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Choral concert on March 11 to feature “Metropolis” oratorio and RIC composers

Classical music, contrary to what many may people think, is not exclusively written by geniuses now long dead. It has a living tradition and it is diverse. In fact, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, a contest of sorts has been taking place between experimentalists, such as Schoenberg and Cage, and the populists, such as Copland and Barber.

Admittedly that oversimplifies things, but what matters is that the competition produces some highly interesting and potentially great work that originates in our time.

Teresa Coffman
A microcosm of this creative crucible can be found right here at Rhode Island College. And it is not new. Peter Boyer, a 1991 graduate of the college and honorary degree recipient, was nominated for a Grammy for his composition “Ellis Island: A Dream of America” and received a Boston Pops Orchestra commission to compose “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers,” which premiered in May 2010.

In 2004 John Sumerlin, a music professor at the college, saw the premiere of his opera “Air,” based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” in its fully staged version on campus.

More recently, Teresa Coffman, director of choral activities at the college, commissioned a work from adjunct music professor James Bohn. It is an oratorio based on the Fritz Lang 1927 silent classic, “Metropolis,” which portrays a futuristic dystopia divided between managers who live in luxurious high-rises and workers who live underground.

The oratorio will be performed as part of a concert featuring the Rhode Island College Chorus, Chamber Singers and Women’s Chorus, on Friday, March 11, at 8 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall. Coffman will conduct.

Poster

Bohn, however, will not be the only composer associated with RIC; the program will consist entirely of RIC composers. The others are professor of music George Mack, adjunct music professor Michael Kregler and two students, Daniel Pelletier and Cory Waldron.


James Bohn
“It just dawned on me,” Coffman said, “that we have enough composers on our faculty to schedule a whole concert. I had never performed any of James Bohn’s pieces. I had mentioned to him that I was thinking about doing this kind of program, and I said I would like to commission a piece from (him).”

Bohn’s music has appeared on the programs of other college ensembles, including “M.F., for Electric Guitar and Orchestra,” which was performed by guitarist Joshua Millard with the Rhode Island College Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Edward Markward, and “4an4aire” performed by members of the Rhode Island College Brass Ensemble. Bohn also writes for Computer Music Journal and authored a book on Lejaren Hiller, the first person to compose a piece of music using a computer.

After discussing several possibilities, Bohn came up an idea for “Metropolis.” A video artist as well as a composer, he edited the film down to a 40-minute version – it took from April to November of 2010 – and scored the accompanying work for chorus, synthesizer, piano and percussion, as well as soloists, who will all be students. The edited film will be part of the performance.

“James Bohn’s music is very, very contemporary,” Coffman noted. “I tell him sometimes it has a little bit of a Devo sound.” Devo is a new wave rock band that was popular in the 1980s.

Bohn’ s oratorio presents an interesting problem: how does one produce a vocal score to a silent film?

Coffman said, “When you see the 40-minute version, there’s no text. He cut out the titles, and so we are singing the action that’s happening. We’re telling the story.

“It’s a little daunting because the tempos have to be pretty exact. And sometimes when the mouths move on the screen, we’re singing the text so we have to be right on top of it.


'Metropolis' movie frame
“He’s getting a small DVD player for me so that when the audience is seeing the film, I’ll be seeing the film. That way we’ll be exactly where we need to be.”

To sharpen her sense of the tempo in the visual portion of the work, Coffman has been reviewing the film without sound in order to get the tempo in her system.

“There’s a bit of aural or visual choreography involved,” she said.

Text for the oratorio is derived from Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, who was Lang’s wife, collaborator on the “Metropolis” screenplay and author of the novella on which the film was based. In addition, Bohn has added text from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as well as some of his own.

But “Metropolis” is only half of the equation, Coffman emphasized. There is a great diversity of styles among faculty and student composers at the college.

George Mack’s music is in Coffman’s words “stunningly beautiful and usually very sacred.” One of Mack’s pieces on the program, “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head,” is really a Kentucky folk Christmas carol, according to Coffman. The second, “Quoniam: You Are Holy,” she has been holding onto for a while. It requires some very deep basses and this year she has finally found the right ones.

In addition to “Metropolis,” another very new work will be on the program, Michael Kregler’s “Three Poems From ‘Landscapes’ by T. S. Eliot,” which was finished just after classes started this January. Kregler will also be represented by two other pieces, “The Baby’s Dance” and “Heart, We Will Forget Him.”

Student Daniel Pelletier composed an a cappella piece, “The World Is Too Much,” set to the William Wordsworth poem, which will be performed by the Rhode Island College Chamber Singers.

In addition, the program will have a kind of crossover piece, an arrangement of the group Queen’s “The Prophet Song,” done by RIC student Cory Waldron. The work features two violins, guitar and bass guitar as well as singers.

Coffman confesses that she is a huge fan of Queen and finds “The Prophet Song” “very, very choral.” She also added that Brian May, the group’s guitarist and composer of the song, was going for a doctorate in astrophysics when Queen took off, so he had to put his studies on hold. Later, however, he returned to his studies and completed the degree a few years ago.

That a transition from rock guitarist to astrophysicist would fascinate Teresa Coffman is not surprising. It bridges a wide area, like the way she has programmed her March 11 concert. It is something worth hearing – and seeing.

General admission is $10. Free for RIC students, faculty and staff. For further information, call (401) 456-8144, or visit www.ric.edu/pfa.