Saturday, December 24, 2011

Setting Prose to Music

I've written several vocal pieces with prose texts. This requires a different approach from the composer than that which works when setting poetry.
Poetry, with regular metre and rhyme is, in many ways, easier to set to music. Phrase length and rhythmic stress in the poem, for example, suggest the same elements in the song even if the composer intentionally contradicts the poet's intentions.
Prose texts don't have those imbedded characteristics which poetry and song share. The composer has to deal with irregular metre and stresses, phrases of different and irregular lengths, and the simple fact that prose must always "make sense" grammatically and that too, must be evident in the vocal part.
The composer should see that the melodic material holds up beyond simply rendering the words in an understandable fashion. Otherwise, one is simply writing recitative or chant. These are absolutely fine, of course, as a part of a longer piece, but not very interesting on their own (unless they're in a devotional piece). All of this has to be considered before and during the composition of whatever other music supports the voice or voices.
I first set prose in my piece for soprano and strings, Song of the Beloved. The text is drawn from the Song of Solomon in the King James Version. Yes, it is poetic but it's not poetry in spite of the beautiful Jacobean language. It was in writing this piece that I devised a process that I have applied again in other works.
More recently, I reworked some English translations of old Chinese and Japanese Zen poems and set them to music (6 Zen Lyrics). The texts, whatever their Asian language source poetry might be like, are blank verse, and present many of the same challenges to the composer as does prose.
Finally, here's the recording of my setting of a passage from the Gospel of Luke, again in the King James version. The children heard learned it without much difficulty because the text at once reflects the rhythm and contour of the words, and also provides a singable melody.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fauré: The Requiem and much more

  I expect to attend two performances of this work over this concert season, both here in Hamilton.  Fauré is my special favourite composer whose music I first encountered in the Requiem when I sang it in a performance by my high school choir. I subsequently learned and performed some of the songs. I've since become familiar with many more of the songs and cycles, much of his piano and chamber music, and the opera Penélope, on CDs.
Many musically knowledgeable people, aside from pianists and singers, believe that the Requiem is all of Fauré's music with which they are familiar. This is usually not the case. For example, the song Après un rêve has been arranged for instrumentalists numerous times. Incidental music like the Pavane from Masques et Bergamasques and the Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande have turned up as radio program themes and continue to do so accompanying other media.
There's a quality of restraint and sophistication that permeates the music. Nothing is jarring or incongruous. He has complete control of his materials. He seems not to "push the envelope" as did many of his contemporaries but some time spent listening to the late cycle, L'horizon chimérique, will demonstrate that he continued experimenting within his musical universe until the very end.
He was trained at the École Niedermeyer as a church musician (he studied composition with Saint-Saens) from the age of 9 but eventually became a composition teacher and the the head of the prestigious Conservatoire. This early training offered him familiarity with church modes and chant and led him to a wonderful sense of melody, and the peculiar and individual harmonic vocabulary which is very evident in the Requiem.
Having said that, the piano music is very much in the tradition of mainstream 19th C. salon and concert works by composers like Field and Chopin. I'm not much of a pianist and can't begin to play any of it. He is partial to "three handed" textures in which the thumb and first fingers of both hands play a melody in the middle register while the other fingers play independent lines above and below it. I suspect pianists don't learn and program Fauré's piano music because it is so difficult but must not seem so. It's uniformly beautiful, but not very flashy. A pianist can make more of an impression playing Lizst or Rachmaninoff.
Some of the songs sound vaguely "churchy" (Au Cimetière), some are almost classical (Clair de Lune) and others unabashedly romantic (Automne). The difficulty of their piano accompaniments is often scaled back, making them accessible to less virtuosic players.
He claimed to have written the Requiem for no particular reason and, being himself an agnostic at best, it can't have had the kind of religious significance for him that one might expect. He was, however, for years the organist at l'église de la Madeleine and professionally familiar with a great deal of Catholic liturgical music. He altered some of the Latin texts that he chose and omitted others that are typically included. The entire work takes just over half an hour. There are two soloists, a treble (Pie Jesus) and a baritone (Hostias, Libera me), although the treble solo is now usually performed by a woman. The Offertoire and Libera me (with baritone solo) were composed after the other movements had been premièred.
The original is for chamber orchestra with organ but no violins (except a solo violin in the last movement). There are two later versions, the final one, with a much larger orchestra, probably not the work of the composer at all. His publisher was anxious to have the piece performed as a concert, rather than liturgical work. Today, it is often done with only organ accompaniment playing an orchestral reduction.
As it is currently performed, the Requiem has seven movements:

       Introit and Kyrie
       Pie Jesus
       Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna
       Libera me
       In Paradisum

  It is calm and peaceful throughout, only rising to a forte in the Hosanna. Let's leave it to the composer to explain his intention: "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience... perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

Thurs. Nov. 10, 2011, Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton
Sun. April 29, 2012, St. Paul's United Church, Dundas: Mohawk College Community Singers

Friday, October 28, 2011

Il Barbiere di Hamilton

      Live performers, especially in concert music, are at a terrible disadvantage these days because of the perfection of recordings. Some audience members come to shows with unrealistic expectations. Live performances can never be perfect because the musicians get but one chance, and nobody is perfect all the time. Digital recordings can be re-recorded and treated to the aural version of Photoshop-ing until they are without flaw.
     One means by which the reality of imperfect performances is ameliorated somewhat is a venue with appropriate acoustics. The hall should have some ring (how much, of course, depends on the genre of the music, the size of the ensemble etc.) and, again depending on the genre, place even the closest audience members at a comfortable distance from the performers. An intimate venue is appropriate for a string quartet but you don't want to be that close to a brass quintet.
   On Tuesday evening, I attended a performance of Rossini's Barber at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts (a.k.a. Theatre Aquarius). Opera Hamilton moved this season to this 750 seat auditorium after many years in the 2100 seat Great Hall of Hamilton Place. You'd think this would be an ideal situation for a small scale production of this opera, but there's more to this than meets the eye or ear.
    I'd never thought it was possible to be too close to the stage but my seat in the second row may have been. This small theatre was designed for spoken plays. Even the floor under the seats is carpeted. And I was very close to the performers. It was like sitting at the director's table at a piano dress. At once you can see every subtle expression and gesture but you can also hear all the little glitches, scoops and imperfections in the sound the singers produce. I can't say whether someone further out in the hall could hear as I did.
   I enjoyed the show enormously. All of the singers were at home with the music. The staging was very busy, making much of the jokes in the libretto and including gestures, facial expressions and physical humour such that there was almost always something more than Rossini's music happening to engage the audience.
   Hugh Russell was an enthusiastic Figaro with a big voice. His clownish costume and make-up, and frenzied business in Largo al Factorum made it clear he was not the romantic lead. I'd like to see him as Danilo or Guglielmo to see how he fares as one. Alexandre Sylvestre was an appropriately pompous Don Bartolo. From my seat, both of these singers sometimes seemed to sing far more loudly and dramatically than this small theatre, indeed this opera, required.
   Lauren Segal sang and acted Rosina convincingly, at one moment a sweet young girl, all smiles and fluttering eyelashes and at the next a purposeful young woman, contemptuous of her ward and determined to get her own way. I prefer a lighter voiced mezzo in this role to match her romantic partner who must be a leggiero tenor. I was close enough to see how hard she was working. I didn't hear her sing Carmen this past summer in the Brott Festival but I suspect she was more comfortable in that role. One day she may sing Massenet's Charlotte.
   Edgar Ernesto Ramirez was an outstanding Lindoro/Almaviva. He possesses the right voice and his has sufficient colour and is even to the very top. He can also act. He is a singer who may achieve the big, international career.
   Giles Tomkins sang the duplicitous Don Basilio and Wendy Hatala Foley the frustrated maid Berta.
   None of this is to say that the singing wasn't good. It was uniformly good. But vocal and physical fatigue, allergies, colds; almost anything can mess with an opera singer's voice no matter how well worked out is his technique. In a house with some ring and at some distance from the stage the tiny faults are evened out. Last night I saw and heard everything and I don't think the intimacy of the drama was worth the closeness to the vocal performances.
   I  am, however, looking forward to Il Trovatore in the spring. A Rossini farce is one thing. A small cast and chorus, one set. A Verdi warhorse is quite another. It requires a bigger orchestra, four dramatic singers and many more choristers. Think "The Anvil Chorus" and "Di quella pira" I can't wait to see, maybe from Row B, how they bring it off.

Opera Hamilton

Il Trovatore

Luc Robert         Manrico
Joni Henderson  Leonora
Emilia Boteva    Azucena
James Westman  Conte di Luna

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Symphony Hamilton on May 29

Symphony Hamilton have played their last concert at the auditorium of the Royal Botanical Gardens. I am a member of the RBG and it is a treasured institution. I've even performed in their auditorium with my school choir but the space is awkward for a group as big as Symphony Hamilton and the acoustics are difficult. The orchestra will be better served in their new home.
The orchestra will perform next year in the brand new Burlington Centre for the Performing Arts. They open with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and follow with an ambitious season the details of which are available at their web site.
On this occasion they began with the Imperial March from Star Wars by John Williams. I'm a big fan of John Williams and am generally interested in film music. As a curtain raiser this piece did its job and the orchestra gave an adequate reading. It doesn't work very well as a stand alone concert piece and I'd rather have heard the Star Wars theme, as familiar as it is.
They followed with performances by their Young Artists' Competition Winners. Adam Despinic played beautifully the first movement of Marian Mozetich's Affairs of the Heart for Violin and Orchestra. The piece is a successful blend of musical romanticism and minimalism. I'd be interested to hear more of this composer's music.
Next, Bogdan Chetraru played the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. He's in Grade 10 at Westdale Collegiate which makes him 15 or 16. He plays with great spirit and determination and it was a joy to watch a young virtuoso in the making.
The first half closed with Three Piece's from Schindler's List played with appropriate sensitivity by the orchestra's Concert Master, Corey Gemmell. I supposed there are those who object to the kind of emotional manipulation that is integral to this music, tied to the film for which it was written. Even so, I find the main theme touching and sincere, surely a remarkable achievement by John Williams, especially since it is so different from his other scores.
The concert closed with a spirited reading of the Dvorak Eighth Symphony. I came away with the main theme of the last movement stuck in my head. Particular kudos to First Flute Laurel Trainor who was very busy indeed and played so well, and to Graham Young who played the exposed opening of the last movement flawlessly.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Orfeo ed Euridice at the COC

     I attended the Dress Rehearsal of Orfeo ed Euridice as a guest of the COC. I've since read two glowing reviews of performances (in The Star and The Spec) and would like to take this opportunity to respond to their opinions of Robert Carsen's concept and production.
     I will not say anything about the solo singing as I attended a rehearsal. Singers are free to "mark" during rehearsals. They may choose not to sing out, to spontaneously transpose passages or even omit singing bits, all in order to save their voice.
     All three acts were played on the same barren moonscape. There is a grave which opened and closed. A ramp leads from in front of the plain scrim to the raked stage. Otherwise, there is no scenery. Singers are dressed in "modern" garb, all in black (white shirts for the men). The dead in Hades are in white shrouds. All visual variety was a result of the movement of the singers on the stage and lighting effects. Singers were often back-lit making it difficult to see their facial expressions.
     The idea is that Gluck, the composer, had simplified the style of the opera in reaction to the excesses of opera at the time. Carlsen has simplified the visual presentation in response to Gluck's music. The problem is that it's all contextual. Modern opera goers have not been immersed in the extremes of Rococo stage presentations so the raison d'etre for all of this must be explained to them in notes for it to have any meaning. It's like some serial music which, its advocates might explain, doesn't sound like much but is really interesting when you analyze the score.
     Orpheus sings to the dead in Hades and they are persuaded to transport him to Elysium. Elysium is supposed to be a delightful place, and Orpheus describes it as such. In this production, Hades and Elysium look exactly the same. Without an understanding of the concept this is counter-intuitive, and even then, I think it shortchanges the audience.
     The result is, from a visual point of view, a rather dull night at the opera.
     Next season the COC presents Iphegenia in Tauris, also by Gluck, with Susan Graham in the title role. Carlsen directs again. I wonder whether this production will be more visually interesting than was Orfeo.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ariadne auf COC

I encourage any of my readers who have the opportunity to attend a performance in the current run of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Four Seasons Centre. It really is a wonderful opera, if not Strauss's best (he did write 16, about 10 of which, by my reckoning, are still performed).
I had expected to hear two of the reigning Canadian opera divas and was crestfallen when I learned that Adrianne Pieczonda was indisposed. American soprano Amber Wagner filled in admirably. She has a beautiful full spinto voice and also understudied Aida at the COC this season.
It was announced that Jane Archibald had a "chest infection" but would go on anyway. It certainly didn't impede her performance much, if at all. Zerbinetta's music is extraordinarily florid (and very high, I noticed a couple of Es in the score). Archibald seemed to under-sing some of the time, but the highest, flashiest bits were full sung out. She performed all of this in the midst of very busy, almost gymnastic, staging.
The real star of the show was British mezzo Alice Coote. Hers is seamless mezzo soprano voice with glorious, really thrilling, top notes.
Among the men, John Easterlin was the standout. He has a shining tenor voice and dealt capably with the very high testitura of the roles of the Dancing Master and Brighella. The dancing and singing of the four male Commédia players (Easterlin with Peter Barrett, Michael Uloff and Christopher Enns) was precise and very entertaining.
American veteran baritone Richard Stillwell sang the Music Master and Richard Margison the roles of the Tenor and Bacchus.
Simone Osbourne, Lauren Segal and Teiya Kasahara (all past or present COC Ensemble members) did some lovely ensemble singing as the Nymphs on Ariadne's wrecked stage of a desert island.
The COC orchestra, under Andrew Davis was simply marvelous. I must mention the outstanding playing of principal clarinetist James T. Shields.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hamilton Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra with Miriam Khalil

 I attended a Hamilton Philharmonic concert Sat. April 9. Maestro Jamie Sommerville conducted a chamber ensemble of about 18 first desk players in a very satisfying and adventurous program featuring soprano Miriam Khalil. She seems to be headed for the "big career" possessing a beautiful (already) full lyric soprano voice, acting and interpretative ability, musicianship and physical presence. She sang Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glyneboure and performed Mimi in Opera Hamilton's La Bohème (Musetta in Edmonton).
They opened with a lovely reading of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll which included some nice passages by Concertmaster Lance Elbeck.
Omar Daniel's Neruda Canciones followed. Dr. Omar is the director of the Composition, Electroacoustic Research and Performance Facility at the University of Western Ontario. He writes, as one would expect, "academic new music," and I liked the piece rather more than I had expected. Basing my opinion only on this piece, he is a fine composer, imaginative, working with facility and in great detail. The textures are varied and not unrelievedly contrapuntal. However, less sophisticated listeners, unfamiliar with the style, will always find this sort of music difficult.
Miriam Khalil brought the piece to life. I don't know how much new music she has performed but she certainly had no difficulty with this work. The vocal part is demanding covering spoken text, melodic passages and declamation (also tambourine playing!). She vocalized equally adeptly in all the registers of her voice and with evenness of colour. Dr. Daniel wrote long passages that demand dramatic singing and Khalil sang them with controlled intensity.
I had expected more of the same kind of music from Osvaldo Gollijov in the piece which followed the intermission, ZZ's Dream. I was pleasantly surprised. The work, based on a scene from on old Chinese epic, was reminiscent of French music of the early 20th. C. It was sensuous and sonorous, full of delicate colours evoking the "fairy tale" nature of its program.
They closed with an arrangement of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. I'd forgotten how intimate are many of Mahler's songs. They lend themselves to this treatment as the piano often plays independent lines in counterpoint to the voice. Khalil acted the songs with her voice and expression, as one must do in interpreting art song. In the last song, Mitternacht, she sang out the final heroic stanzas, hinting at what her voice might become over time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Electronics and Live Performance

     I attended another  concert in the Sundays at Three Lenten series at Central Presbyterian Sunday afternoon. The performers were flautist Sara Traficante and 'cellist Kirk Starkey. They began with Guillaume de Machaut (14th C., as you will remember your 1st year music history survey), included some Baroque and Romantic era pieces, Villa Lobos (this one from about 1950) and some New Music including one of Kirk's own compositions. The performances were very adept and the Hamilton audience rewarded the performers with a Standing O. That's not what this posting is about, however.

     Kirk played a movement from his piece "Four Quartets". It is for solo 'cello and live electronics. There's a contact mike on the 'cello and the sound is run through a computer which has been programmed to process the sound and then amplify it through a sound system. The sounds that you hear are either the sound of the live 'cello or those same sounds simultaneously modified by the technology. I am fascinated by all of this and really enjoyed the piece. 

     Innovative pieces like Kirk's aren't the only way that live performance and electronics are combined though. Here are some questions to think about. They certainly challenge me.

     Where, exactly, do we draw the line between legitimate artist endeavour and expediency? Indeed, is it necessary to draw such a line at all?

     I've long puzzled over the relationship between electronic media (in whatever form) and acoustic performers. What, for example, do you make of performances of Broadway shows to a prerecorded band? If you pay money to see such a thing (and were expecting live accompaniment), are you being cheated? The composer certainly intended that the people singing on stage would be accompanied by a live band. I don't even like to hear school choirs sing with prerecorded CDs (although the result can be hysterically entertaining when the choir can't hear the accompaniment.)

     For a time in the last century Musique concrète was in vogue. Composers recorded real sounds and then chopped up the tape and manipulated the sounds to make their pieces. The most famous example is Hugh LeCaine's Dripsody.  How is what they did then different from what anyone can do now using a keyboard to trigger digital samples and bussing them out to an array of effects?

     For a long time, legitimate composers prepared electronic tapes with which live musicians performed. Now this material is recorded to CDs and the performers "play along." How is this different from Music Minus One?
     Artistic intent, originality and competence are the obvious answers. Composers have always striven to incorporate current technology in their pieces and to achieve new musical effects. Sampling passages of somebody else's piece and incorporating them into yours is merely expediency and borders on plagiarism. If, however, the composer is trying to achieve sounds and effect hitherto unheard, let him go for it, and hope the public is engaged. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

New Music in Recital Programs

I attended, yesterday afternoon, a program in the Sundays at Three Series at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. Flautist David Gerry was accompanied by the church's Music Director Paul Grimwood in a short but diverse program. This series has been ongoing during the Lenten Season for at least 25 years and offers audiences the opportunity to hear a variety of music, most of it for a Free Will Offering. (as an aside, the choir and orchestra are performing Howard Goodall's Eternal Light on Good Friday, April 22, at 8:00 P.M.)
They played a Quantz sonata and three Fauré Mélodies transcribed for flute. The other two pieces, Eve Beglarian's I will not be sad in this world and Sonny Chua's Menagerie, were both written within the last 11 years. I applaud Mr. Gerry for devoting half of his program to contemporary music. He is, and has been for years, one of this region's most prolific performers of New Music both as a soloist and collaborative musician.
One of the standard techniques in assembling a recital is to choose music representing various stylistic periods. One frequently attends recitals (Graduation Recitals being a perfect example) in which the most recent music was written sometime before the Second World War.  Surely performers ought to be making  an effort to program newer music than that and, as Mr. Gerry so skillfully demonstrated, it doesn't have to stretch the audience's listening skills to the point where they aren't engaged by the performance.
The Beglarian piece Mr. Gerry played on bass flute, accompanied by electronics (records of Ms. Beglarian herself singing and chanting). It's source material is an Armenian folksong. It is a quiet and atmospheric soundscape and provided an interesting contrast to the Fauré songs.
Sonny Chua's Menagerie, a suite of short pieces for flute and piano is, by any measure, conventional music: tonal and melodic. The pieces are charming, if a little similar one to the other, and utterly unlike the work which preceded them. It is, however, New Music, in the sense that it was recently composed.
I encourage performers to include new pieces in their recital programs, especially when these pieces stretch their abilities to include sounds and ideas that are outside their usual musical world. As for Graduation Recitals, it is as much the responsibility of the recitalist's teacher as that of the student her/himself to ensure that the student is learning and performing music which is composed by contemporary composers and important ones from the recent past.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Symphony Hamilton and the Live Music Conundrum

Sunday afternoon I heard Symphony Hamilton: Symphony on the Bay play an all Beethoven program under their conductor James McKay, recently retired Head of Performance at my Alma Mater, the University of Western Ontario. The orchestra played the Leonora Overture #3 and the 3rd Symphony, and Leslie Kinton joined them for the 5th Piano Concerto  Mr. Kinton played with accuracy and enthusiasm.
Whatever the calibre of the orchestra's performance, the auditorium of the Royal Botanical Gardens has rather poor acoustics and I was stunned recently that the Bach-Elgar Choir is performing there as well.

This orchestra has ended up there ("there" being Burlington, Aldershot actually) because:
 -it has been unable to find an affordable and appropriate venue in Hamilton
 -the new Burlington Arts Centre is to open in the fall of 2011 and they hope to perform there

The orchestra had previously played in churches in Hamilton and, for a while, in the Studio Theatre of Hamilton Place. Hamilton Place is so expensive to rent that even Opera Hamilton has abandoned it and will perform next season in the 1200 seat Theatre Aquarius.

In any event, the orchestra is in dire financial straits, and declared as much in a message from their Acting President in the program. They point out that only about 30% of their costs are achieved through ticket sales (the RBG auditorium was packed, and has been for every concert I've ever attended there.)
They need government or corporate support or donations from their patrons who are already paying $28 to hear a mostly amateur orchestra.

The Bach-Elgar Choir underwent a similar crisis some years ago and has never completely recovered.
What is to be done?

I must confess that I have not a clue. For years even professional musicians have subsidized the arts organizations for whom they perform by accepting scandalously low payment for high quality work. I remember being asked (and agreeing through my union) to be paid about $15 per show for radio broadcasts of performances which were played on the CBC and, ultimately, on public radio stations around the world all as a means of promoting the arts organization for whom I was working.

The place of live performance (and recordings) in the world has changed, and is changing. It's a sad commentary that the public, who by and large don't attend live performances, may end up with nothing of value to listen to.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Other Solo Songs with Piano

  • A Daughter of Eve: 2004: Soprano (Mezzo) and Piano: Christina Rossetti: 10 min.
  • Three Swinburne Songs: 1998: Soprano and Piano: C.A. Swinburne: 8 min.
  • Five Ceremonies for Christmas: 1995-1997: Soprano (Tenor) and Piano, Robert Herrick, 10 min. 30 sec.
  • Three Nocturnes: Soprano and Piano: 1994: Shelley, Drayton, Tennyson: 6 min.
I should say, to begin, that all of the songs in this posting were premiered by my wife and muse, Elise Bédard, whose counsel and support in all things have been invaluable to me

A Daughter of Eve follows the Swinburne songs and is, in part a reaction to them. The Three Swinburne Songs are big, romantic and dramatic in response to Swinburne's virtuosic poetry. He was an iconoclast of the first order, shocking the Victorian world with the subject matter of some of his poems. Three Swinburne Songs require of the singer sustained dramatic singing and theatrical lyricism.  
A Daughter of Eve, on the other hand, is written on an intimate scale although it ends with the ecstatic Birthday. Christina Rossetti's poetry is heartbreaking but strangely reserved, hardly surprising when one remembers her story. She was the sister of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She fell in love, was jilted, then lived out the rest of her as a kind of nun. The five songs of A Daughter of Eve would be perfect recital material for an accomplished young soprano or mezzo.

It is difficult to find repertoire to sing as a soloist in the Holiday Season, especially with piano. Five Ceremonies for Christmas were written to fill this need. Two of the Five Ceremonies for Christmas are religious. The other three are Herrick's remarkable poetic descriptions of ancient English Christmas traditions (the yule log, the pea and the bean, taking down decorations etc.) The songs are sometimes humorous and sometimes pious. I wrote Oh, Little Child as a stand alone song and it was so well received that I found the texts for four other songs to make a set. 

When I first resolved to begin composing "in a serious way" there was no doubt in my mind that Art Song would be my initial medium. I had numerous false starts that found their way into the trash. I finally got a handle on what I was doing and The Three Nocturnes are the result. I chose these three out of several that I was working on to make a set for Elise to sing at McMaster. She asked me to chose the best ones, and these were them. The rest I discarded.  I think, even now, that they are lovely little songs. Of Sweet and Low I am still particularly fond and it will make its way into a suite which I am arranging for orchestra.

All these songs are available, most in high and medium keys. Please contact me at at this address.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Recent Solo Songs with Piano

  • Six Zen Lyrics: 2009: Soprano (Mezzo) and Piano: texts adapted by the composer: 8 min. 30 sec.
  • Invictus:  Five Henley Songs: 2006-2008: Voice and Piano: texts by William Ernest Henley: 13 min. 30 sec.
  • Five Snow Songs: 2007: Voice and Piano: texts by Archibald Lampman: 14 min.
Six Zen Lyrics will be premiered in March by soprano Lucy Bledig (for whom they were written) with Erika Reiman, piano. I adapted the texts from translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poets. The original form of these poems was lost in the translation, translators begin more concerned with rendering the sense of the poems. I worked with them, substituting words and turning them about, until I had words that I could set to music. They're short, the shortest about 75 secs. I have already transposed them for mezzo soprano. There's no reason a man couldn't sing them, though. 

Henley was a modern poet writing in Victorian times when most English poetry still sounded thoroughly Jacobean. Invictus is rightly famous and the other poems set here stand up to it. As always, I strove through varied musical styles to portray the moods of the poems.  Madame Life has echos of the music hall. The Wind and the Rain and Between the Dusk comment in different ways upon the human condition with very different musical means. I am the Reaper is a towering declaration of Divine power. Somebody with a dramatic bent could bring down the house with these songs. 

Five Snow Songs have been recorded by a baritone, Reid Spencer, were written for and premiered by a tenor, David Holler and have been performed by a mezzo, Petra Pacaric. Again, I have endeavored to portray the five different moods and evocations of the Canadian woodland winter that Lampman loved. They range from introspection to joyous declaration, engaging singer, pianist and public.

Al of these songs are available in high and medium keys. Please contact me at at this address.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Music for Treble Voices (Children's Choir)

Keep Positive: 2006: Children's Choir, mostly unison (two parts never sing at the same time): 2 Min.
And There Were in the Same Country: 2005: Treble voices, unison, then a 3 pt. canon: 3min. 30 sec.

Keep Positive is on a text I adapted from a famous Gandhi quote. We performed it a couple of dozen times with my school choir. It's inspirational and a crowd pleaser. I conducted it at a massed choir at a Martin Luther King Day show at Hamilton Place 3 years ago.
Performing Keep Positive at Hamilton Place

And There Were in the Same Country is Luke 2, 8-14 in the Revised Standard Edition. It is introduced by a metrically ambiguous piano figuration which continues once the voices enter and, eventually, supports the melody. The vocal line is a kind of unison accompanied recitative. When you first look at it, it's hard to imagine that younger choristers (8 or 9 year olds) could possibly learn it but I've taught it to my choir 3 times and they do learn it and, once they have it, they love singing it. At "Glory to God in the Highest" it breaks up into a 3 part canon and ends with the choristers chanting the text in close harmony. This piece could be also be effectively performed by a Women's Choir.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Works for Mixed Choir

Three Marian Carols: 2010: SATB, Piano: 6 min. 30 seconds
Missa Brevis: 2008: SATB, 3 drummers: 13 min.
Magnificat: 2006: Soprano Solo, SSATB: 8  min.
For the Fallen: 2006: Solo Voice, SATB, Organ: 3 min. 30 sec.
Five Flower Songs: 2003: SSATBB: 13 min.

Three Marian Carols will be premiered by the Mohawk Community Singers in Hamilton in the weeks before Christmas 2011. They are strophic and not as challenging as some of my other choral music.

The Missa Brevis was commissioned by the McMaster Choir and they sang the premiere. It has subsequently been performed by the Scarborough College, University of Toronto Choir. It is a setting of the Prayer Book text in English. The drummers lend a rhythmic element to the piece and this appeals to younger singers. There was also an educational motive in setting these traditional words, as many university choristers are active Christians who know little of the liturgy and history of their religion. A recording of three of its movements are available (accompanied by pretty pictures) further down in this posting.

The Magnificat was also commissioned by the McMaster Choir.  This is also an English Prayer Book setting. The text is, of course, Mary's response to the angel when she learns she is to be the Mother of God. The soprano soloist represents the voice of Mary. There is also a recording of this piece later in this posting.

For the Fallen is a setting of one verse from the famous Laurence Binyon poem. It would be appropriate repertoire for most church choirs for Remembrance (Memorial) Day.

I spent a substantial portion of my performance career as a professional chorister. This didn't lead me to begin to compose in a serious way by writing choral music, however, because I had decided early on to avoid writing pieces "on spec" and I didn't have an on-going relationship with a choral conductor. Composing music is far too demanding of time and energy (especially since I have been able to devote so little time to it) to write things without a promise of performance. I did eventually write Five Flower Songs with no immediate prospect having them performed. Jon Washburn and the Vancouver Chamber Choir workshopped them and Jon thought they were too hard for all but the most expert choristers.  They were written with a really good chamber choir in mind and were inspired by music (by Hindemith, Poulenc, Britten et al) I sang as a Tudor Singer many years ago. Nobody has, yet, had the juice to program them.

Kyrie from the Missa Brevis

Sanctus from the Missa Brevis
Agnus Dei from the Missa Brevis