The Harmonia Chamber Singers, a local a cappella group that is one of the most sought-after of its type in Western New York, will have two performances at area parishes this weekend. The group will present two performances of "Into Light: A Concert by Candlelight," its fifth-annual presentation, at 7:30 p.m. on March 11 at St. Peter Church in Lewiston, and 7 p.m., March 12, at Assumption Church in Buffalo.
Music in Harmonia's repertoire ranges from the traditional, including Gregorian chants and jazz, to the more modern, including pop and rock music. Although they tend to perform in the Catholic churches of the diocese and in various other Christian churches, their music is both secular and religious and appeals to a wide variety of tastes, and features a roster of carefully-selected professional singers.
The "Into Light" performance is a mix of Lent and Easter music, as well as secular pieces featuring the themes of light, shadows, death and rebirth, including songs in English and another piece in Italian about the time just before the coming of spring. Harmonia has performed mostly in Catholic churches, and Robert Pacillo, a diocesan cantor at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo and a St. Peter parishioner, directs them.
The Harmonia Chamber Singers, which have been in existence since 2006, began with the inspiration of Pacillo, the group's founder and artistic director. He had had prior experience singing in choirs and enjoyed what he had been doing, but needed something else to do. "I had been singing with choirs, but I felt like I wanted to do something else, do a small group chamber choir, perform repertoire that wasn't commonly done, and a mix of repertoire, old and new, and just a broad spectrum of choral music," he said.
Originally, the group began with some of Pacillo's friends and other people they knew. Over the years, Harmonia has streamlined the process for auditioning, and anyone who is interested must go through a procedure for auditioning. "Recently, we've done a double audition, where they come in, they sing a couple or a few solos, and I get a sense of their sound. If it sounds like something that would blend with our current roster, then I bring them in for a second audition, where they sing with the group," Pacillo explained.
"This is my eighth season. It goes from September through May," Nancy Nuzzo, a member of Harmonia who worships at Calvary Episcopal Church in Williamsville, said. "I've sung in my church choir for many years. I've always sung in choirs, and I've studied voice privately off and on. (Harmonia) is a wonderful group to sing with. It's working with other singers who understand the choral singing experience and what's required of a solo singer, so you have to be willing to give yourself over to the group."
Veronica Shanchuk, who is in her sixth season with Harmonia, sang in the St. Paul's Cathedral Girls' Choir in Buffalo at the age of 11. She went to college and received an undergraduate degree in music education, with a rich history in choral tradition, and has taught music in Buffalo for 17 years.
"I had a couple of friends who were in the group. I came and saw a concert several years ago now, and my friends who were already in the group encouraged me to audition, and I got in," she recalled.
In its decadelong history, Harmonia has made a name for itself and achieved nationwide recognition. In March 2015, the Harmonia Chamber Singers made their debut at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York City, which Pacillo considered to be their finest moment. They sang with two Canadian professional groups before a sold-out crowd. "That kind of put us on the map a little more," he recalled.
The group has also sung Latin Masses. In 2011, it performed Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's "Pope Marcellus Mass" in its entirety, in Latin, presenting the Mass as it would have been celebrated in the Renaissance period. According to Pacillo, the goal of this production was to recreate a solemn Mass with three priests concelebrating. "It was the way the music was meant to be sung," Pacillo said.
"For me, just being able to make music weekly with the caliber of musicians that we have in our group is wonderful," Shanchuk commented of her personal experience with Harmonia.