Our River concert was reviewed online in The Beat magazine by The Beat editor Richard Young.
The Karen Schuessler Singers closed out their season with an impressive evening of music, poetry and art celebrating London’s Thames River on Saturday night. Inspired by The River Project: 19 Artists Turn to the Thames, which brought together 19 artists to celebrate and honour the Thames River in a touring exhibition, the 18 song repertoire exhibited the kind of variety that has become a hallmark of the critically acclaimed 38 voice choir and its conductor, Karen Schuessler. A bevy of musical and artistic guests joined KSS in paying homage to the river that flows through the City of London, yet is often taken for granted by many of its citizens.
I love sitting in on KSS dress rehearsals, because it’s often the first time I can get a feel for how the whole concert fits together. I didn’t know ahead of time how a river-themed program was going to “gel”… and was unexpectedly moved by many of the songs and readings as the evening unfolded. Sometimes I think we don’t realize how lucky we are here in London, to live along a river…
The singers and musicians assembled for 7:30 p.m.
Karen didn’t waste any time getting to work.
One of our special guests for this concert is London theatre personality Don Fleckser. Don is narrating a number of readings about rivers, which are interspersed between the songs. Selections include a history of the Thames from the perspective of the Native Canadians and European settlers, as well as poetry and prose about rivers in general.
Local singer/songwriters Kevin White (below) and Roxanne Andrighetti will be performing their songs about rivers and/or the Thames.
Of special interest to me were our two commissions by local composer Jeff Smallman. We are also featuring several other Smallman works on the program. All of Smallman’s work is stunningly beautiful; I was especially taken with Becalmed, set to poetry by Native Canadian poet Pauline Johnson. One of our commissions requires four hands at the piano – a task capably undertaken by KSS accompanist Ron Fox and chorister Marque Smith.
Other musicians on the program include Rob Larose on percussion, Steve Clark on bass, and flautist Amy O’Neill.
Chorister John McFall has assembled a slideshow of river photographs that will provide a visual counterpoint to four of the songs on the program. There will also be an art show after the concert, featuring works by artists from The River Project: 19 Artists Turn to the Thames. It promises to be a great evening. Find more details about the concert here. Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is KSS’ Director of Communications.
What songs do the singers themselves particularly like in our upcoming River concert? All of the pieces have something to do with rivers, but these ones are particular favorites:
“I have a few pieces in this concert that fit into my favourite category… I find myself humming In the Shadows and Becalmed [one of our commissions from Jeff Smallman] every so often. The melodies are relaxing and compelling, and with family ties in Cape Breton, I can appreciate Song for the Mira, particularly when I hear stories about the river from long ago. This will be a lovely concert, commemorating the River (our Thames, as well as others) and the life that continues to flourish along the banks.”
“In The Shadows and Becalmed! They make the scenery easy for me to imagine. Deep River is calm and reassuring.”
“This concert is made up of beautiful, melodic pieces – all a joy to sing. A couple of my favourites are Becalmed and Shenandoah for their beautiful melodies. Shenandoah shows off our awesome men’s sections.”
“I will probably be in the minority, but my vote goes to the River of Dreams by Billy Joel. This song has lyrics that we all can identify with, as it describes a person at a crossroads – knowing that something is missing but unable to find it. The lyrics include wonderful images such as ‘mountains of faith,’ ‘valley of fear,’ ‘jungle of doubt,’ and ‘desert of truth,’ used to describe the feelings which so many of us experience at some point in our lives. Also, the gospel-sounding vocal backup to the solo [by KSS bass and local music director Marque Smith] adds to the spiritual feel of the song. No wonder it was so popular back in ’93 when it first hit the charts! But it has an enduring quality that prevents it from becoming dated.”
Becalmed – Smallman (commission) Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon, arr. Shaw Deep River – arr. Ringwald Down to the River to Pray – arr. Lawson Home and the Heartland (Riverdance) – Whelan In the Shadows – Smallman Kicking-Horse River – Smallman River (The Mission) – Morricone River of Dreams – Joel Shadows on the Tide – Smallman (commission) Shall We Gather At the River? – arr. McIvey Shenandoah – Chilcott Song for the Mira – McGillvray The Frog and the Crow – Smallman
An edited version of this interview was first published in our May 2010 issue of KiSS Notes. Below is the complete, uncut version.
For our River concert, KSS decided to commission two choral pieces from London composer Jeff Smallman. These pieces are our gift to the city of London, and we hope that local high school choirs will be able to make use of them for many years to come.
How long have you been composing?
I’ve been composing since I was 8. (Almost 37 years!)
Where did you study?
I did an undergrad at the University of Western Ontario, which included three years of courses focused on composition.
How/where are you employed now?
Believe it or not, I’m still at Western! I work as a library assistant in the Music Library, and have taught a couple of courses for the music faculty as well. I even won a teaching award for the last course! On top of that, I own my own publishing business, Lighthouse Music Publications. We currently have several hundred works in our catalogue from composers around the world. And then I’m always writing in my “spare” time.
What are your favorite genres/periods of music?
That really depends on my mood. Most of the time it’s classical music that I listen to. (There isn’t much pop music that I like.) There are things I like about most of the periods/genres. I’m probably most influenced by the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Impressionist eras. I like quite a few 20th-century composers, too, but as a whole, the “experimental” and “avant garde” styles do nothing for me.
How do you typically approach a new commission?
It really depends what I’m going to be writing. For this particular commission (and all choral commissions), the first step is to find out if there is any theme or idea that I need to keep in mind. In this case, it was the “river” theme. The next step is to try and find a suitable text to set. That can take me a very long time, because I’m really picky when it comes to texts. I was fortunate in that I found both of the texts that I used for KSS in about half an hour. From there, I read and re-read the texts to get a sense of mood and possible rhythms to work with. And then I begin the actual writing process. For me, presenting the text’s mood in the music is hugely important, and it can take a while before things gel.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Wow. That’s a much bigger question than I think you know! Sometimes it’s from what I read. Sometimes it’s from something I see or hear. Sometimes it’s in reaction to a certain situation. There are times that I just hear the piece and write it down. Sometimes, I hear a certain instrument and start with that. Sometimes I know a certain style that I need to write in, and just listen (internally) until I hear it. But where do the ideas really come from? God. That’s what I believe. (It’s up to you whether you want to use that, but you asked!)
Was there anything in particular that intrigued you about this project?
There were a few challenges laid out from the beginning, and I like trying to overcome challenges when I write. It dawned on me during the writing process, that I LIKE writing water related music. I’ve done several pieces with water as an image, and I love the mood and sound it lets me create.
What can you tell me about the texts you used for the KSS pieces?
There are two pieces. The text for the first, Becalmed, was written by Canadian Native poet Pauline Johnson (photo at the beginning of this blog post). I’ve set quite a lot of her poems because, again, they create a mood so well on their own. They’re very lyrical, and I find that they suit my music well. Becalmed describes a moment in summer when everything seems to stand still, but later the writer comes to the realization that everything (the water, the clouds, the birds, etc.) is moving, and only the people watching are motionless.
The second piece is called Shadows on the Tide. The title’s taken from the last line of text. (The original title was River, but I thought that was a little too generic.) The words are by Cecil Alexander, who lived in the 19th century. The text uses the river as a metaphor for life in general, and points out that no matter what, good or bad, the river keeps running and doesn’t come back. I set this to a more “folk” (think Gordon Lightfoot) setting because I thought it was more appropriate.
Where did you get your ideas for the music?
As I mentioned above, the ideas usually come from the words themselves. If there’s a “good,” or descriptive, mood, then I feel that I have something to work with. I did have to change my way of approaching “Shadows on the Tide” though. I had a preconceived idea of how it should sound, and it wasn’t working. One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t impose a style on a piece of music. I let it go where it needs to.
Are these songs like anything else you’ve done before?
Yes and no. I try to make all of my pieces a little different than the others (and hope they come across that way!), but when you write a lot, sometimes the distinctions are blurred. “Becalmed” is probably similar to several of my other Pauline Johnson settings, just because the majority of her work contains a similar mood. “Shadows on the Tide” was a little further from some of my other choral pieces. One major difference for these pieces was that I used a piano duet (1 piano – 4 hands) as accompaniment. I’ve never done that before.
What’s it like to hear your compositions performed?
Pick an emotion. The first few times I heard one of my pieces, I was terrified. I wasn’t sure how they’d go, if they’d work, if people would like them, you name it. I’m getting better, but I’m still nervous when I hear something for the first time, especially if I haven’t been able to attend a rehearsal. It’s kind of like sending your baby out into the world.
Do you have any other interesting projects that you’re working on?
I’m always working on something. Currently, I’m finishing up some revisions of three orchestral pieces I arranged for jazz pianist Ron Davis. A recording project is in the works. Beyond that, I have several projects that I’d like to start, but we’ll see what comes along.
Interested in hearing instrumental versions of Becalmed and Shadows on the Tide? Smallman has posted audio files of the two songs on his website, here.
Who is Jeff Smallman? The Karen Schuessler Singers has commissioned him to compose two songs – Becalmed, and Shadows on the Tide – for our upcoming River concert.
Smallman is a well-respected and versatile composer living in southwestern Ontario. He attended the University of Western Ontario, and still works there as a lecturer and music librarian. Our upcoming spring newsletter features an interview with him in which he talks about our commission.
I’ve been enjoying learning more about his work in the meantime. Who knew that he had written a children’s book?
I also found this interesting article about some previous choral composing work he had done, in which he had used poetry by Canadian Native poet Pauline Johnson (the same poet Smallman used for Becalmed.)
“I didn’t feet it would be appropriate to try to write ‘native’ music, because I’m not native, and it would be an insult to pretend to be. Pauline Johnson’s heritage was both native and non-native, so we did try to incorporate that dual heritage in the concert.”Jeff Smallman, 2004
Thinking of our upcoming River concert, I also recently asked Smallman what “river” means to him. Here’s his response:
“Yikes. What does “river” mean? I hadn’t really thought about it. I just know that it and water in general appeals to me. I guess I’d have to say that “river” for me symbolizes life, purity, adventure, possibility. I don’t know if that helps, but there you go.
“Just a brief background. Where I grew up, there was a creek that flowed through some pasture land. From the time that I was about 8 until I went to university, I spent every possible hour walking, playing and exploring there. When I was in my teens, a friend of mine and I used to canoe up and down the creek for hours at a time. So, I guess it would be natural that this would be a theme that appeals to me.”
Interested in hearing some of Smallman’s work? There are audio clips of some of his recent compositions on website, here.
There are also several videos on YouTube, including the following:
More on Smallman’s commission for our River concert in a future blog post…
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is KSS’ Director of Communications.
The Karen Schuessler Singers’ exciting 2009/10 season of creative and innovative concerts continues with River on Saturday, May 29, 2010.
Inspired by The River Project: 19 Artists Turn to the Thames (the group of artists that, in 2008, produced works of art about the Thames River within the city of London), this concert reflects on the Thames River, its ecology and its place in our lives.
The concert will feature the world premiere of two choral works about the river by London composer Jeff Smallman, commissioned by the Karen Schuessler Singers especially for this concert.
It will also include an original composition about London and the Thames by singer-songwriter Kevin White.
The multi-media evening will include a presentation by the London Free Press of its 2008 series of articles and video about the Thames River. An art show by the River Project artists will cap this evening of reflections on the Thames River.
Special musical guests will include the Waldorf School choir singing their school song, which is about the river.
Visit this space often for a wealth of background information, research and interviews about our upcoming concerts, as well as cool stuff that we've found on the Internet related to music and choral singing.
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