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‘A Dream of Music’

Concert honors Northfield composer’s decades of creativity

Joseph Marcello can still recall strumming a guitar at 14 with his older brother and teacher Eugene, when a sound resonated in one of their duets. It changed his life.

e_SDLqIt was like a light penetrating the surface of my mind,” said Marcello, 52 years later in the music studio inside his Northfield home. “It was the moment when I knew that I wanted to create sounds like that. I didn’t just want to play other people’s sounds.”

Over the course of a half century, Marcello has penned operas, soundtracks and stand-alone songs that can’t be classified by a singular style, tempo or cultural origin. Inspiration has come from composers long dead, from words of fictional characters, from personal grief.

On Sunday, 10 performers will gather at The Arts Block in Greenfield to pay homage to the local composer, lyricist and teacher. The program, “A Dream of Music: Half a Century of Visions and Visitations,” features two-plus hours of Marcello’s original pieces, hand picked by the composer himself.

Four voices, two woodwinds and two string instruments will play over the steady accompaniment of piano. And Marcello’s thespian friend Thom Griffin will serve as the evening’s narrator, using spoken word to thrust the audience into the middle of scenes.

Organizing a concert

According to Dorota Wilhelmi-Kol, owner of the Music Academy of Greenfield, it all began on a winter evening in late 2011. On her way to see a concert which showcased the work of multiple composers, including Marcello, she told her decade-long friend that they should create a concert featuring only his music.

He was open to the idea. Nearly one year later, they began to seriously plan a concert that would attempt to condense 50 years of music making into one evening.

“I think his music is beautiful and is not exposed really as it is supposed to be,” said Wilhelmi-Kol, of Greenfield, who headed up production of the show and will play violin for three songs.

One by one, they began to assemble the pieces of the puzzle.

To perform the main accompaniment, Marcello chose Gregory Hayes, a Dartmouth College lecturer who lives in Ashfield, whom the composer called a “saint of a pianist ... truly a guy who doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’”

Leading the vocals will be soprano singer Maria Ferrante, of Worcester, a musical dramatist with a pure voice that stirs emotion without “getting in the way,” Marcello said.

Irwin Reese, a New York City resident and former member of the Metropolitan Opera, will sing tenor, including the lead on two African American spiritual songs that Marcello put in the program.

He’s enlisted local talent, as well. Greenfield’s Jonathan Harvey will take on baritone parts and Northfield’s Anna Emberly will also sing soprano.

Oboe player Fredric Cohen hails from Northampton and clarinetist Joseph MacCaffrey is a Greenfield resident.

And joining Wilhelmi-Kol on strings will be cellist Rebecca Hartka, an Ashfield musician who Marcello met while working on his Encores & Curtain Calls column, which runs in The Recorder’s Thursday Arts & Entertainment section.

The musicians have had their pieces for at least three months. Emberly, the only non-professional in the group, visited Marcello’s house multiple times to work on the songs. The other singers met up with Hayes for a practice on their own.

The whole group met together for the first time last week at the Music Academy of Greenfield for three consecutive hour-long rehearsals on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Some of the 10 musicians have known Marcello for years. For others, this marks their first exposure to his music.

“Joseph has amassed some of the most wonderful musicians to bring his vibrant and exciting music to life,” said Ferrante. “There was so much warmth and kindness that surrounded the room in which we rehearsed this past week. Musical sparks flew.”

“Some (of the songs) are very lyrical, while others are quite technical and challenging,” said MacCaffrey. “It has been a pleasure to work with the other performers who are all top notch.

Six months ago, during the selection process of the musicians, Marcello spent individual time with the performers to get to know them on a more personal level.

Rather than communicate with Ferrante via email, for instance, he traveled to the Worcester area and hiked barefoot up Mount Wachusett with her. Then, he visited her home and played music for her and her husband.

“That created a bond that we could depend upon in the future,” said Marcello. “We had shared a day.”

Marcello’s music

Marcello writes his music in his home on a Northfield hill, surrounded by the chorus of his 15 cockatiels.

Piano is usually the instrument of choice. Ten fingers can reach more notes at once and dance between the instrumental parts of the strings and woodwinds.

He has by no means abandoned his classical guitar — often turning to it when he plays at churches, hospitals and nursing homes. He can feel the guitar’s vibrations run through his torso and he is free to fully face the audience while he sings and plays.

If stuck on a desert island with only his guitar, Marcello is confident he could still compose an orchestral arrangement — filling in the gaps with the music he often can hear playing in his mind.

But in the best scenario, it is his piano: an instrument that allows a person, he said, to become lost in their own world.

Just like the Bible, Sunday’s concert will start “In the Beginning” — with the tale of how music first came to the Earth. Marcello will play piano for this song only, before retiring to watch the rest of the show from the audience.

Griffin, who is from Colrain, will tell the story to the audience — his first narrative task of the afternoon.

Marcello enlisted Griffin, whom he met 20 years ago working on “A Christmas Carol” musical, to read a few lines of text before or during each piece — a way to get the audience caught up emotionally to the point they might be at if they were listening to the song as a part of its original musical or orchestral arrangement.

The program alternates between “visions” (scenes both fictional and real that Marcello crafted his pieces about) and “visitations” (homages to composers long passed, whose spirits inspired these songs).

Before the first act is complete, the audience will hear tributes to Johann Sebastian Bach, George Gershwin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And there will be songs from musicals based upon the work of novelists Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

Marcello crafted his homage to Bach before he turned 20. But just two songs later, the performers will play one that he wrote this year: “Fukushima, My Love — Lullaby for a Lost Land.”

He wrote this song, like many others, in his Northfield studio, using the piano to write parts for all instruments: violin, cello, oboe and clarinet.

When he writes, he swivels back and forth between his piano, where he scratches down notes on pieces of blank sheet music, to the 36-inch-wide computer monitor behind him, where he can insert the notes and use a program to immediately hear the work played back to him.

In “Fukushima,” the four instruments dance atop the piano part in a haunting tune that depicts the Japanese residents’ love for their home, which has been ravaged by a nuclear explosion. Marcello thinks of each of the instruments as a different voice, all singing separate songs about their homeland.

“The question is, which one do you hear?” asked Marcello. “I think that depends on who you are.”

The concert will continue in the second act, which features another sweeping list of songs — including a second spiritual one and music from a Frankenstein opera.

And there’s “Canti del Cuore,” a trio of songs about Italy. Marcello’s roots trace back to Sicily.

‘More than a concert’

The performers said there is plenty to love about Sunday’s concert.

“It contains a lot of music in a variety of voices, all of it highly accessible,” said Hayes, the pianist. “It should appeal to any listener who enjoys opera, jazz, and richly harmonized lyrical music.”

Wilhelmi-Kol praised the event as a rare opportunity for locals to experience the work of musicians they otherwise might have to pay hundreds of dollars to see perform.

She hopes that it will inspire an interest in classical music or, at least, make people happy.

“They can perhaps forget about problems, illnesses, divorces, wars,” she said.

Marcello — who thanked the behind-the-scenes work of Lynne Walker, his partner of 24 years, and Chris Harris, a Recorder copy editor who is his student and friend — said that each piece on the set list is climactic in its own way.

“This is more than a concert,” said Marcello. “This is a happening with a lot of targeted explosions.

“I hope people wake up to the incredible miracle that we exist at all and the incredible possibility that we’re one day not going to be here.”

It also isn’t lost on him that this concert will represent the widest range of his work that has ever been performed at the same time and in the same place.

“This is truly like a rainbow, a scrapbook of my work,” said Marcello. “This is a dream come true in terms of being able to rely on people making the absolute best of what you’ve done. ... I know they’re actually going to bring something to it that I can’t imagine.”

The concert begins this Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Arts Block. Tickets are $15 at the door or $12 in advance at www.theartsblock.com.

Walker said that organizers are still seeking more fundraisers for the concert. Checks can be sent to Wilhelmi-Kol at 22 High St., made payable to “The Music Academy of Greenfield ‘Dreams’” or online at http://www.gofundme.com/MarcelloArtsBlockConcert.

Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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