Eric Whitacre with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain

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whitacreA session at last month’s ABCD Convention that deserves a post of its own was the one in which Eric Whitacre rehearsed the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in his new piece ‘Alleluia’, in anticipation of its performance in the Gala Concert that evening. Whitacre is a composer that a few years ago would have been described as ‘definitely flavour of the month’, but is now reaching the level of popularity that Kathy Sierra characterised as the ‘koolaid point’.

That is, he is sufficiently successful that you get people reacting against him, dismissing him as some combination of too groomed in his presentation, formulaic in composition, or just plain over-sung. While some people swoon at the thought of meeting him, others grumble that you have to look like a film star to be a composer these days. So, it was interesting to see him in action.

The first thing that made me smile was the (possibly inadvertent) staging of his entrance. Apparently traffic from London was a bit worse than anticipated, so he was a few minutes late to the session. Mike Brewer led the NYC in an impressive display of musical characterisation to fill the time, at the end of which Whitacre swept into the hall. So the structure of the encounter ended up as Mike playing John the Baptist to Eric’s messianic arrival. It’s quite something to have someone of Brewer’s calibre as your warm-up act.

Then we got a nice extended chance to observe conducting and rehearsal technique. (More than once during the weekend I felt nostalgic for the time when I was researching my choral conducting book: I find I miss spending time in close observation of conductors in rehearsal.) Whitacre has a very voice-friendly stance and gestural world. The back is open, the neck long, and the upper arms maintain a natural frame for the gesture with the elbows integrated into the overall line. He also has long wrists and fingers, and his demeanour often reminded me of Royce Ferguson, another musician who likes to open up the full harmonic range of resonant overtones.

The gestures themselves were quite florid, with wide loops at the ictus points. The curliness of the gestures is somewhat reminiscent of the British cathedral/collegiate tradition (so he’ll feel at home in Cambridge), but the overall frame of the gestures is larger and more textbook-orchestral in its use of pattern, with the result that loops were wider and swirlier than you’d typically see in English choir stalls.

There was the occasional diversion from orthodoxy, with the up-and-forward downbeat that I referred to in my book as the ‘shovel ictus’, and a more idiosyncratic sweeping-forward gesture prepared by swinging back onto the right foot. Even this, though, had a sense of an impulse tamed and contained within the bounds of technique.

I have been interested in the past in the relationship between vowel shape and consonance/dissonance in Eric Whitacre’s music. It’s something I think about myself as an arranger, and I had intuited (but not systematically analysed) that this was contributing to the distinctive effects of Whitacre’s music. The piece he worked on at the ABCD convention was great to think about this further, as it’s simple text of ‘Alleluia, Amen’ presented a usefully limited universe of vowels from which to generalise.

It seemed to me as I followed through the rehearsal that the narrow ‘oo’ vowel was placed on consistently more dissonant harmonies than the open ‘ah’s. (Interestingly, this is the inverse of my hypothesis about Lux Arumque from a couple of years ago.) This may partly be to do with the prosody of the text: the stress point of the word Alleluia is the penultimate syllable, and one would typically make musical accents with dissonance. But it was also telling that in adapting the piece from its original instrumental form, Whitacre often chose to leave the word unfinished: ‘Allelu.., Allelu….’

Anyway, a question and answer session gave the opportunity to quiz him on this: is it something that’s a self-aware part of his technical armoury, or is it just something that emerges from the kinds of sounds he wants to create? What was interesting about his answer was that, whilst it was clear the manipulation of vowel to dissonance wasn’t a conscious strategy, he clearly seemed to think it plausible that something of that ilk was going on. Speculating off the cuff, he thought that the ‘ah’ vowel is more shiny that ‘oo’, and so having all those extra overtones as well as dissonance, may be too much information – though there may be times when you want that too.

There are those that accuse of Whitacre of becoming somewhat formulaic in his composition, and the question-and-answer session showed him also to be grappling with that issue: finding the balance between remaining true to his own voice yet continuing to grow and develop. And there are arguably parallels with this conducting technique here. Like his music, it could be accused of being just a bit samey - but equally it seems churlish to make that accusation. For if he is working to a formula in either dimension, it is an intelligent and humane formula that produces musical beauty and goodwill.

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