Lehigh University
Lehigh University


A 'fantasy camp' for choral composers

Steven Sametz conducts a rehearsal of new compositions at the Summer Choral Composers Forum at the Zoellner Arts Center. The annual weeklong workshop was cosponsored by Lehigh University Choral Arts and the American Choral Directors Association.

A dozen composers from across the country converged on Lehigh last week for a unique Summer Choral Composers Forum that culminated on Saturday with a premier of their works in the Zoellner Arts Center.

Working with internationally renowned composers Tania León and Steven Sametz, the composers wrote and rewrote new pieces and tried them out with The Princeton Singers, the professional a cappella ensemble that performed them in the free concert.

“This is like a fantasy camp for composers,” said Sametz, director of Lehigh University Choral Arts, who founded the summer forum 14 years ago. The forum was cosponsored by Lehigh Choral Arts and by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA).

“The students are allowed time to dream, which is unusual. It’s a luxury to have time just to compose and then to be able to hear a professional chorus perform your sketches.

“It’s very exciting.”

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A “lively dialogue”

The composers started from scratch when they arrived at Lehigh, though they were allowed to come with text for the works they created. Late-night writing sessions were typical. Mentoring sessions followed with Sametz, an award-winning composer who is also artistic director for The Princeton Singers, and León, a Cuban-born, New York-based Grammy-nominated composer who was in residence for this year’s forum.

“There’s a lively dialogue between composers and mentors,” said Sametz, about the participants. As the young composers’ works evolve, “they generally write pieces that surprise them.”

Throughout the week, the composers listened to The Princeton Singers read through a portion of their work, gathered feedback from their mentors, reworked their pieces, then listened to the revisions in subsequent rehearsals with the ensemble. The forum also included discussions about publishing and marketing new musical works.

At one rehearsal, Evan Jay Williams, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, listened for harmony as The Princeton Singers sang his setting of a section of a poem by an American poet.

“Beforehand, I had only heard the music in my head or maybe at the piano,” said Williams. “And then I’m sitting in the room and they’re singing….It’s just absolutely incredible to hear them.”

Theo Popov, a Bulgarian-born, New York-based opera composer, worked on what he calls an intense emotional piece based on a poem by Kate Light, an American poet and librettist. He also wrote a second, “folklorish” work  based on a hieroglyph found on an ancient Egyptian tomb.

“This [forum] is a phenomenal opportunity,” said Popov, who also plays the theremin, an early electronic instrument. “I don’t know of any other place in the country that offers something like this. I’m really impressed by the acoustics, by the privacy of the practice rooms, by the beauty of the campus, by the superb musicianship of the singers and the keen insight of our mentors.”

Popov said he wrote almost nonstop after arriving at Lehigh.

“I’m running on steam. There’s so much to do. I didn’t expect my music to take the turns that it has this week.”

León, who received the 2013 ASCAP Victor Herbert Award, has written extensively for orchestra, chamber groups, chorus and solo instruments, and has been profiled on ABC, CBS, Univision and other networks, and on independent films. She said working with the young composers took her back to the time when she too was trying to make it as a composer.

“I haven’t seen a program like this in the country,” she said. “It’s really intensive and really wonderful.”

The new works were performed by The Princeton Singers at Baker Hall.

“Saturday night is going to be a discovery of discoveries,” León said before the concert, “because the entire program is a program of premiers of all the young voices that in a way are trying to reveal who they are by the pieces that they are offering.”

Video and photos by Stephanie Veto

Story by Mary Ellen Alu

Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2014

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