Tag Archives: composition

Battle Chorale at the SF Conservatory

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Choral writing is the foundation of Western music, the genesis of counterpoint, and the basis for functional harmony as we know it. Writing for chorus (as well as singing in a chorus, regardless of vocal abilities) was a requirement for compositions students of Nadia Boulanger, (as well as in the European American Music Alliance program where I studied two years ago). It’s not surprising that David Conte, a student of Boulanger would continue this tradition in his own pedagogy with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in the form of a biennial choral composition competition. Last week was the ninth such competition with a total of 19 pieces vying for cash prize and bragging rights.

Each piece was performed by either the Conservatory Chorus Vocal Ensemble, the San Francisco Choral Artists, or the International Orange Chorale. (It wasn’t clear how the pieces were assigned to the ensembles, but it did seem like the more straightforward pieces went to the Conservatory Chorus). Before the performance, the composers would speak briefly about the piece, often explaining their choice of text and the ideas behind their settings.

I was surprised that for the vast majority of composers, this was their first time writing a choral piece. I would have expected that such a requirement would have come up earlier in their studies, especially considering the importance of choral writing in the western tradition. Choral pieces (and to an even greater extent, string quartets) are are a true test of a composer’s harmonic imagination, since the homogeneity of the voices robs the composer of the expended timbral palette of an orchestra to add color and interest. (This is less true in these days of extended vocal technique, as evidenced by Roomful of Teeth). All you’ve got to develop your ideas are the notes, without any flashy brass or blasts of percussion to hide behind.

The quality of the pieces, as one would expect, were varied. All of them showed a good sense of vocal writing and a decent ear for harmony. A few suffered from a lack of a direction, without strong gestures to grab the ear, orient the listener, and give a sense of departure, arrival, or development. Anne Polyakov’s treatment of Susan Griffin’s Summer Night showed a sensitivity to the text, the music nicely illustrating the images in the poems. It was fun to hear both Kyle Randall and Marko Bajzer with different approaches to the same text, Lorca’s Landscape, although Bajzer’s odd choice to end his setting with a lone alto singer intoning the final few words of the poem left the audience wondering if someone had perhaps made a mistake… perhaps someone had.

Jan Stoneman’s Kyrie eleison was the first piece of the evening to use extended techniques, with whispered text and pitch bending glissandi evoking a moving and otherworldly reverence. It, along with Nick Benavides wonderfully structured and harmonically imaginative setting of e.e. cummings i thank you God for most this amazing day, were the most arresting pieces of the evening. (Although I wish Benavides had done something more arresting with cummings’s explosive “yes” at the close of the first stanza). The judge’s tastes were well aligned with mine. They declared both Stoneman’s and Benavides’s works, along with Shase Hernandez’s setting of Walt Whitman’s As Adam Early in the Morning, in a three way tie for first place, the first time the prize was split evenly in the event’s history.

As the crowd pounced on the buffet table at the closing reception, there was some speculation around what the competition would look like in two years. The SF Conservatory is changing quickly. David H Stull has been the president for just under a year and has a strong vision for the future of the school. David Conte is becoming the chair of the composition department, stepping in for Dan Becker, and a replacement hasn’t yet been announced for Conrad Susa, who we lost last winter. But with Conte at the helm, and Ragnar Bohlin of the SF Symphony Chorus taking over conducting duties for the Conservatory Chorus, it seems certain that the choral tradition will remain integral to the program.



One Response to Battle Chorale at the SF Conservatory

  1. […] – Review of i thank You God for most this amazing day as performed by the International Orange Chorale in Music vs Theater by Brian Rosen: http://musicvstheater.com/2014/05/16/sfcmchoralcompetition/ […]

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Four Laughs Per Minute: What Music Can Learn From Comedy

In his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, premiered last week in its entirety by Cantori New York (and again this Saturday, May 10), composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle finishes each verse with a recapitulation of the refrain “Ierusalem, Ierusalem, conertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”. With each return, the treatment of this text becomes increasingly ecstatic,Continue Reading

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Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!

Time to put the game face on. It’s about to get real. I’m goin’ big or goin’ home. (Continue with the conspicuously out of place sports phrases at will.) Very proud to announce that the string quartet I composed in Paris this past summer as part of the EAMA program “Do A Little Dance” was selectedContinue Reading

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Why bother composing?

Jeffrey Parola sounds kinda bummed in his latest blog post. He outlines the all too familiar plight of the contemporary concert music composer (no appreciation, money, and little hope of either). He then earnestly asks: Why do we bother? In my mind the answer is simple. Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS toContinue Reading

3 Responses to Why bother composing?

  1. Well said. I have to agree with you. Composing as a profession may, sadly, be diminishing in relevance, and perhaps permanently. Supply and Demand. But writing music will always be relevant to the writer. And if it isn’t then why write at all? If the music is in your head, the exercise of expelling it, writing it out, realizing it fully, hearing it realized, should be the greatest reward. Everything else is largely ego and (false) expectation.

  2. Alexander Frank says:

    Exactly right. I imagine people write music for many reasons, but there is an almost certain trade-off regardless of your motivation. If you compose for your own edification, for the pure joy that only musical creation can bring, you must accept that any fame or compensation will be incidental. A composer of talent who desires recognition or money would be better served writing music geared toward radio play or scoring for film.

    If I strove for many years, writing exactly the music I wanted and loved, and it failed to gain any sort of recognition, I would certainly be discouraged. But the frustration would be directed toward others; more of an incredulous sadness that they aren’t affected by my music the way I am. For me, a (amateur) composer who is at least capable of conceiving and writing out novel music that I genuinely enjoy, to merely be given a perfect recording of every piece I ever wrote, even if I had to listen each in solitude, would be enough. The music is its own reward.

  3. Ben Phelps says:

    Well said indeed. Couldn’t agree more. How many composers have I met who I strongly suspect don’t like listening to their own music? Most of them. I simply can’t understand it.

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TONIGHT: The latest from my opera

If you’re in San Francisco tonight and interested in hearing some brand new music, swing by Counterpulse at 7:30 to hear a brief excerpt of the latest from my solo opera Failing That. The section I’ll be performing was composed in the past few months and shows the early scenes involving a middle school studentContinue Reading

One Response to TONIGHT: The latest from my opera

  1. gerald rosen says:

    So art does imitate life.

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A new unit of time: The Wagner

After a full evening of writing music, I am proposing a new unit of time. The Wagner (abbreviation Wg). One Wagner is equal to one thousand minutes, approximately the length of the entire Ring Cycle. Here are some useful conversions: 1 day = 1.4 Wagners 1 year = 511.35 Wagners 1 minute = 1 milliWagnerContinue Reading

One Response to A new unit of time: The Wagner

  1. Delightful!

    So by logical extension, 255.675 Wagners (Wg) = 1 Friedman unit (fU)

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Fantastic news here in Music vs Theater world! The San Francisco chapter of the American Composer’s Forum has seen fit to award me a Subito grant to help produce this weekend’s premiere of my song cycle (and other works)! This is a huge deal, not only will it make it much more likely that we’llContinue ReadingContinue Reading

2 Responses to I GOT A GRANT!

  1. Bun Bun says:

    That’s awesome, Rosen!

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Collect all three!

The string quartet is DONE! Actually, it was done a year ago, but now it’s been premiered, recorded, annotated, and released to the public. The third movement Off the Rails is finally available for listening and downloading and reading about and whatnot. So what happens now? Hmm. Good question. I’ve already submitted it to severalContinue Reading

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John Adams thinks your piece sucks

John Adams just wrote a very funny blog post about master classes.  I happen to know he just gave one over at the San Francisco Conservatory last week, so the timing of this blog entry is probably not a coincidence. It’s a little nerve wracking reading through it. How does my string quartet match hisContinue Reading

One Response to John Adams thinks your piece sucks

  1. David Rodwin says:

    Thanks for the share. I just added a comment to the page. I didn’t realize John had a blog. I’ll start following it.

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Speaking of Pulitzers, look who just got one!

Hilary Hahn! Well… Kinda. Actually it was Jennifer Higdon who won the Pulitzer for a violin concerto written for Hilary Hahn. Most folks have never heard of this composer, but if you followed the links from my earlier post about Hilary, you may have stumbled upon her interviews with this now Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It’s almostContinue Reading

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