United States The King’s Singers New Music Prize Concert: The King’s Singers, St. Giles, Cripplegate, London; Cathedra / Michael McCarthy (conductor), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Streamed on 28.3.2021 and available on the Cathedral’s YouTube channel. (RP)
The King’s Singers:
Stacey V. Gibbs – ‘This Little Light of Mine’
William Byrd – ‘Sing Joyfully’
Beth Orton – ‘Call Me the Breeze’ (arr. Christopher Bruerton)
Michel Legrand – ‘One Day’ (arr. Richard Rodney Bennett)
Geert D’hollander – ‘When All Falls Silent’ (Prize-Winner/World Premiere)
Toby Hession – ‘Master of Music’
James MacMillan – ‘O, chì, chì mi na mòrbheanna’
Kacey Musgraves – ‘Rainbow’ (arr. Pat Dunachie)
Queen – ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ (arr. Nick Ashby)
Andrea Ramsay – ‘Luminescence’
Eli Hooker Reese – ‘When All Falls Silent’ (Prize-Winner/World Premiere)
Parker Kitterman – ‘The Singing Bowl’ (Prize-Winner/World Premiere)
Eric Whitacre – ‘Sleep’
Jeremy Beck – ‘Invitation to Love’ (Prize-Winner/World Premiere)
This joint concert by the world-renowned male vocal ensemble The King’s Singers and Cathedra, a professional mixed chorus resident at the Washington National Cathedral under the artistic leadership of Michael McCarthy, was more than just a celebration of choral excellence. It also was the culmination of the Cathedral’s Sacred Music Festival Online; and the world premiere performances of the four winning compositions of The King’s Singers New Music Composition Prize.
Choral singing is at the top of the no-go list of activities during the pandemic, so of course the performances were prerecorded and streamed. The King’s Singers sang without face masks, but COVID-19 protocols in Washington mandated them for Cathedra. Taped and live sessions with some of the judges, winners and others provided context and inspiration. On the Zoom call that followed, a 10-year-old asked advice on how to become a composer. All one could do was marvel at Elise Bradley, one of the judges of the competition, for her energy and commitment to her young charges in the Toronto Children’s Chorus.
The King’s Singers New Music Prize was established to recognize, develop and encourage a spirit of musical creativity in today’s world. Two similar competitions were held previously in Great Britain, but this edition was solely for composers in North America. Out of the 347 submissions, the jury awarded four top prizes, as well as four honorable mentions and eleven commended compositions. The winning composers each received a cash prize, a premiere performance of their work and the opportunity to have their pieces published by Walton Music, which was also a sponsor of the competition.
Composers were required to use one of five texts chosen by The King’s Singers in collaboration with historian, poet and leading choral lyricist, Charles Anthony Silvestri. The poems were James Weldon Johnson’s ‘The Gift to Sing’, Emily Dickinson’s ‘I Had No Time to Hate’, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Invitation to Love’, the Rev. Dr. Malcom Guite’s ‘The Singing Bowl’ and a poem by Silvestri composed expressly for the competition, ‘When All Falls Silent’. It was puzzling that none of the 19 composers who won awards or received commendations chose the Dickinson poem, as her words have been set to music so effectively by composers such as Aaron Copland and John Adams.
The entries were anonymized so that the judges had no information whatsoever about the composers. In the words of Jonathan Howard, The King’s Singers bass and one of the jurors in the competition, the thread that ran through the four winning compositions ‘was the way it felt like the composers were really writing for voices with spaces to breathe in, and where the contours of the poems were heightened by the way you would sing each line’. Another way of putting it: this is music that you want to sing.
In the under-18 category, Eli Hooker Reese of Minnesota won first prize for his four-part SATB setting of Silvestri’s ‘When All Falls Silent’. The jury hailed his piece as a ‘gem of lyricism and open voicings that truly allow for its beautiful harmonies to shine’. His success is all the more remarkable as this was Reese’s first attempt at writing a choral piece. When Reese read the poem, he instantly knew the melody that would anchor the piece. Apart from its lyricism, Reese’s mastery of musical word painting and flare for color also contribute to making this work so magical.
Philadelphia-based composer, keyboardist, conductor and collaborative musician Parker Kitterman, who is organist and choir master at Christ Church, Philadelphia, describes himself as someone who writes music mostly for his own enjoyment. His winning entry for SATB choir, a setting of ‘The Singing Bowl’, was a rush job with no time to workshop it, even if it would have been possible during the pandemic. Kitterman captured the constant motion of a Tibetan singing bowl in a shimmering swirl of sound, which is briefly interrupted by a glorious outburst that sends the sopranos soaring.
The other two winners were established composers. Jeremy Beck, whose music has been performed by New York City Opera, American Composers Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra and many other organizations, won for his setting of Dunbar’s ‘Invitation to Love’ for children’s choir. The women of Cathedra brought out the warmth, tenderness and hope inherent in the poem that Beck captured so effectively.
The setting of Silvestri’s poem by the Belgian-American composer Geert D’hollander, carillonneur at the Bok Tower Gardens in Winter Haven, FL, was the judges’ unanimous choice of a work to be performed by The King’s Singers. In many ways, it was the most traditional of the prize-winning works, especially in D’hollander’s precise setting of the poem in which every word was etched perfectly.
Choral music is one of the few classical music genres where the work of living composers has been embraced enthusiastically by both performers and audiences. The King’s Singers have had a lot to do with that. On my wish list for the future is a concert of the other fifteen works that were spoken of but not performed. A read-though by The King’s Singers on Zoom would be just fine – I’m sure it would be nearly perfect.
To watch The King’s Singers Prize Concert, click here.