Malcolm Halliday retires on a ‘high note’ with premiere ‘Ode to Clara Barton’s Portrait’

Published April 28, 2017, in THE YANKEE XPRESS. Reprinted with permission.

Malcolm Halliday, renowned musician and artistic director of the Master Singers of Worcester, dazzled a wide-eyed crowd during an April 1 concert held at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. Around the World in Forty Years commemorated the 40th year anniversary of the advanced choral group while serving as a farewell to a Kentucky-born musician who once begged his parents to help break a rule so that he could sing for the Louisville children’s choir at the age of seven - an age one year shy of the church’s eight-year-old requirement. The choir director let him in. 

“I was very pleased at how the audience seemed to be involved with the program,” said Halliday of his farewell concert. “People were listening carefully and, no doubt, also following the interesting libretto because whenever the music came to a standstill, no one broke the silence. The cantata ended quietly, which is not always the norm in a concert hall setting.” 

Halliday has worked for twenty-eight years as Minister of Music at the First Congregational Church of Shrewsbury (one of the largest active music programs in the state) and has performed in the United States, Europe and Mexico, both as a soloist and in collaboration with singers, instrumentalists and orchestra. 

His concert, planned around geographic diversity, was distinguished by some of the finest performers in the area, and included director of Salisbury Singers (and organist) Michelle Graveline and pianist Olga Rogach. Halliday’s cantata – an artistic composition about the Universalist and great American Civil War heroine, Clara Barton, of Oxford, was one of two premieres built into the concert. 

Ode to Clara Barton’s Portrait, scored for two choruses - organ and piano – included collaboration with librettist Michael Paladini, who pored through Clara Barton’s actual speeches and writings to aid with the narration of actress Lynne McKenney Lydick, a member of the Worcester Women’s History Project, to which the concert piece is dedicated. Clara Barton’s portrait, set majestic and high on the wall to the chorus’s diagonal right, was commissioned by the WWHP. Suitably, the chorus sung to her. 

“My love and respect for Mechanics Hall, a Civil War-era building, is what inspired me to write the piece,” said Mr. Halliday. “I’ve always been interested in history, though music has been my primary focus. Women tend to be overlooked in our country. Clara Barton was bigger than life and I can’t believe what she accomplished. She’s one of the greatest heroines of the 19th century. I’m not sure you can find another woman who is as celebrated in bravery as Clara Barton, other than Florence Nightingale. She achieved the greatest fame for the civil war through her work with the Red Cross. The fact that Mechanics Hall is a Civil War-era hall makes her portrait that much more amazing.” 

Clara Barton was a 19th Century Civil War heroine who fearlessly set her mind to nurse wounded soldiers on the battlefield, on both sides of the conflict, and in desperate situations. 

She founded and became president of the American Red Cross in 1881. She executed her will and desire to care for the wounded despite being turned down repeatedly. 

“I was 39 years old and working for the patent office in Washington, D.C. when the Civil War began in 1861,” Lydick masterfully narrated during the concert. “I saw young men, practically boys really, wounded during the conflict in Baltimore as they simply flooded the capital city, completely ignored by the very government that had sent them into battle. Why, they were lying on the floor of the capitol building without comfort, bandages, or medicine! A few of them I had taught back in Massachusetts when they were mere schoolchildren. I had to do something. I wrote, implored and pleaded until I found food, medical supplies, and volunteers, to help those poor soldiers. But I knew I could do the most good at the front myself. People gossiped about me—after all, most folks think that being near or in a battle is unseemly work for a proper lady. Even so, after months of appealing to government leaders, I received their permission, and in August, 1862, I started nursing soldiers on the battlefield.” 

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At the peppery age of sixty (and semi-retired), Halliday’s musical expertise seemed to vitalize his cantata, one written in “advanced tonal language.” The pentatonic scale, he reported, is highly appropriate to the early American hymnody. To further enhance the historical aspect of the piece, Halliday conducted the historical hook, sometimes referred to as the Worcester organ, the oldest concert organ in the Western Hemisphere, which was installed during the Civil War. 

“The work is a cantata in the sense that there is a lot of dramatic action in the score,” said Halliday, reflecting on his work, and also admitting, “The libretto demands a lot. It starts off with an announcement of Clara being born in 1821 on Christmas Day. The smaller choral group, the chamber chorus, acts much like a Greek chorus calling out to her. The larger chorus begins to call out suffering of grief of what happened on the battlefield. The script continues that way. The organ simulates the sounds of cannon and the bullets whistling on the battlefield along with some very sad lines on Clara’s presence while she listened to the whispered words of the dying.” 

Librettist Michael Paladini, furthermore, collaborated with Halliday to create an elegant body of prose - a hymn - in order to capture Clara’s thoughts and sentiments. “When a mother weeps for her child beneath the earth, and gone forever, no way to explain tears that fall like rain. Let me ease the pain wherever there’s a need.” 

The character and essence of Clara Barton, “Angel of the Battlefield” who served without asking “if they’re deserving” but “where the wounded bleed” resonated throughout the walls of Mechanics Hall that night. 

“Where There Is a Need” has the inspirational qualities and sensitivities of the hymn in the validity and the heartfelt value of the text. It is where Clara is able to express herself,” Halliday said. 

Following a move to Mexico, the acclaimed musician will leave behind a faculty position at Clark University, twenty years with the Master Singers of Worcester, leadership with Arts on the Green, Shrewsbury, and a full-time position at the First Congregational Church.

His chorus included the voices of nearly two hundred performers sectioned in four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and base) and comprised of: The Salisbury Singers, the Worcester Children’s Chorus, the WPI Orchestra, the Shrewsbury Ringers, and Senior Choir and Vocal Interns of the First Congregational Church of Shrewsbury. These advanced singers referred to Clara Barton as a gift to the world during a summation layered with the choral texture of up to sixteen different parts sung together. As a result, the heavenly sound of Clara Barton’s honor hummed through the walls of Mechanicals [sic] Hall. 

“There were several seconds of silence as the last chord faded,” said Halliday of the crowd’s response to his can-tata. “It could be that some in the audience were simply mystified, but I had a sense that the piece made a powerful impression because people waited several moments to applaud.” 

Clara Barton fought for and claimed her desire to heal and serve where there was a need. On Saturday, April 1st, the Master Singers of Worcester paid tribute to her tenacity by singing “help us, save us, heal us!” to her portrait. 

Her greatness lives on through their voices, as does that of a creator who, over a century later, has given wings to her legacy. Malcolm Halliday directed his last public concert after nearly twenty years with the Master Singers of Worcester. He may have broken a few rules along the way, but he’s certainly left on a high note. 

“People say it cannot be done; it has never been done; or that’s not the way we do things here. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind.” ― Clara Barton 

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As a bit of history, Master Singers of Worcester and Worcester Women’s History Project have collaborated in concerts...

  • March 4, 2000 – Women’s Voices, a collaboration of the Worcester Women’s History Project with the Master Singers of Worcester and Preservation Worcester; music program of cho-ral compositions by women and lecture on Tuckerman Hall’s female architect, Josephine Wright Chapman. Held at Tucker-man Hall.
  • March 27, 2011 – Visionary Women concert collaboration with Master Singers of Worcester directed by Malcolm Halliday to celebrate the remarkable achievements of New England women preceded by a lecture by Amy Belding Brown entitled “Emerson’s Oracles: Visionary Women in the Transcendental Circle” for the Worcester County Poetry Association. More detail on concert: Settings of text of Massachusetts poets, including Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver and Worcester-born Elizabeth Bishop, were featured in choral compositions by Gwyneth Walker, Ronald Perera and other contemporary com-posers, as well as a performance of a new work by Martha Sullivan and William Cutter celebrating Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone. Held at Tuckerman Hall.
Published Date: 
September 16, 2017