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Poems inspire 'First Light'

If reaction to the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers’ inaugural James M. Collier Festival of New Choral Music last year is any indication, seats might be difficult to come by for this year’s event.

“We’ve never received so many positive emails and comments, even months later,” says Paul French, music director of the 65-voice Ashland choir.

The second annual new works festival, “First Light: Songs for the Journey,” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the SOU Music Recital Hall, 450 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.

Word of the festival has spread far and wide.

“We have important composers from all over the world sending us unpublished works for consideration,” says French. “It’s amazing to me that we get to do this in our little town. Usually only a metro area can support this kind of effort.”

He credits a substantial grant from Collier as a major factor in the festival’s success. Collier is an avid supporter of the arts in the Rogue Valley.

This year’s concert will feature works by some of the world’s leading contemporary composers of choral music.

“We are fortunate to live in a time when living composers are writing such beautiful, varied, life-enhancing music,” says French. “The music in this concert carries us on a wonderful journey of discovery — from the ecstatic joy of Tarik O’Regan’s music to the hauntingly evocative romanticism of Karen Marrolli’s.”

The concert will spotlight Rep Singers Composer-in-Residence Jodi French and former composer-in-residence Craig Kingsbury of Portland.

Jodi French’s “Songs for the Journey” is a multi-movement work for choir, soloists, strings, winds and Scottish accent instruments, including smallpipes, a scaled-down version of the bagpipe. The commissioned premiere is lyrical and merges folk and classical traditions.

Poems inspire many of her compositions, French says.

“I read a lot of poetry,” she says. “In fact, I carry some with me in my bag at all times.” She also carries a notepad so she can jot down notes about textual ideas or melodies whenever they occur to her.

She describes “Songs for the Journey” as complex and expressive.

“It’s contemporary and romantic with Scottish inflections,” she says. There are four choral sections featuring four different texts with orchestral accompaniment and interludes.

Kingsbury’s “A Triptych for Spring” also is a commissioned premiere work. The three-movement piece for choir, strings and winds celebrates the beauties of spring. The text is based on three poems — “Now Spring in All Her Glory” (anonymous, 19th century), “The Enkindled Spring” by D.H. Lawrence, and “Spring Carol” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Kingsbury worked several years in Los Angeles as a singer, choral conductor and arranger, then spent two years in Europe singing oratorio and opera before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. In Portland he arranges music, composes and produces recordings for a publisher of liturgical music.

The concert opens with Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia Laus et Gloria” for women’s choir. It’s a mash-up of several styles, incorporating the influence of Renaissance vocal writing, the music of North Africa, jazz and British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s. The two-time Grammy award winner’s music is often rhythmically complex.

Next is “Prayer to a Guardian Angel” for choir, cello and soprano by Patrick Hawes, a British composer, organist and pianist. Conductor French describes the piece as “lovely music, transporting.” Soprano Jeffri Carrington will solo.

Karen Marrolli’s “O Pulse of My Heart” follows. It will be sung in Irish, with choir, violin, and mezzo soprano soloist Shelly Cox-Thornhill. The music is an homage to traditional Irish love ballads.

The first half will close with Paul Mealor’s “Stabat Mater,” a powerful four-movement work for choir, strings and harp. Featured will be soprano Molly Williams in a section French describes as a Puccini-like aria. The piece attempts to depict the journey from darkness and despair to light and peace as portrayed in the text.

“In 2012, Mealor was voted Britain’s favorite living composer,” says French. “For six weeks, he broke records by being the first classical composer to top both the classical and pop charts at the same time in the UK.”

Ola Gjeilo’s “The Lake Isle” opens the program’s second half with a piece for choir, guitar and strings. It captures the lyric and pastoral accents of a William Butler Yeats poem.

“Gjeilo is one of the most performed composers of the choral world,” says French. “His music beautifully merges classical, jazz and folk traditions.”

Concluding the festival will be the commissioned works of Jodi French and Craig Kingsbury.

Musicologist Ed Wight will give a free lecture one hour prior to each concert in Room 132 of the Music Recital Hall building. He will provide background information on the composers and the pieces to be performed.

Ticket prices for “First Light” are $27 and $33. Student tickets are $5 and Oregon Trail Pass holders can attend for $5 on the day of the show. For tickets and information, go to repsingers.org or call 541-552-0900.

Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

File photoPianist and composer Jodi French prepares to perform Beethoven's "Hammerklaveier" in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus.