As he cooks the evening meal, Falls Church author, singer and at-home-dad James Oglethorpe can be heard talking or singing to himself as he develops plots and characters for a new book or prepares for his next concert.
Recently, he’s been practicing for his role as narrator in New Dominion Chorale’s upcoming performance of Robert Schumann’s rarely-performed choral masterpiece, Quest for Paradise, on April 22 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria.
A long-time member of the Chorale and the National Men’s Chorus, Oglethorpe is a writer by profession and generally likes to avoid the spotlight. With Quest for Paradise, he jumps right into it with his melodious, resonant, English accent.
Schumann’s work tells the story of the quest of the “Peris” – fairy-like beings born of the union of mortals with fallen angels – to enter Paradise. Though well-known in Germany and Austria, it is rarely performed in the United States. NDC’s April 22 concert will be the first performance of the work in Washington and the first performance in English, thanks to a translation by NDC Artistic Director Thomas Beveridge. The music is a delightful blend of rich orchestral and choral textures and beautiful melodies. Schumann called it “music for cheerful people.” Most of the words are sung, but Oglethorpe narrates some passages as a way of adding drama and moving the story along.
Oglethorpe feels privileged to be joining some of Washington D.C.’s finest singers, headed by soprano Danielle Talamantes of Annandale, the 2006 winner of the National Association of Teachers of Singing Competition; mezzo soprano Linda Maguire; tenor Robert Baker; bass Jonathan Deutsch; tenor Jason Rylander; a quartet of soloists from among the Vocal Soloists of Washington; a full symphonic orchestra of professional instrumentalists; and the 235-member New Dominion Chorale. Twenty-four of the 235 NDC singers live in Falls Church, including the group’s president, Rosemarie Hunziker, and the treasurer, Renee Andrews.
Oglethorpe describes himself as “a writer who loves to sing.” With five novels under his belt and a poem scheduled to appear in Poet Lore this summer, he is working hard to publish his current novel, Sister Bluebird, a science fiction mystery. In describing it he said: “I wanted to say something about how science and specifically evolution has within it a spiritual component. There is no contradiction between holy text and scientific evidence. All you have to do is look out there and see the incredible natural processes at work in the universe to realize that there is something of infinite majesty at work out there and also inside us.”
Born and educated in England, Oglethorpe is a descendant of General James Oglethorpe, a Member of Parliament who received approval from King George III of England to take a group of debtors to the New World. These former farmers, blacksmiths, and other skilled workmen helped him found in 1732 what is now the state of Georgia.
While studying for his BA at Oxford, Oglethorpe worked odd jobs to support his writing — roof top repairman, farmer and retail salesman. At one point, he became enthralled by Formula One Motor Racing. A few years later, he joined Volunteer Service Overseas and worked and lived in east and southern Africa. He met his future wife Judy there. He joined a large expatriate chorus in Nairobi, Kenya, and began the first of seven years of voice training.
In 1997 Oglethorpe and his family moved to Falls Church. He joined the McLean Choral Society and then the New Dominion Chorale. Oglethorpe has been a stay-at-home dad to his and Judy’s two sons, David and Ewan, while pursuing his writing and singing. Judy, an ecologist, is Director of Community Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. She’s also a published author, whose main area of interest is the effect of civil unrest and HIV/AIDS on the environment.
New Dominion Chorale’s performance of Quest for Paradise takes place at 4 pm, Sunday, April 22, at the Schlesinger Center in Alexandria. For tickets and information, call 703 442 9404 or visit www.newdominion.org.
• Clarissa Parker is a Northern Virginia business consultant and sings alto with New Dominion Chorale.