A 14th century beloved Sufi poet and a 21st century acclaimed Austin composer form the heart of Chorus Austin’s final concert of the season. The 180-voice Chorus Austin Symphonic Chorus, under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Ryan Heller, presents “Past, Present and Future” in two concerts: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, and 4 p.m. Sunday, May 29, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 8134 Mesa Dr. Soloists for the concert are Janeene Williams, soprano; Liz Cass, alto; Scot R. Cameron, tenor; and David Small, baritone.
“The best way to honor the history of this organization and our 50th anniversary celebration is through the great repertoire – works that are beloved, that we love to sing and that audiences love to hear,” Heller said. “The other piece of programming is looking into the future, introducing audiences to new music – a process about which I am very passionate.”
The group will offer the world premiere of The Contemplations of Hafiz, a multi-movement work based on the writings of the 14th Persian poet by renowned Austin composer Donald Grantham. Chorus Austin commissioned the piece for large chorus, an orchestra of 50 musicians and four soloists in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
“World premieres are always thrilling,” Heller said. “A work that is written specifically for an ensemble is even more exciting.”
Audiences shouldn’t fear new music, Heller noted, “especially this piece. The poetry of Hafiz is nothing short of extraordinary. It is at once compelling and exciting, touching, beautiful, personal, humorous and inspirational.”
Grantham enjoys talking about this work and the poetry that is woven into his music. “One of the most interesting things I found in this poetry was the blending of the spiritual and physical, the sacred and profane,” he said. “For Hafiz, they seem to flow together seamlessly and to complement and reinforce each other.”
The composer noted that there is a wide emotional range in the poetry of Hafiz, and “of course this gives me the opportunity to produce music in an equally wide range – everything from a four-minute delicate, lyric movement for the chorus alone to a fast, blazing 12-minute movement for the four soloists, chorus and orchestra. Hafiz was very prolific, and I have selected texts that illustrate the variety in his output.”
For Grantham, finding a translator was one of the keys to blending these 14th century writings with a 21st century choral composition. “I was fortunate to find a translator, Daniel Ladinsky, who has done a marvelous job of rendering the texts in contemporary language without sacrificing the exotic color and flavor of Hafiz’s time and place.” Grantham said.
The Contemplations of Hafiz was a work several years in the making. Heller remembers that “When I received the final, full score, I thought, ‘I can’t wait to birth this work for our audience and, of course, for the universe.’ This piece will be a gift to not only our Austin community, but also to the musical community around the world, a significant new entry into the choral/orchestral repertoire,” Heller said. “What could be more special than to end our 50th anniversary celebration than with this gift?”
Opening the concert are gems from Chorus Austin past performances. “The first half is choral favorites; and by favorites I mean not just for the audience but for us as well,” said Heller. “The opening of the Mozart Requiem, selections by Bach, Brahms, Verdi and others is truly a feast for the ears and for the spirit.” There is even a nod to opera with the “Habanera” chorus and aria from Bizet’s Carmen.