Ed. Note: We are very happy to welcome Jenny Clarke to our group of bloggers! She will be sharing her experiences and insight into the world of choral music with NewMusicBox readers every other Tuesday.—AG
Summer months bring a massive shift in the choral world. As the season closes, it’s not just the music that fades away. Gone are the protracted and intense rehearsal periods when conductors and singers seek perfection for their long-anticipated concerts. As a choral singer and the founder of a choir, I experience a change, even a loss, every year. Others tell me the same thing—and there are 2 million choral singers across the U.S.
Many singers want to continue to explore broad repertoire, including contemporary work and diverse composers during the summer months. Workshops, festivals, tours, and open “sings” with score read-throughs have emerged to fill the summer gap. But precious few of these activities explore the new American works that can be so exciting for choirs to perform. A quick scan through the summer sing and festival schedules confirms that most of the repertoire is standard classical masterworks.
That’s why this year has good news for adventurous choral singers heading to the Berkshire Choral Festival in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The summer choral experience there blends rehearsals with relaxation time and a final, often spectacular, concert. The program for the first week of this year’s festival, titled Sacred American Voices, featured three works by American composers and culminated with a concert on July 16. Conductor of Sacred American Voices, Katherine FitzGibbon, said, “the concert consists of American repertoire that mixes classical choral genres with playful American ‘vernacular’ music.” The program included Minnesota-based composer Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, a work premiered in 2007 by VocalEssence with bluegrass band Monroe Crossing, instantly embraced by choirs across America. Also featured were African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork’s Break Forth, a gospel-inspired work for chorus and orchestra and Leonard Bernstein’s much loved Chichester Psalms.
For choral audiences, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale is the perfect destination for a contemporary music fix. The five-week summer festival features 14 performances in four diverse programs, including works by 11 living American composers. Among the works performed is a world premiere by composer-in-residence Robert Kyr, a three-movement piece based on Walt Whitman’s Tides of Peace, which is being presented in The Spirit Soars program.
A series called Icons: Music By and About Celebrated Women features six pieces by contemporary American composers. Included are New York-based composer Tania León’s adaptation of the traditional Cuban song, El Manisero, incorporating the rhythms of salsa, and Judith Cloud’s I Hate Flowers on text by New Mexico artist Georgia O’Keeffe. This song is excerpted from Cloud’s larger work, Words from an Artist’s Palette, written for and premiered by the men of the Desert Chorale in 2007. Also featured is Southern Grace by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon, written for the Philadelphia Singers in 1998. San Francisco-based composer Mason Bates’s a cappella work Stelle, excerpted from the larger work Sirens is also included, as well as William Averitt’s Song for Billie Holliday, which honors the famous singer in a sultry jazz and blues-inflected homage. Works by James Syler, Shawn Crouch, and Frank Ferko and additional performances of Kyr’s Tides of Peace, will be heard in the Songs of War and Peace program. More information can be found at: www.desertchorale.org.
These programs suggest that summer singing activities can expand their horizons and plug more new American music into the mix—something that will not only please composers, but choral singers and audiences as well.
Jenny Clarke is a musician and arts administrator who has worked with performing arts organization in the US and Great Britain, including London Sinfonietta, Royal Festival Hall, and the Royal Court Theatre in London and Symphony Space, Dancing in the Streets, and American Music Center in New York. Clarke is the founder and executive director of Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC, recognized for its exceptionally high quality and broad repertoire, including numerous premieres, and is an active member of the NY Choral Consortium, an organization that supports and promotes New York City choral work. Clarke has a B.A. in music and English from Leeds University, England, and an M.A. in arts management from New York University.