Grammy Award-winning composer to conduct NU, UChicago choirs in joint concert


Brian Meng/The Daily Northwestern

Donald Nally rehearses with the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble in preparation for their concert featuring the works of Eric Whitacre. The group will perform with the composer at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on Oct. 13.

Jennifer Hepp, Reporter


In a joint performance with the University of Chicago, members of a Northwestern vocal ensemble will perform with Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitacre, whom NU choral organizations director Donald Nally called an “American icon.”

The concert will be held Friday in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at UChicago. The performance, titled Light & Gold, is part of a Fall Institute run by GIA — a major music publishing company based in Chicago — which also publishes many of Whitacre’s compositions.

Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble tenor Jack Reeder said he looks forward to working with Whitacre on the creative process. Composers are often unable to provide insight into performance practice, especially with larger pieces in the Western canon of music, Reeder said.

“It’ll be a really exciting thing, to be in the room where (Whitacre) is,” the Bienen junior said. “To have the composer be able to conduct his own work is pretty exciting.”

The first half of the concert will feature BCE, conducted by Nally. The 24-person vocal ensemble will primarily sing works Nally called the “standard repertoire” for the group, including pieces by composers David Lang and Ted Hearne.

BCE will then be joined by the 35-member University of Chicago Motet Choir for the second half of the program, which will be conducted by Whitacre and feature some of the composer’s greatest hits.

Although Whitacre has conducted most of the pieces on the program before, he said he always finds a way to make them feel fresh.

“Pieces evolve with me over time and each time, performing them feels new to me,” Whitacre said. “They connect me to who I was when I originally wrote them.”

Nally said Whitacre is a great choral conductor and collaborates well with students. Nally previously worked with Whitacre on a project at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in which Nally’s professional choir, The Crossing, performed the American premiere of Whitacre’s piece “Sainte-Chapelle.”

The second half of Friday’s concert will feature “Sainte-Chapelle,” a work Whitacre said was inspired by a small chapel with stained glass windows he visited in Paris. Other works the ensemble will perform include “Lux Aurumque,” “Sleep” and “Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine.”

“The way in which (Whitacre) writes music … has to do with creating these really beautiful harmonies,” Nally said. “What’s really captivating for many people about his music is the lushness and the timeless rolling-out of this harmonic language.”

Reeder said he likes the way Whitacre uses musical dynamics to sculpt a unique style and sound.

“There are chord clusters that are so familiar with all of Whitacre’s works,” he said. “He’s able to use those in combination with text to create a distinct, very Whitacre style.”

Reeder added that many of Whitacre’s pieces are inspired by poetry, particularly texts stemming from early 20th-century writers like Octavio Paz and Federico García Lorca.

Whitacre said poetry is at the forefront of his creative process when composing choral music.

“The poetry is the alpha and the omega,” Whitacre said. “My job … is to just do what the poem is saying to do. I feel as if the pieces I’m more successful in artistically are the ones where I just get out of the way and let the poem do the heavy lifting.”

Nally called Whitacre’s style impressionistic because the “ambiguous harmonies” of the pieces help evoke varied emotional responses from the audiences.

Whitacre said he feels like he has two “split personalities” in his artistic life: the composer and the conductor.

“Conducting is so social, alive, dynamic and happening all in real time,” he said. “When I’m composing, I can really get lost in my head … but so much of conducting is about what do the people standing in front of me need from me. I find that I tend to go away in those times, and it’s completely liberating.”

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