Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, one of the pieces featured in this year’s Nancy D. Hawk Memorial Day Concert, includes no words but features a soprano soloist singing a single vowel sound of her choosing. Given the setting of the concert, a church on the grounds of a Cistercian Trappist abbey, you might expect to hear strictly religious music. And you might be wrong.
“We present music that is spiritually uplifting,” says Ellen Dressler Moryl, artistic director emeritus of the Spotlight concert series. “It doesn’t have to be sacred music to have that effect.”
The concert will also include pieces with more explicitly Christian themes. Bach’s Cantata No. 51, for solo trumpet, soprano, and string ensemble, is also titled Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Praise ye God in all the earth), and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem takes its Latin lyrics from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.
The Mepkin concert series started in 1993, growing out of a friendship between conductor Sam Sheffer and then-Abbot Francis Kline of Mepkin Abbey, who was a Juilliard-trained organist. Hawk, the series’ current namesake, was a “stalwart and enthusiastic” supporter of Piccolo and its chamber music concerts, many of which took place in her church, First (Scots) Presbyterian.
In addition to helping organize the concert, Moryl will play cello in the Ensemble of St. Clare, an accompanying group that dates back to the early concerts under Sheffer and Kline’s watch. Moryl says she looks forward to playing in the austere Mepkin Abbey Church, which features exposed rafters in a small windowed clerestory that lets in ample natural light.
“The church at Mepkin Abbey is quite a special place,” Moryl says. “It’s acoustically nearly perfect, and it’s very peaceful, and the architecture of that church is magnificent but it’s understated … Your eyes are always drawn upward, which is appropriate.”
The second half of the program, the Requiem, will also feature the Taylor Festival Choir, a professional chamber choir based in Charleston. The Reqiuem, which some late 19th-century listeners called a “lullaby of death,” sounds far from doleful. Fauré was once quoted as saying, “It is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”
Moryl says a requiem seemed appropriate for the concert. “It’s Memorial Day, and it’s a time to reflect,” Moryl says.
The Rachmaninoff piece will feature the basso continuo, a distinctive Baroque bass accompaniment, with Moryl’s cello doubling a bass line that is also played on the harpsichord. “The basso continuo cello and bass lay a firm foundation so that it’s very full and rich,” Moryl says.
Vocalise, Moryl says, was the suggestion of violinist-conductor Yuriy Bekker, who will perform in the ensemble. The idea of performing Bach’s Cantata No. 51 came from trumpeter Antonio Marti, and Moryl gladly agreed, calling the piece “one of my favorite things since I was a little girl.”
The Cantata is a particularly demanding piece for a vocalist, covering a broad two-octave range with soaring high notes that sometimes seem to duel with a complex trumpet part, but Moryl says she is confident in the ability of vocal soloist Margaret Kelly Cook, whom she calls “just a dream of a performer.”
Of course, the prelude for most concertgoers will be a long drive through the woods to Mepkin Abbey, which sits on the bank of the Cooper River and is ensconced in impeccably maintained gardens. The show begins on the walk to the chapel.
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