My Excellent Boston Adventure

The primary reason for visiting Boston this past weekend was to attend the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor by Emmanuel Music. This took place at the regular 10:00 am Eucharist at Emmanuel Church with Ryan Turner conducting. The choir did a fantastic job, learning the piece in one intense rehearsal the day before, plus a touch-up on Sunday. It was like my experience with the Chicago Symphony: very good sight-reading, though a bit of disarray, and then an incredible amount of improvement between the first reading and the second. Like a first-rate orchestra, the Emmanuel choristers are very fast learners. I didn’t make things easy for them. The rhythmic language is sometimes a bit challenging (not every choir can do a decent eighth note quintuplet the way they can), and there is a dense stretto passage where the harmony gets more chromatic. For that passage, I wanted, and got, the leggiero quality I hear in this choir’s singing of similarly contrapuntal passages in the Bach cantatas. My piece has a lot of short sections packed into 4 or 5 minutes, and making it all hang together involves some crucial nuances of tempo, dynamic and color. Here all glory goes to Ryan Turner who led a wonderfully characterful performance. When I asked for a big upbeat bar to have a ritardando “like Bernstein conducting Mahler”, or suggested that a passage should sound like the singers are sleepwalking, Ryan knew just what to do and how to make it happen. I am intensely grateful for this beautiful performance, as well as for the customary Emmanuel hospitality. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: this is a community that knows how to listen, and brings an attentive and sympathetic ear to the music I have written for them. I have worked as a church musician since high school, and have had wonderful experiences, but nothing like Emmanuel. To experience a connection with a worshipping community that is nourished by music in this way is deeply nourishing for me in turn. Thank you, dear Emmanuel. More specifically, thank you to Pat Krol, executive director of Emmanuel Music, for her energetic attention to detail; to Rev. Pamela Werntz, the rector of Emmanuel, who truly knows how to facilitate the assembly’s prayer; and to John Harbison, principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music, who kindly took the time in a busy day to attend Saturday’s rehearsal and offer good advice and moral support.

Before the Emmanuel events on Saturday and Sunday I attended Dawn Upshaw’s recital at Jordan Hall on Friday night. Soho the Dog has written more eloquently than I could about the concert, with its carefully chosen twenty-four songs by almost as many composers. I would need to hear the program again to pick up all the connections between and among the pieces: shared keys, musical motifs, textual imagery. Even with all these connections, there was no simplistic route from song to song; the connections were real, but often allusive rather than explicit. Dawn sounded great. No, she’s not thirty anymore, and the voice has changed a bit. But the extraordinary ability to communicate in a direct manner has not. Stephen Prutsman was her superb partner. He looks very grounded when he plays, sitting well back in a chair rather than on a bench. His physical activity at the keyboard is sleek, sometimes quite minimal.  But, perhaps as a compensation for his lack of superfluous motion when actually playing the notes, he likes to conduct himself with an unoccupied hand, as well as having a repertoire of peculiar releases – some miming vibrato, for example.

OK, enough for one post – back soon for more on the BEAMS marathon and more. Here are some shots of Emmanuel Music in rehearsal: