Teacher finds link between his music and faith
For many people with a strong religious upbringing, college was a time to reflect on your first 18 years, and perhaps explore other spiritual options.
Not so for Nicholas Anthony Ascioti. A College of Saint Rose grad and a native of Solvay, just outside Syracuse, Ascioti didn’t drift from his Roman Catholic faith during his four years in Albany. In fact, the experience renewed and emboldened his spirituality.
“I got very much involved with Masterworks Chorale while I was at Saint Rose, and in that group we focused on sacred music by the greats like Mozart and Handel,” said Ascioti, currently music director at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Wynantskill and a music teacher at St. Jude the Apostle Middle School. “So, my faith didn’t wane. It was actually strengthened by going to Saint Rose, and there’s always been a big connection between my music and my faith.”
Singing is just one of Ascioti’s talents. His musical journey began with the trumpet in fifth grade, and in 1997 he graduated from Saint Rose with a degree in composition and conducting. From there he went on to earn his MFA in composition from Bennington College in Vermont.
CD out this week
One of Ascioti’s compositions, “Adirondack Meditations,” is on “Moto Perpetuo,” a new CD from Parma Recordings being released this week. Famed cellist Ovidu Marinescu of Philadelphia performs on the CD.
“I’d actually been talking to Parma Records for about two years before this project came along, and then they contacted me to see if I had any cello pieces,” said Ascioti. “I said I had a piece for cello, violin and piano. I submitted it to them, they decided to select it for the new CD, and I’m very happy that they did.”
Ascioti is one of six composers that contributed to the CD.
“His piece was selected for the Moto Perpetuo project because, over the course of its three movements, the music highlights the full expressive and functional range of the cello as instrument,” said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Parma Recordings. “The music oscillates from energetic, to violent, from lighthearted to introspective, with the cello working at times as a lead voice or a willing accompanist to the flute and piano. The goal of this project was to present a program that shows the listener the versatility of the cello in contemporary composition. ‘Adirondack Meditations’ was a perfect fit.”
Ascioti wasn’t always fascinated by classical music. After the trumpet that got him started as a young boy, he went on a long and diverse musical journey.
“I started with the trumpet, but then I went through the trombone, french horn, tuba — kind of the whole brass family,” said Ascioti. “When I was young I listened to the music that was all around me, and that was pop music. I became a big fan of Elton John and switched to the piano. Then, I kind of switched my focus to voice because I had a great high school choral teacher. By the time I was going to Saint Rose, the voice had become my instrument. But when you go to college the whole world opens up to you. You learn more and you’re exposed to different genres of music, and that’s when composition really took hold of me.”
Robert Sheehan taught at Saint Rose for 36 years and was chairman of the music department for 16. He was also in charge of the Masterworks Chorale when Ascioti was singing with the group.
“He was a middle-of-the-road baritone with no great lows or highs,” said Sheehan, remembering Ascioti. “But he did have a golden voice, good timbre as people like to say, and he was also a really good man. Lots of personality, lots of presence. Just a wonderful guy.”
Before Ascioti headed to Bennington, he was commissioned to compose something for David Allan Miller of the Albany Symphony.
“My professional debut was writing for their chamber ensemble, the Dogs of Desire,” said Ascioti. “They’re a shoot-off group of the Albany Symphony that focuses primarily on young composers, and it’s wonderful what David does for young composers. He really is a proponent of living composers and new music.”
Ascioti opted for Bennington for grad school because “all the teachers at Bennington practice what they preach, and they’re either writing books or working within their discipline.”
It was also close to the Albany area where he and his future wife, Emily, were hoping to remain following their college experience. She is now a special-education teacher in the Lansingburgh School District, and they have two children, Melody, 9, and Noelle, 6. Ascioti is in his sixth year at St. Jude’s, which has three separate services (two on Sunday and one on Saturday). His duties include overseeing three choirs and a contemporary Christian rock band called Project Praise. Ascioti plays the keyboards for the group.
“We have three Masses, and they’re all pretty well attended,” said Ascioti. “It’s a thriving parish, and music is a big part of our Masses. I’m very happy that our priest at St. Jude’s is a big supporter of music.”
In good hands
The senior pastor is Father Anthony Ligato, who came to St. Jude’s in December of 2009 from the Herkimer/Little Falls area. One of his first impressions after coming to St. Jude’s was that the music program was in great hands.
“I could tell he was a very accomplished artist, very gifted and professional, and also very down to earth and unassuming,” Ligato said of Ascioti. “He’s a very nice guy, and he also has a great faith, faith that can be heard in his music and in his compositions. His music brings an understanding of the sacredness of our ministry. We are all the richer because we have him here.”
Sheehan, who has spent much of his life teaching music to young people, said Ascioti is the perfect kind of person to work at school/church environment.
“He gets a grass-roots group of music lovers there, and he has the kind of personality that is infectious,” said Sheehan. “He likes that kind of situation and he’s perfect for it. I knew he was dabbling in composition when he was at Saint Rose, but that was pretty early on. But it’s no surprise to me that he’s been successful. He’s a personable guy with a lot of talent.”
As for “Adirondack Meditations,” it’s a piece that Ascioti composed recalling the many enjoyable times he spent in the Adirondack Mountains as a boy.
“The title is there, obviously, but when somebody listens to a piece I wrote, it’s not important necessarily what my concept was,” he said. “That helps me create the structure of the piece — thinking about the Adirondacks. But when someone listens to my music, I hope they take away something of their own. I just want them to experience the music for themselves.”
While Ascioti sometimes writes the words for his music, he usually leaves that to others these days. He’s working on an opera with English scientist/poet Mark R. Slaughter, and the lyricist for much of his earlier work was a Methodist minister named Rich Hibbert, who happens to be his father-in-law.
“Any text that I have with my pieces is spiritual and faith-based,” said Ascioti. “My father-in-law wrote a lot for my vocal and choral music pieces, and I still work with him. It’s an ecumenical relationship, a great working relationship, and beyond that it’s a family relationship. We’re actually working on a new piece for a string quartet from Boston.”
Working with a Methodist isn’t a problem for Ascioti. After all, he lives with one — his wife.
“My wife sings in my church choir because she has a very beautiful alto voice and she loves to sing,” said Ascioti. “But she’s still a Methodist. I haven’t converted her yet.”
As for the children, Ascioti says they will make their own choice when the time is right.
“We were married at Immaculate Conception in Albany, and my girls go to Jude the Apostle School,” said Ascioti. “So, currently they’re being raised Catholic for the most part, but we’ve exposed them to both religions. A Catholic priest performed their baptisms, but my father-in-law was right there participating in the ceremony. Both faiths have been represented very well.”