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UMass Lowell Presents ‘An Evening of New England Harmony’

Dec. 1 Choral Concert Will Benefit Local Food Pantry


Contacts: Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944

Celebrate the season of joy and giving with a musical experience that is unique and timeless.  On Thursday, Dec. 1, UMass Lowell musicians will present a benefit concert for the Open Pantry of Greater Lowell, as part of the university’s new programs in choral music and community. 

“The songs we are presenting are part of the history of choral music and of this region. We are going to surround you in harmony,” said Thomas Malone, a senior lecturer in music education at UMass Lowell, who leads the choral music and community efforts.

Malone explained that the music that will be performed at the concert is from the Colonial period (1770-1805), characterized by harmonies that are bold and unabashed and have an energy that is contagious.

“These harmonies use ‘fa-sol-la’ instead of ‘do-re-mi,’ and developed and flourished in the singing schools of 18th century Boston, as well as communities across Massachusetts, long before pianos and keyboard instruments were available,” Malone said. “For that reason it really brings out the power of the human voices in a special way. It is more like an orchestra of voices than a community chorus in the usual sense.”

Malone said this concert, which starts at 7:30 p.m., will show off the power of these voices by seating them around the balcony above the heads of the audience, just as it was done 200 years ago.

“This was social music, and this was spiritual music, but it was never really concert music, so instead of having the audience watch us, we are going to surround them on all sides with this music,” he said. “That’s just the way that it used to be sung during the Colonial era.” 

Many devotees of this style of Early American harmony are active “shape-note” singers and travel across the nation to sing with other people from the Sacred Harp songbook, according to Malone.

“The Sacred Harp is one of the main reasons that this music was preserved; without that one book, these old Yankee composers might just be a footnote in history and that’s why the music has endured,” said Malone. 

William Billings of Boston, Jeremiah Ingalls of Andover, Jacob Kimball of Topsfield are just a few of the composers whose songs come to life in the melodies and words of these lively songs. Of special interest are the “fugue-ing” songs in which the different voice parts come in on after the other. 

“When these pieces were sung from the gallery (balcony) the effect was like a stereo-surround-sound, coming at the listeners from all sides. For this event, we are going to give the listeners that very experience, live and in person,” said Malone.

The program will raise money for the Open Pantry of Greater Lowell and is being hosted by First United Baptist Church in downtown Lowell. Built in 1826, the historic sanctuary has the full balconies on three sides, which allow the special sonic effects of these old songs to be fully realized.

Bruce Randall, a 1981 graduate of UMass Lowell, is an accomplished composer in this Old New England Harmony style, and will be the recipient of a special honor during the evening’s proceedings. Randall is one of the very few living composers to have music in the Sacred Harp songbook. A special set of his original music will be sung by Norumbega Harmony, a Newton-based vocal ensemble that has specialized in this music for more than 30 years. The group has been featured on “Prairie Home Companion” and have released three full-length albums, including 2005’s critically acclaimed “Sweet Seraphic Fire.” 

“Although this music is old, it is not widely known and so it still sounds new and fresh to people today. The energy and the exuberance of the old Yankee songwriters comes right through. A lot of these old composers were tavern-keepers as well as church musicians, to there is a real sense of ‘cheer and hospitality’ in their music which we still can feel today,” said Malone.

The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at First United Baptist Church, 99 Church St., Lowell. A $5 donation or non-perishable food item is a suggested donation, but the music is free and all are welcome. Proceeds will go to the Open Pantry of Greater Lowell.

For more information, contact Malone at 978-934-3829.

UMass Lowell is a comprehensive, national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its 15,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering, education, fine arts, health and environment, humanities, liberal arts, management, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers.