Composer gets divine inspiration for Bible-based musical on faith

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 23, 2016

 Several local singers will be starring in a musical production that tells the biblical story of Thomas — also known as “Doubting Thomas” — in the original music drama “From Doubt to Faith,” which will debut April 3 at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Several local singers will be starring in a musical production that tells the biblical story of Thomas — also known as “Doubting Thomas” — in the original music drama “From Doubt to Faith,” which will debut April 3 at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Photo provided by James Biery

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GROSSE POINTE FARMS — They say necessity is the mother of invention. For Grosse Pointe Memorial Church Music Minister James Biery, it was also what prompted him to compose a new musical drama.

During the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services April 3 at the church, a handful of soloists backed by the church’s choir and a chamber orchestra will perform “From Doubt to Faith,” a one-act liturgical music drama about the apostle Thomas — known colloquially today as “Doubting Thomas” — and how he comes to recognize that Jesus has been resurrected. 

Tenor Michael Fowler will play Thomas, and soprano Carol Ambrogio Wood will play his mother. Disciples and friends will be portrayed by baritone Kenneth Shepherd, tenor John O’Brien and mezzo-soprano Diane Schoff. There isn’t an actor playing Jesus, but Biery said there will be a projected image of Jesus, with the choir singing his words.

Biery composed the music for the 25-minute production, and his wife, Marilyn Biery, wrote the libretto.

“It’s not really quite an opera and it’s not quite a cantata, but it does have a classical feel to it,” James Biery said.

The production is part of the church’s Music at Memorial series.

“We have a tradition of doing a choir cantata twice a year,” Biery said. “I’ve been thinking for years it would be fun to do something that involves some acting and costumes and so forth.”

But because the production needs to fit into the regular service — it takes the place of the sermon — he said he had a hard time finding something they could use. Either the productions available were only for Christmas services or they were too long, didn’t involve the choir, or had challenging instrumental or other requirements, he said. 

After his wife penned the words to the production and songs — staying true to the scripture — Biery worked on the music. 

“It’s the first time I’ve done anything quite like this,” he said. “It’s been a fun project. It’s also nice because we have some wonderful singers, and I wrote it in a way that we could showcase them.”

Nonmembers are welcome to attend the services, and Biery said the story of Thomas is something to which all Christians can relate. Thomas doesn’t see Jesus when the other disciples do initially, so he has trouble believing that Jesus has risen from the dead, despite their insistence to him that Jesus has come back after his crucifixion.

Biery said “From Doubt to Faith” is about “how can you believe something you haven’t seen.”

Ambrogio Wood, a professional vocalist and former Michigan Opera Theatre member, said she’s “really excited” about the production.

“Not everyone understands faith, but everyone understands doubt,” she said. “Because of the subject, it’s ageless and timeless.”

Although he’s also the organist at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, Biery said the organ doesn’t play a role in this production, which uses piano, percussion, flute, French horn and strings. He’ll be conducting during the performances themselves.

“It’s like an orchestrated chamber piece,” Ambrogio Wood said. “It has a chorus, lead roles and supporting roles. It’s like a mini-opera.”

Biery and his wife have been collaborating on religious music and texts for more than 25 years and have penned a number of works for choir, organ, brass and other arrangements. He said a church music publisher in St. Louis has expressed interest in “From Doubt to Faith,” and the work could be published and available for other churches to perform within the next year or two. 

Biery said they plan to record the production and might create a CD, but it wasn’t known at press time whether that would be available to the public or only to churches that might want to stage the production themselves.

In conjunction with the concert, artist John Wood — the husband of Carol Ambrogio Wood — is creating a ceramic sculpture exhibition inspired by the story of Thomas that will be on display in the church from April 3 to 24. The public is welcome to stop by the church at any time to see the artworks, which will be on view in a second-floor hallway. About six artworks plus drawings are slated for the display.

Biery said he hopes people who haven’t been to Grosse Pointe Memorial Church consider coming for this production.

“Everybody is welcome,” he said. “I think we all see this as an opportunity to make people feel welcome. It’ll be a great day for people to visit, if they like.”

There’s no admission charge. Grosse Pointe Memorial Church is located at 16 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms, next to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. For more information, call (313) 882-5330 or visit www.gpcmchurch.org.

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