Cecilia McDowall connects ancient text with modern musical interpretation, which places this heralded British composer in a league of her own.
In its own juxtaposition of new and old, the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra will pair McDowall’s “Magnificat” with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor for its “European Masterworks” concert March 14.
“It’s so colorful and joyful,” SCSO director Don Kendrick said of McDowall’s six-movement work. “It’s cutting edge, but not so dissonant that it’s not appealing.”
Kendrick recently met longtime friend McDowall at a national chorale conference in Colorado, where they talked at length about the upcoming performance. “She told me that, to her, it’s very personal text and very sensitive,” Kendrick said. “Each movement, she just captured the feeling and the power of those words.”
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The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors recently honored McDowall as the 2014 British Composer of the Year for choral music. One of her milestone works receives its Northern California debut March 14.
McDowall, 63, said in an interview from her London home that Kendrick “has performed many of my works over these last years, and it is clear from everything he says that he has found a way into the heart of this work. I am only sorry I can’t be there to hear the performance in person as I know it will be a tremendous interpretation of the ‘Magnificat.’”
The piece represents a vocal workout for its performers, Kendrick noted, for the soloists, “probably are as difficult as anything in the Mozart repertoire.”
“It’s so complex,” he said. “She challenges us with this gorgeous music.”
“Magnificat” gets its roots and words from Luke’s Gospel. Its title comes from the first Latin line: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul magnifies the Lord).”
Also known as the “Canticle of Mary” or “Song of Mary,” “Magnificat” has inspired composers for centuries, most recently Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
“‘The Magnificat’ or the ‘Song of Mary’ is a narrative of joy,” McDowall said. “It is an ecstatic outpouring. It is a truly beautiful text.”
Her commission was for Evensong at St. Martins-in-the-Field Church in London. She later expanded it to concert proportions to celebrate the 100th anniversary of London’s Finchley Choral Society.
“The soprano solo, ‘Ecce enim,’ is a very light and joyful movement,” the composer said. “In contrast, the mezzo soprano fourth movement, ‘Et misericorda,’ is much darker and searching in character.”
McDowall has always wanted to make her own music.
“Composing was always my first love, my first real interest, though medicine and architecture came close,” she said. “I had plans to write music from an early age, but at that stage, being a composer didn’t seem a realistic way of earning a living.”
Initially, she taught music instead of writing it, and eventually evolved into a world-class composer, particularly of choral music.
“Singing in choirs – amateur and professional – has been a way of life, too,” she added, “and I’m sure this has informed the way in which I write for the voice.”
McDowall sees the same opportunities now for female composers as men.
“I do think that is most important,” she continued, “but I also think one shouldn’t be blinded by gender for the sake of it. Shouldn’t the most important thing be the quality of what one writes regardless of gender?”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
What: Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra performs Cecilia McDowall’s “Magnificat” and Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, with special guests Nikki Einfeld, Marina Boudart Harris, Ross Hauck and Daniel Yoder
When: 8 p.m. March 14
Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Tickets: $30-$55; children and students with ID, $15-$27.50.