Monday, July 10, 2017

A Recent Large-Scale Work: Sing For The Morning’s Joy (2015)

As I write this in July, 2017, it was around now in the summer of 2015 that I was contacted by an old friend & colleague whom I had met as an intern at the Adirondack Festival of American Music back in the mid- to late-90s (one aspect of the forthcoming post about the late Gregg Smith—stay tuned!) who is now Director of Music at University United Church of Christ in Seattle, WA.

Heidi Wyllis Blythe had commissioned a few small-scale arrangements from me before then (mostly on a fast-turnaround basis; one of my favorite working situations), but this one was a little bigger: she asked me for an original hymn tune on a text by one of her parishioners, which was to then be set for brass, choir, and organ for congregational singing. It sounded like a good offer, and one that wouldn’t be too labor-intensive.

Problem number 1 occurred when I received the text to be set: it was both non-metrical and in free verse. One can certainly construct an anthem on this basis, but not a traditional congregational hymn tune designed to accommodate multiple stanzas.

I let Heidi know what the problem was. The author turned out to be unwilling to write something metrical (let alone with a rhyme scheme), so we started casting about for an alternative text. In situations like this (all the time, really…), I prefer that the commissioner choose the text to be set. So: Heidi sent me a few possibilities; none of which rang true for us.

The last text she sent (almost with a shrug, it seemed), did the trick: Hymn to St. Cecilia by Ursula Wood Vaughan-Williams. As soon as we agreed that this was the text we’d use, we then worked out the rest of the commission conditions:

The project, by then, had turned into an anthem, so I was going to have to charge more. (No problem, as it turned out!)

Not just an anthem: a big anthem—the instrumentation went from SATB choir, brass, organ, & congregation up to SATB choir with occasional divisi, organ, & orchestra (& a not quite standard instrumentation at that: 1-1-1-1  1-2-1-1 org  timpani, bells, strings [2-2-2-2-1])

It was to be premiered October 25, 2015 (we were talking in July, 2015 at that point), meaning—

The choir parts were going to have to be available and pretty much set in stone by the beginning of September so that their choir would have the largest possible window in which to get it learned, with orchestral materials to follow ASAP—strings first, then everything else.

To make a long story short (for now), it all happened as planned.

In terms of planning the musical content, I knew immediately that the piece had to have a congregational refrain, using the first two lines of the poem: “Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing/In words of youth and praises of the spring.” I also made an experiment out of this piece in terms of using 6-measure phrases as often as possible instead of the more customary 4-measure phrase. How successful that was, ultimately, is for others to decide (so: listen and write me and tell me what you think!), but that was hardly a primary concern in this piece’s creation.

The primary concern, of course was not only getting the choir parts completed, but also making sure I could be absolutely committed to them as they were by September of 2015! Composers always have changes of mind and heart when composing a piece—the bigger the piece, the more changes of mind and heart. That, therefore, proved to be a significant challenge.

On the other hand, the choir’s challenge was to learn said parts with no surrounding musical context. Their scores consisted only of their parts with multi-measure rests in between—no interludes, no sources for entry pitches, and no keyboard reduction of their own parts, let alone of the accompaniment—it was still being written as they were learning it!

Another month of furiously paced work went into the full score and orchestral materials—strings first, as requested (so that they could hold sectional rehearsals before dress rehearsing with the entire ensemble), followed by the organ part, woodwinds & brass, and, finally, percussion. All this on top of teaching college full-time and, at that time, chairing the college’s music department, plus the regular musical demands of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my two synagogue choirs that September, mind you…

As I shortened the story previously: it all happened as planned, including the October 25th premiere. It was a thrill to read posts about its premiere on Facebook that evening, including the number of people who found themselves “earwormed” by the refrain—it doesn’t get much better than that!

There were a few additional surprises in this story:

It was only very late in the process that I found out that the occasion for which this work was commissioned turned out to be the 125th anniversary of University United Church of Christ in Seattle and the rededication of their newly refurbished sanctuary and organ—so it was a good thing the score included a substantive organ part.

The biggest surprise, though, was when my commissioning fee arrived in the mail—for double the agreed-upon amount! I immediately e-’d Heidi both thanking her profusely and asking how this came to be. She told me that once they saw what they were getting from me in this piece, she and the choir decided that it was worth more than the agreed-upon fee; and that they raised the additional amount in a matter of hours…How often does that happen?! I shall be eternally grateful!

The recording arrived via e-mail a few days later—what a superb performance! You may listen to it here.

Having heard the piece objectively:

There should be a larger string section when and if it is performed again

The timpani & bell parts should be included (technical/logistical problems wound up precluding their use that time)

The wind & brass parts should, perhaps, be rescored to a more conventional grouping

If I’m going to be completely honest, I need to figure out a reduced instrumentation version (or three) for this to be heard elsewhere and more often.

St. Cecilia’s feast day is November 22 every year. If you direct a choir & this piece intrigues you, tell me what sort of reduced instrumentation would work for you! (Or if the scoring as it stands works for you, that’s OK, too…)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

One Work, Two Works, or Three?

Of Nature and Humility (2004; rev. 2006, 2008, 2011)

Psalm 131 (2006)

Nature (2006)

As much as I love polychoral music from any era, only twice have I actually arranged or composed for multiple choirs.

The arrangement, done some years back, was of Lesley Hopwood Meyer’s Hymn On The Nativity (Of My Savior) from 2003, on a text by Ben Jonson. Each verse of the carol ended on a half cadence, making the melody sound incomplete. The solution: Choir 1 sang a harmonized version of the tune as originally written, then Choir 2, coming in on the following verse, took up the melody in that new key, causing it to end on the original tonic. You may listen to it here. (I shall devote a post later this year to the Christmas-card carols of Lesley Hopwood Meyer and my experience arranging over a dozen of them for various choral combinations.)

The one time I composed for double chorus was within a wholly different set of circumstances. In the summer of 2004, I attended a summer workshop for composers of choral music at Lehigh University in upstate Pennsylvania sponsored by the Princeton Singers and their director, Steven Sametz and by Oxford University Press. It was there that I met some new composer colleagues (Stacey Garrop, Valerie Showers Crescenz, Reg Unterseher, and Paul Carey, among others) and spent the week listening to new music/works-in-progress and trading ideas and philosophies in the most stimulating environment imaginable. (I’m also happy to report that a connection was made with what was, at that time, OUP’s US operation. 3 arrangements of mine were published by them—and are still in print!)

When one goes to a workshop such as this, I’ve found it’s always a good idea to have an idea in mind of what one is going to compose before arriving; knowing, of course, that a completely different idea might arise. The idea for the work I’d write up there came from the discovery of a poem by Henry David Thoreau entitled Nature. In reading it over, what immediately came to mind was parallels with Psalm 131 (“Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty” in its most familiar translation; and whose best-known setting is in Hebrew by Leonard Bernstein as the third movement of his Chichester Psalms, a watershed work in my own musical development). So: the plan for the new piece would be to somehow juxtapose both texts.

The original plan was for the psalm to be sung in Hebrew by a soprano soloist, which would be answered by Thoreau’s poem. When speaking of this at dinner the first evening of the workshop, someone (& I don’t remember who!) suggested that each line in Hebrew be followed by a sung English translation—that way the piece would be much easier to follow. Following this excellent suggestion is how the piece turned into one for double chorus.

The music for the psalm begins with decidedly modern-sounding musical vocabulary, but evolves gradually into a more gentle harmonic language. The music for Thoreau’s sonnet, by contrast, is consistently more pastoral-sounding (once again, Randall Thompson’s music was my sound model), except for a knotty fugato on the words “Than be the king of men elsewhere/And most sovereign slave of care.” The two choirs converge at one point toward the end of the piece (“Wait, Israel, upon the Lord”), and they finish together juxtaposing Thoreau’s final wish for communion with Nature with the last line of the Hebrew psalm: “Some still work give me to do/Only be it near to you./Mei-atah v’ad olam (‘From now and forever more’).” (The line above is not, in fact, how Thoreau’s poem concludes—I did a little bit of rearranging of Thoreau’s lines in order to maintain parallel correspondence between the two texts.)

The initial composing of this piece went very quickly—I had it ready to be read by the Princeton Singers within about 24 hours of starting it. They did a magnificent job reading the piece down!

Part of the week’s agenda, aside from reading down composer’s new pieces as they were completed (or as enough of a work-in-progress was completed to make a read-down possible), was to program the first half of the concert that would conclude the week. (The 2nd half of the concert was Healey Willan’s Mass—freshly published by OUP at that time, I think—conducted by Nicholas Cleobury). The judgement of Dr. Sametz and the composer-scholar in residence for the week, Dr. Zhou Long, was that my piece (at that time titled …to be humble…to be free…) didn’t hang together, and therefore was not to be included in the public concert performance.

Well, looking back at that original version from ’04, they were right—disappointing as it was not to have made the final cut. I set about revising the piece after I got home and, early in 2006, came up with a new version of the piece entitled Of Nature and Humility. It was revised slightly in 2008, and again, a little more substantially, in 2011 to fix a note value/time signature proportion issue in the Thoreau music.

But the idea that the piece “didn’t hang together” still bothered me. So, in addition to the revisions on this piece, I also separated the music for each choir into two separate pieces: Psalm 131 for soprano solo with chorus, and Nature for chorus with a short solo for tenor.

On a concert of American Poets/American Composers in the spring of 2006 with my former professional choir, Voces Novae et Antiquae, I programmed the music for the two choirs as separate pieces to open the first half: Psalm 131 followed by Nature; then ended the first half of the concert with Of Nature and Humility. We also encouraged our audiences to give us written feedback about these pieces: did they like the separate works better than the combined piece, or vice versa?

The results were pretty much evenly split: some enjoyed the juxtaposition of texts and musical styles; others preferred them separated.

So now, my dear readers, I pose the same question to you: Do you think the juxtaposition of the texts and music in Of Nature and Humility works? Or do you think the two texts work better as the separate pieces Psalm 131 and Nature?

Listen, enjoy, and, please: talk to me!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Mistress’ Eyes (1971; rev. 1998; 2012–13):

The Longish Journey of an Early Work

I have finally come to be able to quote artist/author Austin Kleon here, from his first book Steal Like An Artist (New York, Workman Publishing, 2012):

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.

“…Copying is about reverse engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

“The human hand is incapable of making a perfect copy.” (Kleon, op. cit., pp. 33–34)

The second piece that I count in my composition catalog is a choral setting of Shakespeare’s well-known Sonnet 130: My Mistress’ Eyes, for SATB a cappella written in 1971 between my junior & senior years in high school.

I refer to it as my “Randall Thompson” period in my development as a composer—consisting solely of that piece—at that time, I must have counted Randall Thompson as my favorite modern composer for chorus. I also had a “Paul Hindemith” period (one piece), a “Leonard Bernstein” period (one cantata-length piece; withdrawn unless I can figure out a way to repurpose some or all of it), and a “Wilson Coker” period (an art song; also withdrawn conditionally per above). Almost all the rest of my auto-didactic learning to compose came from arranging rather than composing thereafter, so there were no more “composer periods.”

My Mistress’ Eyes is one of my more frequently performed pieces—it’s probably as accessible and relatively simple as anything I’ve ever written. One of the biggest problems I had with it, though, was, for a very long time, dissatisfaction with the ending. While the majority of the piece is in F major, the coda takes an unexpected turn to D major, ending the piece in a completely different place from where it started—just as the sonnet itself does. But the last measure or two never seemed quite right for a very long time.

Fast-forward to 1998. There was an e-mail list back then called CHORALIST, which was a wonderful cyber-place where choral music professionals and amateurs could connect with each other, and with composers as well—conductors would ask for repertoire suggestions based on, say, a certain theme for a program, and there would be many replies from other conductors recommending existing pieces, as well as composers who might have something relevant to offer.

One such call for recommendations was for settings of Shakespeare texts from Rita Varonen, conductor of a college choir in Jyvåskylå, Finland. At the time, I had available My Mistress’ Eyes and a much larger cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra on songs and scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in 1982, performed once, and which is in dire need of a second performance…). Small-scale was what was asked for, so I put the piece into Finale notation software with a little bit of editing, and sent off a .pdf.

A number of months went by, so I decided to follow up in the spring of 1999 to see if anything had happened with the piece. Rita wrote back: “Oh, didn’t we tell you? We performed it; it went wonderfully, & we would like to record it!” [I stopped to pick my jaw up from off the floor…]

I immediately wrote back saying yes, absolutely! She also asked if I would be OK with dedicating the piece to her college choir, Chamber Choir Cantinovum. I immediately agreed to that as well, and sent an updated score.

A larger number of months then went by, so I decided to follow up to see if anything had happened with the recording. Rita wrote back: “Oh, didn’t we tell you we recorded it? Didn’t we send you copies?” [Again, I stopped to pick my jaw up from off the floor…]

Copies of the CD, Commissioned by Cantinovum, arrived in October of 2000; revealing a lineup in which I was the sole American among otherwise Finnish composers on the album. And what a great album it was! Here is Cantinovum’s recording of My Mistress’ Eyes in its 1998 incarnation.

This led shortly thereafter to Rita and Cantinovum commissioning me to write Psalm 51 for their “Easter” (actually Good Friday) concert where it was premiered in March, 2002, and about which I have written previously.

Fast-forward again to the fall of 2012 and my choir at Community College of Philadelphia. By that semester, we had built up sufficient numbers and musical expertise that I thought they could handle My Mistress’ Eyes. I did some more extensive revisions of the piece, mostly via varying time signatures more than the original version to better reflect word stresses, and finally figuring out what to do in the ending of the piece.

In November, 2012, a video was recorded of the revised-but-yet-uncorrected version, which featured improvised interpretive dance by the young daughter of one of my sopranos. See it here, and enjoy!

In preparing those fall programs, I discovered that I had a line of the text down incorrectly for almost 40 years! The line in question reads: “And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks;” whereas my version, since 1971, read: “And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath from which my mistress reeks.” How’d I miss that all those years?

The only thing left to do was program it again the following semester (something I don’t normally like to do) and make certain it was recorded correctly. The corrected version was sung in concert in April, 2013—you may listen here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Antiphon from Hildegard:

Antiphon for the Holy Spirit (1989)

I must begin by echoing my opening from January 1 of this year: I’m still here! I still have neither abandoned this project nor you! So much for that idea of posting every two weeks or so, though...

As it turned out: that online notation fundamentals course I mentioned I was designing back then did get finished and did, indeed, run as a 10-week course (compressed from its original 15-week design).

And that, dear readers, accounts for a large portion of the reason why I haven’t been here—the workload for a course such as this is nothing short of staggering! (I was, indeed, warned about that.)

This summer, two 7-week versions of it should be running, with the first having now gotten underway. So: I thought I’d better post something now, while opportunity presents itself.

It was in the mid-to-late 1980s when I first ran across Hildegard von Bingen and her 44 Symphoniae—her own musical settings of her own devotional lyrics in Latin. Both her words and music are extraordinary. Whenever I hear one of Hildegard’s works, it always gives me the impression of her striving to create a music that, in her day, did not yet exist. (That, eventually, would become polyphony, of course.) But compared with Gregorian Chant (as I do in my classes when covering Medieval music), the differences between Hildegard’s and the Gregorian versions of monody still amaze and delight.

Before I had encountered her music, though, I had picked up a volume of Hildegard’s Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum in translation and with commentary by Barbara Newman (the link is for the 2nd edition), and had become familiar with a number of Hildegard’s texts that way. In the spring of 1989, I wrote a choral piece for Pentecost for the choir of Central Baptist Church of Wayne, PA; and Hildegard’s De Spiritu Sancto was my choice for text.

Like May the Words of which I wrote previously, Antiphon for the Holy Spirit is also designed to be reminiscent of early music: it is written in a (partly) neo-Renaissance contrapuntal style, complete with word-painting in a few spots, but using an unmistakably 20th century harmonic vocabulary. The notes on include the Latin text and a translation. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

And God’s Name Shall Be One (2001):

For A New Year

Before I begin:

I’m still here! I have neither abandoned this project nor you!

Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 2016 were probably as late on the secular calendar as they can ever be (just like Election Day this year), much of September into October was taken up with services, preparation for same, and then, afterwards, getting caught up on everything that had to be postponed because of them. (Full disclosure: I conduct two synagogue choirs—one based in Pennsylvania; the other in NJ. In PA I conduct the choir in all the services; in NJ, as of now, I only prepare the choir for appearances on S’lichot [the spiritual “warmup” to the High Holy Days the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah] and on Kol Nidrei [the evening service for Yom Kippur]). And when the Holy Days fall within visual range of midterms at school as they did this year—well, enough said...

All that, combined with work on a commission of a different sort since mid-October—design of an online course in fundamentals of music notation which, I hope, may yet go live in some form for this spring—and I’ve been incommunicado until now.

In many ways, at least the lecture-writing portion of that process has proven to be as satisfying as composing—but then there’s all the detailia one must be certain is covered—not nearly so satisfying. There remains some of that yet to be completed, which I hope won’t take long.

So; briefly: something for the turn of another year: And God’s Name Shall Be One was written at the turn of the current century in January, 2001. The text (in English) draws from the 2nd half of the concluding prayer for all Jewish services (the Aleinu)—a prayer for world unity and tolerance, and comes from the first prayer book I knew when I was a child. It’s scored for SATB choir and may be accompanied by piano alone, rhythm section (piano, bass, kit, and opt. guitar), or chamber orchestra with rhythm section. This recording is of the version with rhythm section.

While it would be easy to say that a prayer such as this takes on even greater urgency in times like these, the fact is that it always has had urgency for one reason or another, because that for which we pray here remains so maddeningly elusive.

Here’s to putting the message out.

UPDATE: And God’s Name Shall Be One has just been published by!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Remembering Gail B. Poch (1936–2016)

Only three weeks after learning of the passing of Robert Page (of whom I wrote back in August), it was even more shocking to learn of the passing of Gail B. Poch on August 31. That makes three important figures from the choral world—the third was Gregg Smith (1931–2016) in July, about whom I shall write in the coming weeks—leaving us this summer.

Gail was my introduction to the power and potential of choral music well performed. He conducted my very first Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District Chorus at Marple-Newtown High School in January, 1970.

That program included my first exposures as a performer to the music of Jan Sweelinck, J.S. Bach (though in a decidedly inauthentic form), Benjamin Britten, Franz Schubert, Houston Bright, Joseph Canteloube, Ernest Bloch, and Leonard Bernstein; much of which, strangely, I have not had opportunity to perform in any capacity since then. As it turned out, this event also marked the first time I had ever had the opportunity to sing any Jewish choral music of substance—in addition to the Bloch “Silent Devotion & Response (Yih’yu l'ratzon)” from his Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service), we also performed Gail’s own arrangement (or, possibly, his edition or adaptation; I was never certain which it was) of the Israeli (?) folk melody Ki mi tziyon. (Bernstein’s French Choruses from “The Lark” didn’t fit that category, of course.)

I went home after the Saturday night concert with a head swimming with sounds I’d never heard or imagined previously. It was at that point that I began collecting scores—of choral festival music at first, but then branching out from there into music by composers whose names I recognized, or pieces that simply looked interesting.

(I also went home that Saturday night having acquired my first serious girlfriend—I a sophomore and she a senior from a neighboring high school—but that story will have to wait for my memoirs...)

And I went home that Saturday night thinking about college (and Temple University) seriously for the first time.

As an undergraduate at Temple, I had two conducting classes taught by Gail, which were wonderfully run. I remember how he managed to teach us the pieces we all were to conduct without doing a single drop of conducting himself.

Aside from those classes, I had little interaction with him other than a staged and choreographed production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Unicorn, The Gorgon, and the Manticore which he conducted and in which I sang; and also when he served as the narrator for a recording by Temple's Concert Choir of Karl Korte’s oratorio Pale is This Good Prince, both in my freshman year at Temple. (!) He was also my examiner for passing advanced Aural Theory by exam.

When I returned for grad school in 1981, Robert Page had moved on to Pittsburgh and been replaced by Alan Harler, but Gail was still very much on the faculty and very involved with the graduate choral conducting program. I had the good fortune to take a modern choral literature course with him and also to be coached privately by him on my second graduate conducting recital. Additionally, he was my supervisor for my graduate assistantship in conducting the second year of my degree program.

At that time, he had begun working on a conducting textbook based on a system of movement analysis and choreographic notation by Rudolf von Labann; our job was to apply what he was working out in actual conducting pedagogy. His pedagogical research and development was collected and finally turned into book form—The Conductor’s Gesture—by his student James Jordan, which is published by, and still available from, GIA Publications.

Gail always lived in the shadow of whoever had the title of Director of Choral Activities at Temple. I think he was, ultimately, seriously under-appreciated and under-acknowledged in his time there. To hear Temple graduates speak of him and their first encounters with him—invariably through high school choral festivals such as the one I described above—it’s clear that Gail was one of the College of Music’s secret weapons for recruitment. That, in itself, is a proud legacy!

I’m certain that veterans of the Reading (PA) Choral Society can tell different, but equally loving stories of working with him. We all miss you terribly; but we can say, confidently, that your memory is for blessing. And thank you—for opening so many young lives and ears to the power and joy of great choral music!

Finally, for those interested: my own performances of the abovementioned Sweelinck and Bloch pieces; from many years later, based on what I learned from Gail’s leadership.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Yet More on That Thin, Erasable Line:

Song of Exile (1988)

In my post from August 27, I said that arranging work has led me to wonder, at times: if a piece prominently quotes or utilizes something preëxisting, is that piece an arrangement or an original composition that happens to use pre-existing material?

I wrote previously about my Rhapsody on Anglo-American Ballad Tunes falling into this category. Here, I offer another piece that poses the same question:

Song of Exile (1988) uses the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” as its focal point, each of whose three verses prompt different reactions from the choir. The first two are drawn from Psalm 137 (“By the waters of Babylon…” and “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”); the third is drawn from Isaiah 32 (coupled with a half-verse from Psalm 31), designed to be a verse of consolation—except that the first verse of the spiritual returns over it, unchanged from the beginning. The piece ends with a Phrygian half-cadence, leaving things unresolved.

Song of Exile was originally written for the choir of Central Baptist Church, Wayne, PA, but has been performed since then thanks to the late Peter Hopkins, former director of music at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA. My first encounter with the Isaiah text dates all the way back to high school and the music of Emma Lou Diemer—specifically, her For Ye Shall Go Out With Joy, a work from the 1960s which contained sounds and a cappella writing that was a watershed experience in terms of my musical thinking.

Back when Peter was in Philadelphia at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (3rd & Pine Streets, Old City), he once asked me about repertoire around Psalm 137. I suggested Salamone Rossi’s Al naharot bavel (in Hebrew; and, thus far, the only complete setting of Psalm 137 as far as I know, which pulls no punches at the end!), William Billings’ Lamentation over Boston, (a paraphrase of Psalm 137; likely by Billings himself), and Song of Exile.

He chose Song of Exile, presenting it not only in Philadelphia, but also in Reading, PA with the Reading Choral Society, and again during a week-long residency by the St. Peter’s choir at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, UK, in August, 2010 (I was privileged to have been there for that residency). The recording comes from the Evensong sung there on August 27, 2010, where it was sung as the anthem for that service.

Song of Exile is now published by