Waiting to Take Wing: Premieres Deferred

In the Summer 2020 issue of Chorus America's magazine, the Voice, we published a number of special features that highlighted the choral community's response in the wake of COVID-19. Among countless affected performances during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic were eagerly anticipated world premieres—works such as Damien Geter’s African American Requiem with Portland, Oregon’s Resonance Ensemble (for more, see Secular Requiems) that explore timely and meaningful topics and involve collaborations, often spanning long periods, distances, or both. We asked several choruses about their premieres that were put on hold and their developing plans to find a way to share these new pieces of music with the world.

Seattle Men’s Chorus—Love Beyond Borders

Paul Caldwell, artistic director

This concert, originally scheduled for March 20 and 21, will spotlight Seattle’s unique status as epicenter for an effort to relocate LGBTQ individuals who grew up in Muslim-majority countries. Over 80 refugees who identify as LGBTQ have been rescued from their hostile home countries in the past couple of years, and still more are in process. In the Middle East, assaults, executions, and honor killings of LGBTQ people are very real threats.

Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) artistic director Paul Caldwell met a retired Seattle chiropractor and activist named Michael Failla, who has been working to develop a modern-day Underground Railroad to help LGBTQ individuals in those countries escape to safety. While researching, Caldwell watched the film Out of Iraq, documenting the story of a gay Iraqi couple—a translator during the war in Iraq and a soldier in the Iraqi Army—who spent years apart before reuniting in Seattle with help from Failla. The couple’s story became the inspiration for an entire concert program and a new commissioned work.

With support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, SMC commissioned a choral song cycle that illuminates the stories of several of the refugees who have been served by Failla’s Underground Railroad, selecting composers for the project whose backgrounds in some way resonated with the asylum seekers.

(This overview primarily draws from an article by Barbara McMichael in The Connector magazine.)

Are there as yet any updated plans for your premiere?

Caldwell: In a perfect world, we'll perform the work in June of 2021. Alternately, if we can't return to rehearsals in January, we have a plan. We'll record the music virtual-choir style and use it to create a documentary. Some of the refugees who inspired the story are here in Seattle. Others are hiding in various hostile locations. But we have access to all of them via Zoom and WhatsApp. Technology affords us creative ways to engage in important storytelling and musicmaking during a time of separation.

Has the current pandemic made you consider the subject matter or the impact of to-be-premiered work in a new light?

Caldwell: We didn't know it at the time, but #togetherapart was a rallying cry for this project from the start. We were inspired by LGBTQIA+ people hiding from a level of hostility the rest of us couldn't imagine. The pandemic has, for now, kept us physically separated. But that separation has brought us closer in terms of mission, advocacy, and community. Our chorus's weekly Zoom calls are being attended by a gay couple fleeing Syria, now isolated in an Eastern European safe house. Their outings to obtain food are shadowed by the fear of capture and the fear of COVID. Sometimes we feel exhausted by the inability to get a haircut or the shuttering of our favorite restaurant. Then we talk to these guys and get a huge reality check.


Cathedral Choral Society (Washington DC)—“March of the Women”

Christopher Eanes, executive director

Steven Fox, artistic director

Eanes: Our “March of the Women” program celebrates the centenary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave some women the right to vote in the U.S. One of the composers represented is Dame Ethel Smyth, who was not only a suffragist but herself an accomplished composer. She was the first woman to have a work performed by the Metropolitan Opera—and it would be over 100 years before the next work by a woman was presented. She wrote a short work entitled March of the Women that was a rallying cry for suffragists everywhere.

As cornerstones of the program, Maestro Fox commissioned new works from three extraordinary women writing today: Jessie Montgomery, Lisa Bielawa, and Augusta Read Thomas. Surrounding the project, there was also a major initiative planned to foster young female voices in composition through a composition masterclass and panel discussions. CCS was days away from this extraordinary performance when we were required to cancel, much to the dismay of all that had worked so hard to make this project come to light.

Are there as yet any updated plans for your premiere?

Eanes: CCS will not only perform this concert, we will do it with all the attendant festivities and peripheral events. Right now, we are looking at it being on the 2020-2021 season, but as we know, anything could change at any moment.

Fox: We did a virtual choir performance of Smyth's March of the Women that we are showing to the chorus this coming Friday. It's just another way we have tried to stay in touch with this repertoire that we had worked on for several months before having to postpone the concert.

Has the current pandemic made you consider the subject matter or the impact of to-be-premiered work in a new light?

Eanes: The subject of women’s voices in music remains as important as it was before the pandemic hit. For too long—especially by our own organization—women composers have been overlooked, and it is our aim to correct that in a unique, meaningful, and lasting way. Furthermore, it is our firm belief as an organization that only by continuing to work for change and move the art forward will choral music stay relevant though this crisis and long after. While we should be cautious in our plans to reopen and restart rehearsals, now is not the time to play it safe in our programming.


Omaha Children’s Chorus—This Is Not a Drill

Amanda Stevenson, artistic director

Stevenson: This Is Not a Drill by composer Michael Bussewitz-Quarm was commissioned by Omaha Children's Choir (OCC) to address the issue of gun violence from a youth perspective. As our singers reflected on issues that were impacting them, it was clear they wanted to send a message to address the issue of lockdown drills. OCC singers were involved in the artistic process of contributing to the text through video conferencing with our lyricist, Chantal Sellers. 

Are there as yet any updated plans for your premiere?

Stevenson: We are currently exploring a virtual premiere of the piece for the fall. There are several families in our chorus who do not have devices and/or internet at home. Our organization has a big focus on equity and access, so we aim to be able to have all singers that would like to participate in the premiere be able to do so. Additionally, we have immigrant and refugee families that have been directly impacted by COVID-19 through job loss and/or parents and family members contracting the virus at work. We have needed to lean into the social change aspect of our mission during this crisis as it pertains to our families and community. Because of these issues, we are aiming for fall to give us a bit more time to plan and implement the premiere.

For the remainder of our season, we held virtual rehearsals for those that were able to attend. This crisis has revealed inequities not only in education but also within the arts. OCC will continue to work to address these inequities as we move forward. OCC also partnered with Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, and we will be raising money to support their work (as we would have done at our April concert).

Has the current pandemic made you consider the subject matter or the impact of the to-be-premiered work in a new light?

Stevenson: In a recent conversation with some of our singers, they pointed out that since schools are closed, they have not had to experience lockdown drills. Another singer added that while school shootings haven't been happening since schools have been closed, gun violence hasn't stopped. For our virtual premiere, we will work with Nebraskans Against Gun Violence to share some updated statistics on gun violence during the pandemic and highlight the work they do in our state.


Boston Gay Men’s Chorus—A Peacock Among Pigeons

Craig Coogan, executive director


A Peacock Among Pigeons is a hopeful, award-winning LGBTQ-themed children’s book that tells the story of learning how to stand out when you don’t fit in. Broadway composer John Bucchino composed a score and wrote lyrics for a choral stage performance based on the book. The project was commissioned in partnership with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus and funded in part by an Equality Fund grant from the Boston Foundation.

Coogan: Five days prior to the world premiere we cancelled the concert, before it became the standard practice. We were on track to break some records for that concert cycle and were exploring how to present the piece sooner rather than later when it became clear that wasn’t going to be possible. A few weeks later we cancelled the remainder of the season—the first time in our 38-year history we’ve ever cancelled concerts. We paid all of the folks who would have made the magic happen, from front-of-house box office staff to union musicians, and refunded all tickets [for patrons] who didn’t convert to donation within 10 days. After we did that, we asked our supporters to help us. They did, and we are so grateful.

The cancellation was particularly hard on our creative team, who had spent months rehearsing the music, acting, and dancing, as well as designing costumes and lights. The book’s authors were about to get on flights to Boston, and the composer was already on his way. The 220 singers had worked hard to create John Bucchino’s amazing piece that music director Reuben Reynolds and assistant music director/arranger/orchestrator Chad Weirick had developed over the last several years.

Are there as yet any updated plans for your premiere?

Coogan: We will return to the rehearsal hall and public performances when it’s determined by health authorities and best practices from the sector that it’s safe to do so. We do not know when that will be, but we’re committed to telling the story of Peter the Peacock when we can. It’s the embodiment of our mission to create musical experiences that inspire change, build community, and celebrate difference.

Has the current pandemic made you consider the subject matter or the impact of to-be-premiered work in a new light?

Coogan: The message of “Peacock Among Pigeons” is about finding yourself and becoming the person that you’re meant to be. It’s about the importance and value of community. It celebrates the human spirit. This message is not time-specific. After quarantines and in the era of physical distancing, the message is even more resonant. We can’t wait to share it!


Voices of Ascension (New York City)—Astronautica: Voices of Women in Space

Dennis Keene, artistic director

Astronautica—Voices of Women in Space is a newly commissioned work of music, voice, and video with a score by nine women composers and a libretto drawn from the words of the women who have traveled in outer space and seen the world from a dramatic new perspective. The piece was scheduled to be performed at National Sawdust and the Flea Theater. The concert was to be the inaugural performance launching Voices of the New, a new artistic initiative curated by Voices of Ascension ensemble member Hai-Ting Chinn, dedicated to exploring new horizons, ideas, and diverse culturally responsive connections in vocal chamber ensemble music.

Are there as yet any updated plans for your premiere?

Keene: The live premiere was set to take place in May but was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead it is being redesigned to become a digital piece of art to premiere via internet this coming fall. It will feature a libretto put together from interviews of women astronauts, music commissioned by nine women composers, special video created from NASA footage, and a trio of voices.

Has the current pandemic made you consider the subject matter or the impact of to-be-premiered work in a new light?

Keene: Astronautica is an artistic evocation of the transformation that happens when one sees our small planet set against the endless blackness of space. Without borders. Without the artificial boundaries which divide—and could well destroy—humankind. Certainly, this pandemic has shown us how completely interconnected this planet is.