I came to Los Angeles pretty much for one reason only, to meet composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, whose work little man in a hurry will have its Australian premiere in a concert in August with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs alongside works by Schumann, Wolf and of course, Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem.
I have only been to LA once and that must have been over 15 years ago as part of a tour with a children’s choir for which I was the repetiteur – I only remember seeing parts of Hollywood from the back of a tour bus and Venice Beach. Everything else was sound checks, dressing rooms and billets. It was an intense tour and LA was the last stop with concerts at Disneyland and Universal Studios.
This time I had been advised to hire a car but it was not until I checked into my rather trendy hotel that I realised that Los Angeles is no New York – a subway trip to any destination. As they say in the film Sunset Boulevard (where I was staying!), if you lose your car in this town, it’s like having your legs cut off.
So with my navagatrix GPS in top form, I set off in a Volvo to explore the land of right-hand lanes, freeways, traffic jams and places rather whimsically called Studio City, where I met Eric in a café called Aroma. Nearly everyone I saw in LA was in great physical form and looked like they had just walked off a film set and in some ways, Eric is just the same. I read somewhere that he is the only composer with a recording and modelling contract!
I think it could be said that if you have performed a great deal of a composer’s work, you feel you know them a little already, and so it was with Eric Whitacre: our conversation moved from his works to poetry to LA to music theatre to Beethoven. He was truly touched to hear that his works are being performed in Sydney, a city he has visited three times but, like my previous LA trip, only for whirlwind visits confined mostly to rooms backstage. He told me he thinks Sydney is a great city, so I suggested that maybe he would like to come back again soon! Stay tuned for our subscription series to come in the next few years. As it is, he is about to leave the glamour and sunshine of his California lifestyle for the drab grey of London, where he is moving with his family to take up his new position at Cambridge.
The first Whitacre work I ever heard was Cloudburst, which uses a small ensemble of piano, percussion and hand bells alongside a choir. I remember being floored by the structure of the work, which seemed to swell to a natural crescendo in both sonority and dynamics – all the more striking an effect for the innovative use of the choir. This was a composer who knew what to do with a choir! His harmonic language seemed to me drawn from the soundworlds of Tavener and Górecki, but on reflection after talking to him, perhaps it’s a broader mix of Debussy, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Sondheim.
Whatever the influences, this is music that is exciting audiences and choral singers the world over, with his latest recording reaching No 1 on the British and American classical charts and his first CD, Cloudburst, being nominated for a Grammy. Like any busy musician, he laments that he has little time for composition at the moment but while text has been a strong influence in his choral writing – indeed, it is the catalyst – he says that he is interested in works that use the choir more like an orchestra, in which vocal sound is explored for its own sake.
Whichever way his creative energies lead, I know you are going to enjoy the three works we are performing in this concert as they are all about the unique sound that only a choir can produce: rich, multi-layered and communicative. Having returned from America, I am looking forward to my rehearsals back in Sydney of Holst’s The Planets, Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem and De Lalande’s De Profundis Clamavi.