside the Garbrick workshop just below the runaway truck ramp in Centre Hall, PA. The workshop has much of the original equipment intact and this will serve as a setting for the performance. There will also be slides, video, and live performance of five songs celebrating the life and history of the three Garbrick Brothers, inventors and entrepreneurs extraordinary. (The workshop now serves as the studio for James Kalsbeek of the School of Visual Arts.)
The Garbrick brothers Vernon, Lewis, and Lester, grew up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, each having been blessed with mechanical genius. The Wizard of Centre County focuses on Vernon, an innovator and builder of amusement rides; but includes the productivity of his brothers, as well. Vernon Garbrick patented 18 inventions, the most famous of which was the folding Ferris wheel; and his legacy lives on in the carnival business to this very day.
aMUSEment: Play in the Workshop
Five Songs for SATB Solo Quartet and Violin, Violoncello, String Bass, Percussion and Piano
Lyrics by Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Music by Bruce Trinkley.
Premiere: Jennifer Trost, soprano; Amanda Silliker, mezzo-soprano; Richard Kennedy, tenor; Carter Houston, baritone; Kevin Sims and Open Music. Production designed by James Kalsbeek. The Garbrick Workshop, Centre Hall, PA. September 2-4, 2022.
Project funded and supported by the Awesome Foundation.
View notes. Read the poems.
My friend, conductor Jesse Parker, requested a work from me dedicated to Karen Gilbert Landis (1945-2015), Founder Director of the Chesapeake Chorale. Jesse specified the text, a poem by British poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) entitled To Music, to becalm his Fever. This first encounter with the poetry of Herrick led me to set a number of his poems which I then fashioned into a cantata for mixed chorus, solo voices, and piano. Herrick’s Lyricks is a cantata that gives an overview of Herrick’s life, interests and writings, very much in the manner of a choral cycle, but more dramatic in its form and delivery.
Herrick’s Lyricks Cantata for Chorus, Four Solo Voices and Piano. Poems by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Commission and Premiere: Chesapeake Chorale Chamber Singers, Jesse Parker, conductor. April, 2017.
Herrick, the English poet and contemporary of Milton, was born in London and educated at Cambridge to become a minister. His poems are monuments of wit. The sophisticated poet wrote to his upper class readers praising the simplicities of country life and country wisdom. Two of his most famous poems, To the Virgins, to make much of Time and To Daffadills, are major works of the carpe diem (seize the day) tradition which enjoins us to enjoy the moment as it happens. The over-riding message of Herrick’s work is that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it.
Read the poems. Download the score. The most popular poems may also be viewed separately.
Click on the titles to listen to the Chesapeake Chorale.
After our first collaboration, The Bawd’s Opera, which won the BMI Varsity Show Award as the Best College Musical of 1966, Michael Feingold provided a script about the cultural and romantic changes brought about by a new contraceptive pharmaceutical. This piece for four singer-instrumentalists was titled The Pill and was produced in Wollman Auditorium of Columbia’s student union, Ferris Booth Hall. The set consisted only of a piano and drum set, with microphones, and general stage lighting. The cast were performers with whom I had recently worked: Antonia Hess, Julienne Marshall, Charlie Pitchford, and Jon Bauman. (Jon would go on to long-lasting fame as Bowzer from the Fifties revival group Sha-Na-Na.)
The 8 songs used contemporary pop materials to tell the story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and the couple reunite. This rock cantata premiered several months before the opening of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Something about the melding of contemporary musical idioms in classical forms seemed to have been in the air at this time.
The Pill Rock cantata for soprano, alto, tenor, bass; two electric guitars, bass guitar, piano, drums.
Lyrics by Michael Feingold.
Commission and Premiere: Columbia Players, as the finale to Petrol Hahn, an evening of theatre works. March 9-12, 1967.
Read Dan Ringel’s rave review in The Columbia Spectator, March 10, 1967.
Further performances: Green Mansions Theatre, Lake George, NY. 1968. Penn State 1971.
Recorded by WRVR, Riverside Radio, with the original cast; titles narrated by Kathleen Whelen.