Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 28, 2007
DeKalb — Eric Johnson’s decade-long interest in the works of English composer Sir John Tavener includes a doctoral dissertation on the man whose “Song for Athene” closed Princess Diana’s funeral.
So when Johnson learned that Tavener was in search of commissioning agencies for a series of new Christmas carols, the director of choral activities in the Northern Illinois University School of Music jumped at the opportunity.
Now that piece, titled “There Is No Rose,” will receive its world premiere during the NIU Chamber Choir’s holiday concert, which begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2. Commissioning fees were funded by NIU’s Choral Department and the Lynne Waldeland Endowed Fund for Choral Music.
Introducing a work of Tavener’s is an honor typically reserved for professional or cathedral choirs of some prominence. NIU’s choral program was selected to participate in this project based on Johnson’s past research activities with Tavener and the Chamber Choir’s recent artistic successes.
“It’s really important to foster and support today’s composers,” Johnson said. “In 200 years, what composers will we be honoring if we don’t foster and support them now?”
Tavener’s song features eight separate parts for the choir’s 24 voices, some of which sing a drone note for most of the piece. Drawing on Byzantine influences, Tavener refers to the drone as the “ison,” and it carries significant metaphysical importance. And, in what the students call a “musical palindrome,” the intertwining melody lines are identical whether sung forward or backward.
“It has this ethereal sense,” said Stephen Yeseta, a senior vocal performance major. “It also has the orthodox tradition of the eternity note. It goes on forever. Everything circles around it, and returns to it. It ties the singers to this sense of the everlasting, and takes them into eternity. It’s not just the singing of a note.”
“Everyone starts at the same point – the eternity note – and goes off on their own parts, but eventually everyone comes back to where they began,” added senior Amanda Brex, a choral music education major. “It’s really interesting to listen to because different voices are singing the same pattern but at different times, causing the parts to sometimes clash.”
“But it’s still a really alluring melody,” said Carrie M. Filetti, a senior studying choral music education. “It’s not like anything else on the program. It’s something beyond.”
Johnson and his students believe “There Is No Rose” will make a wonderful holiday gift for Sunday’s audience.
“They’ll get a definite sense of the compositional spirit of John Tavener,” Johnson said. “It fairly represents his sound world and his aesthetic. It’s a rather mystical, somewhat minimalistic, compositional approach. His work always conveys a sense of space, and of place, in a moment, rather than progressing along a journey. He strives to create something sacred in a public place, to touch the transcendent and bring it down to earth in his own way.”
Choir members have worked hard on the piece, which arrived only a few weeks ago. But the students, whose voices can take an audience’s breath away and who have been invited to perform for national audiences and some overseas, are up to the task.
Notes and rhythms are learned and ready, Johnson said. As late as Tuesday, though, the group continued to experiment with where to stand when they sing a cappella, as most of their pieces are performed.
One idea to scatter the melody singers throughout the audience while the eternity note singers remain on stage was attempted and rejected. The group then filled the stage in various spots, a configuration that seemed to please them all.
The experience so far has been a powerful one, Johnson said. It began as soon as he unwrapped the package and looked for the “dedicated to” message atop the scores.
“It was very exciting. Exciting was the first word. Intimidating was the second,” Johnson said. “We are the ones who are going to bring it to life for the first time. We are exploring a whole new world and trying to figure out what will make it work. There’s a great responsibility to put it out at the highest quality.”
Tickets for Sunday’s concert are $10 for the general public and $5 for students. Children ages 5 and younger are admitted free. The concert is held in the NIU Music Building’s Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, which is accessible to all.
Call (815) 753-1551 for more information.
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