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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

An Interview with David Hendricksen

David Hendricksen
David Hendricksen

Music Director of The Civic Chorale

April 03, 2010

The 2010 spring concert ofThe Civic Choraleis comprised entirely of choral music by regional composers.At least five of the works on the program will be world premieres.Conductor David Hendricksen comments, "The selections offer a broad range of choral sound and texture. Not only are the compositions well-put-together musically, but they all have worthy texts."

Following is an interview with Hendricksen:

What led you to prepare this program of regional composers?

There actually were several factors that came together, making these concerts the natural result. In the past, The Civic Chorale has presented several themed concerts: all German, all United Kingdom; all American; all Schubert, etc. In May 2009, I was able to attend the premiere of Kenton Coe's "The Architects of Heaven." I was immediately taken with the piece and knew that sooner or later I would want to have The Civic Chorale learn it.

Over the years, the Chorale has commissioned new works by Kenton and has sung many others.I had been considering several of Kenton's works to sing along with "Architects." Then, while visiting with Kenton, he showed me some of his newest choral pieces, the hymn motets.

I was very fascinated with the interesting treatment he gave to the text and to the tunes. I dropped my plans for some of his previous works and selected four of the ongoing series of hymn motets to present on this program.

In the past few years, our region has been enriched by the move of internationally-known composer Daniel Gawthrop from the Washington, D.C. area to the Tri-Cities. I began to think of doing a program of Gawthrop and Coe choral music.

Also in 2009, I first heard "Where Your Barefoot Walks" by David Childs, performed by the St. Olaf Choir on tour. It has a wonderful text and the choral writing is gorgeous. So, again, I knew sooner or later, it would be on a Civic Chorale program.

In the meantime, I had on my desk a variety of scores from several other local composers. It is often the case that conductors of various ensembles will have particular pieces they want to perform, but need to have the right program for the piece to "fit" in with the other works. As I revisited various scores over time, it ultimately occurred to me that by doing a program of local composers, a context would be created for all these pieces. So, here we are!

What are some of the challenges involved in preparing new music?

With established repertoire, a conductor may be leading music he or she has already presented before.†While every performance provides an opportunity to re-study the score and reconsider the various interpretive options, there is some kind of sonic image in the conductor's mind that forms a starting point for the performance.†Even if a conductor is coming to established work for the first time, he or she will likely have had the opportunity to hear performances or recordings of the piece presented by other choirs.

But with new music, there is no "sonic foundation." One studies the score, hearing the elements of the music in one's mind, sometimes confirming impressions from silent score study with a keyboard. But it is critical always to imagine how the music will sound with a choir, where the sound and texture are so very different from a piano — accents here, dynamic shadings there, what balance adjustments need to be made to evoke a particular sonic magic, etc. Since rehearsal time is not infinite, one must prioritize what aspects of the music will be learned in what sequence.

I am very fortunate to work with the fine singers in The Civic Chorale. Even as I am rehearsing with a particular sonic image in mind, the sound I hear back from these musicians may open up additional possibilities for bringing this music alive to an audience.

There are also challenges for the singers. With familiar music, the singer has a context for how one's individual line fits into the overall texture. With new music, that context has to be created from scratch. With everybody in the same boat, it is hard to hear the context of the other parts, because those parts themselves are struggling to hear the context of the very part you are learning. With time and growing familiarity, the choir learns the music well enough to build that foundational context. From then on, the pace of learning can speed up dramatically.

What can an audience member expect from this concert?

I think there can be a real excitement knowing that one will not only be hearing music of live composers, but real live composers from our own region. This is not just music of the proverbial "dead, white, European males." Composers of music are not just remote people "out there" someplace, but folks from our own neighborhoods.

The local audience will be the first people ever to hear some of this repertoire in public performance.†Music, of course, is not just notes on a page. That is just a blueprint musicians use to make sound. The music itself is the sound the musicians produce. When the sound stops, the music is gone. So the audience is present at a musical "birthing." This is true of all live music, even when it might be tried-and-true staples of the repertoire, but it is especially true for new music.

Just like the difference between live theatre and seeing a movie, there is something unique about hearing live music and not just a recording. I am a recording engineer myself, so I value the technology that allows us to store and re-hear music. But there is a special quality of human communication that can happen only when human beings are listening to other human beings bringing music to life in the same room — no microphones, no speakers, no intervening technology altering the sound — just the singers' musical intelligence coming through their voices in the air to your ears and brain and consciousness.

How are the singers in The Civic Chorale responding to this music?

Well, I'm certainly biased, since I have the privilege of leading this choir, but I would say, very well, indeed! At this moment, we are nearing the halfway point in the number of rehearsals for this concert, and already there are so many exciting and stimulating sounds coming from the choir as we rehearse the music.

Of course, I can't speak for the individual singers about how they like particular selections on the program. Everyone's personal tastes are different, and with 50 singers, there are probably 50 different answers.

But I do sense a real energy, a real excitement related to bringing into being music that has never been heard before. Even for the selections that have been sung somewhere else before, all are new to us and, I suspect, to our audience.

Do you have any other thoughts to pass on?

I hope that if people think of choral music as being dull or monochromatic, all sounding the same, they will come and hear the range of sounds produced in these varying compositions.

If their only experience of choirs is small church choirs struggling to get through music that is just a little bit beyond their ability, then they should come and hear the high level of excellence and artistic achievement of the folks in The Civic Chorale. Our singers come from throughout the region:†Kingsport, Johnson City, Bristol, Bluff City, Erwin, Flag Pond, Greeneville, etc.

If concert-goers come on Sunday, I hope they can attend the reception afterwards and meet some of the composers, as well as singers in the Chorale. The arts truly are alive in our region!

— To find out more about The Civic Chorale concert CLICK HERE.

A! ExtraTopics: Music