Westmont Concert Series

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 10, 2020
Westmont Music Department husband-and-wife faculty members Andrea (flute) and Neil Di Maggio (piano) helped launch the college’s virtual Friday Concert Series (Photo credit: Elizabeth Mae)

Like everybody else, the Westmont Music Department has had to pivot during the pandemic from in-person events to online performances and instruction. Last weekend, the department launched its new virtual Friday Concert Series with a video on Vimeo featuring husband-and-wife faculty members Andrea (flute) and Neil Di Maggio (piano) that portends a potent season of music.

The entire semester has already been scheduled, with faculty concerts taking up the first six events followed by nine performances featuring students, either virtually, or, as is the current plan, with matriculants at the Christian college back on the Montecito campus. Among the latter are such annual favorites as the Fall Choral Celebration (October 30) and the 16th annual Christmas Concert (December 4-6). Each of the new performances, which have or will be filmed live on location, can be watched for free online at www.vimeo.com/showcase/westmontmusic, where they will be archived for viewing at any time throughout the semester. Visit www.westmont.edu/music/concerts for the schedule and details.

Michael Shasberger, Westmont’s Adams professor of music and worship, who will sing baritone in the second event this Friday at 7 pm, talked about the project over the phone last weekend.

Q. This is a new series, something new in weekly programming rather than just transferring what would have taken place in person online. Is that right?

A. Yes, we probably had anywhere between 20 and 24 programs scheduled for the fall, but they wouldn’t have been spaced out weekly. So we decided to organize this and spread it out evenly, and also start with the faculty to get them prepared in advance for doing these kinds of recordings, and then bring the student performers later this fall.

Let’s talk about the programming for the first few concerts, and how you made those choices.

We wanted to start with our faculty and realized because there’s no physical requirement that it would be a great opportunity to feature some alumni. They were able to prepare those programs over the summer and record them here in late August and early September. The Di Maggios’ concert has been ready to go for a long time because it had been scheduled to happen in April before COVID caused it to be canceled. So we put that on first.

I watched it a little while ago today and I was surprised how good it was. The music and performances, of course, but the sound was terrific and the video is sharp and interesting. What is it you guys are doing that nobody else seems to have?

Thanks. We knew this was coming and we wanted to be prepared, so put in a little extra effort and bought some new equipment and were able to use multiple microphones and good video cameras. This is all we have right now, so making it good was important in the moment.

Westmont Music Department husband-and-wife faculty members Andrea (flute) and Neil Di Maggio (piano) helped launch the college’s virtual Friday Concert Series (Photo credit: Elizabeth Mae)

You are one of the singers in the concert that will stream this Friday along with your Westmont colleagues in pianist Neil Di Maggio and soprano Nichole Dechaine. What can you tell us about the program?

It’s a group of new songs by a DC-based composer, Gary Barnett, who had approached us last winter asking if we would collaborate with him in presenting the world premiere and developing them with him. We’ve been working all spring and summer so it seemed like a natural fit to make those one of our featured performances. That video production is really nice too because we brought in a very safe studio to film that as a special operation and it’s a bump up in technology.

What’s your connection to the composer? Why did he approach you to do this?

It was just fortunately this outreach on the internet where Gary had written a post on a web form that I participated in looking for a collaborator. And I wrote back to him and said, this project sounds interesting with scripturally based songs for soprano, baritone, and piano. Nichole and I like to work together and it sounded interesting what he was describing. When he sent us demo materials, we decided to take it on.

What can you say about the songs, the approach and themes?

Gary’s style is contemporary. It’s a bit of a mix because it’s very, very melodic and rather lovely throughout, although it can be a little bit challenging in terms of the tonal reach. Sometimes it has some contemporary, even theatrical effects, and also he reaches back to older music, especially some cantorial tradition. His background is in the Jewish tentorial traditions, and some of that comes into the mix as well. There are four songs, and the first two are song cycles, actually. “Garden Lost” is a recounting of the fall and our separation from God, the effects of loneliness and the impacts of that. The second song cycle is a restoration and it’s about coming back and about restoring those bridges and building back to the Kingdom of God. Then there are two short songs: “Walk on the Water,” which is a bit more about restoration, and about trusting and taking leaps of faith, while the last one is a very lovely piece entitled “Prayer,” which invites people to consider the goodness of God. So altogether it’s a wonderful rise and fall pairing of songs, and the whole program is about a half-hour long.

As I hear you talk about this, I’m thinking that most of us have COVID on our minds a great deal of the time. It sounds like these songs could be addressing the pandemic in a way, at least in the idea of rising again. I’m wondering with you being a professor of religion and music, do you see the scriptures, as these songs by extension, applying in today’s times?

Oh, absolutely. There is a timelessness about that message that really does ring true right now. Our pianist Neil Di Maggio actually commented that he was really appreciative of the project this summer because he found it extremely restorative and redeeming in this time to work on something that had that arc to it and that sense of ultimate reconciliation and redemption.

How much were you able to collaborate in the creation of these songs? Were you in contact, basically making sure you were getting his intent, or were you offering feedback as well?

These are brand new songs and this was kind of like the out-of-town trial for a Broadway show. So we worked very closely with Gary. It was like we did the test for him to see if he’s really getting what he hopes for with his intent. We were able to give feedback and he was very appreciative of our comments. Sometimes I’d say, I know what you want here, but can we try this? And he would always say, yeah, just try it, let’s see if we like it. And oftentimes he said, I liked (what you did) better. Let’s go with that approach. Or let’s make a modification. So we had a really wonderful dialogue back and forth on multiple platforms over the summer, and we rehearsed with him a couple of times on Zoom. Of course he was with us virtually during the recording session – which we made at Deane Chapel on campus with lots of social distancing and negative air flow – so he could hear and he could comment and he could make final suggestions.

Moving on, the next concert actually takes place in a church, I believe, with the organist Tom Joyce, right?

He’s the organist at Trinity Episcopal. Of course the church has been closed for six months, and they have been very careful and cautious. But as the organist, Tom has been allowed to practice. All summer long, he’s been preparing special videos for their worship services and just for sharing with people who wanted to get a sense of being in the space again since the church is quiet and empty. Tom’s a brilliant, brilliant organist, it’s a wonderful instrument there and the church has a great acoustic. So he’s been preparing this all summer and we’re compiling his work as a recital for the next performance.

What’s the story with the Carnevale String Quartet that is scheduled for the last Friday in September?

It features one of our distinguished alumni, Sarah Pfister (viola, 2012), whose maiden name happens to be Shasberger. So, yes, she’s my daughter, and she is now the principal violist with the Ruse State Philharmonic Opera Orchestra in Bulgaria. Her husband, Kevin, is the principal bassoonist as well, and they put on this concert just as COVID was coming into play. They wanted to stage something they could broadcast. This was the first performance of the string quartet, which is named after the principal violinist, whose last name is Carnevale, which they thought would be celebrative and fun. They’re playing with friends in the orchestra, including a flutist, oboist, and clarinetist, on a variety of pieces. There are some contemporary popular things such as “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the movie The Mission, andtwo wonderful classics of Mozart and Fauré. It’s a very mixed and delightful program.


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