Performing Eric Whitacre

Over the last few weeks I’ve written my own version of program notes for the upcoming concerts at Orchestra Hall. I wanted to do so again, but with a special twist—as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, I’ll be joining my colleagues of the Minnesota Orchestra onstage for the concert this week. Together, we’re performing music by contemporary composer Eric Whitacre, one of the most celebrated choral composers out there. As an added treat, Whitacre will be joining us himself to conduct his music, giving us a wonderful opportunity to work with a living composer.

I can’t wait.

So in the spirit of previous blog posts, I’d like to offer these following comments about the music, particularly from the perspective of what I feel when performing them. Enjoy!

 * * *

The concert begins with Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. Now, the inclusion of these works might come as a surprise, but are a natural fit of the program.

The songs themselves aren’t particularly difficult to perform—we’re not talking Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis here. In fact, the last time I performed them was back in college. But as we’ve been singing through these songs I was struck by a similarity to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, another deceptively simple work frequently performed by younger actors. Like Our Town, the language of Copland’s Old American Songs is simple, direct and straightforward—but that’s the challenge of performing them. A few years ago I saw a production of Our Town done by Girl Friday, an amazing local company. I was astonished by the depth of feeling the play contained, as well as the profound messages of family, love, loss… and in the end, community. What a powerful statement of American life.

In their quiet power, the Old American Songs pack a similar punch. These deceptively simple works convey deep emotions and speak to us in a direct, honest way. There are none of the clichés we frequently experience of lost love, and no raging against the heavens; instead we experience a freshness of expression that immediately draws the audience in.

The fact that the music itself is so straightforward poses a great challenge for us as performers—with no drama or glitz to dazzle the crowd, we have to focus on our interpretive skills to “sell” the works to the audience. It’s like the actors in Our Town making the townsfolk of Grover’s Corners come to life… or thinking about one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent concerts, like Andrew Litton performing the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. We singers have been hard at work to make this music sing—I hope you enjoy the results.

Another benefit to having the Old American Songs on the program. Eric Whitacre is, of course, a giant of 21st century choral music, but through the Old American Songs we hear the foundations of American songwriting that Whitacre’s whole oeuvre is based upon. Copland was a brilliant songwriter in his own right, and a giant of his time, the 20th century. His arrangements of old folk songs perfectly embody American compositional styles of the past century; for most people, this is the very embodiment of American music. But in these arrangements we hear Copland reflecting back to earlier traditions of the 19th century. In these anonymous folk songs, we hear America first discovering its own musical voice, and indeed its own national character. The result is these songs give a multi-layered look at American music over centuries, and serve as a perfect introduction to the glorious choral music of today.

* * *

Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs are incredibly beautiful, and should melt the hearts of everyone in the Hall.

But beneath that touching music is an equally touching story, which Whitacre has told in his own words:

In the spring of 1996, my great friend and brilliant violinist Friedemann Eichhorn invited me and my girlfriend-at-the-time Hila Plitmann (a soprano) to give a concert with him in his home city of Speyer, Germany. We had all met that year as students at the Juilliard School, and were inseparable.

Because we were appearing as a band of traveling musicians, ‘Friedy’ asked me to write a set of troubadour songs for piano, violin and soprano. I asked Hila (who was born and raised in Jerusalem) to write me a few ‘postcards’ in her native tongue, and a few days later she presented me with these exquisite and delicate Hebrew poems. I set them while we vacationed in a small skiing village in the Swiss Alps, and we performed them for the first time a week later in Speyer.

Each of the songs captures a moment that Hila and I shared together. Kala Kalla (which means ‘light bride’) was a pun I came up with while she was first teaching me Hebrew. The bells at the beginning of Eyze Sheleg are the exact pitches that awakened us each morning in Germany as they rang from a nearby cathedral.

These songs are profoundly personal for me, born entirely out of my new love for this soprano, poet, and now my beautiful wife, Hila Plitmann.

I can attest that these songs fully capture the unique experience of young love, with all its power, intimacy and delicacy. Indeed, that’s the greatest challenge of performing them—especially since… well, few of us are of that age any longer. But hey—we do remember….

Another point. It is our distinct privilege to have Hila Plitmann herself as the soloist for these songs, bringing together the man and woman who first created this gorgeous work as a celebration of their love for each other. As the chorus, we’ll be right there with them as they share memories of that budding love on stage… and I’m honored to be part of that moment.

* * *

Equus. Whoo-boy. Whitacre wanted to create a “moto perpetuo,” a piece that starts running and never stops (“equus” being the Latin word for “horse”). To friends I’ve described the piece as “dynamic minimalism,” where we sing a series of five or six short motives through a series of inventions and transformations, over an ever-changing, rapid-fire rhythmic structure.

Well, that sounds pretty esoteric. Let me put it this way… it is one hell of a wild ride.

That said, it is a white-knuckle ride for us in the chorus. Heck, I think Whitacre is on record saying it’s a white-knuckle ride for the conductor, too. Again, this isn’t technically difficult to sing, and instead of actual words we keep singing variations on “Ah!” The difficulty is that those wonderful rhythmic patterns are always changing. On the one hand, these shifts give the work its momentum and power; but since they are always changing, there is always a chance that singers will mistime a measure, resulting in what we delicately call an “unpaid solo.”

But when it works, it will leave everyone breathless—when we first got through the piece, the chorus spontaneously erupted into full-throated cheering.

Let me share a quick anecdote about this work—one I probably shouldn’t share, but I will anyway.

Last week the Chorale was on a community-building tour to northern Minnesota, performing Verdi’s Requiem with local music groups in Duluth. During some down time at the hotel, I was kicking back in my room, when I began hearing rhythmic sounds coming from somewhere:


Inwardly I groaned, imagining someone nearby was having, shall we say, a romantic encounter. Just as I was about to turn up my TV, I heard a change in the pattern—the unmistakable sound of triplets being added to the mix:

“(Ah-ah-ah)… ah! (Ah-ah-ah)… ah!”

I was instantly relieved… this wasn’t someone getting it on… it was a fellow chorister practicing Equus! Whew!

* * *

Which brings us to the Songs of Immortality. These songs will undoubtedly be completely unfamiliar to the audience, as this is only the second or third time they have ever been performed.

Songs of Immortality is a difficult piece to write about. For one, this is an incredibly deep work… and I greatly appreciate the fact that it inspires me to dig deeply to be able to perform it.

But I suspect however hard it is for me to sing it, it was far more difficult for Whitacre to compose.

As a bit of background, Eric Whitacre is beloved as a choral god, but most of his works—and certainly most of his best-known works—are essentially miniatures. They are smaller-scale jewels written primarily for a cappella choir. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way; they are brilliant, convey powerful emotions, and are self-contained masterpieces that live up to their reputation for greatness. It is also in these songs where his technique of using blurred tone clusters to create shimmering soundscapes reaches its greatest expression.

But Songs of Immortality is altogether different, even if it makes use of the same techniques. From his comments about it, it is clear that Whitacre was experiencing a difficult time in his life when he composed it. He was in his mid-forties, and just as he started work on the piece his father underwent a risky medical procedure for a very serious condition.

In a sense, this sequence of events is reminiscent of the period in Jean Sibelius’ life that led to his Fourth Symphony. And like that famously bleak work (which received a memorable performance at Orchestra Hall just two weeks ago), the Songs of Immortality are much darker in theme, in tone, and in character to what the composer had written before.

And, just as Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony stands as one of the Finnish composer’s greatest masterpieces, the Songs of Immortality stands one Whitacre’s most profound, penetrating works yet written.

For the text of this work, Whitacre sets a series of haunting, powerful poems written by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson that deal with dark moments in a person’s life, set against the real or imagined specter of death. Forced transitions, if you will, when it is not clear if you will survive. For this concert we are singing two of the three movements: “Lie still, sleep becalmed” and “After great pain.”

(I freely admit that I was so fascinated by the poems that I spent a several hours analyzing them. For me this is another hallmark of a work’s greatness.)

It is fascinating to see how Whitacre rethinks his tone clusters and uses them in this work. As I mentioned, in many of his works the blurred harmonies create an otherworldly, ethereal effect, almost as if you are listening to music in a dream. Here—and again showing a similarity to Sibelius’s Fourth—the harmonies are more stark and troubled. It is as if he was portraying all the powerful emotions of the moment at once… fear, a sense of abandonment, confusion, anger, and grief. But through it all, there is another constant: a steely determination to endure. To survive the crisis. This is a powerful undercurrent that gives the songs their immense power.

For me, one of the hardest moments to sing is in the first song, “Lie still, sleep becalmed.” Near the end there is an enormous climax where the unnamed narrator grapples with the terror-uncertainty of the moment… and then abruptly, there is a quiet return to the opening line, “lie still.” It is as if the narrator was taking in the dire situation, and quietly returning to himself in a moment of terrible wisdom, filled with emotions that are equal parts resignation and determination.

In truth I had a hard time articulating my thoughts about that moment, but it turns out that Whitacre has an answer right at hand. Shortly thereafter, he sets immortal words by Emily Dickinson that capture the sentiment perfectly: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes….” It is a perfect setup, a musical moment that both comments on the earlier music and amplifies it, crystallizing it. And I think it will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has suffered a loss in his or her own life.

One other thing.

As I hear it, the end of the work also provides a glimpse into the overall message Whitacre was trying to convey with this unusual composition. After the dark, multifaceted harmonies that have gone on before, the women’s voices land on a simple, two-note chord, held in unwavering unison for the remainder of the piece. All the complex emotions are stripped away, and this single chord persists… quiet but resolute, and determined to survive. This is the human spirit. Buffeted and battered, but surviving.

This is… life.

This profound work makes me very curious to hear where Eric Whitacre’s music goes in the future.

Hope to see you at the concert!








One thought on “Performing Eric Whitacre

  1. Pingback: Something to Celebrate | Mask of the Flower Prince

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