This past August, J. Mark Scearce was awarded this year’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Composition at the University of Connecticut. I have known Mark since we were at Indiana University in the mid 1980s. Since then I have commissioned him four times while music director of Orchestra Nashville. He also served as our composer-in-residence for two seasons and we recorded his evocative elegy, Endymion’s Sleep.
Needless to say, I’m a fan, and so it was with special joy and shared pride that I received the news of this new recognition of Mark’s work. But I was especially delighted when I learned that the score he had submitted for consideration by the Sackler Award committee was one of my commissions: This Thread, for solo mezzo, solo violin, and orchestra. The story of the premiere of This Thread is one that I hope will lead to more performances of this work and will serve to inspire ideas for how orchestras can successfully present new music.
This Thread sets the text of Toni Morrison’s poem, The Dead of September 11. The poem is, to say the least, a powerful response to that tragedy. At the time, Mark was preparing to come on as our composer-in-residence, and when he first suggested he set The Dead of September 11 as one of his two residency commissions I was a bit wary of the challenge of programming a work of that nature. But his passion for the project led me to let go of my fears and I decided that the inspiration for how to present it would come after I saw the finished work.
This Thread is a single movement work that begins with unaccompanied solo violin presenting the principle theme masterfully written in double stops. After being joined by the orchestra to conclude the introduction, the mezzo enters and the two soloists continue to exchange the spotlight throughout the work, occasionally coming together but most often in their own space. This Thread is episodic, with a compelling ebb and flow that is beautifully shaped to serve Morrison’s text. The opening theme returns throughout the work with a growing and relentless intensity, and after an exhaustive 20 minutes, This Thread concludes with five solo strikes of the chime, symbolizing the historic tradition of the five firehouse bell strikes that were used to summon the firemen to their station.
The final work was, as expected, intense and emotionally challenging. Beyond that, I felt Mark had captured the essence of Morrison’s words in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. Mezzo soprano soloist Marietta Simpson summed it up nicely to me in a message after the performance, saying “The blending of the solo violin, solo voice and orchestra felt to me that we represented the different parts of creation joining together to lament this great tragedy caused by hatred, while looking forward to the day when we can discover and respect the ways in which we are all the same.”
When we realized that September 11th would fall on a Saturday in the coming season, we slated it for the season opener. I knew the sensitive topic would challenge audiences from many perspectives, and to open the season with it added extra pressure. Additionally, the text is not easily absorbed in one reading, let alone while listening to it for the first time being sung with orchestral accompaniment. The solution I settled on was to find a way to integrate Morrison’s text into the program prior to the audiences’ first hearing of Mark’s piece.
We had been developing relationships with the gospel music community in Nashville and had already had one concert that featured a gospel choir. As I searched for the right mix of music to help us enter into Morrison’s text, I felt that the unique energy and passion we had experienced in performance with our new gospel choir could help us celebrate the power of the human spirit for an ultimately uplifting experience.
With a narrator reciting Morrison’s poem in sections throughout the first half, I chose gospel selections that responded to the text—the text that would be heard again in the second half as This Thread. Deborah Roberts, from ABC’s 20/20 program narrated one evening, and Anne Holt, from Nashville’s Channel 2 News on the other. We featured eight gospel vocal soloists on the first half, with the music flowing between the narrations. And I began the program by speaking to the audience with a brief set-up of what was in store for the evening. (Click here to read the full program.)
By the time we began This Thread, the audience had been immersed in Morrison’s text on the first half and prepared to receive the powerful performance of the orchestra with mezzo soloist Marietta Simpson and violin soloist Christian Teal. The audience responded to This Thread first with stunned awe over its sheer power, and then with wild celebration over the success of the performance and Mark’s achievement at setting Morrison’s text so beautifully and reverently. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the gospel selections on the first half against the classical intensity of the second half combined to create an unexpected synergy that carried the day.
In the expanding dialogue about the future of classical music, and especially new music’s role in attracting and nurturing audiences, I firmly believe that the music we call “classical” can best be advanced with a creative mix of new and traditional works, in whatever style best fits the occasion. This Thread, as the Sackler Prize committee recognized, is an important work by a gifted composer who found a way to bring a voice to the memories of those tragically taken from us before their time. As orchestras search for meaningful ways to use new music to connect with their audiences, certainly This Thread should be considered.
Paul Gambill has thus far commissioned 45 works for orchestra from American composers, several of which can be heard on his recordings for the Warner Brothers, Naxos, Angel, Albany, Compass, and Alabaster labels. He is music director of the Nashville Ballet and was the founder and music director of Orchestra Nashville for 19 years. He was recently appointed music director of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra in Vermont.