Archive for the “Choral Music” Category

Susan McMane

A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010.  For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.

Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre.  Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals.  The Cypress String Quartet, SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”.  Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.   

Chen Yi

But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station, known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants.  Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.   

The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998.   Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”

Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral.  Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco.  She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.

Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says.  “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”

Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at

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One of the grand things about teaching at Westminster Choir College is simply walking across campus. A choral ensemble always seems to be rehearsing – sometimes more than one. Last year, I got to hear some absolutely thrilling rehearsals of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s music: both the Te Deum and Berlin Mass. Above is one of my favorite movements from the piece. A bright E major essay that’s both zesty & syncopated, its guaranteed to help turn the corner from bleak Winter to blossoming Spring, and, for church goers, from the stations of Passion Week to the hopeful promise of Easter. Whether one is of a secular or spiritual bent, Pärt here seems to be a postmodern corollary to that other piece in E major that signifies Spring, by Antonio somebody… (grin)

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New and specialized ensembles, groups of composers and performers banding together, DIY concerts and record labels… All the stuff of now. But let’s pay a little respect to New York’s Composers Concordance, who’ve been DIY-ing it for a good 25+ years now.

Their latest outing is a marathon show, Jan. 31st (6:00 pm doors, 7:00-10:00pm performance time at the club Drom, 85 Avenue A, between 5th & 6th, New York, NY. 212-777-1157)

No less than 23 composers are on the bill: Roger Blanc, Thomas Bo, Luis Andrei Cobo, Charles Coleman, Dan Cooper, Larry Goldman, David Gotay, Patrick Grant, Franz Hackl, Don Hagar, Arthur Kampela, Alon Nechushtan, Daniel Palkowski, Milica Paranosic, Akmal Parwez, Joseph Pehrson, Gene Pritsker, Paola Prestini, Jody Redhage, Kamala Sankaram, William Schimmel, Andrew Violette, and Theodore Wiprud.

Gene Pritsker, Composers Concordance co-director, talks about the concept for this presentation:

“We are exploring the relationship composers have with their instruments and how they go about writing music in which they know that they will be the performer. Dan Cooper and I talked about assembling a large group of composers and requesting a four minute composition from each. We are programming them back-to-back in a marathon setting and constructing a performance that highlights the composer as a performer: short compositions as vehicles for direct expression, from the composer’s mind to body to the audience.

We selected 150 composers and e-mailed them all on a secretly chosen day and time. The first 23 to respond to this e-mail were programmed for the event. We created a random criterion as opposed to a competition for choosing the participating composers, though all 150 candidates were composers whom we, the Composers Concordance directors, knew and respected.”

Tickets are $10, but there’s a two-drink minimum, so the later pieces are likely to start sounding all warm and fuzzy…


If you really want to make Jan. 31st a full-music day in the city, at 3pm prior you could head to St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church (552 West End Avenue at 87th Street) to hear The New York Virtuoso Singers, The Raschèr Saxophone Quartet and conductor Harold Rosenbaum take on a concert of works for winds and choir. On the program is the US premiere of BMI Young Composer Award recipient Rafael Nassif ‘s piece for for three choirs and three trombones [wait, I thought we were talking saxes here?…], and a world premiere by our own S21 contributor and great pal Rob Deemer, plus works by Stefan Thomas and Jouni Kaipainen.

Tickets: $20; Students and Seniors: $15 TDF vouchers accepted. Tickets available at the door one hour and 15 minutes before concerts, or call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200. And there’s a 2pm pre-concert talk for you earlybirds, with the Raschèr Quartet.

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A little palette-cleanser to shift our focus away from stimulating discussions of academe – after all, school is only out for a short while – what ‘holiday’ music do you admire?

This week, I’ve been listening to Anonymous 4’s Wolcum Yule around the house, enjoying both the Renaissance pieces and Maxwell Davies’ “A Calendar of Kings.” A ‘guilty pleasure’ is Vaughan Williams’ Hodie.

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The King’s Singers are celebrating 40 years of performances and alot of new music for voices! They’ll perform holiday music this Friday and Saturday with the NY Pops and are nominated for a Grammy Award for their Simple Gifts album. Coming up is a new release of Valentines including composers like Libby Larsen.
I spoke with two members about their outreach in schools as well as premering new works by Larsen, Eric Whitacre and Paul Patterson.
Interview with David Hurley

Interview with Paul Phoenix

King\'s Singers

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Jean BergerYep, Elliott Carter has gotten (and is getting) his proper due, so time to jump ahead and perpare for some 2009 action… Though it’s a little sparse for 100th-year blockbusters, there’s always Elie Siegmeister, Grazyna Bacewicz, Harald Genzmer, Rodolfo Cornejo, Robin Orr, John Raynor, Thorleif Aamodt, Paul Constantinescu, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Georgi Aleksandrovich Mushel, Sergius Kagen, Arwel Hughes, Ādolfs Skulte, Henk Bijvanck, and Vagn Holmboe. And the one I want to give a little shout out for, Jean Berger. One eventful (and as nearly long) life, that touched a lot of places and people. I’m pretty sure almost every kid in middle or high school choir remembers singing his “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee“. But far fewer tackled something like his “The Good of Contentment”, and far, far fewer still as part of such a stellar high school choir as the 1962 kids at Sanford H. Calhoun High in New York, under S. Talbot Thayer’s direction. Not a bad piece at all, for somebody to plan working up for next fall…


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