The Northern Arizona University Holiday Dinner, December 2010
This past summer Edie Copley, director of choral studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ asked me to write a commissioned work to serve as the opening processional music for their 36th Annual Holiday Dinner, a wonderful event which raises substantial money for the choral program’s scholarship fund. I of course accepted, as I know Edie and Ryan Holder have a great program there, and I do need to write more holiday music. Edie requested something big and bold to grab the audience, and the proposed voicing was SATB choir, organ, brass, percussion and hand bells. Edie stressed to me that NAU has an amazing handbell program AND a great handbell arranger by the name of Doug Benton. She told me I could sketch in a handbell part and Doug would be glad to flesh it out.
This was all an interesting turn of events, and when I called Sherri from Raleigh, NC where I was teaching she again encouraged me to consider setting Wordsworth’s “Christmas Bells”, known to most of us in the form of the 3/4 meter barbershop-ish tune called “I heard the bells on Christmas day”. Sherri had been urging me to set this very interesting text to my own music for 2-3 years, but I kept running into two blocks- I just couldn't get the usual tune out of my head, and two, the fair amount of conflict in some of the verses seemed counter to the simple mirth most people expect at the holidays (the poem references the American Civil War, war cannons, etc). So I had always told her that it just wasn’t working for me to set this text.
However, one night shortly thereafter I was lying awake at night and all of a sudden a new melody (meaning my own melody!) in 4/4 popped into my head and before a day or two had gone by I couldn't even remember what that old standard melody sounded like. So I started sketching out parts of the song, and also decided that I would tackle head-on those verses with the conflict. I was concerned that Edie might not like the text but I ran it past her and she said that it actually was a favorite poem of hers and therefore definitely a go. Sherri was, I think, a bit in shock, after all those times she urged me to set this text, here I was finally doing it (of course she has pushed me toward other texts as well, and I have gradually made them into pieces!).
So there I was in Raleigh, NC writing Christmas while the temperature outside was 90 or 100 in the daytime and not much cooler at night. When I got back to Chicago I spent the whole month of August doing three things; 1) finishing the piece, including all the parts, 2) playing Plants versus Zombies on the computer (yes, our whole household was addicted to this game for awhile), and 3), going to Kane County Cougar minor league baseball games with Sherri and Aidan for fun.
Edie was kind enough to allow me extra brass, so the final version is SATB, organ, three trumpets, two horns, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion including tympani, and a big bell part. When Doug Benton sent me his version of my bell part sketch it was fun to look at- he had taken my sketches and really put them on steroids, cool! The other thing I worked with Doug on was the idea of having a final bell peal near the end when the poem becomes joyous and positive again and references all the bells ringing. Doug devised a way to have the bells do rapid peals and not really try to be in rhythm with the main forces, so you would get the sense that the bells were from the real world and not straitjacketed into the rhythm of a composed piece. When I finally got to see this and hear it in person it was both audibly, visually, and poetically stunning. Many thanks to Doug for figuring out what I was trying to convey there! As the fall progressed I got word from Edie and Ryan that the singers loved the piece and everything was going well. Then it was time for me to fly to Flagstaff and hear a Monday night rehearsal and then attend the first two performances (Thursday and Friday nights, then back to Chicago; NAU would finish out with two more performances Saturday and Sunday).
I got on a US airways plane to go from Chicago to Phoenix (and then a puddle jumper up to Flagstaff), but the pilot got about 10-20 feet off the ground and immediately pulled the plane back down- interesting! They told us to hang on while they checked out the problems and then finally kicked us off the plane, and their ticket agents couldn’t get me out to Flagstaff in time for that evening’s rehearsal- bummer. So I decided the best thing to do was go Wednesday, and anyway I was trying to finish up a fun commission for Robyn Lana and her Cincinnati Children’s choir. Staying in Chicago two days would allow me to be home and get this done easily.
So finally on Wednesday I got to Flagstaff, my first visit there. Edie took me to lunch and showed me around town just a bit. I got to see the old hotel where Zane Gray wrote a lot of his books. Later that evening I had dinner with Ryan and a grad student by the name of Elliott Lilles- a very talented and nice guy. We were checking out one of the local microbreweries.
Since there were no rehearsals for me to attend Thursday or Friday during the day and Edie and Ryan were both really tied up with planning, classes and other things I decided to rent a car and go see Sedona, AZ for the first time. I am so glad I did, it was amazing. I do like nature and hiking and you could hike for weeks around the Red Rocks Sedona area. I hiked both Thursday and Friday during the day and took pictures around the usual attractions like Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock but also got further off the beaten trail to the point that during some of the hiking all I could hear was my own heart beating—not a single traffic or human noise. The weather was absolutely amazing- in Sedona during the daytime it was very sunny and in the upper 60’s. With the sun angle being what it was (December at 5,000 ft. above sea level), it was almost feeling hot and most folks were walking around in T-shirts.
I had some very low-key meals at the Barking Frog Grill and also the Hideaway. I didn’t really hit the shops there much- they were either touristy or very high end fine art. And I’m not much of a shopper dude anyway, especially with all that nature to be explored.
The concerts Thursday and Friday were amazing. My piece, as per Edie’s request, starts with about sixty seconds of instrumental intro for the massed choirs to process to- then the singing starts and yes, I was channeling Vaughn Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” a bit I suppose on this (not a bad model, eh?). People seemed to really love the piece, especially on the second night when the choir turned up the expression at least a notch or two. What really endeared me to the audience and to NAU’s young singers was this- so many people came up to me and told me how much they liked the piece, and so much of it was based on the text. The students especially liked that the text wasn’t just all sweetness and holiday fluff, and that meant a lot to me- the fact that they “got it”. A bunch of them told me it was their favorite piece on the program and actually a few even said it was their favorite piece they had sung in their life. That was amazing to hear and so sweet of them to share that with me. NAU’s students were by far the most communicative singers I have ever been around in two ways. First, they are highly expressive singers both sonically and also visually. Apparently this is not anything Edie drills into them with specific exercises, they just all seem to be such a family and so into the music and texts of all their numbers that you not only want to hear them sing, you want to watch their eyes and their face too- and not just a few singers, the whole choir. Secondly, they just seemed to want to seek me out and communicate their feelings about my piece so much.
Click on this link to go to my webpage for audio of the piece:
(Shrine of the Ages Choir)
Another thrill for me was getting to watch Edie conduct the Shrine of Ages Choir, the select ensemble at the university. I have seen her conduct honors choirs before, but never her own group. I was seated close by on Thursday so I could see most of her facial expressions as well as take in a very good view of her hands. She is a lovely conductor to watch and obviously the students are totally in tune with her. I got a kick out of a nice O Magnum Mysterium by Kevin Memley(yes, there some “Whitacre-isms” I wish would have been left out, but otherwise a nice piece) during which the singers wanted to take off on and climax way too early. It was fun to watch Edie coax them to stay patient and not open up the sound until just the right moment. Her left hand was often a gently controlling brake and kept things paced just right- brilliant conducting.
Edie and I got a chance to hang out both Thursday and Friday night after the concerts. She is a lot of fun, has a great sense of humor, and an amazing pedigree. She’s studied and/or worked with Robert Shaw, Robert Page, Weston Noble, and many others. The stories she told of how she got into music as a young girl on an Iowa farm were wonderful to listen to, and it just goes to show that you don’t have to be living in a big city to become cultured and a success in the arts.
Saturday morning I got a chance to meet Erica Kragness, who has a masters from NAU, and who had conducted my music at NAU when she was a grad student. We had not met in person yet, so we both were looking forward to meeting. We met in a ‘lil coffee shop, had a very nice chat, and then I gave Erica an intro to geocaching, as I just happened to have my trail GPS and 1-2 geocaches were waiting to be found nearby. She thought geocaching was a hoot. Then it was off to the airport and back home to Chicago- delayed only by US Airways generally crappy planes (don’t fly this airline if you can help- they are not good!).
So there you have it, my wonderful experience writing this piece for NAU and all the fun things I got to do in Arizona. But honestly three things stick out the most. First I have to thank Sherri for needling me to set this text. Secondly, many thanks to Edie and Ryan for commissioning me and being such wonderful hosts. And finally, many thanks to the NAU singers for connecting so fully to the texts and being so communicative to me during my visit. I hope to return to NAU whenever possible to continue this very rewarding relationship.
PART TWO, coming up- A discussion of the text of this poetry, how it has usually been set, and what I did differently
To the readers
6 years ago