On first appearance, Eric Whitacre looks like a Hollywood A-lister with glistening long blond locks, a chiselled jaw and suave demeanour. He’s a celebrity, with a rock star like following but not in the way you might imagine. In fact, he is a Grammy award-winning composer, famous in the realms of the classical and choral music.
The American composer studied at the legendary Julliard School of Music in New York, where he met his future wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. The couple and their son now reside in London, where Whitacre is currently Composer in Residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University.
His pieces have quickly become core material for many choirs around the world. Indeed, I have sung a few of his compositions in a chamber choir at Monash. I found his work challenging but beautiful, a pleasure to sing; exploring the beauty of dissonance between notes, unusual intervallic leaps in vocal lines and beautiful poetic texts.
However it was his hugely successful Virtual Choir projects which provided the catalyst for his world-wide fame. Since 2010, the Virtual Choir have ‘performed’ three times. Through the power of digital media, the project links voices from across the globe into one united choral force. Growing with each project, the first virtual choir featured 185 voices from 12 countries; in contrast, the third attracted almost 4,000 from 73 countries. Singers register individually and then download the sheet music for their voice type (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass). After learning their part, they then record themselves singing – usually with their webcam – while watching a YouTube video of Eric conducting the piece (so everyone is singing in time). Each then upload their individual videos to YouTube, after which the videos are all layered together as one, thus creating the Virtual Choir. It is really quite something to watch thousands of singers from across the globe unite as one choir.
In his first visit to Melbourne, Whitacre In Concert was held at our very own Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash on April 13. Featured was the Monash Sinfonia and the choir of Trinity College from Melbourne University, whose collective focus and round, balanced tone really did justice to Whitacre’s vocally demanding songs. While it would have been nice to see a choir from Monash’s Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music participating, especially since the Monash Sinfonia was included, the Trinity College Choir did well.
The repertoire predominantly featured Whitacre’s compositions, but also featured some Bach and a song from Michael Leighton Jones, which provided some needed contrast.
Whitacre entered the stage upon rousing cheers from the audience and opened with the piece of the first Virtual Choir, ‘Lux Aurumque’. This was followed by an enchanting interpretation of ‘Five Hebrew Love Songs’ which was penned by his wife Hila, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, to which her husband then set to music. The collection of songs featured Monash Co-ordinator of strings Elizabeth Sellars on solo violin producing a sweet tone that filled the hall.
The arrangement of Bach’s ‘Come Sweet Death’ was sung twice by Trintiy Choir, first conducted by Whitacre and performed as Bach’s original arrangement, then without a conductor. At first I flinched at the sight of choir ‘actions’ which involved moving their arms in circular motions in front of their bodies. These actions occurred in both renditions of the piece, however they were justified as in the second rendition – which proceeded without break from the first – they sang at their own tempo, the actions aiding them in to stay in time individually. It also proved an interesting visual experience for the audience, as an auditory jumble of clashing tones and text filled the room. The last few seconds were magical, never to be heard again with an array of pitches dwindling down into the final note.
In between each song Whitacre spoke a little about the stories and ideas behind each piece, all the while charming his captivated audience with his orating skills and intriguing and funny commentary, something not always seen at classical or choral concerts.
The second half of the evening included string arrangements of Whitacre pieces with special guest David Berlin, principal cellist of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who featured in ‘The River Cam.’
By far the most anticipated part of the evening was witnessing the legendary ‘Sleep’. It was a nice surprise when the normally a capella song was presented with accompaniment from Monash Symphonia.
The concert was Whitacre’s only Victorian engagement and it went off without a hitch. The overall atmosphere within the auditorium was that of elation, with Whitacre even sticking around to sign CDs and programs and have a chat. It was a landmark occasion having the choral composer and conductor at the height of his fame visit Monash, and I’m sure the visit will be something to look back on as a historic musical moment at the Clayton campus.