Oratorio Under Construction

SF Choral“Am I nervous? Heck yeah!” says composer Stacy Garrop in her own blog about her current project. “And excited too. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had thus far in my career, and I intend to enjoy every moment of it.”

Stacy Garrop
Composer Stacy Garrop

Garrop has won wide acclaim for previous widely-performed works for full orchestra, chamber ensembles, and, more frequently than many contemporary composers, choirs. She grew up in the East Bay and now lives in Chicago, where she teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts.

Now she’s working on a multi-part oratorio commissioned by the San Francisco Choral Society and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, which will premiere Part 1 of the work in November concerts at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The work will be scored for an adult and a children’s chorus, a string orchestra, piano, percussionists and soloists. “This will be the largest-scale work I’ve ever attempted,” says Garrop, who says she has always been passionate about vocal music. “I began singing in the third grade, and kept singing right through graduate school.”

Garrop envisions the piece, called Terra Nostra, as a meditation on nothing less than humanity and its place on the planet. For the first part, she is researching creation myths from cultures all over the world. “I’d like to encompass legends from as many continents as possible,” she says. The challenge of composition begins well before writing down a single note, with the search for appropriate texts and then a sometimes complicated process to clear the rights.

The texts guide the development of the music. Garrop cites a variety of influences ranging from contemporaries like Morten Lauridsen, Moses Hogan and Einojuhani Rautavaara to masters like Rachmaninoff. “What’s important to me is writing something that has a strong formal structure,” she says, adding that, among other elements, “it’s partly about the balance between tension and relaxation.” She notes that Shostakovich’s string quartets do that particularly effectively.

Collaborating with a “fantastic” conductor

Garrop met Robert Geary, who leads both SF Choral and the Piedmont Choirs, more than a decade ago, and has since been commissioned to compose four works for Volti, a San Francisco vocal ensemble also led by Geary. “Because it’s Bob, I already feel very comfortable with the whole process,” she says. “Bob is a fantastic conductor for composers. There’s never any piece that’s perfect the first time it’s sung. I think I might get 98% of the way there before I first hear the work, and Bob feels very comfortable about working with me and the choir to make the piece stronger.”

Geary is a passionate advocate of new music, which he terms “a refreshment for the ear and for the mind — the various sound worlds created by the composers allow our imaginations to open and have new experiences.”

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This is adapted from an article originally reported and written for SF Choral. For more information about the November 15-16, 2014, concerts, see SF Choral’s website. Tickets go on sale in October at City Box Office.