"Where do you FIND all this stuff?"

Jan 14, 2013

Magen SolomonBy Magen Solomon, Artistic Director.

“Where do you FIND all this stuff??” is the most common post-concert question I get asked. And there’s a good reason for it: SFCA programs are unabashedly eclectic and quirky, and they always include a few pieces that even the most well-rounded choral musician has never heard.

It starts with my main objective with these concerts: to create a musically, intellectually and emotionally satisfying experience for singers and audience alike. Rather than stringing together a bunch of nice pieces, I try to choose and arrange works so that they “talk” to each other, so that they reflect, reinforce, contradict, and generally engage with each other.

Within our self-imposed restriction of primarily 20th/21st century* a cappella music** we seek the maximum variety. And as anyone who has attended one of our concerts knows, we might perform a folk song arrangement, a Renaissance motet, an old chestnut, and a modern squeak-bang-boom piece all in a row.

But this is not variety for variety’s sake, rather the thread of an idea, tune, subject, or text runs through all of them, particularly those in a set. A thread which we hope is clarified and illuminated by our spoken program notes and by the texts in the program.

Contemporary music is considered by many to be an unpalatable but necessary vegetable that should be force-fed to unwilling listeners.  Appalling.  Rather, I’ve found that, when a work is given the proper context, a context in which it can truly be heard, most everyone finds it beautiful and compelling, or — at the very least — interesting. Proof is one of my favorite (and frequent) post-concert compliments: “I thought I hated contemporary music but I loved your concert!”

So, we look for variety, and we look to put contemporary works in a context.

We also champion living composers. The vast majority of good, living composers have no way to get known other than through the internet and relentless self-promotion. Alas, much of what gets published (and thus promoted) is dreadful: predictable, repetitious, and dull. Good composers, especially those who write intellectually/ vocally/ musically challenging music, are left to fend for themselves (economically as well, by the way). So we try to find and perform these wonderful pieces that will probably never receive commercial publications.

Finally, we seek out overlooked works from other generations, countries, and genres.

So these are the drivers: variety, context-creation, quality.

The mechanics of finding these pieces are unglamorous:
1. my bursting files
2. works sent to us out of the blue
3. works commissioned and solicited (CiR , CNiR, NVP, Composers Invitationals)
4. works or composers encountered through colleagues, concerts, and (very occasionally) online.

The procedure is even less glamorous.
1. I keep many, many lists of possible themes, program ideas, with titles, and/or composers added as they float across my brain or my desk.
2. Once a season’s themes are set, I trawl through the bursting files accumulating fat envelopes of possible pieces.
3. The fat envelope is gone through again and again, works added and dropped. Then pieces are grouped and regrouped, sets are constructed, rearranged, tossed, with works eliminated at each step until the original stack of 50-70 pieces is reduced to about 20.

Stay tuned for my next installment: the winnowing and programming process; what’s kept, what’s tossed, and why.

* we do about 70% 20th/21st c., 28% Renaissance and Romantic, 2% Medieval
**the Veretski Pass and Alexander String Quartet collaborations being notable exceptions