BIG BLUE MARBLE – April 22-24, 2016
A Marshland Elegy – Shawn Crouch (b. 1977)
Come To the Woods – Jake Runestad (b. 1986)
Earth Voices – Peter-Anthony Togni (b. 1959)
If I Were A Swan – Kevin Puts (b. 1972)
The Peace of Wild Things – Jake Runestad
Selections from Desertscapes – Maggi Payne (b. 1945)
- Pyramid Lake
- Death Valley
Kasar Mie La Gaji – Alberto Grau (b. 1937)
Cloudburst – Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
Water Night – Eric Whitacre
Selections from Due North Stephen Chatman (b. 1950)
Earth Song – Frank Ticheli (b. 1958)
Valley cellist Frank Skinner commissioned “A Marshland Elegy” in memory of his mother, of whom he wrote: “Ruth was an organist, pianist, alto and bell ringer…. She was rather strong-willed and fiercely independent…[and] a strong advocate of nature and conservationism. She was quite fond of Aldo Leopold’s writings.” Leopold (1887-1948) was an ecologist and writer who co-founded The Wilderness Society and worked for the newly-established U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico before moving to Wisconsin; the text for the “Elegy” comes from his collection A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservationism. Composer Shawn Crouch (b. 1977) describes his song as “a soundscape based on nature,” and marked its tempo “Like Nature-dawn-still.” Crouch writes, “It depicts the stillness of the morning that throughout the course of the composition transforms into a kinetic energy, as in the moment a flock of birds takes flight. The composition opens with…a quiet emerging landscape that recalls Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Over time a rustling emerges which gives way to increasingly louder repeated patters in the ensemble culminating on the word ‘birds’ about three-quarters of the way through the composition.” Crouch has been composer-in-residence at Arizona’s Arcosanti New Music Festival, and attended Berklee College of Music, Peabody Preparatory, New England Conservatory and the Yale School of Music. Charles Bruffy and the Phoenix Chorale premiered the “Elegy” in 2011.
Composer and conductor Jake Runestad was born in 1984 and has won critical and popular acclaim for his choral, orchestral, chamber and operatic music along with a 2016 Morton Gould Young Composer award from the ASCAP Foundation. His oratorio Dreams of the Fallen — written for five U.S. orchestras — premiered in 2013, while Washington National Opera commissioned the comedic Daughters of the Bloody Duke for a premiere at the Kennedy Center. Runestad studied with Libby Larsen at Winona State University and Kevin Puts at the Peabody Conservatory, and founded the Anima Nova Chamber Choir.
For “Come to the Woods” — composed for Craig Hella Johnson and the ensemble Conspirare — Jake Runestad used words from John Muir (1838-1914), a Scottish-born American naturalist and author. Muir co-founded and served as first president of the Sierra Club, and his environmental activism was instrumental in President Theodore Roosevelt’s establishment of the National Parks and Monuments conservation programs. Writes Runestad, “Using a collage of fragments from Muir’s writings, the work ventures from the boisterous joy of a ‘glorious day’ to the quiet whispering of wind, to the rejuvenating power of a storm, to the calming ‘amber light’ when the clouds begin to clear.” He adds, “I hope it captures the self-discovery and sustenance one encounters while exploring the outdoors and its vital importance in our lives.”
With its score marked as “a mystical dance,” “Earth Voices” was written by Canadian pianist, organist, broadcaster and composer Peter-Anthony Togni (b. 1959), who studied at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Schola Cantorum in Paris. Togni’s compositions include the opera Isis and Osiris, Gods of Egypt plus Warrior Songs, Responsio, Lamentations of Jeremiah and Missa Liberationis. Togni asks the singers for “a very transparent sound” and “whisper voice,” ending with audible exhalations for his setting of verse by Canadian-American poet William Bliss Carman (1861-1929). Carman attended the University of New Brunswick, the University of Edinburgh, and Harvard University before working as a journalist and editor, founding Boston’s Chap-Book and gaining a reputation as Canada’s unofficial poet laureate. “Earth Voices” was given its U.S. premiere in 2015 by the Kansas City Chorale and Charles Bruffy.
Kevin Puts (b. 1972) earned degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Yale, then taught composition at The University of Texas at Austin. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 debut opera Silent Night and subsequently wrote the operas The Manchurian Candidate and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. With honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Rome Prize, a Barlow International Prize for Orchestral Music, and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Puts — who taught composer Jake Runestad at Peabody — was formerly Composer-in-Residence for Young Concert Artists and is currently the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. He wrote Inspiring Beethoven for a 2001 commission by The Phoenix Symphony, which premiered the work with Hermann Michael. Puts composed “If I Were A Swan” for the ensemble Conspirare using verse by his aunt, the American poet Fleda Brown. Brown was born in Missouri and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas. She taught at the University of Delaware and served as the state’s poet laureate from 2001-2007. Says Puts, “I have loved the poem since I first read it as a teenager and imagined its protagonist gliding over the calm, inland-lake waters of northern Michigan, where Brown finds endless inspiration and now calls home.”
“The Peace of Wild Things” was commissioned from Jake Runestad by conductor Michael Kerschner and the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and won the Nathan Davis Prize for Composition in 2012. With its rippling piano accompaniment the song sends the choir through two key changes into F-sharp major with the poetry of Wendell Berry (b. 1934), an author, environmentalist and farmer from Kentucky whose work has been compared to that of Thoreau and described as having “a Wordsworthian clarity of purpose…lines of power and memorable resonance.” Writer of more than 40 works and winner of numerous awards and fellowships, Berry has taught at the University of Kentucky, Stanford University and New York University.
Maggi Payne was born in Texas in 1945 and earned degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois and Mills College, where she serves as a professor and co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music. Payne is a composer, flutist, and recording and production engineer-editor who was an artist in residence at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Saratoga’s Montalvo Arts Center. “I create immersive environments, inviting listeners/participants to enter the sound and be carried with it, experiencing it from the inside out in intimate detail,” Payne writes. “The sounds are almost tactile, visible, tangible.” Her 1991 work “Desertscapes” describes a frozen, misty morning at Pyramid Lake north of Reno, Nevada; the vast, stark desolation of Death Valley; “a broad expanse of filigreed orange- and white-striped minarets in a complex canyon maze” encompassing the ancient grandeur of Bryce Canyon; and the golden, sandblasted topography of the Kelso Dunes, overlooking the Devil’s Playground and colored with a rare vertical rainbow. Payne also explains why she specified “Desertscapes” for performance by two spatially separated women’s choruses: “The sound should wash across the space, fully involving/surrounding the listener in the vast frailty of desert space.” She adds, “It seemed right to have exclusively female voices in this piece…sirens calling me back to these desert haunts.”
“The inhabitants of the African Sahel [the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert] say: ‘Kasar mie la gaji — The earth is tired,’” explains Venezuelan composer, conductor and teacher Alberto Grau (b. 1937). Grau, who founded the prize-winning Schola Cantorum de Caracas in 1967, wrote his song “for an international mobilization to save the Earth and a conscientious effort regarding the problems of the environment,” and his directions to the singers include a glissando at the end of a note “expressing weariness [of the earth],” instructions to whisper, talk or scream on notated pitches, pronunciation of an S “to imitate the sound of the wind blowing through a desolate landscape,” and percussive noises using hands and feet.
Eric Whitacre’s striking piece, “Cloudburst” (set to a text adapted from Octavio Paz’s The Broken Water Jar), uses a host of special effects and varied instrumentation to depict a sudden rainstorm. It can perhaps be best described in his own words: “The Cloudburst is a ceremony, a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things. The mood throughout is reverent, meditative and centered. This does not imply solemn of calm; it simply means the performer must take the spiritual journey with total respect for the power of the water and profundity of the rebirth.”
Nobel Prize-winning Mexican author Octavio Paz (1914-1998) studied law and literature at the National University of Mexico, published his first poetry with the encouragement of Pablo Neruda, and founded iconic magazines including Barandal, Cuadernos del Valle de México (Notebooks from the Valley of Mexico), Taller (Workshop), El Hijo Pródigo (The Prodigal Son), Plural and Vuelta (Turn). Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India, taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and won both the Miguel de Cervantes Award and The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The text for “Water Night” was written in Spanish by Paz and translated by Muriel Rukeyser. Grammy-winning American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) — who studied with John Corigliano and David Diamond at Juilliard, and recently was a five-year Visiting Fellow and Composer in Residence at Cambridge University — was inspired to create the music in appreciation for his friend and mentor, Dr. Bruce Mayhall, to whom he dedicated the work. “The music sounded in the air as I read the poem, as if it were a part of the poetry,” writes Whitacre. “I just started taking dictation as fast as I could, and the thing was basically finished in about 45 minutes. …The tight harmonies and patient unfolding seemed to pour from the poetry…I can only describe it as a pure and perfect and simple gift.”
Best known for his instrumental music, American Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) is professor of composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and served as the Pacific Symphony’s composer in residence. Ticheli earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan and composed “Earth Song” in 2007.“I knew I had to write the poem myself, partly because it is not just a poem but a prayer, a plea, a wish — a bid to find inner peace in a world that seems eternally bent on war and hatred,” he writes. “But also, the poem is a steadfast declaration of the power of music to heal. In the end, the speaker in the poem discovers that, through music, he is the embodiment of hope, peace, the song within the Song.” Ticheli continues, “Perhaps music has the power…to open hearts and ears in a world that desperately needs love and listening.”
© Program notes by Katrina Becker