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The joys of morning and other inspirations: an interview with composer Robert Dennis
by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 4, 2006

Robert DennisRobert Dennis's music came to the attention of Kristina Boerger, artistic director of the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble, when she sang many of his compositions as a member of the Western Wind a cappella sextet. She quickly became a big fan of the composer, who has created works for New York City Opera and The Lincoln Center Institute. "Never predictable, always accessible" is how Dr. Boerger characterizes Mr. Dennis's style. She proceeded to introduce his work to Cerddorion's repertoire. In the last few years, the group has performed several pieces by Dennis: two cycles--The Man in the Moon and The Golden Peacock--and, most recently, a psalm setting with obbligato violin. "Because of our wonderful experiences singing Robert's music, we offered him our commission for 2005-2006. We wanted him to create a work which we could give to the entire choral world…a piece that choruses will enjoy singing and that audiences will enjoy hearing."

The new work, Morning Group 1, will have its premiere performance at Cerddorion's upcoming concerts, scheduled for May 7 in Brooklyn and May 13 in Manhattan. Recently, Vocal Area Network asked Mr. Dennis about this new work, his other recent projects and his gift for composing works that delight singers and audiences alike.


Vocal Area Network: What was the inspiration for Morning Group 1?

Robert Dennis: I've always been a "morning person", so it's natural that I would eventually get around to setting a group of poems that deal with the subject in varied ways. Jonathan Swift's "A Description of the Morning" is a satirical picture of London at dawn, with assorted odd characters and bits of folk-inspired music. "Ya cantan los gallos" is a setting of a 15th century Spanish love poem by Inigo Lopez de Mendoza; morning's arrival is not always welcome. William Blake's "Morning" is an expression of hope for the promise of a new day.

VAN: How did you happen to select these particular poems?

RD: Well, the Spanish love poem I first discovered more than fifty years ago-on an LP of Spanish music from the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella. I loved the lyric and wanted to compose new music. Kristina Boerger, the Cerddorion conductor, is fluent in Spanish, and she provided a beautiful translation--the liner notes of the old LP had long since disappeared. I've encountered the two other poems (Jonathan Swift and William Blake) many times over the years, in my never-ending search for words to set to music.

VAN: Did the experience of creating this work open up any unexpected dimensions for you?

RD: In addition to the excitement always associated with a new piece, I find it invigorating and stimulating to write in a language other than English when I have the opportunity. I love Spanish, because it (gently) pushes my music into new areas, particularly in the realm of melodic expression.

VAN: Are we to understand from the work's title that you are planning Morning Group 2?

RD: Oh, definitely. I have many more texts on this theme which I look forward to setting.

VAN: What else are you working on? Tell us about some of your other recent projects.

RD: Over the years, I have also written a lot of music for the theatre, which I really enjoy. My most recent theater project was a score for a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan, which was premiered by the Juilliard Drama Division. I've also composed much chamber music, including recent commissions from the American Brass Quintet and the Baird Trio (Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano).

VAN: Why do you think singers enjoy singing your work so much?

RD: That's a difficult question! It's been a source of joy for me that they do.

VAN: Does writing music for vocal ensemble hold a special place in your heart? What do you enjoy about it?

RD: It seems impossible for me that anyone who has ever sung in a chorus--and fancies himself a composer--wouldn't want to write for the medium. I love everything about it--the feeling of exhilaration, the sounds, the effects--I could go on much too long!

VAN: What are you listening to these days?

RD: I'm a big Benjamin Britten fan (particularly of Turn of the Screw), and I recently rediscovered The Rape of Lucretia. Near my CD player right now is William Bolcom's Symphony No. 4. Another recent favorite is Emma Kirkby's recording of William Byrd's Consort Songs.


Robert Dennis's Morning Group 1 will be performed by the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble as part of "L'Invitation au Voyage: An evening of music by New York Composers." Performances will take place on Sunday, May 7 at 4 PM at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface (on the Metrotech campus, at Willoughby and Duffield Streets, Brooklyn) and on Saturday, May 13 at 8 PM at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields (487 Hudson Street, south of Christopher Street, Manhattan). General admission $20; students/seniors $15. For information: (212) 260-1498 or www.cerddorion.net. Man in the Moon, a CD of Mr. Dennis's works composed for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, has recently been recorded and released by the group.

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco works for Fraiche PR and Communications LLC.

Content Contact: Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Revision Date: May 4, 2006.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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