Two arts groups collaborate on ‘Downton Abbey’

If you’re pining away for “Downton Abbey” and its unforgettable cast of colorful characters, take heart!

The award-winning British soap opera will return to the Miami Valley, thanks to an upcoming exhibit of the show’s original costumes at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum in July and an upcoming tribute to “The Music of Downton Abbey” presented by The Bach Society of Dayton on Sunday, May 15.

The two concerts, which will be held at the Kettering Adventist Church, will pay tribute to the popular PBS series by featuring authentic music from the post-Edwardian era — roughly the years between 1911 to 1923. Patrons will be encouraged to get into the spirit of the day by sipping tea and munching scones, having their photos taken against a backdrop of Highclere castle on the Crawley estate and joining the chorus for the final song at each performance. Adding to the fun will be two costumed actors from The Human Race Theatre Company under the direction of actor/director Scott Stoney, who will portray hypothetical characters related to the aristocratic Crawley family.

Over the past 14 years, The Bach Society of Dayton — under the musical direction of John Neely, associate pastor for music at Westminster Presbyterian Church —has evolved into a chorus of 60 men and women who are passionate about choral music. Their concerts, which today showcase Bach as well as a wide variety of other secular and sacred music — typically attract 200-400 audience members.

“We’ve made significant strides artistically and with community involvement in recent years but we still have too many folks who don’t know the Bach Society,” said Dick Hattershire, singer and development director of the non-profit organization who is serving as project manager for “The Music of Downton Abbey.” The non-profit group is hoping its creative approach to this year’s final concert will introduce new audiences to the beauty of choral music.

What you’ll hear

The program will open with that oh-so-familiar “Downton Abbey” theme and proceed to introduce music the characters might have heard — first on their gramophones, later on their radios. The pieces will be introduced by the actors.

“Each choral piece has a strong connection to England, with some of it composed in the decades just before or following the death of their beloved King Edward VII in 1910,” Hattershire said. “It’s also likely they would have heard the music of Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and others in the concert repertory.”

He said some pieces reach back in time including George Frideric Handel’s “Funeral Anthem” played at King Edward’s funeral and C. Hubert H. Parry’s “I Was Glad” performed at the Coronation of King George V, which the Crawley clan would have attended.

“Without question, the people of ‘Downton Abbey’ would have been found at the Promenade Concerts (the “Proms”) where they both knew and sang “Jerusalem,” Britain’s unofficial second anthem, along with Thomas A. Arne’s “Rule Britannia!” Hattershire said. “The Great War of 1914-18 had a profound impact on the entire European continent including its poetry, art and music. That conflict is movingly portrayed through the lives of the characters in the early seasons of ‘Downton Abbey,’ and it is no surprise that several of the pieces in the program reflect not just on gallantry in battle but also on the world’s deep yearning for peace.”

In addition to the Bach Society Chorus and Human Race actors, the concert will feature an orchestra and soprano Minita Daniel-Cox; mezzo-soprano Audrey L. Dawson; tenor Jeremy S. Winston and baritone Mark Spencer.

The seed of the idea

Hattershire credits the script and format of the Dayton group’s “Downton Abbey” concert to Matthew Mehaffey, artistic director and conductor of the Oratorio Society of Minnesota. When Hattershire read about the project’s success in an industry publication, he contacted Mehaffey to see if the concerts could be duplicated in Dayton.

“One of my goals as a conductor is to find ways to build programs that will attract people who normally wouldn’t come to an early 20th century choral music concert,” explains Mehaffey, who will come to Dayton to introduce each of the Bach Society concerts with a preview talk.

Mehaffey confesses he has never been enthusiastic about British dramas or comedies. “I’m not a Monty Python or Jane Austin person, but my wife and I started having a glass of wine and binge-watching ‘Downton Abbey’ on Amazon. I’m a choral director, and I do find myself drawn to the English music of this time period and the famous composers.”

When Mehaffey mentioned to his wife that he’d done a piece of music that they heard on the television show, she suggested a ‘Downton Abbey’ concert.

“I think the thing about ‘Downton Abbey’ that captured people’s attention was that it was around the centennial of World War I, and it’s not a war Americans know a lot about,” he explained. “There are so many more movies about World War II and this was a semi-contemporary theme about the classic struggle between upstairs and downstairs life. Here was a program showing the gentry and the lower class living together. And in America there were ongoing discussions in the news about the 99 percent and the one percent.”

Mehaffey said the collaboration included script writer Ken Meter and a member of his chorus, Dave Fielding. “Dave calls himself a music archaeologist. He’s retired and in his spare time goes to old libraries and searches through old pieces of music nobody knows,” Mehaffey said. “He is also into this particular time period and went through dozens of pieces of music and I made up a story that could intersect with the music and the ‘Downton Abbey’ story-line.”

The program was so successful in Minnesota that the group has created a second piece called “Downton Abbey Christmas” that incorporates the history of many modern Christmas customs using music written at the time. He said the music that patrons will hear at the concerts is tonal, grand, nationalistic. “English music at the time of ‘Downton Abbey’ was a little behind the continental music of the time which was beginning to be atonal and harsh compositions.”

Human Race adds drama

Over the years, the Bach Society of Dayton has collaborated with community groups ranging from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Welcome Dayton to the Muse Machine, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Kettering Children’s Choir.

When the Bach Society folks realized the script called for actors to portray fictitious members of the Grantham family who would speak between musical selections and tie historical facts to the music being performed, they reached out to The Human Race Theatre’s president and artistic director Kevin Moore.

“The idea that The Human Race could be a resource for the community is a principle that we have followed from our inception,” Moore said. “When we were approached about collaborating with the Bach Society on this concert, I jumped at the opportunity. Besides being a huge fan of choral music — many do not know that choral conducting was part of my college degree — the chance to create characters that speak to ‘Downton Abbey’s’ large fan base was an exciting challenge.”

Audience members will see the result when they’re introduced to Lady Alice, Duchess of Kirkwood, (a second cousin to the “Dowager,” the Maggie Smith role) and her niece, Millicent Danforth. Portraying Lady Alice is actor Caitlin Larsen. Her niece, Millicent, will be played by Christine Brunner.

“I’d never seen ‘Downton Abbey,’ but people spoke so highly of it that a month ago, I got it on Amazon and watched in bed on my iPad from midnight to 2 a.m. each night,” says Larsen, who is from Oakwood. “I got hooked! I didn’t want it to end!”

She had the chance to try out her role as Lady Alice when the Bach Society hosted a preview event — a High Tea in April at the Dayton Women’s Club. In addition to the Tea, the Bach Society also hosted a trivia contest on the ‘Downton Abbey’ theme for young professionals at Dayton Beer Company. The intent for both events, said Hattershire, was to reach out to segments of the community who may not be familiar with the Bach Society and encourage them to attend the concert.

“The tea was lovely, and when we arrived we were introduced and circulated in character,” Larsen said.

Mehaffey said his hope is that those familiar with the television series will come to the musical program, close their eyes and picture “Downton Abbey” in their imaginations. “The show and sets are so stylized,” he said. “The music sounds like the show looks.”

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