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Entertainment Highlights: Handel Society’s Thoughts of Home and a Continent Away

There were unintended consequences when Dartmouth College moved to a new academic calendar this fall. With the term ending before Thanksgiving, the college’s Handel Society would not be able to perform its annual holiday concert on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, coinciding with the lighting of the Christmas tree on the Dartmouth Green.

But with a longer holiday break comes a chance for the society, led by Robert Duff and touted as the oldest town-gown choral group in the country, to tour, and 55 of the society’s 100 members will travel to Italy next month to perform at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and at cathedrals and basilicas in Rome, Naples and other sites. Before they leave, they’ll give a taste of what their Italian audiences can expect in a concert, “Away From Home,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Spaulding Auditorium that will also include a commissioned piece by Oliver Caplan, a 2004 Dartmouth graduate and composer.

The performance will be a departure for the Handel Society, which normally performs one large choral work in a concert. The program for Tuesday includes choral works by Baroque and Renaissance composers like Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, as well as two African-American spirituals, Ev’rytime I Feel the Spirit and Precious Lord.

Not performing in the holiday season “opens up new opportunities for programming and repertoire we normally wouldn’t think about performing in the fall term,” Duff said. The result is a show that will address the Thanksgiving theme of coming home, as well as what it means to be “away from home,” where the group will be in December.

The first half of the concert will see the premiere of Caplan’s piece, Roots and Wings, which includes text by librettest Meghan Guidry. Commissioned by the Handel Society as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Hopkins Center, Roots and Wings touches on the sensory aspects of the Dartmouth experience: the brick pathways that students and faculty walk each day, the chiming clock tower of Baker Library and the changing fall colors. The song’s refrain, “One voice calls us home,” is a take on Dartmouth’s Latin motto, which translates as “A voice crying in the wilderness.” For Dartmouth’s alums, coming back to Hanover and the campus feels like a homecoming, Caplan said, but the song does not specifically refer to Dartmouth, and invokes images of home that would be recognizable by anyone.

“We all have some place of our own, an alma mater or the home where we grew up, that kind of is some sort of home that we always carry in our hearts,” said Caplan, who lives in Somerville, Mass., and sang in the Handel Society under the direction of previous director Melinda O’Neal.

Elements of home can also be heard in Fern Hill, a piece by the celebrated composer John Corigliano that incorporates the poem of the same name by Dylan Thomas. Told from the point of view of an older narrator, the poem sets up a pastoral landscape where the narrator roamed freely as a child. Fern Hill “remembers what it was like to be young and carefree and to be home, where it was safe and beautiful,” said Erma Mellinger, a senior lecturer in Dartmouth’s music department and the Handel Society’s vocal coach, who will perform a guest solo on Fern Hill and several other pieces in Tuesday’s concert.

After the intermission of “Away From Home,” the orchestra will depart, and the Handel Society will delve into several of the pieces that they’ll perform in Italy. These

include Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Nativity-themed O Magnum Mysterium, and Anton Bruckner’s Ave Regina Coelorum. These were composed with the churches and cathedrals in mind where the society will perform next month.

“When you perform in those spaces, you really have a better sense of what the composer was intending,” Duff said. But Italian audiences are also eager to hear American choral pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries and African-American spirituals, and several have been incorporated into the repertoire.

“It’s all unaccompanied choral work so it gives us an opportunity to perform some more works just for voices,” Duff said.

The Handel Society of Dartmouth College performs “Away From Home” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover ($22-$31).