Sunday, December 13, 2009

Composing for the Cherry Creek Meistersingers

Hello readers, its Tim here. Paul and I were talking about my day last Wednesday, and he thought it would make a good blog post. So here goes.

Last spring, Sarah Harrison, who directs the Meistersingers at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado, asked me to write a piece for her choir this year. She said that the subject matter (text, poem, story, etc.) for the piece was wide open, and wanted me to give her a couple options. I think I gave her three. I can’t remember two of those, which is fine, because it’s the one we picked that counts, right? She ran the ideas by her singers, and they really liked the idea of setting Pliny the Younger’s description of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 82 AD. I had been excited about this idea for a while and was thrilled that I’d finally get a chance to write a piece about it. They would premiere the piece in the fall and also sing it on their program at the Colorado Music Educators’ Association in January.

The premier went well in October, and Sarah was able to provide me with a recording of the performance. Now usually, I would have had a chance to go in before the premier and work with the choir and make sure that tempos are correct, check that the interpretation is similar to what I had in mind, and get the singers excited about the piece. Between the Cantus fall touring schedule and me being a fairly new Dad and wanting to be home, I really couldn’t find the time. So we did most of that via email and rehearsal recordings.

Normally at this point in the story I’d be done. Once the premier is over, that’s usually the composer’s cue to walk away and start promoting the piece to other groups. But with the CMEA performance still ahead, we still wanted to try and do some of the face-to-face time even after the choir already had the piece under their belts. Last Wednesday, Cantus had a day and a half off in Denver, and I was able to use the time to visit Cherry Creek High School and work with the choir. Notes down, words pronounced correctly and rhythms tight, we could dig a bit deeper during my time with them.

To prepare for my visit, I sat down with the recording of the Meistersingers’ premier performance and thought about some small revisions and changes to the score. Also, with a recording, I’m never sure if what I’m hearing just happened that one night, or if it was consistent in how they sing the piece. For instance if I had a hard time hearing the tenors in two bars, does it always sound like that? Were they nervous that night? Did three singers decide to take a breath at the same time? In the room with them last Wednesday, I was able to hear them work live. We worked on balance between sections, bringing out important note changes, and following an important line as it moves from the sopranos to the tenors, down to the basses for a half measure, and then back to the sopranos and altos as a duet.

We also talked a little about technical aspects of singing. I worked with the tenors on mixing the lower chest part of their register with the lighter color of their upper register. I worked with the sopranos on starting a phrase at the top of their range but not letting it sound like it’s hard work (this is something Cantus works on too).

At the end of the day some of the new ideas I had when I walked into the room were good changes to the score, and some of them didn’t work as well. But what a pleasure it was to work with a talented group of young musicians who are so responsive to ideas and suggestions. They made me an honorary Meistersinger and gave me a Cherry Creek shirt. What a great day!

Nubes Oriebatur: the eruption of Vesuvius

A cloud was ascending. (There had been noticed for many days before a trembling of the earth.)

A cloud was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree. For it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into branches of a sort; Because, I believe, it was occasioned by a sudden gust of air that impelled it.

A black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger. It was sometimes clear and bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according to whether it had picked up earth or cinders.

Soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea; The ashes now began to fall upon us, though it was still sparse.

Soon the real day returned, and even the sun shone out. Every object that presented itself to our faltering eyes seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow.

- Pliny the Younger, Letters to Tacitus, 61-112 AD

- Adapted by Timothy C. Takach.

- Translated by William Melmoth, with revisions by Anne Groton

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