Composing for a Stellar Ensemble:
The Juilliard Precollege Chamber Chorale
by Bruce Lazarus
originally printed in Juilliard Journal, April, 2002
I have been fascinated by stars and galaxies as far back as I can remember. My youthful imagination was fed by a mixture of science fact and fiction: the NASA program, "Lost in Space," my first good telescope, the Hayden Planetarium, "Star Trek," Arthur C. Clarke novels. Carl Sagan's blend of hard science and informed speculation was a particular source of fascination when I was a teenager, and three decades later I find his books still resonate profoundly with my sense of connection to distant planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe-a connection that is an ongoing spiritual experience for me, one of awe and wonder.
My long-term romance with space has often sparked my music. As a 1972-79 Juilliard student, studying composition with Andrew Thomas and Vincent Persichetti, I composed numerous pieces with titles such as Starry Messenger and Magic Sky.
The Juilliard Precollege Chorale, with Rebecca Scott, Director (center), Bruce Lazarus (c), Melody Fader, rehearsal pianist (lower left) and Valentin Lauzrein, assistant director (r.). Photo by Howard Kessler.
More recently, part of my Ph.D. dissertation for Rutgers University was a symphony entitled Terrestrial, Celestial. The Storm King Music Festival in Cornwall, New York, has presented my Alpha Centuri (2000) for harpsichord quartet and Ordinary Stars (2002) for piano.
Last year, I was privileged to compose a choral work for Rebecca Scott and the Juilliard Pre-College Chamber Chorale. StarSongs - a 20-minute cantata consisting of settings of original poems on astronomical themes and scored for youth chorus, flute, cello, and harp - was premiered April 2002 in Paul Hall on the Chorale's spring concert. Now my second work for them-inLight, a setting of traditional and modern Hanukkah texts, sung in English and Hebrew-will be performed by the Chorale on Saturday, December 7, at 6 p.m. in Paul Hall.
Eager to impart literal voice to space music, I was fortunate to hear this remarkable young ensemble perform several times between 1999 and 2002 at the Juilliard Theater and Paul Hall. Each time I was struck by the chorus's focus, vocal blend, and diction, as well as the sheer variety and difficulty of the music they were performing. I knew I had to compose a cycle of "star songs" for this group, an ambitious work that would exploit the contrast between youthful, naïve-sounding voices and the immensity, complexity, and dynamism of the cosmos.
"These kids are extra-special," Rebecca Scott-who founded the Pre-College Chorale in 1968-says with pride. "They aren't voice majors, though some of them could be. They are accomplished pianists, flutists, violinists, and they spend an amazing number of hours practicing. As a result, they have an adult attention span, and many of them have absolute pitch."
Working with Ms. Scott and these great kids nearly every Saturday morning this past spring was one of my most enjoyable experiences of the 2001-2002 season. The students' enthusiasm was infectious, and they maintained a fearless attitude toward the difficulties in my score. They took singing C naturals against the flute's sustained C sharp in their stride, and never blinked at my uneven 11-beat phrases-all indicators pointing to a musical sophistication far beyond their years.
"Aside from overcoming technical difficulties in intonation, rhythm, and diction," continues Ms. Scott, "they know that, to truly perform music, you must understand it from the composers' point of view-what a composer means at deep levels-transcending the printed notes to get at the inner meaning. Performing music composed specifically for the Pre-College Chorale has been a regular feature of our concerts from the beginning. Over the years, we've collaborated with several composers-Andrew Thomas, Eric Ewazen, Scott Eyerly, and Larry Bell, to name only a few. Having the composer on hand, seeing how composer and conductor work together, witnessing how music gets made, is an experience of inestimable value for our students."
The young musicians seemed to enjoy StarSongs. The astronomy theme captured their imagination, perhaps motivating a few of them to think about our tiny planet and contemplate its place in the universe for the first time. And in the hallway after rehearsals, I often heard them singing or humming their favorite phrases. Apparently StarSongs stuck with them, heart and mind-which (in my opinion) is the essence of musical communication.
Currently, the Pre-College Chorale is hip-deep in rehearsals of inLight-in addition to works by Buxtehude and Prokofiev-for their ambitious December 7 winter concert in Paul Hall. inLight is a short Hanukkah cantata which uses the image of light as a metaphor for enlightenment, purification, faith, peace, and love. There are settings of two traditional Hebrew blessings: the candle lighting and the all-purpose "thank you for bringing us to this joyous occasion," plus an English text written by cultural anthropologist Sarah Keene Meltzoff.
But at the end of a recent Saturday's jam-packed rehearsal, Rebecca Scott was already thinking about the Pre-College Chorale's spring 2003 concert. "What's next?" she asked me. I suggested possibly setting some of Meltzoff's poetry based on her experiences of the Solomon Islands people and their worship of ancestral spirits. The music of the Solomons is unusual-especially those panpipes designed to play only harmonic major seconds (like the first notes of "Chopsticks"). "We could have some students playing penny whistles to imitate this particular sound, with others playing various gourds and pan drums, maybe even their major instrument," I mused. She laughed. "Will there be any students left over to sing?" Of course!
Bruce Lazarus (B.M. '78, M.M. '79) is based in New York City. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.