“Stars Over Snow” Premiere + Recording

Last Friday night, I had the opportunity to hear BYU Singers perform the world premiere of “Stars Over Snow.” It was incredible. The performance was electric and the reception was very warm. I’m still buzzing from what a beautiful night it was.

Night
by Sara Teasdale

Stars over snow,
And in the west a planet
Swinging below a star—
Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far—
It never will be far.

Here is a recording:

Stars Over Snow – Barlow Endowment Commission Finished!

I realize that it has been a LOOOOOOOOOONG time since I last posted. I’m trying to make up for that.

Back in August, I was awarded a commission by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. The commission was an a cappella choral piece between 5 and 8 minutes for the Brigham Young University Singers to take on tour to China. I’ve been working on it quite a bit ever since. At first, Dr. Staheli (who was going to premiere the piece) suggested that I write a mood piece with a few words, rather than setting a narrative poem. I worked on that for a few solid months and wasn’t really happy with what was happening.

I don’t like sending sketches or early drafts of my work to anybody. I try and wait until a piece is “finished” or at least thoroughly constructed before delivering it. However, because things weren’t really gelling on this piece, I decided to sent it to Dr. Staheli anyway. After sending it by email I got a call soon afterwards. After some reassuring/loving disclaimers he simply said, “It’s not working.” We talked for a bit and he pretty much vocalized all of my own doubts about the work. I was very grateful to get such honest and open feedback from a person I trust so implicitly.

We talked about possible solutions and we both agreed that the best course of action was to start over. We talked about possible texts, bounced around some possibilities and eventually he recommended a six-line poem by Sara Teasdale. It’s been a personal favorite of mine called “Night.”

Stars over snow,
And in the west a planet
Swinging below a star—
Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far—
It never will be far.

– Sara Teasdale

Eventually, work began on the piece which was going much better than before. I see the poem in two halves of three lines each and structured the piece accordingly. The second half simply expounds on the first half. Seek out that which is beautiful, true, and uplifting and it will be abundant. It reminds me of a quote by Henri Matisse: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” It’s also closely related to these words by Leonardo da Vinci: “There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” I often find myself in those last two classes.

I’ve finished the piece and BYU Singers is currently rehearsing it. I’ve already had some great conversations about making little changes here and there to polish out all the rough spots. The premiere will be on Friday, March 13th (yes, Friday the 13th) in the de Jong Concert Hall at BYU. I’ll be there in person!

In the meantime, here are the first two pages:

StarsOverSnow1

StarsOverSnow2

Tenebrae at Brigham Young University

Back in May, after tour with BYU Singers was over, I had the chance to attend a concert in the tiny village of Mayfield, England where I heard one of the finest performances of my life.  The ensemble performing was Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short.  In the course of that evening they performed masterpieces like “The Evening Watch” by Holst, “Funeral Ikos” by Tavener, and “Requiem” by Howells.  It was one of the most in-tune and expressive performances I’ve ever heard.  That evening, I was filled musically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since I first purchased their Figure Humaine CD where they recorded choral works by Francis Poulenc. While they were performing in the “dry-as-a-bone” de Jong Concert Hall (a much less generous venue then they usually sing in), they absolutely filled the space.  It’s difficult to sing in Utah.  The high elevation, little oxygen and low humidity make it a challenge for residents, let alone visitors from a place like England.  Regardless, these incredible musicians stepped up to the plate and delivered with flying colors.

Their program was mostly Orthodox/Liturgical music from the great Russian masters, with a few contemporary pieces by Mealor and Pärt.  When I first saw how much Russian they were doing, I must admit that I was a bit let down.  I like Russian music, but I’m not exactly a die-hard fanatic.  However, the selections they chosen and the way that Nigel Short ordered and paced the program was stunning.  They made that literature compelling and riveting.  This choir performs Russian Orthodox music as if it was their own heritage.

In addition, two choirs from BYU, Concert Choir and Singers, were able to perform with Tenebrae.  It was a proud moment, as an alum of both those choirs, to see my friends singing along side my heros (well . . . they’re all my heros).  Nigel Short and Tenebrae were extremely gracious and generous to invite our choirs from BYU to join them, and our choirs were inspiring the way they rose to the occasion to perform so poised and professionally.  I was filled with pride (as well as a great deal of jealousy!).

This was their program:

Priidite, poklonimsya (All-Night Vigil) – Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Great Litany (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) – Serge Rachmaninoff

The Cherubic Hymn – Serge Rachmaninoff

Blazhen muzh (All-Night Vigil) – Serge Rachmaninoff

Izhe Heruvimi, op. 9, no. 7 – Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944)

I will love thee – Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901)

Now Sleeps the Crimson Pedal – Paul Mealor (b. 1975)

Lady, When I behold the Roses Sprouting – Paul Mealor

Upon a Bank – Paul Mealor

A Spotless Rose – Paul Mealor

Salvator Mundi (with BYU Concert Choir) – Paul Mealor

– Intermission –

Bogoroditse Devo (with BYU Singers) – Serge Rachmaninoff

The Beatitudes – Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

Locus iste – Paul Mealor

Ubi Caritas – Paul Mealor

Svete tihi – Pavel Chesnokov

Nÿne otpushchayeshi – Serge Rachmaninoff

Legend (The Crown of Roses) – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Otche nash – Nikolay Kedrov (1871 – 1940)

Vzbrannoy voyevode (All-Night Vigil) – Serge Rachmaninoff

If you have the opportunity to hear them live, don’t think about it, JUST GO!  You will not regret it.  If they’re not close to you in proximity, you should purchase their recordings.  If you’re going to ACDA this spring in Dallas, they are performing two concerts.  Make them a priority.  I count down the days until their next performance.

New Piece “Everyone Sang”

Since my last post, I have safely moved into my new apartment in Los Angeles.  In reality, I’m actually really excited to begin this new chapter.  Surprisingly, I’ve made this transition relatively smoothly, which is a big deal for me.  I still miss all my great friends still living in Provo as well as my mentors and other great professors at BYU.  For some reason I just feel this invigorating sense of possibility right now.  Anyway, more on that later, on to what I’m supposed to talk about.

This last summer I was commissioned by Dr. Staheli to write a new piece for BYU Singers.  I decided to compose a new setting of “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon.  At first I was very hesitant to take on this challenge.  BYU Singers just sang the incredible, mind-blowing (extremely difficult) version by Dominick Argento two years ago.  I had that version in my head for so long and there have been other great settings by other composers, I just couldn’t see how I could make a significant contribution and have my own voice for the text.  After a while though, I found it too difficult to resist and admitted that I actually might have something worthwhile to add to it.

Composing this was a rather strange process for me because I essentially composed the entire piece backwards from end to beginning.  I didn’t mean to and I’d never done it before, but it turned out okay!  I compose basically from what I hear in my “mind’s ear” and the first thing that came was “O but everyone was a bird,” then the previous line, etc.  It just goes to show: trust inspiration, it just knows.

I absolutely love the poem and was struck by it the very first time I read it:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

– Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Surprisingly, when Sassoon wrote this poem he was not elated or euphoric but rather depressed and defeated:

“It was a sultry spring night. I was feeling dull-minded and depressed, for no assignable reason. After sitting lethargically. . . for about three hours after dinner, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to take my useless brain to bed. On my way from the arm-chair to the door I stood by the writing-table. A few words floated into my head as though from nowhere. . . so I picked up a pencil and wrote the words on a sheet of note-paper. Without sitting down, I added a second line. It was if I were remembering rather than thinking. In this mindless manner I wrote down my poem in a few minutes. When it was finished I read it through, with no sense of elation, merely wondering how I had come to be writing a poem when feeling so stupid.” (Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey)

Despite the cynical origins of the poem I still firmly believe in the optimistic sentiment and self-evident truth of the poem.  I believe it stands as a testimony, that even in times of great despair and desolation, something jubilant and joyful is waiting beneath the surface screaming for release.

I’ve delivered it to Dr. Staheli and we’ve been able to trim and polish it a bit more over the last month.  I’m very excited because it’s going to be performed at three possible sets of concerts this fall.  One of these concerts will be when BYU Singers opens the Utah All-State Choir Concert in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on October 13th.  That’s the concert that I will be attending in person (God bless frequent flyer miles).  I’m thrilled!  I’ll post more as dates become confirmed.

Anyway, enough of that, here’s what most of you want now: The first page.

Tour to the United Kingdom

BYU Singers performing in Gloucester Cathedral.

For the past month I’ve been touring the United Kingdom with BYU Singers.  It was a fantastic tour.  Out of the three I’ve done with BYU Singers, this one was by far the most rewarding and the most fun.  Our tour itinerary looked like this:

Somewhere around Embankment.

  • Church of Christ the Cornerstone – Milton Keyes
  • Emmanuel United Reformed Church – Cambridge
  • St. Andrew’s Hall – Norwich
  • Gloucester Cathedral
  • Bristol Cathedral
  • Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – Cardiff (recorded for a later broadcast on BBC Radio 3)
  • Exeter University’s Great Hall – Exeter
  • The Sheldonian Theatre – Oxford
  • Crawley Stake Center – Crawley
  • St. Peter’s School – Bournemouth
  • St. Mary’s Church – Hitchin
  • St. Giles-in-the-Fields – London
  • Guildford Cathedral
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral – London
  • St. John’s, Smith Square – London

The whole tour was a string of incredible venues.  I’ve never had the opportunity to sing in so many rewarding and historical places.  In addition, it was great to just be back in the UK.  As we were preparing for the tour, a man came in to talk about England to us.  He asked us to raise our hands if we had ancestors from the UK.  Turns out, all but one of us have forefathers from the UK.  He mentioned to us that, in a way, we were going back home.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  The idea of home is something that has always alluded me.  There really hasn’t been a place that has felt like “home” to me for many years.  The few moments that have felt like home have been with groups of people rather in a specific place.

Some highlights for me would have to be Cambridge, Gloucester, Cardiff, Oxford, and of course, London.  We also got to see places like Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, got to attend a rehearsal of The Sixteen in Exeter Cathedral, and was allowed to take high tea at the high table in Christchurch College at Oxford.  There really are more things that I can mention here.  Ruth, a member of the choir who graduated from Oxford, kept mentioning that we have opportunities that our ancestors would never have had.

BYU Singers performing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

All of our concerts in London, St. Giles, Guildford, St. Paul’s, and St. John’s Smith Square, were just incredible and an amazing way to end four wonderful years in BYU Singers.  St. Giles was one of the finest acoustics we’ve sung in.  Singing in Guildford, there were a LOT of people and we had a great interaction with the elected officials from the city.  St. Paul’s was a very intimidating but remarkable experience.  St. John’s, Smith Square has become one of the top three performances I’ve had with this remarkable ensemble.  Some of the finest performances of some of our pieces, especially Ferko’s “O vis aeternitatis.”  Also, in attendance were two of my heroes: Gabriel Jackson & Tarik O’Regan.  These two, in my opinion, are among the finest composers in England right now.

After the tour was over I stayed behind with two friends, Chris Downard, and Mark Zabriskie.  We spent most of our time in London, but also went out to Cambridge and Oxford.  Among other things we saw concerts by Tenebrae, the Tallis Scholars, the Cardinall’s Musick, the Sixteen and the BBC Singers.  All were remarkable performances, and it was a dream to hear these choirs in person, either again or for the first time.  Tenebrae sang “Funeral Ikos” by Tavener, Requiem by Howells, and “Evening Watch” by Holst.  The Tallis Scholars sang a number of works by John Cornysh and Jean Mouton.  The Cardinall’s Musick sang an entire concert of Byrd, including the Mass for Five Voices and “Infelix Ego.”  The Sixteen performed an all-Flemish concert with works by Josquin, Brummel and Lassus.  The BBC Singers performed Israel in Egypt by Handel.  In addition, we got to attend a rehearsal of the BBC Singers preparing Israel in Egypt.  It was difficult to come back down to earth after each of these performances.

That final concert of BYU Singers in St. John’s, Smith Square was very difficult.  Everyone was trying to mention to me that this was my final concert with BYU Singers and ask me how it felt.  It might have seemed a bit rude, but I had to immediately interrupt and say, “I’m not talking about that!”  And indeed, talking with others in the choir, with whom it was their final concert the same thing happened (rather mutually): “We’re not talking about that!”  I didn’t want any sort of sadness to overshadow what was a very important concert for the choir.

Our final concert at St. John’s, Smith Square, London.

Just before the concert, I had a small word with Prof. Rosalind Hall about this though.  Since she had been in the choir for four years as well, I asked her how she coped with leaving the choir.  Her response was very telling: “You know Matt, you never do.  You never get over being in BYU Singers, and frankly if you did, it means we didn’t do our job.”  Another friend who was in the choir years earlier mentioned, “After being in BYU Singers, you find yourself working to replicate and imitate the experience there the rest of your life and never really succeeding.”

I feel immensely blessed and privileged to have been in BYU Singers for four years and in BYU Concert Choir two years prior.  These last four years have shaped my life in a way that very few things have.  Being in these ensembles completely changed the course of my life and I feel that I am a better man because of it.

The next morning after our concert I couldn’t bring myself to go downstairs and see the rest of BYU Singers who were flying home.  It was too much.  I just lay in bed trying to deal with this new hole in my life.  I felt very empty and void with it all being over.  So much of my life these past few years has been spent revolved around this ensemble.  I took a shower, got dressed when my friend Chris came in with some breakfast.  He asked how I was and why I didn’t come down to see everyone leave.  After a bit of talking, we both became silent and I just started to cry.  A little at first and then a huge wave of sadness came over me.  After a while, I looked over at Chris and he was crying too. “Now why are YOU crying!?” I asked.  We both laughed, hugged and cried some more.

It’s not like I’m the first or only one to experience this sort of transition.  I’ve seen it happen to my friends, I just never expected it to actually happen to me.  This was my paradise and I never actually expected it to end.

At the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Long Overdue Update

It’s been really crazy for the past month and a half or so.  The biggest update is that I got accepted into the DMA program at USC for this Fall with a generous scholarship.  That’s where I’m going.  Very exciting stuff!

In other news, BYU Singers had another great concert with the BYU Concert Choir and gave some of the best performances we have all year.  It was incredible.

My parents are coming home from Ukraine this summer!  My older sister had a new baby girl (first niece), and my older brother had a new baby boy (sixth nephew)!

I’m going on tour with BYU Singers to England and Wales in the next few weeks.  If you’re there, you should come to one of our concerts!

Commencement and convocation are coming up soon and I’ll be walking with a Masters hood and robe.  I can’t believe it’s all ready over.

All these changes in my life are quite challenging.  I’ve come to a realization in the past little while that I’m a man with a great deal of inertia.  I resist change.  While I work in a linear art form, I sometimes find it difficult to live in a linear lifestyle.  But that’s what makes it life right?

O vis aeternitatis – Frank Ferko

This last Monday, we started reading through new music after our Christmas concert.  One the pieces we picked up was “O vis aeternitatis” from Hildegard Triptych by Frank Ferko.  I LOVE this music.  It’s so ancient and modern at the same time.  It’s crafted so beautifully.  It’s a bit easier to read that I was expecting and we got through the whole piece during our first read.  It’s difficult music, but didn’t seem as difficult as it looks.  After rehearsal I was giddy for about 10 minutes that we were actually singing it.  I’ll let you know when we actually perform it, because a live performance of this is something you don’t want to miss.