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Cantilena Chamber Choir and a trio of Berkshires Jazz musicians to perform an all-inclusive jazz service at Trinity Church

Williamstown composer Stephen Danker's 'Isaiah 44: 21-23' to receive world premiere performance

Berkshire Eagle Saturday, February 25, 2023

By Sharon Smullen

LENOX — Patience is a virtue, especially for a composer waiting decades to hear a work receive its first live performance. For Williamstown composer Stephen Dankner, a choral work he wrote some 21 years ago has finally come of age.

Dankner’s “Isaiah 44: 21-23” will receive its world premiere performance at Trinity Church on March 5 as part of an "All-Inclusive Jazz Service" led by the Rev. Michael Tuck. The Mass will be accompanied by musical selections sung by the 18-member Cantilena Chamber Choir led by director Andrea Goodman, plus a trio of well-known Berkshires Jazz musicians led by pianist John Sauer with Jon Suters on bass and Bill Chapman on drums.

The service is structured around Bob Chilcott’s 2004 work “A Little Jazz Mass,” divided into sections. As well as Dankner’s piece, it also features Dave Brubeck’s 1979 composition “All my Hope,” excerpted from his larger Mass, “To Hope! A Celebration.”

With a liturgical reading from the Prophet Isaiah and accompanying homily reflection, “there’s going to be a real in-depth look at Isaiah,” Goodman said, noting this is the first Dankner work performed by the choir.

A prolific composer of some 150 works from symphonies to solo voice, Dankner wrote “Isaiah 44: 21-23” in 2001 for piano and chorus. The American Composers Forum commissioned him to compose six short 5- to 10-minute choral pieces, two each for three Jackson, Miss., churches — Roman Catholic, Methodist and Baptist — using biblical texts their music ministers selected.

“I had written a lot of religious music at that time, [including] four Biblical symphonies," Dankner said. “I was trying to reawaken my religious convictions, compositionally speaking. I was in a choral frame of mind, so the idea of doing a simpler version for just chorus appealed to me.”

Williamstown composer Stephen Dankner's “Isaiah 44: 21-23” will receive its world premiere performance at Trinity Church on March 5.










Only four of the commissioned works were ever performed.

Dankner describes “Isaiah 44: 21-23” as having “a jazz quality, a gospel quality embedded in the harmonies and the rhythms of the piece. It’s kind of a rare bird.”

With the chorus clapping hands on the offbeat during the fast first and third sections, plus a more serious, pensive middle section and two brief piano solos, the piece is “joyous and exuberant,” Dankner said.

Dankner taught music at Williams College in the 1970s before moving to New Orleans, where Louisiana Philharmonic premiered seven of his eight symphonies from 1998 to 2012; he was their composer-in-residence from 2004 to 2007.

In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, he relocated to a condo in Williamstown where he had escaped the southern summer heat since 2000. His works have since been performed locally over the years, including at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Williams College, and by Northern Berkshire Chorale. His compositions have reached widely across the United States and also into Europe.

Now 78, Dankner has established archives at two schools where he taught: Loyola University in New Orleans, and The Juilliard School, where he received his doctorate.

While gathering compositions together during the pandemic shutdown, Dankner asked Goodman if she would be interested in performing his earlier choral works. She was drawn to the prospect of presenting a world premiere, he noted.

“It had a populist element which I thought would be really audience-friendly," Dankner said, “it really has a punch to it.”

The work has come full circle, as Dankner wrote it during a summer stay in the Berkshires. “I had access to a piano in the Williams music department, so I used to compose there. Any quiet place you can close off is inspiring to me, it all comes from inside.

“I don’t like writing music that repeats itself, I try and find a different expression for each one of the pieces. My music is across the spectrum, from the lightest music to the most serious and in-depth.”

His work has been recorded on a dozen CDs, with a double CD of four violin and piano sonatas due for release this year.

Acknowledging the contextual shift of the presentation, Dankner doesn’t expect the piece to sound like it would have in Jackson, Miss.; it’s coming from a different time and place, he said. But with spirited clapping and its gospel feel, “it should rattle the rafters,” he said.

Goodman met Brubeck when she and his son Chris both taught at Skidmore College. “['All My Hope'] is quite simple, musically speaking, it’s what you do with it that’s tricky for musicians like myself that rely on a score,” she explained. “You’ve got to stop the choir for the jazz ensemble and come back in. They do a lot of improv and change keys often. It’s not written down, this is all stuff that Dave Brubeck told me.”

When Brubeck died, Goodman performed the work with Saratoga Choral Festival at his memorial.

Cantilena typically performs jazz-inspired pieces at its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert. In 2019, they sang selections from Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concert.”

“It’s all jazz with a jazz combo, it was fabulous,” Goodman said.

The Trinity service will last around 75 minutes altogether, Goodman said. “It’s really for anybody, you won’t hear this [anywhere else] in the county.”

Cantilena has performed at Trinity for the past two decades.

“This concert is a thank you to Trinity Church for allowing us to be part of their music series, offering us a home and a place to rehearse [free of charge],” Goodman said. “It’s a beautiful, acoustically perfect church.”


Cantilena Chamber Choir: Chilcott’s Jazz Mass

What: The Cantilena Chamber Choir will present an all-inclusive jazz service with special guest musicians from Berkshires Jazz. The concert includes "A Little Jazz Mass" by Bob Chilcott, "All My Hope" by Dave Brubeck, and a world premiere of "Isaiah 44: 21-23" by Williamstown composer Stephen Dankner.

Who: Cantilena Chamber Choir, directed by Andrea Goodman, and Berkshires Jazz musicians, John Sauer, piano; Jon Suters, bass; and Bill Chapman, drums.

Where: Trinity Church, 88 Walker St., Lenox 

When: 3 p.m., March 5

Tickets: Free, goodwill offering suggested.

More information: 518-791-0185 

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