Paul French is on a mission to correct the often mistaken impression that “new” music is harsh or dissonant.
French, a Southern Oregon University music professor, is artistic director and conductor of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. The group is launching a new concert series, one that will be an annual program of new music for choir and orchestra.
The First Light James M. Collier New Works Festival debuts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 3-4, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the SOU campus in Ashland. Tickets are $26 or $32 and can be purchased at repsingers.org/order-online or by calling 541-552-0900. Handicap seats are $25. Student tickets are $5 at the door.
French says harsh and dissonant aren’t in his playbook.
“I don’t like that kind of music," he says. "I like music that is artistic and beautiful.”
Such is the style of music he chooses for SORS, a 50-voice, Ashland-based choir of semi-professional and professional singers now in its 32nd season.
French selects sacred and secular music for the organization's concerts. He has a simple philosophy when it comes to its programs.
“I think about what the audience would like to hear, not what they should hear,” he says, smiling.
There's a large amount of great new choral music written in the past several years, some of which he has included in recent concerts, he says.
“We surveyed audiences about the music after our performances, and people loved it,” he says. “They used words like ‘transcending’ and ‘unbelievably beautiful’ to describe what they had heard.”
Those pieces were performed a cappella or with limited accompaniment.
“We hadn’t explored orchestral accompaniment because it’s so expensive,” French says.
However, two years ago, the organization approached philanthropist and arts supporter James Collier about underwriting a festival of new works for choir and orchestra. He said yes.
Featured composers for the 2018 inaugural concert include French's wife, Jodi. They are a dynamic duo with busy schedules of teaching, church jobs (he is a choir conductor, she an organist), private lessons, rehearsals and raising a family. She also often accompanies the Repertory Singers on the piano or organ.
Composer-in-residence for SORS, she has written two works for the March program.
“First Light” is a festive piece celebrating the triumph of light over darkness. She originally wrote it for choir, brass quintet and organ, but has orchestrated it for the festival. It uses the Easter Collects from the New Zealand Prayer Book for the text.
Her second piece is large new work, “Unquenchable Light.” It is written for choir and orchestra. Her text source is mainly Celtic blessings, along with some poetry by William Butler Yeats.
“I’m big on melody,” she says, describing her composing style. “And I usually get it from the text itself.”
She pays attention to the rhythm of the language as well as inflection and voice modulation. All that informs the music she composes.
For solos in the work, she writes for the strengths of specific soloists in Repertory Singers. She knows them all well. For instance, she knows who can stretch it out, who can hit the high notes, and who can sing fast passages.
She carries her music with her most of the time, a music composition book in her bag. Left-hand pages are blank, for text and notes. Right-hand pages are imprinted with blank staves for musical notation.
“Choral music is most special to me,” she says. “It’s my favorite kind of writing. It’s profoundly human, very direct and so intimate.”
Also on the program:
● Two motets for choir, strings and harp by Will Todd, a young English composer known for his choral works, opera and musical theater pieces.
● A premiere of a piece for treble choirs, soprano soloist and orchestra, “Sing to the Lord, All the Earth,” by Eriks Esenvalds. He is an award-winning, 40-year-old Latvian sensation whose music has been performed on every continent. Joining the Repertory Singers on this number will be a choir composed of young women from North and South Medford high schools and from SOU's Chamber Choir.
● An a cappella piece, “Data Est Mihi Omnis Potestas,” by Scottish composer James MacMillan, is "a big piece, full of bravura — impressive and exciting,” Paul French says.
● A commissioned work for choir and orchestra by Craig Kingsbury, a former Repertory Singers composer-in-residence. The work is based on Shakespearean text from "The Merchant of Venice."
The New Works Festival will showcase “big, beautiful music,” French says. “It is my wish that the composers and works presented in this series will become new favorites for our audience members.”
See repsingers.org/first-light for more information.
— Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at email@example.com