The King’s Singers New Music Prize
G. D’Hollander (© Michael Potthast)
For those who think that there is nothing new under the sun in the world of choral or church music, the King’s Singers invites us to revisit our assumptions.
Choral singers are not only constantly discovering new gems among old favorites, but also performing new music to popular acclaim. In fact, music for choir is experiencing something of a rebirth in our time thanks to the widespread popularity of works by Pärt, Rudder, Whitacre, and others.
Therefore, it’s not too surprising to learn that the King’s Singers, an established British a cappella group, has launched The King’s Singers New Music Prize seeking and inspiring composers in the U.S. and Canada to create works for an audience eager to hear heart-felt traditional singing with a 21st century twist.
This season, the King’s Singers teamed up with the Washington National Cathedral and Walton Music to establish the prize which is offered in four categories: Soprano Alto Tenor Bass (SATB), Composers under 18; SATB, Composers 18+; Children’s Choir; and The King’s Singers (meaning the international ensemble would perform the work). Composers were offered a choice of five texts to set to their original music.
Out of 347 entries, a diverse jury of nine highly regarded jurors, led by composer, pianist, and educator Gabriela Lena Frank, selected the winners, each of whom received a $1,500 cash prize, publication by Walton Music, and a world-premiere performance of their work at the conclusion of the Washington National Cathedral’s Sacred Music Festival from February 26 through 28. In addition, the judges selected 15 entrants for Commendations and Honorable Mentions.
Winning in the under-18 category was Eli Hooker Reese of Minnesota for his four-part setting of Charles Anthony Silvestri’s poem, When All Falls Silent. Reese was 17 when he composed music to this poem of tender feelings and poignant reflection on the power of beauty during life’s inevitable sorrows. The Cathedral’s choir, Cathedra, sang this song with sweetness and resonance until it faded to a silent conclusion with the words, “And I am at peace, I am in harmony, Listening, listening...”
Winner in the second category, which had more than 100 entries, was a highly original selection by Parker Kitterman, a seasoned composer who is Director of Music and organist at Christ Church, Philadelphia. The winning entry was a setting of a poem, The Singing Bowl by Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite. Kitterman’s song seemed to bloom endlessly from a series of slight dissonances that blossom into resolutions, tumbling effortlessly over each other. One can almost hear a pleasant jumble of bells in the supple articulation of the SATB voices as they sing, “...And listen to it, ringing soft and low. Stay with the music, words will come in time.”
Jeremy Beck from Louisville, Kentucky, composed the winning entry in the third category, a setting of Invitation to Love by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the most influential African-American poets following the Civil War. Beck’s composition is solid and deeply engaged with the text, but never forgets its design intended for child singers. At times, the melodies shimmer, as though softly rising to the surface and then splashing down in cascades of sound.
The final winning selection was another rendition of When All Falls Silent, this time by Belgian-American composer Geert D’Hollander, a specialist in carillon music and carillonneur at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida. D’Hollander pays particular attention to the musical expression of individual words and concepts. The word “calms” briefly soars, while the statement of the word “harmony” seems to fall squarely into place. He takes some liberties with the lyrics that make the meaning even richer, such as repeating the final “listening” three times rather than twice. In an interview which was part of the program, lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri said he was thinking of his own experience having to give up singing during lockdown, but also embracing the hope for the future as, in his own words, “Drawn toward beauty...I open my soul,/And I am at peace...” Certainly, this sentiment rings true throughout this memorable composition.
In addition to the winning selections, the program, offered through streaming video, included eight other selections by the King’s Singers and two additional works sung by Cathedra. The King’s Singers offered rousing readings of the spiritual, This Little Light of Mine, and a truly radiant expression of Sing Joyfully by English Renaissance composer William Byrd, and ended the program with a surprising performance of Nick Ashby’s arrangement of the Queen hit, Good Old-fashioned Lover Boy, replete with wolf whistles and kazoos.
Cathedra, under the direction of Canon Michael McCarthy, performed Andrea Ramsay’s Luminescence and Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. This festival program proved a wonderful concert and celebration of the creative genius that inspires a musical lifeline through the stormy seas of time.