HOLLYWOOD, Calif. It is perhaps only fitting that the Hollywood Master Chorale (HMC) will perform compositions by the young winners of its “Voices of LA” student competition on Father’s Day, June 17, at 7 p.m. at Hollywood Lutheran Church in Los Angeles.
“Traditionally, a father’s role is to nurture, encourage and provide guidance for his child,” explains Lyndia Lowy, President of the renowned ensemble. “And that is very much the role HMC envisioned for itself when we established our ‘Voices of LA’ student competition. It’s been such a gratifying experience, commissioning – and now performing – works by four very talented young composers just embarking upon what we are sure will be major careers. We’re so proud that we can say we are among the first to discover them.”
The four student winners are Joshua Fishbein, a PhD student in Music Composition at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music; Saad Haddad, a sophomore at the University of Southern California (USC); and Jordan Nelson and Mark Popeney, who are both currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Composition from USC.
“We asked each of our winners to write a piece that incorporated the text from William Blake’s book of poetry, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ says HMC’s Artistic Director Lauren Buckley. “We’re using Blake’s text because it so beautifully illustrates the overall theme of this two-year cycle. This is the first year’s cycle, when the emerging composers write their own music, setting text from the 19 poems in the ‘Innocence’ section of the book. Next year, our composers will work with texts from the ‘Experience’ part…and they’ll collaborate with more ‘experienced,’ established composers!”
“The fact that these poems seem to have musical rhythm inherent in them makes them an obvious choice for a choral text,” adds Lowy. “The poems resonate with the rhythms of the music Blake heard all around him in 18th Century London - the music of street-sellers’ cries, game songs, drinking songs and broadside ballads. Some scholars even think that he set some of these poems to music himself, but no record survives of whether he composed music himself or ever expected these poems to be sung to tunes of the day.”
Over a century later, composer Saad Haddad found himself so entranced by the musicality of Blake’s writing that he wound up selecting not one, but two poems – The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found.
“When I first saw the text, I knew that I wanted to have both poems in my piece,” relates Haddad, who earned a 2010 ASCAP Young Composer Award for his orchestral piece, Heart of the Hall, and was one of fourteen students selected this past summer to study with Professor Samuel Adler of the Juilliard School in Berlin as part of the Freie Universitat in Berlin International Summer Program. “It then became clear to me that I had to use all the text, although some words became more important than others, like the word, father.”
“The piece,” Haddad continues, “is about this boy who simply does not know where his father is going, but then realizes that he really is alone and that his father will not come to comfort him. Yet, in the end, I kind of leave it up to the listener to decide whether or not the child eventually reconciles with his father. I guess it just depends on whether the listener is an optimistic person or not!”
Composer Joshua Fishbein also opted to use all of Blake’s text.
“After reading through all of Blake's ‘Songs of Innocence’, I picked those that I liked the most and which also fit the time restriction,” says Fishbein, a singer and pianist who has written award-winning works for both vocal and instrumental ensembles. Recent awards include the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Student Composition Competition of the American Choral Directors Association, the National Lutheran Choir’s 25th Anniversary Choral Composition Competition, The Esoterics’ POLYPHONOS Competition, and WomenSing’s Youth Inspiring Youth Competition.
"Piping Down the Valleys Wild made the final cut, although I was also interested in setting Blake's Laughing Song, and may do so in the future,” continues Fishbein, who memorized the poem and practiced reciting it aloud before setting the words to music. “In order to do justice to the text, I set the words in order without omitting or rearranging any of it. I do some word repetition locally, but this poem has a lot of repetition built into it already.”
Unlike his colleagues, composer Jordon Nelson opted to use much less of Blake’s text when he composed The Echoing Green.
“I actually set only a small portion of Blake's poem, taking lines from the first of the three stanzas,” says Nelson, whose electronic and electro-acoustic works have been performed by Orchestra 2001 of Philadelphia, PA, New York City’s NOW Ensemble, the USC Thornton Symphony, contemporaneous of Bard College, Simon Carrington’s Schola Cantorum of Yale University, and the USC Chamber Singers, among others.
“My interest in the composition was to set the mood and scenery of Blake's poem and not necessarily rely on the words but, rather, the music to express the sentiment,” Nelson explains. “I remember feeling encouraged by Lauren to explore this sort of setting, but I don't think she necessarily pushed me in that direction, as much as the text suggested an almost orchestral approach to the depiction of Blake's story.”
Initially, composer Mark Popeney did not intend to use all of Blake’s text in his composition, Night, either.
“It simply seemed too much text to handle for a short piece such as this,” says Popenay, whose string quartet, Channels, was awarded the Peter David Faith Memorial Award in Composition at USC in 2010 and won honorable mention in the National Association of Composers, USA composition competition in 2009. “However, as I got into the thick of it, I realized that in actually using all of them allowed for a pretty neat overall structure. The music that emerged ended up able to handle the healthy amount of text, after all.”
Yet setting Blake’s words to music “turned out to be quite a challenge,” Popeney admits.
“Many of the poems in ‘Songs of Innocence’ have a sing-song, almost nursery-rhyme quality to them,” he explains. “To me, that makes it hard to set - you don't want to ignore the musicality of the text, but you also can't let it write your music for you.”
Jordan Nelson has a slightly different perspective. “There is something inherently musical in Blake's poetry,” says Nelson, who describes himself as “a big fan” of Blake. “I found myself full of compositional ideas from the very first read of The Echoing Green.”
Saad Haddad’s appreciation for the poet took a little longer to grow, he admits. “The first poem of his I was introduced to was The Tyger, in my 10th grade English class at North Hollywood High School,” recalls Haddad. “I thought it was very silly, and my buddies and I had our jokes about it. But, as I began work on The Little Boy I grew to have a keener appreciation for Blake, and in a weird way, found myself seeing eye to eye with him with regard to his relationship with his father, which we can only speculate this set of poems is about.”
The competition was also Joshua Fishbein’s first experience setting William Blake’s poetry to music. “I think that his poetry works well for music,” says Fishbein. “In fact, I’m really looking forward to setting text from his ‘Songs of Experience’ next year for the second year of the Hollywood Master Chorale's ‘Voices of LA’ project.”
Lyndia Lowy looks forward to the second phase of the competition as well.
“I've read the entire cycle of ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ a number of times over the years, and my appreciation of them has grown,” says Lowy. “They’ve long been revered as one the great works of the English Romantic imagination…and for good reason. Even though the poems themselves are childlike, the entire cycle develops a vision of humanity encompassing ideas about love, freedom and justice. And that’s something worth singing about!”
HMC will also perform works by Morten Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre, Samuel Barber and William Billings, long considered the father of American choral music.
“Including works by these composers works so well with the fact that our performance turned out to take place on Fathers Day,” says Buckley. “Yes, the main purpose of this concert is to introduce four of the most gifted members of the next generation of choral composers to our audience. But, at the same time, we will showcase and celebrate the artistry of those who came before them…who, in a sense, ‘fathered’ them.”
The Hollywood Master Chorale thanks the Los Angeles County Arts Commission for providing a grant to help fund “Voices of LA.” Tickets for the performance will cost $20, while seniors and students can purchase tickets for the discounted price of $15. Tickets are available either online or at the door For additional information, please visit the Chorale’s website: www.hollywoodmasterchorale.org or call 323-960-4349.
A dessert reception will follow the concert. Hollywood Lutheran Church is located at 1733 N. New Hampshire Avenue in Los Angeles, 90027.