Albany Ensemble a big hit in Poland

JOSEPH DALTON Special to the Times Union
Section: Arts-Events,  Page: I5

Date: Sunday, October 2, 2005

It's been a few years since the Albany Ensemble, a vocal group led by soprano Mimi O'Neill, has performed in the region, but in August the troupe sang twice in Poland before sellout audiences.

In Gdansk at the Maritime Museum Concert Hall, the Albany Ensemble offered a program, "Music Causeth My Soul to Dance," of folk songs, American standards and light opera. "We wanted to bring our Polish friends a taste of American and eclectic song," says O'Neill. "It was everything from `Wayfaring Stranger' to the wonderful duet from `The Pearl Fishers.' "

A more somber second program, "And I Shall Dwell Among You," was given at the Jewish Institute, which is housed in the Jewish Library, a historic building in Warsaw located in the district that was home to the infamous World War II-era "Warsaw Ghetto." A highlight of the concert was "Of Bondage and Freedom," a Holocaust memorial piece for soprano, violin and piano by Albany composer Max Lifchitz.

"It was a concert of remembrance as well as a celebration of life," says O'Neill. Although the soprano is not Jewish, she has made a specialty of Hasidic folk songs, which were also part of the program. Adds O'Neill, "I have friends on the Jewish and the German side, all of whom I consider victims."

Performing on tour with O'Neill were tenor John Garafalo, baritone Tom Torebka, sopranos Christine Powers and Andrea Schultz, pianist Nate Buccieri and violinist Noor O'Neill, who is Mimi O'Neill's daughter.

Prior to the concert dates, O'Neill and her husband John facilitated a weeklong music camp/retreat in Poland, "Awakened Heart." The days featured meditation in the morning and music in the afternoons. The 25 participants included Germans and Poles and some Capital Region residents.

"It's very rare you'll find German people coming to Poland and one of our goals was to support them," says O'Neill, who has been offering concerts and spiritual workshops regularly in both countries for more than a decade.

A glance at O'Neill's Web site,, shows her work is focused equally on music and spirit. "My husband and I are developing a process called the New Story, a spiritual path for our time with elements of Sufism, Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology," says O'Neill. Her site includes recordings that are available for purchase as well as her book "Journey to the Sound God: Healing and Empowering Voice and Self Through Sound."

From O'Neill's perspective, the late-summer concerts and retreat served a common purpose of healing. "We wanted to weave together the common thread of a shared humanity, the shared suffering and the celebration of life," she says.

Local audiences can hear O'Neill at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, at the North Pointe Cultural Arts Center in Kinderhook. She will share the spotlight for a cabaret evening with pianist Lincoln Mayorga and the jazz duo Sonny and Perley. Tickets are $20. For reservations, call 758-9234.