Year 2: Intuition
It's hard to believe that I haven't posted a single entry in this blog since May of 2015. As one would expect, there's no way I could possibly relate everything that has happened in that time, but I can at least offer a quick recap. I spent my second summer as a visiting composer at the Choral Institute at Oxford. The Same Stream produced our inaugural recording in August, which included two pieces of mine. I successfully passed my PhD upgrade, meaning I am now cleared to complete my research. I have lived in Scotland now for two years, with my final year of intense work stretching out before me. The latest round of commissions and performances has come to a close, and the next round, which includes a JAM commission for the BBC Singers to be premiered in July, is well under way.
I could go into each of these in a great amount of detail, but I'm afraid my memory might not be perfect as to how all of that came and went. At any rate, what I really want to focus on was the incredible week of music making that just occurred in New York City. A few months ago I received word that the University of Central Missouri Concert Choir, conducted by Alan Zabriskie, was going to give the first performance of my work in Carnegie Hall. I was of course greatly excited and intrigued by this news. Not only had I never heard of UCM's choral program, I was unfamiliar with Alan's work as a conductor and was interested to see his style. It's also not every day that you hear about your debut performance on one of the world's greatest stages!
UMC was to perform “White Stones” as a part of their ensemble spotlight concert at Carnegie Hall on February 13th. This work was the first piece of mine to be professionally performed, and was premiered by Harold Rosenbaum and the New York Virtuoso Singers back in 2009. After contacting Alan via Facebook he agreed to send me a video of the choir rehearsing the piece. I was immensely pleased with the sound of the choir; there was a degree of warmth and strength there that I don't often hear. As much as I love British choirs (and believe me, there are also aspects of choral music that the Brits do better than Americans!), there is something incredibly warm and expansive about the American choral sound that is less common in the UK.
If there is one thing that I have learned during my time living abroad it is to trust my intuition. Given the timing, the concert venue, the choir and Alan's mastery of the piece, I felt compelled to make the trip over the pond. After a long and empty flight (an entire row all to myself!) I spent my first night staying at my Aunt Veronica and Uncle Manny's place in Astoria. It was a good few years since I had seen them last, so the opportunity to catch up was very welcome. These two, along with their son Eric and his girlfriend Steph, are exceptionally good conversationalists, and we had many fantastic talks throughout the course of the trip.
The following morning I took the N train into Manhattan for the first rehearsal with the choir in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt. One thing was immediately clear upon meeting the UMC Concert Choir: they were clearly passionate and excited to be in New York doing what they love. Alan had told me a bit about the choir and his program, how he has built it up over the last few years and how the majority of the singers aren't even music majors. This is impressive, considering the level of the choir. Alan himself has a commanding presence without being unnecessarily demanding, a difficult balance to achieve in any situation as a conductor. As a testament to both his skill and the pervasive nature of choral music in all societies, Alan traveled to Kenya just a few days following our performance to work with the wonderful Nairobi Chamber Chorus, which is conducted by Ken Wakia. If the photos and videos currently flooding social media are any kind of indicator, it would seem that they are all enjoying the experience.
Alan hadn't told his singers that I would be in New York for the performance, so naturally my presence was a bit of a surprise for many of them. This of course only added to our mutual excitement. The day before our first meeting I had had a seven and a half hour flight to think about what I would say to this group of people about “White Stones.” I knew that rehearsal time would be limited, and because of this I also recognized the fact that to focus entirely on any technical issues that may arise would be pointless and silly. After hearing them sing the piece in person for the first time, I again trusted my intuition and decided to speak candidly of what the work has meant to me in my life. I spoke of how the process of composing “White Stones” was a major watershed moment for me as both a person and a composer, about how it launched my career and convinced me to continue pursuing choral composition. I explained things to them about the genesis of the work that only a very few people knew before that moment, things that I unfortunately cannot post about in a blog entry. Suffice it to say that “White Stones” was born out of the turmoil of an extremely murky part of my past.
This course of action proved to be for the best. Perhaps they didn't realize it at the time, but there was a subtle yet profound difference in the sound of the choir after that rehearsal. To me this proves the concept that what truly matters in music-making isn't so much the beauty of technical precision as it is the deeper, more visceral human connections that exist between musicians and the music they share. This was so plainly apparent in the dress rehearsal that I was nearly moved to tears. At one point I sat completely alone in Carnegie Hall, literally the only person in a hall that seats nearly three thousand people, listening to this incredible choir sing a piece that means a great deal to me.
“Giants are coming here, mama, giants are coming here.” - Esther Margaret Ayers
My mother's words have never sounded so beautiful, so utterly bone-chilling. I feel that in general I have had to mature into her poetry over time, and yet somehow our minds connected on this piece with a vibrancy that still echoes down through the years. I was sixteen when I wrote that music. Again, the intuition.
The concert itself was wonderful, but I feel it was that dress rehearsal that brought “White Stones” into a full-circle perspective for me. I've always been much more of a process-over-product person when it comes to music; a concert after all is merely a celebration of the path that brings us to that moment in time and space. “White Stones” had it's birth in New York City, and I was there to witness it's maturation in Carnegie Hall. It also meant a great deal to me that Paul was able to come to the concert. He is truly a great friend, having spurned his jet-lag to come hear his student's work performed.
In fact, the second reason I was in New York was to take part in Paul's own DCINY Carnegie Hall concert. This event, which took place the Monday following the performance of “White Stones,” was a massive gathering of people from all over the globe. Eight choirs and an orchestra came together under the baton of James Jordan to perform Paul's “Stabat Mater” and premiere his brand new “Jubilate Deo.” Many of these people I knew through previous experience; the Ulster University Choir from Ireland directed by Shaun Ryan; the Auckland Youth Choir directed by Lachland Craig, who will be performing some of my work in New Zealand in the coming months; and of course, the Fort Myers High School Greenwave Singers directed by Matt Koller, who commissioned my choral work “The Same Stream” in 2015. After one of the massed rehearsals the Greenwave Singers sang “The Same Stream” for me again; it made my day to see how excited they were to sing it.
It must be said that I'm not sure if I have ever seen James Jordan in better form than he was during the entire process of putting this concert together. In rehearsal his demeanor was the very best of combinations between utterly brilliant and barking mad, to the awe and great amusement of the two hundred and twenty singers who were following him. This concert was James' Carnegie Hall conducting debut as well. I know how much it meant to him, and I'm so glad that I was able to be there to sing for him. The concert itself was breathtaking, and I felt full to bursting with pride as my two great mentors, Paul Mealor and James Jordan, took their final bows. Knowing these two, and learning from them, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life.
Needless to say, it was a busy week, and before I knew it I was in a taxi heading back to JFK for the long flight home. It may seem silly to say that a week in New York could change my perspective a great deal, but it's the truth. More than anything else, I've learned that the ever-expanding web of human connections that I have forged in my time as a composer and singer is a truly beautiful thing. The names themselves are but a snapshot of the true nature of that latticework, which I hope continues to grow in the coming years.
A few special thank you's to dish out...
To Julia, Joel, Taylor, and Sami, for coming to my Carnegie debut. I love you all!
To Josh Wanger and Ryan John, for hosting me for the majority of the trip. You guys were so generous with your time and space, it made everything that much easier. Josh, I can't remember exactly what we argued about over wine, but I do know that it was likely hilarious and we're better off for it. Definitely one of the major takeaways from this trip, knowing that I have two very good friends making life work in Manhattan. Thank you so much!
And... a very, very special thank you to Derek and Margaret. Without your support I couldn't do half the things that I do. I hope you know how much your generosity effects the Aberdeen community in such positive ways, and of course how much it has effected my own life. Thank you so much for everything that you do to support the arts.
Until next time,