I was recently browsing through some of my old choral scores, looking to see if there were any I could recycle to make room for new material, when a score spilled out of the pile marked “college choir.” It was Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. Happy memories of grappling with this difficult score as a young student in England flooded in.
Despite the constant New York apartment dilemma of what to keep and what to toss, I know I’m not going to dump this one. I’ve been carrying it around for almost three decades, through eight moves and a relocation from England to the U.S. Why would I part with it now? I start to wonder what would be in the “college choir” stack of scores of the students currently singing in U.S. colleges. What are they singing and why?
A few days later, I get a chance to put this question to conductor Patrick Gardner, director of choral activities at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, conductor of the Kirkpatrick Choir and of the Glee Club. He tells me that he strives to create a balanced program that allows students to experience both contemporary music and the major classical choral works. Including American music in the mix has been fundamental to all his work as a conductor and educator.
Gardner is particularly drawn to repertoire by composers who write in all idioms. Lou Harrison is a composer whose work he admires greatly. He has conducted numerous performances of La Koro Sutro, for mixed chorus and American gamelan, and hopes this will have a lasting resonance for singers. Other contemporary composers Gardner includes in his college programs are Jennifer Higdon (whom he has commissioned twice), David Gompper, William Schumann, and William Bolcom, whose 20-minute work The Miracle for male choir, woodwind quintet, and percussion he commissioned in 1999. Lewis Spratlan’s new commissioned work will be premiered later this year. Vocal work by Meredith Monk, William Albright, and Tania León also resonate for Gardner.
My next chance to find out more is with conductor Kristina Boerger, who is currently director of choral activities at Carrol University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Boerger includes contemporary American work in all her programs, adding that “my ears are hungry for the sounds from all ages.” She believes that her students need to know that the “choral art is a living one,” and that living composers need to be supported. Some examples of composers she has included during the past two years are Julie Dolphin, Elliot Z. Levine, Frank Ferko, Matthew Harris, J. David Moore, and Eric Whitacre. Qualities that Boerger looks for in choral music might include harmonic interest, characteristically vocal lyricism, contrapuntal interest, tightness of construction, and the evocative power of text.
I’m curious to know more about what students are working on in the women’s choral field–my particular passion. My inquiries lead me to Scott Tucker, director of choral music at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Tucker championed a commissioning project in 2003 which aims to expand the contemporary repertoire for women’s choirs. Among those commissioned have been David Conte, Libby Larsen, Abbie Betinis, Augusta Read Thomas, Carol Barnett, and Edie Hill.
I’d love to know what choral music takes you back to student experiences and why?