As an amateur choral singer, Setauket resident Norma Watson never imagined she would earn the applause of legendary composer Igor Stravinsky. But that happened when the Russian-born musician, in one of his last public appearances, slowly stood up from his seat and clapped enthusiastically as the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA) sang the last notes of his great orchestral concert work “Les Noces.”
Stravinsky’s attendance resulted from his close personal and musical relationship with Gregg Smith, the ensemble’s then-conductor. Smith, who made a name for himself as leader of the professional chamber choir the Gregg Smith Singers, founded LISCA in 1968, shortly after becoming the director of Stony Brook University’s choral music program, with the objective of developing a first-rate community group.
Fifty years later, the association of some 70 members, which is celebrating that milestone on Friday with a concert at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Setauket, continues to fulfill the late musician’s vision.
“Gregg was an icon in the American choral world,” says Eric Stewart, who took over LISCA’s directorship in May, after Smith’s esteemed successor, Thomas Schmidt, retired. “He used programming not only to share well-known and beloved works of the past, but also to reflect the current times. Gregg always championed living and breathing composers.” In fact, Stewart was one of those composers. A piece he wrote for a cappella choirs was performed by the Gregg Smith Singers in 2011.
Stewart’s commitment to honoring the ensemble founder’s legacy is evident in LISCA’s 50th-anniversary concert program, which, along with works by Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, includes pieces by the Italian 16th-century composer Giovanni Gabrieli, American choral composer Morten Lauridsen and Smith himself.
“It’s a testament to the scope of Gregg’s musical repertory, from the Renaissance to fresh-off-the-printer works,” Stewart says of the choral group’s broad selection and up-to-date approach. “Gregg gave the classical composers a modern spin with jazzy or jarring dissonant harmonies, a sense of tension that was always balanced with resolution at the end.”
“When I realize the volume and variety of works that I’ve learned over the years, I’m amazed,” says Martina Matkovic, an LISCA member for the past 38 years. In addition to the breadth of her choral accomplishments, Matkovic says she also greatly values the camaraderie she has found with her fellow singers and the opportunity to perform throughout the world, including tours to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, France, England, Spain, Italy and Iceland.
“I got to sing in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the church of Santo Domingo de Silos in Alarcón, Spain,” the LISCA veteran enthuses. “I love listening to music, but being a part of a performance is thrilling.”
Great strings attached
WHAT The jubilance of Celtic fiddler Eileen Ivers’ aptly titled “Joyful Christmas” concert comes through as much in the musical notes she plays as the ornamental rolls, cuts and flicks elicited from her spirited bow. Moving beyond classical repertoire, the Bronx-born violinist’s diversified program ranges from standard American holiday fare to traditional “Wren Day” songs drawn from her Irish heritage and even a “jigging,” up-tempo take on Bach. Come be transported to the Emerald Isle with the Grammy-winning fiddling champion’s singular interpretations of traditional Yuletide tunes.
WHEN | WHERE Friday, 8 p.m., YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, 37 W. Main St., Bay Shore
INFO $50; 631-969-1101, boultoncenter.org
WHAT Long Island Symphonic Choral Association 50th Anniversary Celebration
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, St. James Roman Catholic Church, 429 Rte. 25A, Setauket
INFO $25, $20 seniors; 631-751-2743, lisca.org