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Later this month, when the singers of Melodia Women's Choir present the world premiere of an a cappella composition for nine parts, they will be giving voice to the latest chapter in an extraordinarily long musical journey. It began in 1741 with the insomnia of a German count, reached its zenith at the piano of an eccentric Canadian prodigy two centuries later, and, more recently still, found its way to the pages of a gifted North Carolina teenager's diary.
The new piece, Soli Deo Gloria, by Becca Stevens, was inspired by the seventh of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations--written, as the story goes, when Bach's pupil Johann Goldberg was charged by his boss, Count Kaiserling, to play something that might make the long nights bearable.
Stevens, now a Manhattan-based composer and performer, first heard Glenn
Gould's famous recording of the Goldberg Variations as a teen, and was
moved to write a poem about the "strange awareness" they produced in her. Years
later, a family friend found the poem and urged her to resurrect it. Stevens
decided to rework her lyrics into the piece she had been commissioned to write
for Melodia. She named it Soli Deo Gloria ("To God alone be the glory")
to honor the words of humility with which Bach, using the abbreviation SDG,
signed his manuscripts.
But the idea of giving credit to God was not, for Stevens, necessarily a
religious statement, she explained in a recent interview. "Whether you're a
religious person or not, the idea is that the art is coming through you--that
instead of controlling your creativity, you're letting your creativity take
control of you."
The piece, a richly-layered and challenging work that includes jazz motifs, a
section of vocal "strumming," and several whistling parts, is unmistakably
modern. But, says Stevens, "A discerning ear will hear a few musical ideas
borrowed from Bach."
According to Jennifer Clarke, executive director of Melodia, the choir has been commissioning pieces from women composers since its inception. "We feel it's important to add women composers into the repertoire for women's choirs," she says. In 2008, the choir sponsored a competition for new commissions that drew 65 entries by women all over the country. In addition to Stevens's piece in the fall concert, the choir will premiere a work by Christina Whitten Thomas in the spring. Melodia's next competition, in 2011, is expected to bring even more submissions.
Despite this emphasis on supporting new work, the theme for Melodia's upcoming concerts is "Timeless." The program includes beloved classics for treble voices, such as Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis in D (written for boys' choir), a setting of Ave Maria by Oregon-based composer Joan Szymko, Fauré's haunting Ave Verum Corpus, and two pieces on the theme of the "black virgin," a complex motif in medieval Catholicism: Francis Poulenc's Litanies à la Vierge Noire, inspired by his pilgrimage to the statue of the black virgin at Notre Dame de Rocamadour in southwestern France, and Pablo Casals's Nigra Sum (on the text "I am black" from the Song of Solomon). The choir will also sing a setting of Psalm 150 by Sir David Willcocks and A Hope Carol by David Conte. Several pieces will be accompanied by organist Nancianne Parrella and pianist Taisiya Pushkar.
"There's a kind of reverence or sacred path to this concert, probably more so than most of Melodia's concerts," says Cynthia Powell, Melodia's artistic director and conductor. "Although music always dwells in the realm of the heavens for me."
Melodia Women's Choir performs "Timeless" on Saturday, November 20, 8 PM (reception follows) at Church of the Holy Apostles, 296 Ninth Avenue at West 28th Street, New York City, and on Sunday, November 21, 3 PM at West End Collegiate Church, 368 West End Avenue at West 77th Street. For more information, visit www.melodiawomenschoir.org.
Rebecca Jones writes about music.