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French connection made in an Ellicott City church

There's a light and lush quality to French classical music that you can hear for yourself when Howard County's professional chamber ensemble, the Orchestra of St. John's, performs "The Best of Bizet and More" on Sunday, Nov. 11, at 4 p.m., at St. John's Episcopal Church, in Ellicott City.

"As we go into winter, here is sunny music to keep warmth in the air," promises Orchestra of St. John's artistic director Ronald Mutchnik.

The program consists of suites derived from two compositions by 19th-century French composer Georges Bizet, "Carmen" and "L'Arlesienne"; 20th-century French composer Francois Poulenc's Organ Concerto, featuring organist Nancy Stavely; and 20th-century American composer Aaron Copland's "Quiet City" for trumpet, English horn and strings, with soloists Sandra Lisicky on English horn and Luis Engelke on trumpet.

The Bizet selections involve 20th-century arrangers who condensed his Spanish-inflected opera "Carmen" into an orchestral suite for strings; and likewise took his incidental music for the play "L'Arlesienne" and condensed it into a suite for strings.

Speaking of strings, Mutchnik says his ensemble will have "15 or 16 string players. The acoustics of the church will make it sound like a full string orchestra. We just want people to bask in the beauty of the music."

Mutchnik adds that there is something distinctively French about this music: "What makes it French is the really beautiful use of color. There are harmonies associated with French music, a sense of looseness of structure within its musical framework, and a more fluid sense of rhythm."

Francophiles also will be pleased with the Poulenc selection, of which Mutchnik says: "It's a very French work. Using the timpani with strings would only have occurred to a French composer. Not since the Berlioz 'Requiem' in the 19th century was there orchestration such as in Poulenc's piece from the mid-1930s. Mutchnik adds that "the French are famous for organ music."

At first glance, American composer Aaron Copland might seem to have the wrong passport for this particular program, but Mutchnik observes that Copland's incidental music for Irwin Shaw's 1941 play "Quiet City" is a "French-sounding piece that is contemplative and light."

On a biographical note, Copland studied with celebrated French pianist and music teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Copland mostly was known for being attuned to American sounds, however, which Mutchnik acknowledges when he says that "Quiet City" also sounds "African-American with blue notes and Jewish-American with cantorial notes."

The Orchestra of St. John's performs Sunday, Nov. 11, at 4 p.m., at St. John's Episcopal Church, 9120 Frederick Road, in Ellicott City. Tickets are $25, $12 for students ages 18- 24 with ID, and free for those under 18 accompanied by an adult. Call 410-461-7793 or go to

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