Noteworthy: A Piece Loved By Audiences and Singers Alike
With Donald Skirvin's Alchemy, Karen P. Thomas found a piece that makes a strong impression on audiences and is both challenging and rewarding for singers.
by Donald Skirvin
Recommended by Karen P. Thomas
From Karen P. Thomas:
I discovered Donald Skirvin’s Alchemy when researching the works of composers from Washington State, for a concert titled “New Sounds Northwest,” which I conducted with Seattle Pro Musica this past season. Skirvin is a skilled and prolific composer of choral music, so there was much to choose from. This piece stood out immediately as being one of his finest works.
Alchemy is a four-movement piece set to poetry by Sara Teasdale, for SSAATTBB a cappella. The idiom is tonal, with quite a bit of modulation and a very colorful, jazz-influenced harmonic palette. Each movement transitions seamlessly to the next, such that the work feels like a one-movement, through-composed piece. Skirvin excels at both expressing the texts in music and at fitting his own musical expression to the rhythm of the poetry. This is done so artfully as to seem almost effortless and inevitable.
The composer’s own words provide a perfect introduction to the work:
“Just as the ancient practice of alchemy endeavored to turn dross into gold, the set of Teasdale poems in my work, Alchemy, trace through its four movements a series of poetic and musical transformations along life's journey: grief turns into gold, impermanence and the fear of loss transform into love, a sheen of iridescence is conveyed to us by our lovers, and finally, the ultimate transformation occurs when we pursue the path that beauty unfolds for us.”
Seattle Pro Musica performed Alchemy five times in our 2014-15 season, each performance in a different city. Audiences uniformly loved the piece, finding it beautiful, evocative, and moving. And the singers were thrilled to perform it multiple times; Skirvin is a composer who understands and empathizes with singers, as the piece sits very well in the voice. The writing poses only a few challenges for amateur singers (numerous modulations and complex chords), but these are relatively easily surmounted, and my singers found the challenges to be interesting and the performances very rewarding. I highly recommend Alchemy, as well as Skirvin’s many other choral works, for being enjoyable to sing and making a strong impression with audiences.
Listen to Alchemy here:
Date of premiere: June 2002
Commissioner and first performer: The Esoterics
Author/source of text: Sara Teasdale
Length: 13 minutes
Recording information: Seattle Pro Musica
Karen P. Thomas, conductor
Live performance – October 25, 2014, First Church, Seattle
Karen P. Thomas, composer and conductor, is the Artistic Director and Conductor of Seattle Pro Musica, with whom she has produced ten critically-acclaimed commercial CD recordings, and has received the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence and the ASCAP-Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music.With Seattle Pro Musica she has collaborated with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and co-hosted the 2013 Chorus America National Conference.She has appeared as guest conductor at numerous festivals and has presented lectures for the American Guild of Organists National Convention, the Chorus America Conference, the American Choral Directors Association, and the World Festival of Women’s Singing. She has guest conducted at international festivals in Europe and North America, at the Berkshire Choral Festival, and for conventions of the American Choral Director’s Association and the American Guild of Organists, and has been lauded for her “charismatic...magnetic podium presence.”
Thomas is a recipient of composition grants and awards from the NEA, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and ASCAP, among others. Her commissions include works for the Grand Jubilee in Rome, the American Guild of Organists, and the Association of Anglican Musicians. Thomas' compositions are regularly performed internationally, by groups such as The Hilliard Ensemble and The Vocal Consort of Brussels, among numerous others. She currently serves on the Seattle Music Commission, and on the boards of the American Choral Directors Association (NW Region), the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium, and the Seattle Girl’s Choir, and recently completed her term on the Board of Governors for the Recording Academy (Grammy - Pacific NW). She is the recipient of the 2012 ACDA Washington State Outstanding Choral Conductor Award.