POSTED ON OCTOBER 31, 2012:
Bringing American composers together
Okay, so normally, there's a big push of American music in the summer months. Like, oh, I don't know, around July-ish. But Dr. G. Barry Epperly doesn't care. He has programmed Celebrating America, which will feature the music of iconic American composers, including one piece about Oklahoma. It even has gunshots in it. More on that in a bit.
Epperly and the Signature Symphony will join forces with Oklahoma State University's Concert Chorale, directed by Z. Randall Stroope. Those readers not familiar with the world of choral music should note that what you're hearing after that last sentence is a squeal of delight from a choir nerd standing nearby, because Stroope is a pretty freaking big deal. So is his Concert Chorale.
"It's probably the best choral group I've heard in this state," Epperly said of the ensemble. Since he knows a thing or two about music, that's high praise indeed.
The choir and the symphony present a night of music called Celebrating America, and this is a program that has undergone a surprising amount of evolution since its conception two years ago.
Soon after Stroope arrived at OSU and took the reins of the choral music program, he invited composer Morten Lauridson to come to a concert where several of Lauridson's larger works would be performed. Epperly took notice of the name.
"It just so happens that Morten is Skip to me. We went to grad school at USC together," he said. "So I went and had lunch with Skip and Randall, and then went to the concert, and I hadn't heard anything like it. It was completely memorized in flawless French. I just sat there and thought, 'Wow.' It was just amazing."
After hearing Stroope's choir, Epperly wanted to work with the group.
"I visited with Randall a little bit that night, and I've gone over multiple times," he said. "I'm an OSU grad, so I stop in and have coffee or buy him a sandwich or stop in and listen to the groups. We've become pretty good friends."
So now we come to two years later, and Celebrating America is set to go. It's not what Epperly first envisioned, but it's nevertheless a program of which he's proud.
"A program starts here and ends up there," he explained. "So I called Randall and thought I'd have the 120 voices I'd just heard. He said, 'Yeah, I'm working on a new piece with full orchestra.'"
Then things began to change, and like people do with pretty much anything else in life, Epperly rolled with it.
"It morphed from 120 voices to 50, and it morphed from a full orchestra to an a capella piece," he said. "But we hung on to Bernstein and Copland. The program changed, but I'm pleased with it. It's got a nice shape."
The Bernstein to which he referred is actually two different pieces from the masterful composer. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a huge work, and a pretty important piece of American music.
"It's a full symphony of dances. It's really fun, and just really hard as heck," Epperly said. "It's basically in the order that the show comes, which makes it interesting -- ending a monster like this with the death scene, which is with a flute solo and strings."
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Composer Brant Adams' Heartland Trilogy is also on the program. Adams, like Stroope, is a part of OSU's music department, as well, and the Signature Symphony played this particular piece -- commissioned by the Signature Symphony for our state's centennial -- in a commemorative concert in 2007.
"We're going to do the last movement, which is 'Land Run.' It has gunshots and horses, and it's about 10 minutes of 7/8 visualization of the land run," Epperly said. He seemed really excited about this particular piece.
Stroope's Concert Chorale will perform Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, a tough but spectacular work, with the symphony and will also perform its own a capella segment. Finally, quintessential American composer Aaron Copland's Old American Songs rounds out the program of Americana.
"It's about as compact as it can be while running through a wide variety of American music, and those icons -- Bernstein and Aaron Copland," Epperly said.
So, 50 voices, an 80-piece orchestra. What's the conductor worried about?
"Everything," he said flatly and without a hint of hesitation. "When you have control of the whole thing, there are enough places for bumps in the road."
He frets about the difference between the performance hall to which the OSU singers are accustomed versus the VanTrease PACE. He worries aloud about the time signatures, some of which are unusual, difficult to play in, or both. He just worries. But who can blame him? There's a lot on this guy's plate.
"Delivering the Copland is not easy, because Copland is Copland. They're wonderful old American songs, but the orchestration is sparse," he said. "And we do our share of modern stuff, but I'm throwing three pieces at the symphony that are tough. The Chichester Psalms' whole first movement is in 7/8. The Adams piece is in a raging 7/8, and the other Bernstein, it changes all the way through. There are always places for foul-ups."
There's a pre-concert reception for OSU graduates, the president of the university will be there, and oh yeah, the governor might show.
"Still, basically, I guess I worry about the simple stuff -- 'what if someone plays an E instead of an E-flat?' he said. "That's just there and is a part of my life."
With only four rehearsals to put everything together, Epperly can't be blamed for nerves.
"Monday and Wednesday are just orchestra," he said. "Thursday, the Concert Chorale comes over, and then Friday, we do a dress rehearsal with everybody." Not a ton of chances to iron out mistakes. But chances are, between Epperly, Stroope, the OSU singers, and the fine players who make up the Signature Symphony, everything will come of spectacularly.
Tulsa's Signature Symphony presents Celebrating America on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 8pm in the VanTrease Performing Arts Center for Education at TCC's Southeast campus, 10300 E. 81st St. Tickets are available by phone at 918-595-7777 or online at myticketoffice.com.
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