Thursday, April 4, 2013

Adventures at the ACDA National Conference, 2013

The sealing of the Chapel of Thanksgiving, Dallas, Texas

This past March, I had the opportunity to attend the National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association for the first time. Dr. Kevin Ford, my conducting professor and president of the Tennessee ACDA chapter, pulled some strings so I could receive a conference scholarship. The conference was very rewarding and quite humbling in many ways. I periodically visited the Colla Voce booth, where my recently-published “Two Scottish Love Songs” were up for sale. This afforded me the opportunity to meet James Mulholland, a very kind man and a gifted composer of great repute, who is also rather inclined to write “Scottish” works. One year ago at a regional ACDA conference, I met Robert Boyd, another composer whose works are published by Colla Voce. I am very grateful to him for introducing me to Fred Hatfield, the president of Colla Voce, and for suggesting that I submit some of my work to them. Colla Voce will be publishing two more of my choral pieces over the course of the next few months.

Octavos of my "Two Scottish Love Songs" at the Colla Voce booth

 A little over two years ago, earthsongs published my setting of Whitman’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d.” They have been wonderful to work with and have done a great deal to promote sales, gaining me a lot of exposure that I would not have had otherwise. This was especially apparent during earthsongs’ reading session at the ACDA conference, in which my composition was included (a reading session is a promotional opportunity for publishers, wherein conference attendees—potential buyers—sight-sing choral works). I was rather flattered that a few attendees even wanted my autograph; among them a gentlemen who said that his choir had performed the piece and loved it, and that his students would be very excited that know that their director got to meet the composer. A member of the Westminster Choir also asked for my signature—I’ve since felt more like I should’ve been asking for his (especially after I heard Westminster during a concert on the following day). Dr. Rodney Eichenberger was the clinician for the reading session, and he was very kind to include my composition. It was a great joy to meet him, especially since I am studying conducting with one of his former students, Dr. Kevin Ford.

Dr. Rodney Eichenberger and I, after the reading session

 What follows are some of my thoughts on the contemporary choral scene, based primarily on my experience and observations at this year’s ACDA National Conference.

Since this was my first national conference, I was interested to see the apparently strong interest in works by living composers. Practically every choir’s program consisted of more new music than not. In fact, I must admit that I even found it a bit wearying. I became excited when I saw names like Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Holst, etc., because of the rarity with which such names appeared on ACDA programs, and because I know that I can depend on established names like those for artistic music. I am not entirely sure what brought on the general craze for new music, except that choirs have caught the novelty of preforming something that has not been performed often, and in some cases, of working with the composer directly. That is fantastic, and proves that the American choral scene is in no grave danger of stagnation. One problem I see, however, is this: there simply are not enough composers stepping up to the plate whose work is worth performing at the expense of great works of the past. Of course, there are nonetheless some wonderful choral composers out there. It would benefit audiences to hear more from the following composers, some of whom are well established, and others up-and-coming:
  • Steven Stucky, who received this year’s rather prestigious Brock Commission from ACDA.
  • Arvo Pärt, an innovative Estonian composer who has developed a unique style and reputation.
  • Bob Chilcott, formerly a member of the King’s Singers, who offers some very delightful and fresh-sounding music.
  • John Tavener, “hairy” and eccentric as his music may seem, nonetheless offers some finely crafted work and a unique sound. 
  • Matthew Harris, who has written some very colorful Shakespeare Songs.
  • Abbie Betinis, whose work I do not know well, apart from a brilliant little canon I discovered last year, entitled “Be like the bird.” I would definitely like to hear more.
  • Eriks Esenvalds, an up-and-coming Latvian composer.
  • Daniel Brinsmead, whose  “Come sleep” was a winner of the 2011 Abby Road Studios Anthem Competition (which I entered and lost). He’s very young, so it will be interesting to watch him progress in the field.
  • Julian Bryson, whose “Redemption Mass” was the winner of ACDA’s Brock Competition this year—carefully crafted work from another young composer who shows great potential.

Now, to some, it may seem conspicuous that I have left out Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, for indeed they have not achieved prominence without merit, and they have both written some brilliant work, but their styles are already getting to be “old hat” because their works have been performed so often, and imitated by so many other composers.

John Rutter’s music is performed very frequently as well (and has been for decades) and his compositional style is rather familiar to any choir aficionado, so I thought it unnecessary to include him in the list. However, we should not be too quick to dismiss his music as “over-performed” or as being too tied to the past to have anything fresh to offer the contemporary choral scene. On the contrary, his links with the past set him apart. An examination of his more “serious” works (the Requiem, The Falcon, “Hymn to the Creator of Light,” “Musica Dei Donum,” to name a few) illustrates his strong ties with the English choral tradition that goes back well into the middle ages. Rutter does a great work in carrying forward a torch that was given him by Herbert Howells and David Wilcocks, among others, who got it from Ralph Vaughan Williams, who got it from Charles Villiers Stanford, and so on. It is a rich tradition unique to church music in England, and which American composers can learn a great deal from.

Alright, now comes the disclaimer: I know that I am a very young composer that most people don’t know about, therefore it may seem silly that I sound so authoritative. There, I said it.