Connecting Composers and Conductors Via Singers

Soon after I started Melodia Women’s Choir with conductor Cynthia Powell, one of the singers brought a mixtape of music she sang in other choirs that she wanted us to hear. Around the same time, a composer and singer who was then in the group, Bora Yoon, brought her iPod to rehearsal and played a piece that she wanted to arrange for us. The idea of singers generating ideas for concerts was new to me. Certainly as a young singer in England I would never have thought of bringing suggestions to conductors because of a clear hierarchy in the choral structure. In New York, it’s not unusual for singers to be involved in selecting repertoire. Singers often gain an appreciation of their conductor’s sensibilities and taste and are perfectly poised to suggest work they’ve experienced or created. I now realize that this can create exciting opportunities for composer outreach.

Conductor Jesse Mark Peckham, artistic director of Khorikos (an a cappella ensemble in New York City that performs classical and contemporary work), said that he’s very open to receiving work brought to him by members of Khorikos. He added that “there are multiple composers that sing in the ensemble who write for the group from time to time. The ensemble performed one of Eliza Watson’s compositions at the most recent concert and will soon be looking at a new work by Alec Galambos, both talented singers in the group.”

My colleague Cynthia Powell agrees that singers have been vital in seeking out ideas and looking for new material that is a good fit for her choirs. A singer in one choir attended a choral concert in a church in her neighborhood and heard Jonathan Dove’s “Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars.” The singer liked it so much she found a recording and sent it to Powell. Powell was moved by the piece and included it in the choir’s next concert and has programmed another piece of Dove’s, “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” in a concert later this year.

One of the pieces featured as part of Melodia’s next concert is by New York-based composer and vocalist Catherine Aks. Powell met Aks a number of years ago when she subbed as a soprano in Powell’s church choir. Powell said, “I had heard of Cathy through the choral grapevine—she has a reputation as a consummate musician. She teaches voice, composes, and performs for choral concerts by many of the best choirs.” When they connected again a couple of years ago, Aks passed along two of her own works for consideration by Melodia. Powell reviewed them this summer when she was planning the season’s concerts and decided that her setting of “The Journey” from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” would be a perfect companion to Amy Beach’s “Chambered Nautilus,” the centerpiece of a program with a theme of growth and change.

In an atmosphere of open dialogue, singers can be a golden pathway for composers interested in getting their choral works performed. For composers who are also singers, there’s a special opportunity to create connections for performances of their work.

As a choral singer, have you ever introduced new work to a chorus? As a composer, have you ever asked a singer to present a work to a choir?

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One thought on “Connecting Composers and Conductors Via Singers

  1. Scott

    I’ve gotten a fair amount of work in this way. I’m a composer primarily, but I also sing in choirs. I got my start writing choral music when I was in grad school, and my (incredibly excellent) choir’s conductor was looking for new repertoire on a specific theme. I went hope and sketched something out, and he really loved it. Since then, that conductor has commissioned about 10 works from me, including one huge commission for an evening-length a cappella dramatic work. He’s brought my work to other choirs he conducts, sent it to conductor colleagues, performed it at choral conferences… And it started with me, a singer in the choir, wanting to fill a hole in the program. I’ve had similar experiences elsewhere, in slightly different ways. I was the accompanist for the big Youth Choir organization in town for a while. The conductor knew I was also a composer, asked to see some of my stuff, and since then has commissioned me twice.

    In general, I think a lot of commissions work out this way, even not in choral situations. You work with someone, they learn that you’re a good musician, so they ask to see some of your work, and then if they like it, future commissions spring from there. Trust is already established, so a working relationship flows naturally from there.

    Reply

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