July 6, 2011

Burgeoning commissioning program presents latest in series of new works.

The Fourth Annual Best of Rockefeller Gala Concert, a highlight of Alumni Weekend, featured the world première of renowned Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega. The choral piece, commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria with support from Crossway and the University of Chicago, was performed by the University of Chicago Motet Choir and the Rockefeller Chapel Choir under the direction of James Kallembach.

The commissioned work, a choral interpretation of the Revelation text, a new heaven and a new earth, was chosen by Dr. Lane Dennis, President of Crossway in reference to the 400th anniversary of the 1611 translation of the King James Bible. MacMillan’s impressive grasp of sacred music, both Christian and non-Christian traditions, and his ability to write music that speaks to those traditions in a contemporary idiom made him a natural choice.

The program also featured MacMillan’s Changed and Heycoka Te Deum—a Wallace Stevens poem and Native American text respectively. Set alongside the featured Biblical text, those works underscored the interspiritual dynamic of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

“Our emphasis is on a diversity of texts, on creating things that push the envelope and speak to the many ways in which we find wisdom and express meaning,” said Elizabeth Davenport, Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Alpha and Omega is the latest piece to have its world première in Rockefeller Chapel since 2008, when a new endowment was created for commissioning contemporary works.

“It is our goal be a place where new music is created and for which new music is created,” said Davenport. “That’s a new emphasis. It’s not something we’ve done consistently in the past.”

Since the launch of the endowment in 2008, other new works performed at Rockefeller Chapel have included A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day by William Bolcom (2008), Hymn of the Universe by Marta Ptaszynska (2008), Ad Sciendam . . . by Shulamit Ran (2009), and Lux by Cary Boyce (2010). Rockefeller Chapel has also been the setting for the world premières of other recent works, including James Kallembach’s Wisdom Canticles (2008) and Sven-David Sandström’s Wachet Auf (2009).

“I’ve always felt that, in classical music, new music is vital in keeping all classical music alive. So I feel a need to promote it as an artist and composer,” said Kallembach, Director of Choral Activities and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. “This is perhaps my number one passion: fostering the creation of new music.”

Kallembach, a noted composer in his own right, recognizes both the importance of creating new music and the opportunities presented through its unveiling. Part of the agreement with Soli Deo Gloria stipulated that the Motet Choir and Rockefeller Chapel Choir would perform the new MacMillan work.

“It’s very important to James that his students get exposed to the experience of singing world premières of new music,” said Davenport. “For students to be able to sing in this kind of context, to sing music that has been written just for them, and which will forever bear the name of Rockefeller Chapel Choir and Motet Choir is huge.”

Working with his colleagues in the Department of Music and Rockefeller Chapel, Kallembach plans to continue enabling the creation of new works through the commissioning program and by inspiring his students through these unique opportunities. And the support of a growing audience can only help.

“I do also hope that other people and new audiences are drawn in,” said Kallembach, referring to MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega as well as the many new works to come. “It’s exciting to hear music that no one else has heard before.”

By Mitch Marr, AM’xx

The Fourth Annual Best of Rockefeller Gala Concert featured the world première of renowned Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega. (Photo courtesy of Alumni Relations & Development)