Alice Parker is the doyenne of American choral music. At 82, she is a composer, conductor and teacher whose seminal experience came early in her career when she went to work as an arranger for the Robert Shaw Chorale, which dominated choral music in the United States in the 1950s and '60s.
Parker, who had studied choral conducting under Shaw at the Juilliard School, arranged folk songs, hymns and spirituals for a series of popular RCA recordings by the chorale.
"Arranging is often thought of as a very low order of musical existence,'' Parker said in a phone interview last week. "But it was through the arranging work that I really learned what composition is. Folk song is the essence of what melody is, and melody is the essence of what composition is. I learned that through doing arrangements for Shaw.''
Parker will be in residence this week with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, and the group will perform a generous selection of her arrangements Friday and Saturday. The program will include the premiere of The Rock and the River, her suite of three spirituals, with bass-baritone Todd Donovan as soloist.
Shaw especially influenced Parker's care in setting African-American speech. "You can't set spirituals as if they were in the king's English and preserve the rhythms that are inherent in them,'' she said. "It's essentially the basis of jazz and blues, that speech.''
The program also includes her choral arrangement of Duke Ellington's Songs From the Sacred Concerts, a five-movement work that will feature the University of South Florida Jazz Combo and three soloists: mezzo-soprano Eleni Matos, Donovan and soprano Jennifer Rodney.
"Ellington wrote a series of four sacred concerts that he considered among the most significant pieces that he did,'' Parker said. "He wrote some of those texts himself. They're very vernacular with a wonderful sense of humor.''
Parker, who lives in the small town of Hawley in western Massachusetts, has composed a wide range of works, including opera, chamber music, song cycles and sacred anthems. She has done a lot of composing for churches and is a shrewd observer of changes in contemporary sacred music.
"Every denomination thinks it has its own problems, but I travel all around the country and go to all different kinds of churches, and they're all bucking the same great big cultural trend,'' she said. "And the biggest one is electronics. If we unplugged, we would have a lot more genuine music making going on.''
Parker takes a populist approach to church singing, and isn't particularly alarmed that classical music is being supplanted by pop music. But she thinks too many congregations are leaving the singing to the choir.
"So many of the Catholic churches now don't even have an organ; they have a keyboard and two or three singers with microphones and it's run just like a pop music studio,'' she said. "There is no effort to get the congregation to join in, except as a kind of beer hall chorus. I'm advocating exactly the opposite, like what you find in a black church where everybody is singing all the time, whether it's written or not.''
The Master Chorale concerts are at 7:30 p.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church, 701 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, and at 4 p.m. Saturday at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church, 2902 W Fletcher Ave., Tampa. $20; students admitted free with student ID. (813) 974-7726; www.masterchorale.com.
Latin mass premiere
In another choral premiere, Florida Pro Musica, directed by Larry Kent, will sing a new Latin mass by John Paul Russo, a Capuchin friar and former Tampa resident. Russo's Missa pro nova aurora (Mass for a new dawn), which the composer has dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI, is a 30-minute work. Also on the program is Brahms' Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) for chorus and piano. The concert is at 4 p.m. April 20 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 509 N Florida Ave., Tampa. $15. (813) 258-4226; www.floridapromusica.com.
A new job for Haig?
Susan Haig, former associate conductor of the Florida Orchestra, is one of four finalists for music director of the Augusta Symphony in Georgia. The others are Benjamin Loeb, Shizuo Kuwahara and Diane Wittry. Each finalist will lead a masterworks program next season, with the winning conductor named in spring 2009. Haig will conduct the orchestra Oct. 10-11 in Sibelius' Symphony No. 2.
Recitals of note
Duncan MacMillan, an eclectic, refined musician and composer, performs harpsichord music from the Spanish Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, including sonatas of Soler and Scarlatti, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, 701 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Free.
In another notable recital, pianist Gil Fischer plays Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and Debussy at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 407 S Saturn Ave., Clearwater. At 91, Fischer continues to perform at a fine level, and in a nice bonus, the program notes he writes are always insightful. Free.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.