Champions of new choral music, The Esoterics celebrated the culmination of their third annual commissioning competition with two concert performances on October 17 and 18. In keeping with the expansive ambition of everything undertaken by The Esoterics, each year the competition commissions not just one new choral work but three: one by an U.S. composer, one by a non-U.S. composer, and one by a composer under age 30. This year’s prescribed theme, “Mysterium: Uncovering secrets of this life and the next,” gave the newly composed works a unity of style and substance consistent with the two other works on the program.
The winning American composer, Shawn Allison of Chicago, set a portion of Walt Whitman’s poem, The Sleepers, one of the most talked-about Whitman poems of the past century. Employing a number of contemporary choral techniques, Allison’s setting emphasized the mysterium aspect of the text with extended harmonies that achieved murkiness if not mystery. A sequence whistled over sung voices was most effective, particularly in its return near the end.
Nico Alcala of the Philippines, winner in the young composer category, set verses by Rumi titled Song of the Night. In keeping with current trends in contemporary choral writing, both Alcala and Allison opened their works with wordlessness (“ohh” for Allison, “oooo” for Alcala), and both employed slides, scoops, and wavering wordless syllables without any discernible melody or unity. Nevertheless, Alcala’s setting should be praised for permitting much of the text to be understood, a virtue in my book.
Most satisfying of the new commissions was the international commission winner: Do not pass by like a dream, Argentine Eduardo Malachevsky’s setting of verses from Gitanjali by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Malachevsky employed a lovely, melodic “shadow” motif that repeated throughout the piece until it morphed into the word “dream” before returning as a “shadow” again at the end. Malachevsky used the singers’ vocal ranges most effectively, letting the women linger in their pleasant tessitura and making effective use of the lowest bass range. This winning work ended on a velvety rich chord that best showed off The Esoterics’ purity of sound and the voluptuous acoustics of West Seattle’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church.
The concert featured two other world premieres in addition to the competition commissions: one by director Eric Banks and the other by longtime composer in residence Donald Skirvin. A new alphabet, Banks’ new setting of selected verses from One hundred love letters by Nizar Qabbani, opened the concert splendidly as an arabic chant over a low drone established an eastern liturgical feel, leading to a high sustained ethereal passage and a delightful pinging effect. A middle section in English set in a contrasting style was followed by return of the Arabic chant, giving the work an ABA structure. Concluding with a breathy whispered “ha” disappointed as a contemporary cliché that will date this work in the not too distant future.
The second half of the Mysterium program consisted of Donald Skirvin’s Stars forever, while we sleep , a nine-part setting of poems by Sara Teasdale. In more than a decade of service as composer in residence for The Esoterics, Skirvin has composed more than forty new works for the group. Stars forever, while we sleep is a massive work for solo quartet and double choir, with many engaging melodies and lush harmonies. In the rich reverberations of the Holy Rosary high ceilings, this complex work was most satisfying in its seemingly simpler passages, and less so when more dissonant harmonies moved too quickly or too high for discernment. A male duet above a murmuring choir in part four and lovely clean melodic lines in part six were highlights of the suite.