How Richard Gill got a new work out of Iain Grandage for Sydney Chamber Choir.

How does a new work come about? While some might think it involves major arts funding applications, serious sponsorship deals, or philanthropists with multi-million dollar businesses, the truth might surprise you. Inspired by Richard Gill’s impassioned words about new Australian compositions, two Sydney Chamber Choir patrons from Balmain decided to commission a leading composer to write a wedding present for their son and prospective daughter-in-law. Next Saturday you can hear the result. Meanwhile, here’s how it all happened

The conductor: Building a programme…

Bach’s Easter cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden was composed when the composer was a mere 22 years of age. Its journey from the sombre picture of Christ lying in Death’s chains to his resurrection and victory, displays a quality of craftsmanship, knowledge of theology and psychological awareness that seems extraordinary in one so young. Next to Bach, Handel, his exact contemporary, appears an inveterate traveller, who by the age of 21 had left his native Germany, travelled to Italy, where amidst the far more extrovert artistic atmosphere of Venice and Rome, he composed possibly the most virtuosic of all baroque choral works, Dixit Dominus.

Given Sydney Chamber Choir’s proud history of performing new music, it made sense to pair these older masterpieces with new. Latvian composer PēterisVasks’ setting of the Prayer of Mother Teresa is a powerful response to Christ’s resurrection, a call to ‘love each other as you love us’, a call to action. For the other work I was able to realise the ambition of commissioning Iain Grandage. Why Iain? His composing combines consummate craftsmanship with a strong imagination, and as an active performer himself, he knows how to get inside the mind and skills of musicians to ensure emotions and message are communicated strongly.

His and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s image of a small child in the immensity of a suburban garden, draws us to the rhythms of a natural world that Bach and Handel understood so well. Bach and Luther lay the Easter Lamb before farmers and town’s people in the heart of lambing season, and express the idea of resurrection as new life emerging from the cold clay of winter, as a new season, the defeat of cold and dark, the emergence of warmth, life and hope. Jonathan Grieves-Smith

The composer: Watering the seeds…

When writing a new work, the circumstances of its premiere are intrinsic to my compositional process. The accompanying repertoire in the concert, the performers and the venue all exert deeper influences on my musical choices than one might expect. This is partly to reduce the size and expectation of my own relationship with the ‘blank page’, but I also want to imagine the moment of performance in order to fulfil its promise. Perhaps this is an extension of a ritual common to many performers – namely the imagining of oneself mid-concert as a part of one’s private preparation.

Photo © Pia Johnson

 This commission from the Sydney Chamber Choir – a group for whom I have a deep and abiding affection – occurred at the suggestion of Jonathan Grieves-Smith, a man with whom I’ve had some of the most engaging and wonderfully discursive conversations across the years. He is also one of the finest choral magicians at work today. He had created a programme containing prayers both ancient and modern, and invited me to join it.

As I readily admitted to him, I have next to no God in my life, preferring a more humanist view of our existence. To that end, I chose a Chris Wallace-Crabbe poem that is as simple and beautiful a statement of our miraculous existence as anything in any religious tome. My aim in setting the poem was to build something with as much beauty as I could summon from the simplest DNA – a double helix of contrary motion scales constantly rising in the upper parts and ever descending in the bass line. Commissioned as it was by James O’Toole and Kate Friis to celebrate the marriage of their son, Ben, to Valeska, I also wanted a piece that could hopefully recreate that magical moment of a public declaration of love, and help us remember our own moments of unconditional communion with another human. Iain Grandage

The patrons: The gift of music…

Having enjoyed so many great performances by SCC over the years, we decided in 2015 to join the organisation’s Guiding Light programme, which involves making an annual donation for a period of three years. Our motivation was, in some small way, to join with other supporters to help ensure the continued success and growth of this amazing choir. 

We were inspired to go a step further when, at the choir’s last concert in 2015 their new conductor, Richard Gill, pulled no punches in making an impassioned plea for more financial support to be given to Australian composers. We know from our long friendship with one of the choristers, Ed Suttle, who is also president of the choir, how important and exciting it is for the choir to sing new works, particularly an Australian work that is commissioned for them. So the seed was sown and as we learnt more about who was to be involved – Iain and Jonathan – and how this new work would respond to and complement the others works in the programme, we became really excited at the prospect of helping to make it happen.

At around the same time but unbeknownst to us our son, Ben, and his girlfriend, Valeska, decided to get married. We knew we had found the perfect wedding gift – a new choral work, described by the composer as a prayer to love and dedicated to them in celebration of their marriage. Their wonderful wedding took place in April and now we are excitedly waiting to sit together in the City Recital Hall with our families and friends to hear Why do we exist? This experience has also inspired us to look at starting a tradition of commissioning a choral piece for future special occasions such as the birth of grandchildren – no pressure, of course! Kate Friis & James O’Toole

Iain Grandage’s Why Do We Exist? Will be performed by Sydney Chamber Choir on May 28 at City Recital Hall, Sydney