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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Allan Bevan "Fowre Thowsand Wynter"

Too long since I've written! It's been a busy year since August (or July!) with a move to Texas, new job at UNT, keeping up with Pro Coro, etc. I'll try to do better going forward!

Pro Coro Canada, my professional chamber choir in Edmonton, just had its Christmas concert last Sunday, which included a major premiere, that of Allan Bevan's multi-movement work, Fowre Thowsand Wynter, for narrator, soprano soloist, choir and orchestra (six movements, about 35' long). It was a big success--the audience loved it. You can learn more about Allan on his own website.

When people ask me about Allan's style it's not a simple answer since he's not easy to pigeon-hole. He is essentially a tonal composer, but not afraid of dissonance. A wonderful melodist. Someone with an exquisite sense of poetry (which means he chooses his texts well and understands them deeply). He also has a great sense of drama, which is a large part of the success of this work.

I'll say more about the work in particular in future posts, but a bit about the origins of our relationship with Allan that led up to this piece (we're not the only choir and I'm not the only conductor to discover Allan's talents--he's been commissioned and performed by many choirs).

Allan was in Edmonton when I first arrived (I became Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada in 1999), at that time working on an MM in Choral Conducting. Soon after he left for Calgary to do his Ph.D in composition. I did a few of Allan's smaller works (Love Came Down at Christmas, The Huron Carol) and we talked about a commission, resulting in The Time Draws Near the Birth of Christ for our Christmas concert in 2003. It's based on a Tennyson text which, in Allan's words "depicts an older man standing on an English hillside on Christmas Day. From his vantage point he is able to hear the sounds of the church bells from four different neighbouring towns. He is overwhelmed by his bitter-sweet boyhood memories, producing a picture of Advent-Christmas that is intensely personal and unique." You can already tell quite a bit about Allan's response to poetry from this. It's a gorgeous work for choir and piano, with challenging choral parts and frequent divisi. I later did it with the University of Cincinnati CCM Chorale when I was a guest professor in 2006 and the students there loved it just as much as my Pro Coro singers had.

I knew from Len Ratzlaff, head of the choral program at the U of A, that Allan's doctoral thesis was a major work for chorus and orchestra, and Allan then sent me a score, too. I didn't think too much about it at first, since it wouldn't work for our chamber choir, but then had a conversation with Allan about whether it might be adapted in some way for Pro Coro. The texts were ones that could work well for our Good Friday concert, for which we often use orchestra. I can't remember all the details of scoring, but the original piece was for multiple soloists, choir, children's choir and large orchestra. Allan thought, however, that he could excerpt several movements, reduce the soloists to one, still use narrator, and reduce the orchestration to create a work for Good Friday. I had already programmed the Mozart Requiem, so we had strings available (and bassett horns/clarinets and bassoons), but Allan wanted to use oboes, horns, harp and organ (along with extra percussion), so that's what we did.

Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode uses a narrator (sometimes speaking alone, but often with underscoring by the orchestra) and soprano soloist (Jolaine Kerley, a wonderful soprano who's often sung with Pro Coro either as choir member or soloist--Allan and Jolaine were students together at the U of A, so Allan knew her singing very well). The narrator has an important role and definitely should NOT be your typical Sunday lesson of the day reader! We were lucky to use Timothy Anderson. I met Timothy early on in Edmonton--he occasionally sang with Pro Coro, was an active soloist, auther, book publisher, and actor (and as I later found out, Preacher's kid): in other words, perfect for the job! The work is in four movements, two with Old English texts and part of the mass:
I - Why Have Ye No Reuth
II - Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode (which became the title)
III. Kyrie
IV. Christe/Alleluia

The music was wonderful and the result at the concert was not what one would expect from a new work and composer that most of the audience didn't know: it received an extended standing ovation. The reviewer in the Edmonton Journal said:

It was Mozart's Requiem that drew 1,700 people to Pro Coro's Good Friday concert, but it was the world premier of Bevan's Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode that propelled them to their feet at its conclusion, and for good reason.

...The choir, soloist Jolaine Kerley, narrator Timothy Anderson and a select group of Edmonton Symphony players delivered what sounded like it could be a definitive performance of this contemporary work...Anderson did a theatrically accomplished job of conveying the persona of Christ in His excruciating last hours and as raconteur of the gospel story about Jesus' physical and psychological torment on the cross...[The] Kyrie is technically masterful and moving...almost pastoral, as though the deity addressed were the great consoler...Bevan's orchestration is full of fine detail...
A huge success! We did Nou Goth again in 2007 and Allan talked to me about the possibility of an Advent/Christmas work along the same lines--a "prequel" if you will . . . and that's where the story ends for now. More to come!

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