February 26, 2016

Art Beat: Choral composer finds inspiration in Alaskan's poignant poem

Author: Mike Dunham | Alaska Dispatch News


​Abstract/Digest:

A new piece by one of America's most prominent composers of choral music, to debut this weekend in Anchorage, was inspired by the poetry of Fairbanks writer Susan Campbell. And Loussac Library kicks off a campaign to read 1,000 books.

Article Text:


A noteworthy premiere will take place this weekend when the Alaska Chamber Singers present two concerts as part of their 30th anniversary. ACS has commissioned a new work for these concerts, “Litany (For a Year)” by Steven Sametz, set to poetry by Fairbanks writer Susan Campbell. Sametz, of Pennsylvania, is one of the leading conductors of choral music in America. His considerable reputation as a composer received a boost in recent years with the debut of his tribute to the children killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, “A Child’s Requiem.”

Sametz found the exquisitely lyrical poem in “PoetryALASKAwomen: Top of the World.” It reads, in part: "When sunlight becomes a fragrance / When skeins of wild geese hem the sky / … When carried grief seems to lift / When the smell of another skin is your own / When you wake to the first rain / When you finally reme mber.”

In his composer’s notes, Sametz said he read the poem at a time “when my mother suffers from dementia” and that the last line “took on a particular poignancy.”

“Campbell’s poem touched a chord for me in this context,” he said, “our ability to look back and see where we’ve been -- our memories -- grounds and defines us.”

Titled “30 Seasons of Song,” the program reminds us about how active the group has been in commissioning new music over the years. It includes selections from Libby Larsen’s setting of poems by Tom Sexton, which ACS debuted here five years ago, Grant Cochran’s arrangement of “Simple Gifts” commissioned in 2005 and their version of Pachelbel’s Canon for human voices accompanied by loon calls.

Keeping on the theme of northern sounds, the program will include a new piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo titled “Tundra” and one we’ve heard before, Stephen Chatman’s “Mosquitoes.” The concerts will open with yet another Alaska original, the arrangement of “Alaska’s Flag” by Elvera Voth, the group’s founder.

In addition to Alaskana, Americana, folk songs and a couple of pop tunes, ACS will be giving a taste of the music they’ll present at the American Choral Directors Association Northwest Conference in Seattle, which runs March 3-6.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28 at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River.