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USC’s premier choir presents The Martyrdom of Polycarp

The oratorio for mixed chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra is based on an ancient letter

When warned that he would be burnt at the stake in 155 A.D., Polycarp, a pupil of the apostle John, responded that the fires of the stake last but a moment, whereas the fires of hell last for an eternity.

St. Polycarp was martyred at the age of 86, and his arrest and martyrdom are described in detail in a letter written within a year of his death and discovered in the 20th century. Addressed from the church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium in Greater Phrygia, the letter writer beautifully exhibits the praise and reverence due to martyrs. It is this letter that is the basis for The Martyrdom of Polycarp, commissioned from noted American composer J.A.C. Redford and librettist Scott Cairns.

The University of South Carolina’s premier choir, the USC Concert Choir directed by Larry Wyatt, presents The Martyrdom of Polycarp, an oratorio for mixed chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra. The free performance takes place on Friday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church (1324 Marion St). Composer J.A.C. Redford will be in attendance.

Redford has written the scores for more than three dozen feature films, TV movies and miniseries, including The Trip to Bountiful, One Night with the King, Disney’s Oliver & Company, Newsies and The Mighty Ducks II and III. He has composed the music for nearly 500 episodes of series television, including multiple seasons of Coach and St. Elsewhere, for which he received two Emmy nominations. Redford’s music has been featured on programs at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Lincoln Center in New York, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and London’s Royal Albert Hall. He is currently orchestrating for the next James Bond film.

His largest concert work to date is The Martyrdom of Polycarp, premiered in 2004 at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC. The USC Concert Choir has performed the work on tour in Italy at the Chiesa Nuova and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and at cathedrals in Viterbo, Arezzo and Verona, Italy, as well as at the Varna International Conductors Workshop in Bulgaria.

The work, co-commissioned by The Arpad Darasz Endowment for Choral Music at USC and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, was premiered in April 2004 to a rave review in Free Times.

“Cairns couches the libretto in a powerful way to demonstrate the commitment of Polycarp to Christ and his martyrdom in the name of Christ. To relate the importance of the current need to embrace Mideast cultural knowledge, the libretto packs a wallop. Redford’s mix of musical styles—sometimes tonal, sometimes polytonal, with rich choral textures and superb orchestrations — is skillfully handled, bringing depth of emotion and fine musical results, which were deeply and enthusiastically received...the end result is a work that has incredible and memorable moments. This is not a work for ordinary resources, but it may well become a masterpiece in the literature for major symphonies." (David Lowry, Free Times 2004)