Local choir director wins national award
Posted on 12/23/2008
By LAUREN MYLO
WILTON –Sitting on his deck in the middle of the summer, Clay Zambo wrote an award-winning Christmas carol.
"A Mother’s Carol," with lyrics by Zambo and music by Scott Ethier, won
the Welcome Christmas! Carol Contest, hosted by VocalEssence and the
American Composers Forum.
Zambo and Ethier’s carol was selected from 62 scores and will be
performed by the group VocalEssence at the 2008 Welcome Christmas!
Ethier, an award-winning New York-based composer and pianist, called
Zambo in the summer and asked if he wanted to submit a carol to the
Zambo, director of music and organist at Our Lady of Fatima church in
Wilton, said he jumped at any chance to work with Ethier, whom he calls
in jest "one of my favorite composers who isn’t me."
The two were paired by chance at a workshop in New York City six years
ago after meeting in an elevator and have worked together on and off
Searching for inspiration, Zambo remembered a trip to France in 1989.
On a choir tour of the country, Zambo was visiting a church so gilded
and ornate that he had to step outside into the sun to recompose
himself. He estimates the church was in Avignon, but he visited scores
of churches on the trip.
It was the alcove off to the side of the building that amazed Zambo.
Inside was a picture of Mary and Jesus unlike any he’d ever seen.
"It looked like a 14-year-old Jewish girl who’d just given birth," said
Zambo. "There were no halos and radiance about it — it was just a baby
When he turned away, someone else from his group was behind him: a mother, holding her two-year-old child on her shoulders.
"It was just something I filed away," said Zambo of the incident. "I
didn’t know what I’d ever do with it, but I loved those images."
While Zambo was considering Ethier’s proposal, Mary Bozzuti Higgins,
the choir director at Our Lady of Fatima, told Zambo the church didn’t
have a good musical version of the Magnificat, the song of Mary from
the New Testament.
And so Zambo began thinking about what Mary would have sung on Christmas morning.
"How do you get from giving birth in a barn to singing ‘my soul
glorifies the Lord?’" said Zambo, citing the lyrics from the Magnificat.
Zambo said that nothing about the painting he saw in France looked
"sanitized." He even thought Mary’s face looked dirty. He knew the
Bible story but wanted to portray the woman in France in his carol.
"It opens out from Mary with the infant," said Zambo," to wondering if
Mary had really known what was going to happen to her baby, would she
have said yes? And in the moment when we all have to say yes or no,
will we be able to be say yes? Will we be able to say, my soul
glorifies the Lord?"
VocalEssence, a Minnesota-based group, premiered the carol on Dec. 7,
when Ethier and Zambo were putting on Our Lady of Fatima’s concert for
the Ogden House.
The two received a recording of the song on Dec. 23. In their homes on
separate computers, they counted to three and hit play to listen
"We agreed it was the best performance of our work that either of us has ever heard," said Zambo.
It premiered on American Public Media on Dec. 24.
The 11-year-old contest always seeks new carols for chorus and one
instrument. This year, it was the French horn, which Ethier played in
"A lot of Christmas carols we have in the repertoire are either based
on texts that go way, way back to the 17th and 18th century or even
further back to 14th, 15th, 16th centuries, or they’re based on more
modern texts," said Ethier. "And not to trash what’s out there, but by
comparison with just about any of the modern texts I’ve seen for
Christmas music, the images and the words, any ideas that Clay has come
up with is really just fresh and human and just terrific stuff."
As director of a group Zambo calls "the best church choir I’ve ever
heard that has no paid singers," he is constantly searching how to
combine the work he does as a faculty member at the Kaufman Center in
New York City, where he teaches children and adult musical theater
classes, and his work in the church.
"(Writing for the theater) requires exactly the same skill set as
church music," said Zambo. "It doesn’t work if it’s not well done, and
theater doesn’t work if you don’t believe in it."
Fr. Michael Palmer, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish, said he’s very
happy with Zambo’s work at the church and that he won the contest.
"He’s multitalented, and it shows," said Palmer. "And the response of
the parish and the success of his many musical programs . . . we’re so
fortunate to have him."