AMSTERDAM – Amsterdam musician and composer Maria Riccio Bryce has long been captivated by the notion of redemption.
“I’m very drawn to the events in our lives that cause us to perhaps sink to the lowest level, and how we then reach so deep within us to see how we can save ourselves,” Bryce said. “It’s astonishing to me the way that faith, when it’s so desperately questioned, seems to shore itself up and renew. I find that so uplifting.”
She has witnessed such occasions many times in her years as music director at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Schenectady, and those experiences inspired her to write “REQUIEM: What Remains is Love.”
The choral work, which premiered last year, will be celebrated over Memorial Day weekend with three performances in Albany, Schenectady and Amsterdam.
But this is far from the first time that Capital Region residents have heard Bryce’s original music. Her musical “Hearts of Fire,” which followed the events leading up to the Schenectady Massacre of 1690 and its aftermath, was shown at Proctors and featured a sizable cast of 60. Following that, Bryce also wrote “The Amsterdam Oratorio,” a 16-song choral work focusing on her life in Amsterdam.
She’s been musical director at St. Luke’s for 25 years and has performed during the happiest of celebrations — as well as more mournful ceremonies.
“From my vantage point in the church — up in the organ loft, high above the pews below — I have been a witness to some of the most salient and compelling experiences of our shared human existence,” Bryce said. “Last year I felt the urge to write about what I have learned, not through the filter of musical theater but directly from my own heart, mind and experience.”
Thus, after receiving an artist’s grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in 2022, Bryce set to work writing the requiem — a piece usually played in the context of a funeral. It comes in at 75 minutes and is full of hope and mourning, of looking back at life and ahead into what’s beyond.
“It melds my settings of parts of the traditional Requiem Mass with my own songs about life, death and where we might be going from here,” Bryce said.
Many of the songs are a mix of haunting and harmonious vocals and lyrics that stay with the listener well past the last note. One features a woman singing to her partner, who has just lost his battle with cancer. In another, a mother is grieving after the loss of a child. And in yet another, a soldier loses his life on the battlefield.
The overture, titled “I Was Born to Sing,” tells the story of an opera singer’s life (inspired by famed soprano Maria Callas) and what happens to her voice once she’s gone.
Telling the stories in an authentic and tactful way was challenging.
“There was a fine line of telling the narrative of making that clear and also underlining with it our shared humanity, versus telling the tale that’s so desperately painful, and so I spent a lot of time trying to figure that and I’m pleased with it,” Bryce said.
In the writing process she also puzzled over many questions about faith, and came away with the message that “love is indestructible,” Bryce said.
Last year, she brought together a chorus of 24 vocalists, along with a violinist, cellist and flutist, to premiere the work in November at St. Luke’s. It was recorded by musician Sten Isachsen and is streaming on Amazon, Spotify, YouTube and other services.
After the premiere, Bryce received many kind responses, some from people who had recently suffered loss and told her the piece was a comfort.
“I got a couple of truly staggeringly affirming responses because people needed to hear what I had to say just then,” Bryce said.
It’s part of the reason she wanted to perform the work again.
“I believe there’s a place in the world for it and I’m determined to find it,” Bryce said.
The work’s melding of hope and grief is in a sense reflective of life.
“[Life is] glorious and it’s sublime, but it’s full of tragedy,” Bryce said. “It’s so hard to be good with all that going on. It’s so hard to keep walking and be open and loving and kind, but the vast majority of us do it. And I think that there’s something inexplicable within us that calls us to that.”
The three performances will feature members of the Musicians of Ma’alwyck as well as a variety of vocalists and other musicians.
The timing seems apt, with Memorial Day weekend traditionally being a shared time of remembrance and particularly because of the song “Soldier.” It features a verse from “For the Fallen,” a 1914 poem by English poet Laurence Binyon:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
While the lyrics featured in “REQUIEM” are weighty, the work is meant to inspire hope.
“This work is uplifting and very inspiring, but I think particularly those grieving a loss would find it a balm,” Bryce said.
Here’s a look at the performance schedule:
7 p.m., Friday, May 26, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 21 Hackett Blvd., Albany
7 p.m., Saturday, May 27, First Reformed Church, 8 N. Church St., Schenectady
3 p.m., Sunday, May 28, Trinity Lutheran Church, 42 Guy Park Ave., Amsterdam
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