Commissioning Choral Works

Looking out into the choral world, there’s a lot of commissioning going on. When conductor Cynthia Powell and I started Melodia Women’s Choir nine years ago, we knew we wanted to commission composers to create new work for the group. Since we were both new to commissioning, however, we had a lot of questions. How much time does a composer need? Is it reasonable to request sample movements before delivery of the final piece? How do you work with a composer on text selections? These are issues we grappled with as we sought a way to balance the composer’s need for creative freedom with our need for a piece that was a good fit for the ensemble and its audience.

Harold Rosenbaum, artistic director of the New York Virtuoso Signers, believes that planning ahead is the key. New York Virtuoso Singers, an ensemble of top notch professional singers, has commissioned more than 50 new works over the years. Rosenbaum says he has performed everything that has been composed for the group, adding that he usually has a conversation with the composer about text but leaves the final selection to the composer. According to Rosenbaum, most of the commissioned composers have heard the group perform and are familiar with the level of performance and the complexity of work they present.

Before embarking on Melodia’s first commission, we spent some time developing a process that combines experience such as Rosenbaum’s with best practices from my prior work in commissioning playwrights for theatre in England. This process has worked consistently well for us. There are several aspects to our approach. The first is that we commit significant time and resources to finding the right composer for a specific project. A comprehensive contract outlines delivery deadlines, payment schedule, ownership, and rights. It provides a clear framework for the project and an early opportunity to iron out any wrinkles. A timeframe of 18 months to 2 years for the development of the piece and the submission of sample movements works well for us. We invite the composer to an early choir rehearsal, an instrument rehearsal without the choir, and both full dress rehearsals.

With each composer, text selection has been part of the conversation from the start and most have asked for suggestions. Some have asked for help obtaining permission from poets or publishers. Composer Chris Lastovicka had selected poems by U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Kay Ryan but was not able to get a response from the publisher. Lastovicka noticed that Ryan was hosting a poetry event in New York City so we bought tickets and went along. At a reception afterwards, we gently ambushed the poet and explained that Lastovicka wanted to set her poems but needed her permission. Ryan told Lastovicka on the spot that she would be “honored and delighted” and gave her a working e-mail address to confirm the deal.

One area that we are sometimes uncertain about is whether it is acceptable to give specific suggestions about a music adjustment based on something we have encountered in rehearsal. For example, in one commissioned piece, the range was especially low in one section and the lower voices were struggling to get a strong, clear tone. Since it was an a cappella piece, we asked the composer if we could sing the whole piece a semi-tone higher. The overall sound was much stronger and the composer was fine with the change.

What makes for a successful collaboration for you? Depending on your perspective, how much interaction do you like to have with the composer or commissioning group?

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