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"Wondrous Hope": How to Bring New Music to Life
by Laura Vanderkam for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 16, 2004

YNYC logoGreat music is timeless, but any field must grow to stay strong. Choral groups can help build the choral library by commissioning new music. While bringing a new piece to performance is daunting, following a few steps can ease the journey for chorus and composer. The Young New Yorkers' Chorus (YNYC), an ensemble of 45 singers in their twenties and early thirties, commissioned its first piece this spring for the group's Merkin Concert Hall debut. Having named the program "Hope: The Source of Youth," music director Nathan Davis thought a new piece would bring that theme to life. "We believe that music is a great source of hope for our community, and the premiere of a new piece is especially exciting," says Davis. "It's like the birth of a new child… full of hope." Composer Christopher Mueller's "Wondrous Hope" will be premiered on May 20, 2004 at YNYC's 8 PM concert. Here's what YNYC learned during the commissioning process:

Choose a composer you like, who knows choral music, and who understands your group.

Christopher Mueller, music director of the Church of Notre Dame on the Upper West Side, came to mind immediately when YNYC decided to commission a piece. Mueller, a YNYC bass, has worked as a classical and jazz pianist, and has composed several works for his Notre Dame choir, including a mass for his wedding. He knew YNYC's strengths, and could commit to guiding the piece toward performance. If a choir doesn't have an in-house composer, your commissioning committee can ask members for recommendations, attend concerts advertising premieres, or ask other choirs whose services they use. Local music schools and colleges often have professors or students who want opportunities to compose. If you say on your website you want to commission pieces, composers will even call you. If you have the budget, big events may call for big-name composers, but make sure the composer will be available to work with you during the final stages before the premiere.

Agree on the text and type of music, and put everything into a contract.

YNYC wanted a work on the theme of hope. Mueller went to his Bible concordance and found a section in the middle of otherwise dismal Lamentations, "This I call to mind, which brings me wondrous hope: The love of the Lord never ceases." "Lamentations is all full of grief and woe, and then here's this little bit in the third chapter," Mueller says. "It's like the eye of the storm." Since Mueller's piece would follow Stravinsky's very dramatic Symphony of Psalms in the concert, he liked the idea of a quiet reflection afterwards, just as the wondrous hope verses rise out of Lamentations' weeping and gnashing of teeth. Davis knew what kind of music YNYC wanted: "Just write something beautiful," he said. So Mueller ultimately decided to use chant, repeating passages and melodies that reflect the voice patterns of the spoken words. The men and women sing antiphonally for much of the 8-vocal-part piece, until the harmonies settle into a warm conclusion that repeats the opening chant. Before agreeing to commission a piece, a choir should make sure the composer knows the choir's skill level, and what type of work you are expecting. Agree on the text and seek permission if the text isn't in the public domain. Spell out everything in writing: fees, deadline and the composer's obligation to the choir after turning in the piece. Will he come to rehearsals? Make last minute changes? Who will hold the work's copyright? If the composer holds it, can the choir perform the piece again without additional fees?

Understand that commissioning new music is a risk.

Mueller's piece has spurred YNYC members to sell more tickets to the Merkin concert on May 20. Not all new commissions have such happy outcomes. "You hope that the piece will be the next great contribution to humanity, but it could turn out to be a flop," Davis says. The piece may not work as everyone expected, or the audience may not warm to the words or sounds. But the choral repertoire can't grow unless choirs take the risk that new pieces will fail. Regardless of outcome, premiering a new piece will involve singers in the art of choral music in a way few other experiences can. When you pick up a piece of music that has never been evaluated, you approach it with a greater curiosity, and eyes unaffected by the music's age or reviews. The experience gives singers a deeper appreciation of how all the music we sing came to be.

The Young New Yorkers' Chorus will present "Hope: The Source of Youth" at Merkin Concert Hall (67th and Broadway) on May 20, 2004 at 8 PM. The concert features the premiere of New York composer Christopher Mueller's Wondrous Hope. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students/seniors) and are available at www.ynyc.org.

Laura Vanderkam is a New York City-based freelance writer. She reports and writes on a variety of topics including education, college life, workforce politics, current events and women's issues. This is her second article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Laura Vanderkam.
Revision Date: May 16, 2004.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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