In the spirit of Barry Jr.: Bingham handpicked rare French oratorio for Saturday’s free memorial concert

The Barry Bingham Jr. Memorial Concert: will be Saturday, Sept. 23 at the U of L School of Music (Belknap Campus), Comstock Hall.

The Barry Bingham Jr. Memorial Concert: will be Saturday, Sept. 23 at the U of L School of Music (Belknap Campus), Comstock Hall.

Right off hand, the musical selection for the Barry Bingham Jr. Memorial Concert this Saturday at Comstock Hall might not sound inspiring, as it includes an obscure work, which could bring every chance of putting the audience to sleep. The piece — “Mors et Vita,” by French composer Charles Gounod — was selected by Bingham himself, for a public concert that was one of his last wishes before his death in April. It is so far out of the standard repertory that it’s almost unknown. Look it up in an old book and about all you’ll find is the title, and that it’s an oratorio — a musical format generally guaranteed to keep audiences away in droves.

But concertgoers might be very surprised at what they hear, said James Rightmyer, the director of the Bingham concert. While “Mors et Vita” is by a French composer, it is not, he says, the music of the powdered-wig set at the French court.

“I would think more in terms of grand romantic — the orchestras of Tchaikovsky and Brahms,” said Rightmyer, music director at Louisville’s St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church. “It is extremely beautiful. I think people are going to hear the melodies and think they’ve always known them.”

The personnel required to perform the work offers a glimpse into the scale of the event: Full orchestra, full chorus and four accomplished soloists.

Deborah Sandler, former director of Kentucky Opera who is producing the concert, reached into her Rolodex of talent to select the four Metropolitan Opera-level soloists: mezzo-soprano Jane Gilbert, baritone John Hancock, soprano Kelly Kaduce and tenor Garrett Sorenson.

“Because the work is so infrequently performed, the performers have had to learn the music,” said Sandler. “Three of the four have already gotten back to me and said how beautiful the piece is, and what a wonderful opportunity it is to perform it.”

The choice of “Mors et Vita” is “very much in the spirit of Barry,” said Sandler. “It was his wish to have a free public concert after his death as a gift to the community, and his wife, Edie, knew this was the piece he wanted.”
“Mors et Vita” translates to death and life.

“It is about death and transformation,” said Sandler, “but the theme is more hope and rebirth.”
For those involved, the fact that the work is so little known has added a special dimension to the concert — making it almost like a North American premiere.

“I don’t know if it has ever been performed in the United States,” said Sandler. “Barry had a very special love for French music and had spent some time in recent years in Paris. That is likely where he would have heard it.”
Rightmyer said the oratorio is written in three parts: “The first is ‘Death,’ then ‘Judgment,’ and finally ‘Life,’ as in the New Jerusalem, the heavenly kingdom.”

Rightmyer trimmed the piece from over three hours, as it was written, to a performance length of one hour, 20 minutes — a length he thinks is better suited for modern audiences than those Gounod was writing for in 1885.
“It works well to be cut,” said Rightmyer. “The Victorians were used to grandiose productions of that length, and that’s what those audiences wanted. But by cutting out what is truly fluff it is much more concise.”

Gounod notched his name in musical history with the famous grand opera “Faust.” On a smaller scale, he also wrote the beautiful song “Ave Maria.”

Rightmyer noted that Bingham’s favorite instrument was the French horn, and would surely have loved the horn passages of “Mors et Vita.”

“The ‘Judgment’ brings out all the brass forces to sound the ‘Call to Judgment,’” Rightmyer said. “Six trumpets, six horns, four trombones, two tubas! That should raise the dead!”

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