Salisbury church to host Middlebury composer’s opus

SALISBURY — Composer Sam Guarnaccia of Middlebury met Celtic spirituality theologian Philip Newell at a retreat in Vermont in 2005. Guarnaccia had been improvising music with a Scottish friend and he found that Newell was writing words that might work with a piece with a flavor of the Celtic countries.
The two decided to collaborate, and Guarnaccia set out to create the music that would accompany Newell’s writing.
The result was “A Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth,” a work for voice and instruments that has been performed by professional musicians internationally and throughout the United States.
Locals will get a chance to hear “A Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth” this Friday, July 24, when it is performed at 7:30 p.m. at the Salisbury Congregational Church as part of the 36th annual Salisbury Summer Series.
The 50-minute piece will be performed by six vocalists and six instrumentalists, most of whom hail from Addison County. The musical work contains 10 sections, a full overture, nine songs and eight musical interludes.
For “A Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth,” Guarnaccia said the particular format of the performance informed his process of composition.
“My task with these chants for the Celtic Mass was that they be quite simple so that people could pick them up easily,” he said. “But in spite of the instructions to keep it simple, it eventually became more layered and developed.”
Guarnaccia described using a purposeful and intentional process when composing music for a text.
“I have the words on the piano, and I go into my inner ear and listen for the mood, the feeling, the sounds, the tempos, the melodies,” Guarnaccia said. “The melodies that emerge from that process of listening for the music vary. Sometimes a particular shape of a melody comes and it just feels right for that text. Sometimes you try a lot of different things, but eventually you follow the emotion and things emerge and then you begin to play with that.”
Guarnaccia, who was born in Middlebury and has spent years training and teaching classical guitar, said he was originally attracted to Celtic teachings like those of Newell for the freedom this particular spirituality affords.
“There are a huge number of people, probably most people on the planet, struggling with their spirituality and with the hard edges around religious doctrine that make it difficult,” he said. “There’s so much dogma that people feel constrained by, and it doesn’t seem to fit their feeling of the way life really is. The Celtic spirituality is remarkably free of that.”
Guarnaccia described “A Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth” as a way to attain that feeling of connectedness and spirituality through song.
“The texts of the choral sections are intended to invoke a connection to the living world and to each other and to promote a feeling of peace,” he said.
Deborah Felmeth, who will sing the second soprano part in Friday’s concert, looks forward to the concert.
“It has been such a delight to work with these 12 musicians, and good friends, from Vermont who have come together to present this beautiful, transparent, prayerful, praiseful, longing for peace and the health of the planet on which we all live and to which we all owe our lives,” the Waltham resident said. “‘The Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth’ is both timely and timeless and the acoustics of the beautiful, old, Salisbury Congregational Church will lend a very special setting in the high summer of a Vermont evening.”
Though the performance this Friday is not a full complement of the instruments for which the piece is written, this performance will feature a violin, viola, flute, Irish whistle, piano, cello, bass and guitar.
Guarnaccia said having a personal composition performed by a group of people is always a humbling and unpredictable experience.
“It’s wonderful and a little frightening. It’s never quite what you imagine,” he said. “There’s always more or something different that emerges and insights that emerge that were probably there but you weren’t conscious of. It’s very beautiful and it’s a great gift to me.”

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