November 13, 2008

For its 50th anniversary, Lexington choral group tackles 3 world premieres in one show.

A 50th-anniversary concert is often a chance to hit the archives and pull out grand old pieces that have sustained and been landmarks for a group over the decades. That’s not what the Lexington Singers is doing, though.

To celebrate its golden anniversary, the group commissioned heavyweight choral composer RenĂ© Clausen to write a piece for the chorus, children’s chorus, small orchestra and organ. On top of that, the Singers also commissioned new works from two Singers favorites: area composers Jay Flippin and Johnie Dean.

In October, Clausen came to Lexington to help the group rehearse his piece, Celebration Canticles. He told the chorus of more than 200 voices that he appreciated the Singers taking a chance on a new work, joking, “It could turn out to be a big piece of junk you spent money on.”

But Lexington Singers music director Jefferson Johnson says that just by picking Clausen, the group ensured that it would not be getting junk.

The idea to commission a new piece, Johnson says, started with the Singers’ 40th-anniversary concert, for which it commissioned Lexington composer Joseph Baber to write An American Requiem. It was a huge success. For the 50th, the Singers’ president, Nicholas Nickl, proposed another commission on a national scale, and he asked Johnson whom he would want to commission.

Clausen leaped to mind because “we had some experience with his style and have always loved him,” Johnson says. “His reputation has kind of snowballed over the last 10 or 15 years all over the country to where he is one of the elite choral composers in the world. People snatch up his work as soon as it’s out there and perform it.”

That’s what the Singers expects to happen with Celebration Canticles. It’s a work based on texts by authors such as Dylan Thomas that is such a broad look at human existence that Clausen originally considered subtitling it The Circle of Life until Johnson suggested that might be a bit too Lion King.

“A younger man could not write this music,” Nickl said at a rehearsal. “He’s a genius, writing about life and death and celebrating life and celebrating death.”

Dean’s piece is a benediction for the concert using sacred and “quasi-sacred” texts, and Flippin’s is a meditation on why singers sing.

Putting three world premieres in one concert puts pressure on the Singers, as there is nothing in the show the group has performed before, and there is no point of reference beyond the music as to how to sing it.

But Flippin says that’s appropriate for a group that prides itself on excellence and tackling tough works. “It seems fitting that we would bring to the community some brand new music and not just do the Brahms Requiem for the 19th time or something like that,” he says.

Reprinted courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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