Bel Canto Chorus to Sing Upper Valley Composer’s ‘Magnificat’

  • Travis Ramsey, of Etna, N.H., teaches at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt. Ramsey is a composer and has a commissioned composition for Bel Canto Chamber Singers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, December 07, 2017

When Travis Ramsey was a student at Hartland Elementary School, he proposed a deal to his music teacher Suzanne Wood. In return for her teaching him how to compose a fugue he would rake her leaves.

Happy to do it, she told him, but you might want to think about starting with something a little less complicated than a contrapuntal fugue perfected by the likes of Bach or Handel.

Now 38, Ramsey, who teaches music at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, long ago fulfilled his early desire to become a composer.

This weekend, the Bel Canto Chamber Singers, led by music director Jane Woods, will premiere Ramsey’s Magnificat, based on text from the Gospel According to Luke in which Mary visits Elizabeth prior to the birth of Jesus (usually called The Visitation), and proclaims her belief in God and God’s works.

The Magnificat is part of the Upper Valley-based Bel Canto’s “What Sweeter Music” program, featuring Christmas carols and choral settings, which will be held at First Congregational Church in Lebanon on Saturday at 7:30 p.m and Sunday at 4 p.m. This year marks Bel Canto’s 40th anniversary.

Such giants as Palestrina, Monterverdi and Bach have written full-length choral Magnificats. Ramsey’s version is, of course, written for a smaller ensemble: a full chorus in five parts and a chamber orchestra of violin, viola, cello, bass, organ and flute..

One of the reasons that Ramsey wanted to try his hand at a Magnificat, he said in an interview in Hanover, was that “in a very very short amount of text, there is a huge range of different emotions, from awe, to fire and miracles.”

To bring to musical life the connections between the rich and poor, those who have more than enough to eat, and those who don’t, is one of the tests of composing a Magnificat, Ramsey said.

It’s a “challenge to take away the orchestra” when composing for smaller ensembles, Ramsey said, likening it to “taking crayons out of the box, to create without the color of the orchestra.”

That is where counterpoint comes in, he said. “You can create really elegant compositions without relying on instruments.”

Ramsey has done some unconventional and intriguing things in his Magnificat, Woods said. Because Ramsey makes Mary the soloist in the piece’s opening, with an accompanying flute, the beginning is more meditative, in contrast to the trumpeting opening of Bach’s Magnificat, she said.

“Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” said Woods, who taught Ramsey when he was a student at Hanover High School, and Ramsey brings that to life.

“Each new line of text has its own melody and it builds to a cadence,” she said. And because the musical downbeat is not always in the same place, she added, that asymmetry makes Ramsey’s Magnificat “fluid and kind of interesting and beautiful.”

But Ramsey does not neglect the triumphant joyousness commonly found in the Magnificat. “The ending is very exciting and uplifting,” Woods said.

Ramsey’s early exposure to music came partially from his grandfather Al Ramsey, who lived in Madison, Wis., and was better known by the sobriquet “Banjo Al” — he was a professional banjo player, Ramsey said, who made his living traveling around the country and world.

Ramsey began studying the trombone in elementary school and writing music at Hanover High School. He studied musical composition at the University of Southern Maine School of Music in Gorham, and his pieces have been commissioned and performed by the Wellesley Symphony in Massachusetts, the University of Southern Maine Chorale, and other ensembles in New England. He has also written music for the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon.

Ramsey lives in Etna with his wife and two children, and schedules composition around his job, and his family, often working late at night. He spends part of his time contacting musical organizations throughout New England to see whether they might be interested in commissioning him to write a piece.

“It’s kind of like fishing: sometimes the line comes back,” he said. “I will write anything I can get my hands on.”

Bel Canto’s “What Sweeter Music” program, including the Magnificat by Travis Ramsey, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, and 4 p.m., Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Lebanon. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students. Children 12 and under are free. For further information go to belcantosingers.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.


Travis Ramsey's Magnificat is written for a full chorus in five parts and a chamber orchestra of violin, viola, cello, bass, organ and flute. It is part of Bel Canto's "What Sweeter Music" program, which will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Lebanon. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the number of voices and instruments used and gave an incorrect time for Sunday's performance.