Singing for renowned British choral composer Malcolm Archer was a cherished memory for Emily and Lauren Failla, who spent their formative years in choirs at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown.
Archer repaid the compliment on Saturday, returning to St. Peter’s with a new composition to honor the Failla sisters, who died in separate accidents while in their 20s.
“They were tremendously keen singers and musicians,” Archer said of the pair, after directing 40 choristers from the church and the Harmonium Choral Society for the Emily and Lauren Failla Memorial Choir Festival Concert.
The evening’s theme, Vast Ocean of Light, celebrated the light that the sisters brought to the world. Archer premiered his arrangement of the ancient text O Nata Lux (O Light Born of Light), a composition commissioned by friends of the Failla family.
Video: ‘O Nata Lux,’ for Emily and Laura Failla
“It had a lot of nice, yummy places. It was fun,” said Harmonium Artistic Director Anne Matlack, who sang with the altos on Saturday.
Kay Failla, the mother of Emily and Lauren, sang with the soprano section, as Frank Failla, husband and father, watched from the pews.
News of Archer’s guest gig “was a complete surprise to us,” one that would have thrilled the girls, Kay said.
“They loved him,” said Frank Failla, recounting a 2008 trip with Lauren to see Archer in London, where he was music director at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Archer’s musical achievements include an anthem, composed at the request of Buckingham Palace, for the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. He visited Morristown when the Failla sisters sang in the Girls Choir at St. Peter’s.
Emily, the older sister, died in a rock climbing accident in 2006, at age 24. Lauren passed away in 2010 while vacationing abroad. She was 25.
The Lauren & Emily Failla Foundation was established to support local arts scholarships and arts- and pediatrics programs.
An artist residency, arranged in cooperation with Morris Arts, led to a recent production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by pupils at the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, Kay Failla said.
A separate fund sponsors the choir festival.
Video: ‘Vast Ocean of Light’
“It was like a spiritual, musical massage,” Diane Pivarnik said of Saturday’s hour-long concert.
A pianist and organist, Pivarnik treasures her memories of accompanying the Failla sisters on solos.
“They were superb and gifted musicians, as well as two of the most wonderful young women. They were a gift to every single one of us whose lives they touched,” she said.
Joanne Dadd performed beside Lauren at Emily’s funeral.
“She sang a solo, one of the most beautiful things I ever heard. And she was shaking like a leaf,” said Dadd.
She came to know both sisters as each rose to become Head Chorister.
“They were beautiful on the outside and equally beautiful on the inside. They were shining, loving, unbelievably talented, smart, kind, women,” Dadd said.
St. Peter’s Rector Janet Broderick said her daughter, the aspiring performer Hannah Kraft, was mentored by Lauren in the church choir.
Without Lauren’s encouragement, the minister said, “Hannah would have quit.”
Emily also enjoyed playing “big sister” in the choir–even when paired with older girls, remembered her choir director, Anne Yardley.
“Emily was always so plugged in that she was telling big sisters where they should be! Emily was quite shy when she started choir. She grew out of that,” said Yardley, who led the drive to commission Archer’s composition and sang on Saturday.
Another song from the program, Make Me a Light, gave her a particularly strong sense of Emily, she said. Yet the girls’ presence is never far away.
“They’re always here at the church,” said Yardley, whose conducting style was imitated playfully by a very young Lauren as she watched Emily sing during services.
As teens, Emily and Lauren sang with their mom in the adult choir.
“Those were fun days,” Kay Failla said. The sisters often expressed gratitude for the camaraderie and leadership they gained from the Girls Choir, she said. “They felt it carried over into the rest of their lives.”
What would Emily and Lauren have made of Saturday’s festival?
“I think they would be amazed and a little embarrassed…and thoroughly pleased,” their mother said.
Video: ‘Make Me a Light,’ for the late Failla sisters