Noteworthy: A Piece With Exquisite Text Painting
The subtle details of Christopher Marshall's Elegy for a City Railyard require great time and effort to master, says Magen Solomon of San Francisco Choral Artists and the San Francisco Bach Choir, but the investment yields a richly evocative sensory experience that is absolutely worth it.
Elegy in a City Railyard
by Christopher Marshall
Recommended by Magen Solomon
From Magen Solomon
I consider “Elegy in a City Railyard” a tour de force of a cappella choral writing. In Christopher Marshall’s incredibly sensitive setting of this text, the words and the music flow together so naturally that the already-rich sensory experience of the text is further magnified.
The poem itself, written in the 1950s by Chris’s fellow New Zealander M.K. Joseph, is subtle and poignant, yet light. The railyard that is described is not particularly lovely, but it holds a great deal of history and quietly evokes the 1950s; oddly, the railyard ends up having a real personality.
To evoke the details of this text, Chris employs a wide range of muted harmonic colors to spectacular effect. This is most evident in the exquisite word painting; with delicate and quickly shifting melodic lines and textures the railyard comes alive. At the very opening, for example, for “Slate grey, stone grey, smoke grey,” the composer employs slightly different harmonies to suggest the three variations of grey. In another example, from the end—“Where the voices of night come home between the engines/Talking quietly together”—the three-part men’s chord on “engines” relaxes into a gentle, voiced final “z” sound trailing away as the women complete the text. This creates a quiet sadness, and the sense that something is ending. It’s one of Chris’s most brilliant strokes.
Because the textures change every few bars, the chorus must be very focused, flexible, and nimble. We spent a great deal of time rehearsing these color details of the work. And it is difficult—in the way anything that is carefully and delicately wrought is difficult, but the result is so deeply satisfying that it is well worth it. Both the chorus and the audience loved it. One listener described its effect on many of us: it takes us into another world, a quiet, almost secret, world.
If you have a good chorus, “Elegy in a City Railyard” richly repays the investment. If it is beyond your current ensemble’s grasp, please look at the rest of Chris’s enormous choral music output. All of it is good, and much of it can be handled by a decent high school choir. I find it particularly refreshing to be able to visit a part of the world—New Zealand, with its European and indigenous cultures—that is rarely represented on choral programs.
Chris is also very approachable—and one of the nicest people I know. When I first met him many years ago at an ACDA conference, he still lived in New Zealand, but now he makes his home in Florida and, I believe, is very open to commissions. “Elegy” was among the first pieces he sent me, and I’m still in love with it after all these years. To me, that is the sign of a piece that has deep structural, harmonic, rhythmic, and textural integrity.
Listen to Elegy in a City Railyard here:
Date of premiere: October 4, 1987
First performer: Viva Voce, Auckland, New Zealand (John Rosser, conductor)
Author/source of text: M.K. Joseph
Length: 4 minutes
Publisher: Vaia'ata Print
Recording information: San Francisco Choral Artists, Magen Solomon, conductor; St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Palo Alto, CA; March 17, 2002
Magen Solomon has been Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA) since 1995 and became Artistic Director of the San Francisco Bach Choir in 2014. Dr. Solomon possesses a wealth of experience with university, professional and community choirs and many years experience as an innovative teacher and conductor. Under her leadership SFCA has premiered over 230 choral works, performed at conferences of Chorus America and the American Choral Directors Association, been awarded the ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award, and has released three CDs. The ensemble has collaborated with nationally known instrumental ensembles including The Whole Noyse, The Alexander String Quartet, Veretski Pass, Sonos Handbell Ensemble and others.
From 2010-2014 she served as Artistic Director of the Stockton Chorale and Master Chorale, and for twelve years was Music Director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus. From 2004–2010 Dr. Solomon taught in the graduate and undergraduate programs of Choral and Sacred Music at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. She has also taught and conducted at Santa Clara University, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Active across the US and abroad as a clinician, teacher, and guest conductor, Dr. Solomon has directed the California Bach Society, Pro Coro Canada, UC Santa Cruz Chamber Singers and other ensembles. She has collaborated on performances of major choral works with Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony), Nicolas McGegan (Philharmonia Baroque), Helmuth Rilling (Oregon Bach Festival), Kent Nagano (Berkeley Symphony), and Christoph von Dohnányi (Los Angeles Philharmonic), among others.
She is editor of the “New Voices In Research” column in the Choral Journal, Chair of the ACDA Herford Dissertation Prize Committee, and has published an edition of Johannes Eccard's "Newe deutzsche Lieder” (1578) with A-R Editions.