Saturday, November 21, 2015

Creating Community Through an Oratorio

From the April 2015 rehearsals of Terra Nostra: Part II
Last weekend, my oratorio Terra Nostra was premiered in its entirety in San Francisco. It has been a long process that started in September 2011 when Robert Geary (the conductor of the San Francisco Choral Society) asked if I were to compose an oratorio, what would it be about? I have gone through many, many stages between that moment in 2011 and the premiere: writing a proposal; awaiting the approval of San Francisco Choral Society’s board to fund the commission; six months searching for texts followed by eight months trying to clear texts under copyright (and then searching for more texts where permission wasn’t granted); composing the musical themes that I’d use throughout the entire oratorio; finishing Parts I and II and hearing their individual premieres in November 2014 and April 2015 respectively, then making rewrites; finishing Part III; and finally hearing the rehearsals and world premiere this past week of the entire 74-minute oratorio.

With soloists Nikolas Nackley, Jennifer Paulino, Joseph
Meyers, Betany Coffland, and maestro Robert Geary
in November 2015 at the premiere of the entire oratorio
Since the San Francisco Choral Society premiered the piece in stages with several months in between each round, I made three separate trips out to San Francisco for rehearsals and performances. I experienced a growing sense of community with each trip. Together, we were bringing something completely new into existence – a project that could only be accomplished by each person playing his/her own particular role. Hillary Clinton famously said that it takes a village to raise a child; I posit that it takes a village to produce an oratorio! There is truly nothing more humbling than seeing 250+ choristers, soloists, and musicians onstage, preparing to rehearse your piece. We were all on this amazing journey together to bring Terra Nostra to life.

A page of "The Want of Peace" from Terra Nostra,
arranged by Chloris Floral 
Many people took part in the entire year-long adventure: maestro Robert Geary, three of the four soloists (soprano Jennifer Paulinomezzo-soprano Betany Coffland, and baritone Nikolas Nackley), and numerous performers from the San Francisco Choral Society, Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and California Chamber Symphony. I drew much inspiration from this community as a whole, as well as from individuals. Several shared stories with me throughout the process during rehearsals and concerts; some contacted me via Facebook statuses and personal messages with their thoughts on various texts and musical movements. Many of the audience, too, joined us on part or all of our journey. Mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland, who owns Chloris Floral (a flower design studio that uses all locally grown flowers), took inspiration from Terra Nostra a few steps further: first, she framed floral arrangements with a few of the most poignant pages of my music; next, she held a daybreak photo shoot featuring a lovely bouquet of flowers, grasses, and pods held by a woman personifying Mother Earth, which she featured in a Chloris Floral blog post about her Terra Nostra experience.

Photo shoot of Mother Earth by Chloris Floral 
All of this community building and inspiring of each other is important for the arts in general, but in particular for Terra Nostra. The message of the oratorio is for us to realize that we are connected to our planet, and for us to reconsider how we live on its surface, tend to its gardens and forests, and parse out its natural resources. If this oratorio can galvanize audiences to start discussions in their own communities about how we can seek to live in better balance with our planet, then perhaps this can lead to meaningful and lasting change.

There are a few rare moments in a composer’s life when you realize you have created a work that, when performed, deeply touches the minds and hearts of performers and audiences. For me, the premiere of Terra Nostra was one of these beautiful moments, when a strong sense of community flooded the entire hall and gave me hope that perhaps humanity can come together after all and live more harmoniously with terra nostra, our earth.