Singing a New Song: The Power of Commission Consortiums
One of the most important ways to encourage the health of choral music is for choruses to become involved in the process of commissioning and premiering new works. Chorus America has been democratizing this process for over a decade through its Commission Consortium program, which enables a wide variety of choruses to participate in this exciting work. Recently, the concert tour company Classical Movements became a leading partner of this program—a development that promises to enhance the program’s reach. Here’s a look at the Commission Consortiums opportunities for 2019.
When major music institutions announce a season, increasing scrutiny is being paid to the commitment shown to new work. There is more widespread recognition that merely trotting out the familiar repertoire no longer suffices to sustain the art—and that fear of the new should be the exception, not the default setting.
The choral world has been in the vanguard of this development and thrives on the process of promoting fresh compositions. In addition to enriching the choral repertoire itself, this kind of commitment actively involves singers and their audiences in the excitement of the creative interchange that determines a piece’s enduring relevance in the first place.
So it makes sense that more flexible, alternative models for undertaking commissions are likewise transforming the performing arts landscape. The commission consortium model—the pooling of resources among multiple choruses to make commissioning a financially feasible proposition—has proved to be an especially appealing example of this development.
By expanding and diversifying the base of stakeholders, commission consortiums do more than provide a means to leap over the cost hurdle. They also encourage a more robust launch for the new work that is created. Too often, the glamour of a high-profile premiere by a single commissioning entity turns out to be short-lived. The pool of choruses that comprise a commission consortium, in contrast, ensures a broader reach across the choral community.
New Partnership with Classical Movements
Since its launch in 2007, Chorus America’s commissioning program has given birth to 21 new works that have been heard in more than 450 local premieres. President and CEO Catherine Dehoney observes that the introduction of the program was a significant development for the choral ecosystem: “Choruses, especially those with small budgets, were given an opportunity they might not have had otherwise to become part of a commission.”
Last year the leading concert tour company Classical Movements inaugurated an exclusive, five-year sponsorship to support the program. The first composers to participate under this new arrangement are Ola Gjeilo and J. Reese Norris, who will write pieces for SATB choruses and treble/children and youth choruses, respectively. “All of the ensembles involved will have this magic of discovering the work and getting to put their stamp on it,” remarks Neeta Helms, founder and president of Classical Movements.
Composers selected for the Commission Consortiums donate their works to Chorus America, with the fees paid by participating choruses going to support the organization’s activities. “I’m so grateful for the composers who are willing to contribute their creativity for this dual purpose,” says Dehoney. Now, along with its ongoing financial support for Chorus America, Classical Movements is offering the commissioned composers an honorarium in gratitude for the composer’s contribution.
“We’ve been supporters of Chorus America almost since our own inception” in the early 1990s, says Helms. She points out that the new partnership benefits not only the composers but a wide spectrum of participating choruses. “There is a real sense of occasion when a concert includes a new work.” Helms also notes that with Chorus America, Classical Movements shares a vision of making new music more accessible to a broader public. Dehoney adds that “we also hope to leverage the program to bring in emerging composers who have exciting new voices but may not have as wide an audience to start with.”
While the primary focus of Classical Movements is on promoting cultural diplomacy through concert tours, supporting Chorus America makes sense to Helms “because I believe in its mission and its work,” she says. That shared commitment to new music is evident in Classical Movements’ Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. Since its establishment in 2006, the program has developed an impressive global footprint that mirrors the larger mission of Classical Movements.
This global and diplomatic mission—extending to connections to 145 countries so far—is central to the identity of Classical Movements, which has produced tours to the Soviet Union and Cuba in the early 1990s, South Africa immediately after the end of apartheid, and Iraq during the 2003 invasion. Helms is proud that the organization to date has commissioned 75 new works of music by composers from 23 countries—of whom 52 are women and/or composers of color. She believes the partnership with Chorus America can also help further her organization’s vision of bridging cultural divisions: “I hope the consortiums will help bring in a lot of interesting voices both from other American composers and from around the world.”
As part of its five-city tour to South Africa with Classical Movements, the Minnesota Orchestra performed the world premiere of Harmonia Ubuntu, commissioned by Classical Movement's Eric Daniel Helms Program. © Travis Anderson.
The 2019 Commission Consortium Composers
J. Reese Norris, who directs the choirs at Hernando Middle School in northern Mississippi, will write a three- to five-minute piece for children’s and youth choirs. After becoming interested in choral music during college, Norris was drawn to teaching and “fell in love with the idea of working with young people. I knew I would be devoting myself to some sort of ministry and discovered that was music.” A course in choral arranging led to his first tentative steps in composing his own music: “I always find joy when I’m building things.”
Together with his wife Joelle, Norris also runs the community-based program CoroRio, which they cofounded. Its mission is “to transform the lives of children from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.” Norris’s current portfolio of works has been commissioned for choruses across the age spectrum, for churches and secular settings, and featured at ACDA Regional Conferences and all-state choirs. His best-known composition to date is “Paper Crane,” a touching treble-choir setting of a text about a young Japanese girl who turned a simple origami artwork into an international symbol of peace. Norris explains that his process involves improvising at the piano and coming up with themes that “turn into the hook of a song. Beyond that, everything is born from the text.” Formally, the text provides the “roadmap” for the piece.
Writing for a commission consortium entails some unique challenges: “In the past, I’ve been asked to write almost invariably for someone or an ensemble I know. In this case, in a sense it gives me carte blanche, but with that comes a great sense of responsibility. I teach middle school for a living, so I know there is a real need for repertoire specifically for treble choir that is of quality but not insanely hard.” He foresees writing his consortium piece in two and three parts, while keeping in mind the need to balance accessibility with quality. “I’m not interested in being famous or trying to get rich off my music. But I’m extremely grateful for the chance to share the music I have inside of me with a wider range of people.”
Because he is so highly sought after, Ola Gjeilo has experienced commission consortiums on several occasions. From his perspective, “the process is pretty much the same as with all commissions, and I love doing it.”
Like Norris, Gjeilo still has to work his way through prior commissions before embarking on his piece for Chorus America, which will be his first-ever collaboration with the organization. But he will undoubtedly follow his usual process of inspiration, which Gjeilo says typically starts with improvisation, often at the keyboard, where he can record his ideas into a computer. “I use a lot of sample libraries to have sounds that emulate instruments and voices I am writing for,” he says. “Recording and listening back to things is important to bring me to a neutral standpoint, kind of as if I’m in the audience. It helps me to get out of my own head as much as possible and get a feel for how the material would affect me. Whichever ideas light a spark in me and make me react emotionally I will usually keep and develop. Eventually, a piece slowly emerges from those that are left.”
Often, for Gjeilo, the music comes out of the texts, but in other cases the musical ideas precede everything. “I then find a text that fits that idea broadly and keep melding them together.” This versatility possibly originates in the composer’s hybrid vocal-instrumental background. To this date, Gjeilo continues to focus on the two areas of choral music and music for the piano. Piano is his instrumental alter ego: He started out his musical life as a young child at the keyboard and continues to concertize as a pianist (he accompanies the singers on his recent Decca release, Winter Songs).
The piano thus provided the gateway to active composing; choral music came later, starting after high school. It was Gjeilo’s first classical composition teacher who turned him in the direction of choral music. “He felt that was a great place to start, partly because it teaches you good voice leading among other things.” Around this time, the young musician began singing in the Oslo Philharmonic Choir. “I learned so much from that experience as a composer. You get a feel for larger works, and you get to study the orchestra from up close.” The combined experience of singing in a chamber choir and a large symphonic choir proved to be “my biggest education as a choral composer.”
Gjeilo observes that, on a general level, his music is often not directly inspired by external, extra-musical elements other than what is provided by the text he sets. Still, he does refer to artists from other disciplines—such as Dale Chihuly and his glass sculpture or the architecture of Frank Gehry—as models in their “gestural” approach. “Their art often involves large gestures in various ways. It’s also why a composer like Thomas Newman is one of my favorites. These are artists who tend to incorporate a sense of improvisation, which gives their work a wonderfully fluid atmosphere that inspires me.”
Is it harder to write a brief piece? “I always find each piece to be a unique and equally exciting challenge on its own terms, whether it’s a cappella or for choir and orchestra, short or long.”
Experiences of Past Consortium Participants
Chorus America’s new partnership with Classical Movements will be building on what is already a widely admired program. According to Elena Sharkova, artistic and managing director of the Silicon Valley-based Cantabile Youth Singers, the Commission Consortium program “as a whole is phenomenally important because of what it offers to so many choirs from smaller cities that are still building their position in the community. It gives them a chance to go to the next level of appreciation and engagement.”
Noting that many choirs lack the funds to commission a piece by themselves, Sharkova says the consortium model allows them “to establish themselves as having a connection to the choral community and for the kids and parents to take pride in that.” Because they aren’t necessarily competing and performing in high-profile spaces—and are even mischaracterized as “glorified baby-sitting opportunities”—the real significance of youth art organizations tends to be underestimated. “So to have this strategically important moment of presenting a new piece becomes a big deal,” she says. “It really means something to be able to say: ‘Look at us! We have participated in something we commissioned.’” That in turn, she adds, might become the impetus for a parent to undertake a first effort to support a dedicated commissioning program.
Cantabile, which comprises multiple groups organized according to age and skill level, already had a fund in place for commissions before deciding to participate in Chorus America's consortiums, which it has done over the past three years. “What we were finding is that our commissions were becoming much more aimed for the group that sings very advanced music. So they are moving increasingly into the international circles to compete,” Sharkova explains.
That in turn has led to the challenge of balancing the younger singers’ sense of identity and accomplishment. The consortium program’s treble pieces for young singers have been able to fill in the gap: “The younger kids can point with pride to what they’ve done and say: ‘I’m the first one to sing this piece, where there has never been a recording!’ You give this tier of your choir a completely new sense of engagement, because they see they are the medium between the composer and the world.”
Another frequent participant has been Texas Lutheran University School of Music, which took part in the SATB consortiums in 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2017. “We try to take on as many commissions as we can, so this is a great opportunity,” says Douglas Boyer, director of TLU’s School of Music. The variety of composers who have been featured in Chorus America’s program is part of the appeal. So is the prospect of presenting pieces by “major composers that some of us smaller schools would never have the opportunity otherwise to premiere. That process of starting from the very beginning with a new piece of music and bringing it to life for the first time ever is so important for the students.”
Like Sharkova, Boyer refers to a kind of ripple effect that extends beyond the artistic and personal fulfillment the singers themselves gain from the experience. Participating in these premieres also shores up the ensemble’s standing within their community context. “It gives me as a director the chance to show to school board leaders what they can do to foster music and art in their communities. This becomes a perfect discussion tool for that, and it can also help to take audiences outside of their comfort zone to try new music when we take it on tour around the state.”
The choir gets to spend lots of time with these commissions. From the start of the year until the middle of March, the focus is on learning repertoire, followed by a small state tour. “This is a wonderful chance to use a commissioned work as the centerpiece. Even on a short tour we end up performing it something like nine to 12 times.”
One example Boyer cites enthusiastically is the 2009 consortium that featured Eric Whitacre’s mixed-choir piece “Little Man in a Hurry.” “I’ve loved them all, but that one really stands out,” he says. “I remember the students became so engaged they started reaching out on social media—which wasn’t quite as big a deal back then—and contacting Whitacre and the other choirs to talk about the rehearsal process.”
Only one-quarter of the TLU students singing in choir are music majors. Whitacre’s piece, Boyer recalls, posed technical challenges that led him to conclude “we can stretch our students more than we think we can. It might be a little scary going out on a limb, but that also becomes the exciting part of it. And the students love it.” Thanks to the consortium program, “a small school gets the opportunity to have a large voice.”
While the consortium model means that the composers themselves are not typically on hand to help prepare and coach the premieres—as opposed to what normally happens in a deluxe-style single-commission situation with a big-name orchestra, for example—the sense of being empowered by the work of engaging with a brand-new piece frequently recurs in discussions of Chorus America’s program. Neeta Helms believes that when this engagement is amplified by a growing exposure to different composers, the results promise to be remarkable. She foresees an enticing blend of brand-name composers and first-time discoveries. “We have suggested some female composers and some international names as well. It can be very exciting for audiences to experience these different perspectives.” Catherine Dehoney adds that Classical Movements “has a real commitment not only to commissioning and creating new music but also to bringing new audiences to encounter different musical styles. This is a win-win all the way around for the field.”
Be Part of Chorus America’s Commission Consortiums
Registration is now open for this first pair of commissions underwritten by the new partnership. Choruses can sign up to participate through August 16, 2019.
J. Reese Norris’s piece will be made available at the end of January 2020; the consortium participants then have until the end of June to present local premieres before the piece is made available for sale to the general public. The window for premiering Ola Gjeilo’s piece runs from the beginning of March until the end of September 2020.
More details are available at bit.ly/CACommissions.
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Juilliard School have commissioned essays from him, and he is the English editor for the Lucerne Festival and a critic for Musical America and The Seattle Times.