Tom Benjamin adds a new 'Brick' to his reputation

Classical Music

October 11, 2011|By Mike Giuliano

The Old Brick Church has earned that name during its 200-year history. That anniversary is being observed by Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, whose present building was constructed in 1993 and hence qualifies as an architectural newcomer.

Such an event calls for music, which will be supplied by the Columbia Pro Cantare performing the world premiere of Howard County composer Tom Benjamin's "Old Brick Oratorio" Saturday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.

The composition packs a lot of musical and historical material into its approximately 60-minute running time. Benjamin uses a venerable hymn that would have been heard in this church through the centuries, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," as a recurring motif throughout the piece. He also incorporates his own new arrangements of such spirituals as "Let My People Go" and "Amazing Grace"; and his own orchestral writing stylistically ranges from jazz to rock to Broadway. Also, the audience will be invited to sing along to some numbers.

As if that weren't eclectic enough, the musical selections in this chronologically organized composition are separated by short bits of narration derived from sources including Walt Whitman, Biblical passages, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Consequently, it's an ambitious historical overview and not just the history of a single congregation.

It will require many musicians to bring it to life. The Columbia Pro Cantare is being joined by soprano Alison Gatwood, bass-baritone Robert Cantrell, the Lexington Brass Quintet, the St. John's Quartet, pianist Erik Apland, organist Donald Fries and percussionist Greg MacDonald.

"This is a musical saga that provides a history lesson about Howard County," says Columbia Pro Cantare music director Frances Motyca Dawson. "You don't have to be a church-goer to hear the music and to have a revelation of what's happened in the county."

Considering this oratorio's varied source material, Dawson adds that she has been impressed that it's musically "very cohesive. It doesn't jolt you, because it flows beautifully. The narration about people and events feeds into the piece and helps make it seamless."

Dawson, whose group has performed several other compositions by Benjamin on previous occasions, says of the composer: "He's first-class. His own talent, his own muse, is combined with all the years of teaching that make him know what people can do."

The "Old Brick Oratorio" is a challenging piece, but she's confident her group will do it justice.

For his part, the 71-year-old Benjamin shows no signs of slowing down as a composer and teacher. He estimates that he has composed around 300 pieces, and finds that he must pace himself in terms of how many commissions he accepts. He taught at Baltimore's Peabody Institute from 1987 until his retirement in 2007, but he has returned there to teach the occasional course since then.

He also has been kept busy as music director and minister of music at the Unitarian Universalist Congregaton of Columbia for the past 21 years. And there's certainly nothing retiring about the lively "Old Brick Oratorio."

Benjamin recalls that when he received the church commission several years ago, "they were pretty unspecific and gave me free rein to find texts that would be set-able to music. I chose to make (the piece) chronological and to have the texts be in both the sacred and the secular camps."

In making reference to such major historical events as the Civil War, his oratorio balances the national stage with the local perspective. This county perspective ranges from mention of such 18th-century families as Dorsey, MacGill, Shipley and Hammond to such late-20th-century names as that of Columbia founderJames Rouse.

Benjamin acknowledges being struck by the 200-year historical continuity represented by Christ Episcopal Church and how the new city of Columbia grew up around it.

"It's a free-standing church in a community of interfaith centers," he said.

During the couple of years he took to write the composition, Benjamin strove to pull its wide-ranging historical and musical elements together. He and Dawson are now going through the fine-tuning that takes place as they rehearse the piece.

Tom Benjamin says he's feeling good about his latest commission, but then adds with a laugh that he won't really know for sure until he hears its world premiere performance. He's not the only one looking forward to it.

Columbia Pro Cantare and soloists perform Tom Benjamin's "Old Brick Oratorio" on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, at 6800 Oakland Mills Road, in Columbia. Tickets are $25. Call 410-799-9321 or go to

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