Choral work caps church's 150th year

The Twin Cities-based VocalEssence Ensemble Singers premiered an impressive new work for a capella chorus Saturday by Rochester composer Sebastian Modarelli at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

The piece, "What I Have Seen and Heard," was commissioned by the church as the capstone to its 150th year celebration, and it was an appropriately grand way to wrap up the year. The church was packed, with Bishop John Quinn of the Diocese of Winona in the audience. (Full disclosure: I'm a parish member.)

The work is in 13 sections and traces the full scope of the Gospel of St. John, from the mysterious opening lines — "In the beginning was the Word" — through to the resurrection of Jesus. Along the way, Modarelli presents key moments and people in the story, including Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, his betrayal at the Last Supper, and the crucifixion, with Scripture readings and meditations before each section.

It's a daring work in many ways. A roughly hour-long choral work without accompaniment, even a keyboard, and without major solo parts, is asking a lot of an audience — and any young composer willing to tackle both the creation and the resurrection in a single piece gets extra points for courage.

For the most part, the piece holds your attention with driving rhythms, distinctive harmonic approaches and occasionally memorable solo moments.


Among the solo moments that stand out is one where the music is secondary to the religious text — "The High Priestly Prayer," a long passage in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, chanted by tenor Bart Seebach. It's a long call to prayer that one can imagine echoing in ancient Jerusalem, with simple harmonies provided by the roughly 30-voice ensemble, conducted by Philip Brunelle.

The creation music in the opening section and the rising harmonics in the triumphant final scene — sung in Latin, in both cases — were also striking, and Modarelli took fullest advantage of the text's dramatic potential in the scene where Jesus defends and forgives the adulterous woman.

Modarelli is a native of Argentina who studied music and composition in Buenos Aires and in Italy. He was organist and music professor at the Seminary of the Archidiocese of Buenos Aires, which was headed at that time by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, and he has been music director at St. John's since 2005.

Among his previous works is a work for chamber orchestra, "Born in Buenos Aires," that received its premere in New York in 2010 and has since been performed by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra.

In comments to the audience after the performance, Modarelli talked of the collaboration that occurs between composer, conductor and singers as a work like this is readied for performance. Next time out, it would be interesting to hear it without the spoken "reflections," which tended to make the music seem secondary to the text, more like a Lenten service with choral accompaniment.

Heard without interruption (and without intermission) in a concert hall, the piece might have more cohesion and impact than it did in the church's ceremonial setting Saturday. Even so, it's another ambitious work by a promising local composer.

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