(the press about Vespers is on this page.)
Come, ye Sinners
Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra
The Consolation of Apollo
Hymn and Fugue No. 1, for string orchestra
Hymn and Fugue No. 2, for piano trio
Poems of Stephen Berg
A Song of Sonia Sanchez
Symphony: Lumen ad revelationem
Three Dances, for orchestra
Three Dances, for string orchestra
Three Songs, No. 5
Two Laudate Psalms
The Waking Sun
Where flames a word
compelling… attractive… straightforward, driving rhythm —Journal of Church Music
creative and effective… particularly American —Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer
melodic… exuberant… populist energy —Wilmington News Journal, Del.
theatrical… lyrical, even at its most dramatic and dissonant… the sound of truly coming to earth from outer space. Despite daunting spans of range and dynamics, the choir’s singing was so thoroughly under control that Nally and his singers were free to concentrate solely on delivering Smith’s musical interpretation of the astronauts’ message to those of us on earth — full of profound appreciation for our planet’s sublime beauty. —Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local
Smith’s Diabelli Variation was an extravagant gesture for piano alone, with something of Britten in it, played with appropriate drama by Charles Abramovic. —Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer
Smith’s concerto is the latest entry in a series of [Philadelphia Classical Symphony] commissions that pairs Philadelphia composers with principal players from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Concertos written for specific players are a fruitful musical tradition.… [the Symphony] unveiled another success, a concerto for horn and orchestra by Kile Smith, a veteran Philadelphia composer who is the Curator of the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library. The soloist was Jennifer Montone, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new principal horn, and Smith gave her a score worthy of her abilities. [It] is based on a liturgical ceremony that some churches hold on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. The ceremony consists of a candle-lighting ritual outside the church, a procession into the darkened sanctuary, and a climax in which the lowest ranking cleric steps up to the pulpit and proclaims Exultet—rejoice! The first two movements of Smith’s work evoked the subdued mood of the candle-lighting and the procession. In the finale, the horn led the orchestra in a big, swaying dance—a celebration, as Smith explained in his remarks, in which even the angels are supposed to join the ball. It was played… by a musician who understands the essentially poetic nature of her instrument and possesses all the necessary qualities of power and control. —Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, Philadelphia
Exsultet for horn and string orchestra
[Preview] The opening of Kile Smith’s new work for solo horn and strings, Exsultet, is meant to capture the drama and emotion of a darkened church, with an almost claustrophobic shroud pierced only by the lights of candles. The music is an evocation of the wonder and mystery that the composer experienced at Lutheran Easter ceremonies that he remembers growing up. The second of its three sections is less solemn, but also long-lined and broadly paced. After Smith first showed these parts to Jennifer Montone, dedicatee of the work and the superb new principal horn player for the Philadelphia Orchestra, she gingerly suggested to him that “you can make it harder if you want.” Don’t worry, he assured her, it’s coming. That would be the conclusion, a rollicking tour de force that represents the actual Exsultet, that is, an unbridled expression of spiritual fervor. “In one sense, writing for Jennifer is easy. Anything I put on paper, she’ll be able to play,” says Smith. “But I also wanted to do justice to her abilities. It has been a very inspiring process.” Montone will also solo in a concerto by 20th-century British neo-classicist Gordon Jacob. The New Philadelphia Classical Symphony, as conducted by Karl Middleman, will round out the concert with works by Ernst Dohnanyi and Clifford Taylor. That’s right, folks, a classical music concert without a single Top 20 composer. For now, that is. —Peter Burwasser, City Paper
emotion-laden… boldly lighted… celebrates the bright, clear sounds of high strings —Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer
supple… fascinating… ingenious —Playbill
double kudos —Philadelphia Daily News
Smith’s approach was jazz-influenced both in its rhythmic activity and in the rich-voiced sonorities that created engaging musical constructions —David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer
The most dramatic piece of the evening… lively… a deafening performance, physically and emotionally —The Temple News, Temple University
One of the most powerful pieces of the evening… it made a strong emotional impact —Latinoamérica, Philadelphia
at once appealing and challenging… the work passed my test for something new: I’d love to hear it again. —Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.
subdued… appealing… accessible —Express-Times, Allentown, Pa.
Of the commissions recently heard, this is among the most successful —Morning Call, Allentown
good tunes, finely set, and arresting timbres… spiraling motion… Smith moves instrumental lines as if they were Renaissance voices —Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer
All three of the Hopkins settings in this little cycle are memorable for their charm and poetic focus. His style is a welcome mixture of classical and “popular” elements that makes one wish for him to write an opera. —Prof. Nancy Ellen Ogle, soprano, University of Maine
A range of vocal strength—David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Nov 2009
by Philadelphia composer Kile Smith were heard for the ﬁrst time, both relatively modest in scope compared with his recent works, but unfolding with natural, un-ostentatious simplicity. Close inspection revealed subtle deviations in its agreeable melodiousness that never allowed the ear to slip into a mental autopilot that comes with having heard like-minded pieces. Similarly, Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” a pop song taken from his Mass, is never quite the way you remember it, especially while taking the scenic route to harmonic resolutions. The God-is-in-the-details adage holds true in these hugely different pieces: The music’s spiritual conviction was ampliﬁed by these near-invisible touches.
Two Laudate Psalms
Give Kile Smith a hat trick. This composer’s setting of two praise psalms—#113 and 150, for numbers geeks—continued a streak that includes the piece for horn and orchestra that the Classical Symphony debuted two seasons ago as well as the Vespers that Smith composed for Piffaro last season. Lyric Fest unveiled the psalms at a program devoted to “world spirituality in song.” Smith wrote the settings for two of the most appealing instruments in the Philadelphia region: Suzanne DuPlantis’s mezzo and the massed voices of the Pennsylvania Girlchoir. Many of the best operatically trained art song vocalists seem to create a character to deliver the song, as if they were developing a role in an opera. DuPlantis turned Smith’s script into an exuberant religious rite that placed a buoyant leader in front of a group of enthusiastic young followers.
Two Laudate Psalms
Acclaimed composer Kile Smith was commissioned by Lyric Fest to create “Laudate Psalms,” which will receive their world premiere at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Friday, Oct. 30.
Joe Barron, Montgomery News, 29 Oct 2009 (Montgomery County, Pa.)
During the rehearsals of any new music, there comes a moment when the conductor or the soloist turns to the composer for advice. The performer needs the creator to pass judgment on the interpretation, or phrasing, volume, or any of the other innumerable details that go into translating notes from the page to the ear.
When that moment came during a recent rehearsal of Kile Smith’s new Two Laudate Psalms, Smith found he had nothing to say — a new but definitely pleasurable experience. To his ear, the run-through had been perfect.
“I had no wisdom,” Smith said Saturday in an interview. “It felt absolutely terrific not to have to be wise.”
“Two Laudate Psalms” — settings of Psalms 113 and 150 for mezzo-soprano, girls’ choir and piano — will receive its premiere Friday at the First Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Mark Anderson will conduct the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, with Suzanne DuPlantis, one of Lyric Fest’s co-founders, as soloist, and Laura Ward, another co-founder, playing piano. The premiere is the centerpiece of a Lyric Fest program titled “Moving Heaven and Earth: World Spirituality in Song.”
The smoothness of the rehearsals compensates in part for the anxiety and labor Smith expended in writing the music. The Lyric Fest commission arrived a little too close to the performance date for comfort, and to save time, Smith lifted the Latin setting of Psalm 113 from his neo-medievalist religious score Vespers, which, he reasoned, would leave him free to concentrate on Psalm 150, which he also set in Latin.
But things didn’t quite turn out as planned.
“I don’t really think that I saved myself any time,” Smith said. “This is probably the heaviest-lifting transcription I’ve ever had to do. The whole texture of the piece was all blown up.”
The scoring for Vespers included men’s voices and sackbuts, the medieval ancestor of the trombone, and deleting them deprived the music of what Smith on his blog calls a “gorgeous carpet of sound.” Raising the men’s parts into the range of the girls’ voices also created problems.
“Flip an octave, and things start clashing and you have to rethink everything.” Smith said.
For Psalm 150, the challenge was finding something new to say. Almost every major composer of the past 500 years, and most of the minor ones, have set it to music. Smith’s inspiration was to emphasize the word “alleluia” and to arrange the following pairs of lines — “Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens,” and so on — as a call and response. The music ends on an upbeat, rather than with an unambiguous thump.
“When it does end, I think it’s a bit of a surprise, and the last chord sort of rings in the air,” Smith said.
Throughout history, composers have written more conservatively for chorus than for instruments — a fact that has more to do with the limitations of the human voice than with any choirmaster’s aesthetic prejudices. Very little 12-tone music exists for chorus, for example, possibly because when a tone row is inverted, as prescribed by standard compositional procedures, the result is inevitably a succession of wide intervals, and multiple leaps of more than a whole note are very hard for singers to execute.
“You really overburden them and you fatigue them, and you don’t want to do that,” Smith said.
The voice is the perfect musical instrument, he said, but unlike the piano or the violin, it has visual cues, like keys or a fingerboard, that allows a performer to see the notes. Singers have only their sense of pitch to guide them, and if too many of the pitches lie too far apart, the result can be catastrophic.
Many solo singers and some choirs have learned to adjust, of course, but as Smith says, “You have to choose your battles.”
Choosing his battles carefully, he writes for chorus in a straightforward tonal idiom. In the “alleluias” in Psalm 150, he has the singers enter on the half beat, creating an energetic, almost jazzy feeling, but the harmony in both the piano and the chorus is a simple E-flat major chord.
Smith has sung in many choruses over the years, although he does not consider himself a professional-grade vocalist, and unlike many great composers of the past, he is not a virtuoso on any instrument. The deficiency actually works to his advantage, he said, because it allows him to write what he hears in his head, instead of limiting him to what he is able to play.
Musical ideas often occur to him on the morning train, during his commute from his home in Northeast Philadelphia to his job as curator of the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He writes them down and in the evening enters them into his home computer, and he often finds they weren’t as good as he thought when the inspiration struck.
“What I write down is awful,” he said. “But it’s a start.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrickk Stearns, 20 June 2011
Magical effects, by accident or design, gave audiences some heady contradictions to wrestle with at the Month of Moderns festival Saturday by the Crossing choir.
…Writes scholar Emily Wilson, “Seneca has a far stronger obsession than any Greek tragedian with the possibility that the whole universe may be at a point of crisis.” Whether or not Philadelphia composer Kile Smith had that in mind in the earlier movements of his new piece, The Waking Sun, his setting of Seneca texts often divided into two or three contrapuntal strands that strained against one another in new, ear-pricking ways.
The piece has a huge musical range: unsettling rhythms of the opening movement; playful, quirky syncopation describing the bacchanals of the second; then the final movement fanning out into 12-part vocal writing to characterize universal love. There the music hit an intensely charged sweet spot that seemed to hang in a climax, unable to turn back but not knowing how to move forward, becoming even sweeter before concluding.
The intricate orchestration for baroque chamber orchestra Tempesta di Mare played to the group’s higher-personality members, theorbo player Richard Stone and concertmaster Emlyn Ngai. But the vocal writing is no doubt what prompted the hero’s welcome from the audience that packed the church up to the organ loft. Objectively speaking, The Waking Sun is, for lack of any better word, a hit.
Gabriel Jackson is featured during Month of Moderns (it will end Sunday), and his Not No Faceless Angel was a moderate foil to Seneca-inspired extremes. His basic language is lush Anglican, in contrast to Smith’s pared-back Anglican. Simultaneous disparity is the thing in choral writing these days, but Jackson’s has more than most, and it somehow coexists brilliantly, along with the declamation of a Tanya Lake poem that evolves into nonmusical speech. An unaccompanied cello offered commentary alongside the chorus, while a solo flute came from the loft. It’s an old magic trick. But how many concerts have so many?
The Waking Sun
Seven members of Tempesta di Mare Baroque Orchestra accompanied The Crossing under Nally’s direction in a work that begins rhythmically energetically and harmonically astringently but that little by little over the course of its six movements leaves its dissonances behind to become more and more consonant, abandons its sharply etched rhythms in favor of more and more lyricism. By its conclusion, “The Waking Sun” is a soothing lullaby of the soul’s peaceful ascension into heavenly rest.—Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 23 June 2011
The Waking Sun
Kile Smith’s music for the stoic heart
Tom Purdom, The Broad Street Review, 28 June 2011
In the past three years, Kile Smith has created three highly successful works based on texts and ceremonies drawn from his own Christian faith. For his latest work, commissioned by Donald Nally’s The Crossing, Smith set texts by the Roman poet Seneca and ventured into the very different world of the Stoic philosophers.
He didn’t seem quite as comfortable with this latter material. The six texts Smith selected examine different aspects of Seneca’s work, but they don’t add up to an integrated worldview. But The Waking Sun is still a powerful work that displays all the inventive expressiveness that marks Smith’s Christian pieces.
The Crossing is a 20-voice chorus composed of some of the Philadelphia region’s deftest vocalists, and Smith’s choral writing showcases their ability to handle complicated interactions and create complex sonic tapestries. What’s more, every section of The Waking Sun creates a different mood and employs a different stylistic approach.
A portrait of Cupid, “that wanton, smiling boy,” receives a touch of country music. The next section depicts the punishment of Tantalus, who stole ambrosia from the gods, with vocal and instrumental music that creates a limpid, timeless image of Tantalus suspended in the midst of irresistible food and drink, with everything forever out of reach. A section composed in the style of a sturdy early American “fuguing tune” celebrates the Stoic ideal of the upright man who has freed himself from fear and desire.
Smith’s instrumental accompaniment employs Baroque instruments because The Waking Sun was originally supposed to be performed with a Baroque oratorio. The period instruments may have crept into the project for non-musical reasons, but their soft voices make them an ideal partner for a small chorus. Tempesta di Mare’s Baroque experts produced fully audible blends and contrasts but never overwhelmed the voices.
Donald Nally’s choir, The Crossing, occupies a unique niche in the musical ecosystem: Its singers perform new and unfamiliar music for a small chamber choir. I heard them for the ﬁrst time last season, when they joined Piffaro for a major event: the premiere of Kile Smith’s Vespers for voice and Renaissance instruments. The Crossing’s latest a capella concert in Chestnut Hill was the ﬁrst pure Crossing concert I’ve attended, and it met most of my expectations. The Crossing presents novel, beautiful, complex music that requires precise coordination and ﬁrst-class voices.
The program’s main event was another premiere by Kile Smith, the ﬁnal work in a trilogy Nally has dubbed the Celan Project: three settings for texts by Paul Celan (1920-1970), a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Nazi death camps.
I’d never heard of Celan, and I found the texts obscure and complex. Celan grew up in the aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, speaking several languages, including Yiddish. But German was the language used by cultured Central Europeans in his youth, and he continued to write in it after the Holocaust, even though it was the language of his oppressors. Celan’s German is so personal and inventive that Smith referred to him as the “German James Joyce” when I queried him after the concert.
Smith’s piece used English translations, which only increased their opaqueness in my case, and I listened to his piece primarily as pure, wordless music. Smith treated the unaccompanied voices just as unpredictably—and effectively—as he treated Renaissance instruments in the Vespers and modern instruments in the horn concerto he wrote for the Classical Symphony. He’s composed a number of good pieces over the years, but lately he seems to be on a roll.
Where flames a word
The Crossing sings ﬁnal concert of Month of Moderns festival
David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Classical Music Critic
an important world premiere… Where Flames a Word took on Paul Celan poems that seem to be about soul recognition through sex—in words too fearlessly personal to be uttered in real life and that can perhaps exist only in a poem. The depth of expression easily surpasses his much-discussed Vespers. Some of the word settings are plainspoken as can be; others sail in through alien key signatures, racing in from some side door. Resolutions got sidetracked by bass notes that rise from under cover. Most of it makes little literal sense but, poetically speaking, feels completely right in spellbinding ways I never imagined.
Where ﬂames a word
Kile Smith’s Where flames a word, the ﬁnal world premiere in the Celan Project, and the ﬁrst to incorporate a prose work by Celan. Gives a sense of immanence and of tremendous, overwhelming size and the struggle to comprehend it. Middle section, the prose setting, has text that reﬂects a struggle for language, a conﬂict between “green” and “white” language, and the build-up of clusters suggests language at war, green and white each ﬁghting for their own space… the Smith piece was really impressive: a strong sense of lapping waves, of drawing closer to that nagging, inscrutable secret that seems to haunt Celan. One odd thing: ending on the word “delusion” with a sweet, major chord. Are we to come away thinking of peace and harmony as a delusion? Is this resignation in the face of the struggles Celan evokes? Not sure.