As a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I seldom get the opportunity to sit in the audience and listen to the Chorus. But because I came back to London in late September and missed a few rehearsals for LSC’s “Songs from America” concert conducted by Eric Whitacre, I couldn’t sing in the concert. Instead, I was given a free ticket and went two weeks ago to the Barbican for the concert.
Eric Whitacre is one of the most popular American composers and will no doubt leave his mark in modern choral music history.
Having previously sung a few pieces by him in the University of London Chamber Choir, I found his music very touching and effective (especially, “A Boy and A Girl”). But the idea of “Sleep”, an acappella choral music, being transposed for the 100-member Chorus and LSO’s string orchestra seemed a challenging task. Nonetheless, Whitacre did so successfully while maintaining the almost soporific effects of the music.
The first half of the concert included songs by composers such as Aaron Copland and Morten Lauridsen, whose compositions shaped Whitacre’s work. One of my favourites was the selection of Copland’s “Old American Songs”. The joyous “Ching-a-ring Chaw” juxtaposed against the calmer, more soothing “Long Time Ago”, showcasing the ability of the LSC to sing in unity.
The world premiere of Whitacre’s “Songs of Immortality” was perhaps the most moving part of the evening. Influenced by Whitacre’s own personal experience when his father went through a serious illness, he carefully chose poems by Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas and set music to “After Great Pain” and “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed”. The combination of words and music was melancholy yet strong-willed, reflecting Whitacre’s contemplative views on immortality.
The highlight of the evening was “Five Hebrew Love Songs”, the words of which was written by Whitacre’s wife (Hila Plitmann) and composed by the man himself. Plitmann sang the solo with a soft but well-supported soprano voice – a pity the orchestra was a bit too forte when she later sang another solo, “Knoxville, Summer of 1915”, by Samuel Barber.
One of the striking characteristics of Whitacre was how he intimately talked about the music: how the pieces had come about, and why he had chosen them. Whitacre’s style of conducting was particularly ‘easy’ and this can be shown near the end of “Sleep”, where he laid down his hands and let the singers go on ad lib repeating the words ‘sleep, sleep, sleep…’ until the sound diminished into silence.
My biggest regret of the evening was that I wasn’t able to take part in the concert. Whether you are a fan of modern choral music or not, Whitacre’s music will move you emotionally.
Listen to his compositions online (for free!) on his website: