Posts By: willcwhite

Concerto for Chorus, op. 53

On texts of Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri as translated by Kevin Blankinship

I wrote this piece as a passion project in the late winter and early spring of 2021, just as the U.S. (or my portion of U.S. society) was beginning to come out of the pandemic.

I began laying the groundwork for this piece much earlier. I discovered the work of the great vegan, antinatalist, pessimist philosopher-poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri early in 2020, and I immediately began researching his work with voraciousness. Never in my life have I been so instantly and overwhelmingly moved by the work of a writer.

Al-Ma’arri was a Syriac-Arab hermit who lived in a cave outside Aleppo in the early 11th century. He turns up in far-flung corners of the vegan internet for a poem in which he admonished his fellow humans for eating meat, drinking milk, and harvesting honey. While the history of vegetarianism has its roots well into antiquity (Pythagoras, some early Christians, and many others), Al-Ma’arri’s is the only example outside of Jainism and certain Buddhist sects of full moral veganism prior to the modern era.

I first read Al-Ma’arri in translations from the early 20th century, and I would have used them as the basis for this work, but before doing so, I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Kevin Blankinship, professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, who happens to be the leading scholar on the works of Al-Ma’arri. I wrote Kevin in October 2020 asking if he knew of alternate translations of the Al-Ma’arri poems that I might consider.

This is when things got interesting. It turns out that Kevin is not only a scholar, but he is also a tremendously talented poet in his own right, and he had translated some Al-Ma’arri poems himself. He proposed a collaboration, and I was thrilled to accept.

Kevin’s versions of the poems are masterpieces in themselves, which you can easily glean from comparing the earlier ones against his new ones:

Reynold A. Nicholson, 1921:

World-wide seems to spread a fragrance
From the sweetness of the flowers.
All praise Him, the All-sustainer,
Clouds and plants and rocks and water.
We — we burden Earth so sorely
That she well-night sinks beneath us

Kevin Blankinship, 2021:

The earth

her blooms spread like perfume
her streamlets praise the Master
so do the shrubs
the water
the stones

and here we are
heavy on her soil
she fairly groans with the weight

Not only are Kevin’s translations beautiful, concise, and direct, but they are also lyrical. What I mean by that is, they are written in a way that allows music to lift them up. They work perfectly well on their own, but I felt that they were ideal words to set. I’ve never had the pleasure of setting something so exquisite, not even by Martha Stewart.

Why did I want to compose a concerto for chorus, and what even is a concerto for chorus? The term comes from the Orthodox (Slavonic) Church tradition, and it’s basically an extended anthem, usually on a hymn text. At least, that’s how the term was used from the 17th century up until 1984 when Alfred Schnittke totally redefined the genre with his epochal Concerto for Mixed Chorus, a four movement symphony for voices that was, is, and ever shall be among my very favorite pieces.

Schnittke’s concerto is dark — musically, at least. The problem I’ve always had with it is that the text is uplifting, and so I don’t think it really matches the music. I wanted to write a large-scale choral work that would build on Schnittke, but match the darkness of the music with an equally dark text. And holy mother alive did I ever find some dark materials to work with.

I recorded the work, at my own expense, in London in late July, 2022. The purpose of the recording was to bring the work to the world, as I do not anticipate that it will have any life as a piece of performing repertoire. It’s simply too dark. If you’re a choir director who wants to prove me wrong (at the risk of alienating your singers, your friends, and your community) be my guest!

Harmonia 2022–2023: “Dialogue”

Details and tickets!

Balance

MENOTTI Amelia al ballo Overture
BARBER Violin Concerto
BEYER, Huntley World Out of Balance (world premiere oratorio)

Unfinished

SCHUBERT Symphony no. 7 in B minor
MOZART Requiem (Süßmeyr completion)

Messiah

HANDEL Messiah

Concord & Discord

BRISTOW, Sheila When Music Sounds (world premiere)
KECHLEY, Robert Hard Times: Antiphonal Conversations (world premiere)
BACH Magnificat

Symphonic Legacies

STILL Poem for Orchestra
MASON Symphony No. 5 (“Harmonia”)
STILL Threnody in Memory of Jean Sibelius
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 3

Choral Echoes

A mix of choral works grouped in pairs: by Purcell & White; C. Schumann & Brahms; Tavener & Britten; Esmail & Kim; others TBD

Hope & Joy

GARCIA Vast Array
PRICE Song of Hope (West Coast premiere)
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9

Euro Tour 2022

I’m just back from Europe and wanted to collect a few thoughts here. This was a mixed work/pleasure trip, the main event being a London recording of my Concerto for Choir, an a cappella piece in seven movements that I composed during the final days of the pre-vaccine era. I will have much more to say about this later.

My itinerary included stops in the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. I heard a couple of Proms concerts and two performances at the Concertgebouw, including a phenomenal new piece called The Redcrosse Knight by the young Dutch composer Xavier van de Poll. I also saw a play in Frankfurt. And most happily, I visited old friends and met new ones.

Here are some tweet threads I did about visiting the Ravel house museum, the city of Bonn (a Beethoven town that’s secretly a Schumann town), and visiting the grave of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Before crossing the Atlantic, I stopped in New York for a different recording project, where I got to see Into the Woods during its limited run on Broadway after transferring from City Center (superb, especially the orchestra) and an American Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall (about which, more below in the Gabfest episode.)

Then it was a week-long stint guest teaching at the Pierre Monteux School. This invitation came in the wake of the passing of my dearly beloved teacher, Michael Jinbo, so it was both thrilling and surreal at the same time. I taught Brahms’ 3rd symphony, Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd symphony, and two of the movements of Dvorak’s 7th. Can’t ask for much better than that.

Much of these travels were memorialized on… what else? The Classical Gabfest!

In the middle segment, Tiffany and I discuss Pierre Monteux’s Rules for Young Conductors. I’ve gone ahead and posted them here, since they’re a bit challenging to find online.

Pierre Monteux’s Rules for Young Conductors

RULES FOR YOUNG CONDUCTORS

by Pierre Monteux

EIGHT “MUSTS”

  1. Stand straight, even if you are tall.
  2. Never bend, even for a pianissimo. The effect is too obvious behind.
  3. Be always dignified from the time you come on stage.
  4. Always conduct with a baton, so the players far from you can see your beat.
  5. Know your score perfectly.
  6. Never conduct for the audience.
  7. Always mark the first beat of each measure very neatly, so the players who are counting and not playing know where you are.
  8. Always in a two-beat measure, beat the second beat higher than the first. For a four-beat bar, beat the fourth higher.

TWELVE “DON’TS”

  1. Don’t overconduct; don’t make unnecessary movements or gestures.
  2. Don’t fail to make music; don’t allow music to stagnate. Don’t neglect any phrase or overlook its integral part in the complete work.
  3. Don’t adhere pedantically to metronomic time — vary the tempo according to the subject or phrase and give each its own character.
  4. Don’t permit the orchestra to play always a boresome mezzo-forte.
  5. Don’t conduct without a baton; don’t bend over while conducting.
  6. Don’t conduct solo instruments in solo passages; don’t worry or annoy sections or players by looking intently at them in “ticklish” passages.
  7. Don’t forget to cue players or sections that have had long rests, even though the part is seemingly an unimportant inner voice.
  8. Don’t come before the orchestra if you have not mastered the score; don’t practice or learn the score “on the orchestra.”
  9. Don’t stop the orchestra if you have nothing to say; don’t speak too softly to the orchestra, or only to the first stands.
  10. Don’t stop for obviously accidental wrong notes.
  11. Don’t sacrifice ensemble in an effort for meticulous beating — don’t hold sections back in technical passages where the urge comes to go forward.
  12. Don’t be disrespectful to your players (no swearing); don’t forget individuals’ rights as persons; don’t undervalue the members of the orchestra simply because they are “cogs” in the “wheels.”