(the press about Vespers is on this page.)
The Arc in the Sky
Come, ye Sinners
Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra
The Consolation of Apollo
Fanfare on Ein feste Burg
Hymn and Fugue No. 1, for string orchestra
Hymn and Fugue No. 2, for piano trio
O Rex gentium
Poems of Stephen Berg
Red-tail and Hummingbird
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
Some of the sweetest singing of the afternoon came in Cecilia’s performance of Smith’s Alleluia, which concluded the concert. Singing with bright ensemble sound, the choir delivered a reverential treatment of Smith’s long, silvery lines.—Aaron Keebaugh, Boston Classical Review, 12 Mar 2018
Book 1 (violin, piano) and Book 2 (cello, piano)
so completely American, soulfully and simply expressed … among the very best examples of that type of composition that I’ve ever heard, bar none. They are utterly captivating, evocative, and so beautiful. You capture the spirit of each one just perfectly.—John McLaughlin Williams, violinist, conductor
SATB a cappella, 65′
“World premiere at Hill Presbyterian Church a masterpiece”—Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 5 July 2018: “a masterpiece of emotional expressivity and spiritual revelation … Although each of the larger sections strikes a different compositional style from either of its two companions, all three are held together by Smith’s uncanny ability to speak in a consistent aesthetic tone. That musical personality is characterized by an imaginative use of chromatic tonality that sometimes seems to include every one of the 12 tones in the octave at the same moment without damaging the listener’s unbreakable connection with an unshakeable tonal center. Smith has voiced his choral writing in “The Arc in the Sky” with extravagance. There are times when the bass parts are exceedingly low while the soprano lines are daringly high, and all the space in between is filled with flowing polyphony. Then there are others when the writing recalls the unison monody of Gregorian chant, the shape of the vocal line determined solely and sensitively by the shape of the words of the text. There are passages of dense dissonance balanced against measures of triadic simplicity, once again directed by the profile of the lyrics. Yet throughout the entire length of The Arc in the Sky, Smith never permits his music to cloud the bracing clarity of Lax’s poetry. Even during moments of shimmering musical beauty, the surgical precision of Lax’s words remains undimmed. … Despite the complexity of one motif piling upon another, Smith’s music never diminishes the paramount importance of Lax’s poetry … The final movement…offers a hurtling crescendo of rolling phrases cascading one upon the next until its shattering conclusion brings the entire sonic journey to a majestic consummation. Under Donald Nally’s inspired and inspiring hand, The Crossing sang The Arc in the Sky with passion and precision. The sound the choir produced was never a matter of mere singing pitches and rhythms. It was more a case of projecting tones that opened up the listener’s mind, heart and soul to free his or her spirit to soar to the heights of revelation only great art can see and hear in the distant promise of self-knowledge.”
“The creative arc of Kile Smith”—David Patrick Stearns, Condemned to Music, Arts Journal, 4 July 2018: “maybe his best piece yet … the audience at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill…gave him a rock-star ovation at the end … Though Nally had little part in Smith’s discovery of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000) – who traded New York City jazz clubs and the company of Thomas Merton for the semi-isolation of a Greek island – Smith loved the stuff and knew Nally would too. The distinctive synergy they enjoy is downright entertaining. Would any outside observer ever think to put these two guys in the same room? At Saturday’s pre-concert lecture, the freewheeling, quick-witted Nally was barefooted (typical) and wearing shorts. Smith looked like a brainy version of a 1950s suburban dad. Both were earnest and unfiltered in their own way, and each focusing on different elements of Lax, a pioneer of minimalist poetry. Smith loved the be-here-now spirituality, manifested in a Lax’s straightforward description of fishermen mending their nets. Nally was fascinated by the experimentation, in which words are spelled out, letter by letter, vertically down the side of the page just so we don’t take words for granted. … Serious music is often no longer serious when it becomes breezy. Not here … the composer would do something that gave the music a kind of cumulative impact. … Most significantly, that final movement brought together many previous elements … Smith’s music has never lacked conviction, but what previously seemed carved in wood now feels chiseled in stone. And who would ever think that jazz chords were his means to get there?”
“Reaching skyward”—Gail Obenreder, Broad Street Review, 2 July 2018: “Smith…honors Lax’s rhythms by writing in an overarching rhythm of his own. Some movements are highly embellished tone poems, while others are transparent, quasi-religious and more musically spare. Thus, taken as a whole, Smith’s work speaks to the poet’s emotional dichotomy. … contains the ecstatic energy and improvisatory syntax of hot jazz, with musical gestures that seem informal but are tightly constructed. The second movement, “there are not many songs,” is filled with haunting slow rhythms, augmented triads, rich chords, and ninths that quote jazz but never sound derivative. … “I would stand and watch them,” a luminous canonical section evoking the Sisyphean-yet-sacred nature of repetitive activity. Akin to the Shaker credo of work as prayer, this movement marks the work’s center and most strongly carries its message — melodically and textually. It weaves a thick aural tapestry that drops away to a single thread of sound, asking over and over (with a rising musical inflection), “why must you mend them?” … Smith’s final movement, “The Arc,” is an extended coda; “the arc in the sky, the arc of the sea” repeats like a mantra. Here, the pillars of sound were often overwhelming in the church’s acoustics. … The work ends with triumphant chords, a release for both singers and audience. It must have been a huge challenge to create and present this work, and the audience responded ecstatically to both composer and choir. “Ultimate tensile strength” is the maximum stress something can withstand while being stretched or pulled, and here the Crossing certainly displayed it. … sections of translucent beauty … Right from the start, it was clear the choir had a great love and appetite for Smith’s composition and was ready to do whatever he asked of them. He asked a lot, and they complied perfectly and joyfully.
“The Crossing choir premieres vivid new Kile Smith work”—Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 July 2018: “With the world premiere Saturday night of The Arc in the Sky, a vivid new work for unaccompanied choir, Smith moved into the vaguely spiritual realm of the Crossing, the Philadelphia-based professional chamber choir. … Smith has a sensitive ear, and different styles emerged from Lax’s language. … Smith’s textures suggest that he hears his musical world with all of the complexity and layering of orchestral music. … Smith concludes his piece with a big statement — a bright-as-sunshine shout of ecstasy that looks to the horizon and suggests a broad spiritual quest. I think, though, the music that stayed with me most was the penultimate movement that observes fishermen mending their nets. Smith followed Lax’s prosaic specificity with great warmth and atmosphere, and by creating layers of meaning. There was something of Britten in the vocal writing, a quality that widens the potential connotations of the words through the music, but not in an obvious way. … Here the essence of poet and composer became one, and the piece made the case that the mundane in life can be a window into greater meaning when framed by the right artists.
Two decades after his death, the American poet Robert Lax remains a relatively unknown writer. Biographically, he was a Jew-become-Christian who spent most of his life on Patmos, the Greek island where St. John had the visions recollected in Revelations. But Lax was also a brilliant minimalist poet, writing about spirituality with simple words. Themes of Lax’s poetry include patience, finding holiness in the profane, and, luckily for us all, music. He wrote, “jazz is for / the outer temple, / for the courts / of the house / of God.”
Kile Smith’s hour-long setting of Lax’s poetry, “The Arc In The Sky,” is a masterful distillation of the poet’s philosophy into music. The choral style that matches Lax’s poetic one is happily in vogue: simple melodic lines and straightforward but often clashing harmonies, coupled with complex rhythms and intricate word-painting. Smith, a composer equally capable of writing for renaissance band, symphony orchestra or chamber choir, brings his full skillset to bear on this new work, which at various times rocks, rolls, mourns, murmurs, laments, and glorifies.
Smith’s writing was surely aided by his knowledge that The Crossing would be performing his work. The Crossing has been on the forefront of contemporary choral music for 10 years, commissioning new works and recording them at alarming rates from superstar composers such as Caroline Shaw, David Lang, Ted Hearne, and John Luther Adams. Coincidentally, The Crossing’s first recording was a work by Smith, a Renaissance and Lutheran-inspired piece called Vespers, that could scarcely contrast more strongly with this new work. On this recent release, the choir’s sound is as distinctively modern as the Vienna Philharmonic’s is classical, and just as dignified.
Smith’s self-described “pilgrimage for unaccompanied choir” comprises three sections: “Jazz,” “Praise,” and “Arc.” “Jazz,” the work’s strongest section, begins with “why did they all shout,” an exhilarating account of the public response to Louis Armstrong’s “prophetic” and virtuosic horn playing. Both choir and composer are in their element here. To musically depict people’s enthusiasm, Smith uses syncopation, disjointed melodic lines, sharp dissonances, and smooth octaves; The Crossing handles all these with aplomb, managing to sing vivaciously and pensively at the same time. Smith’s text setting is at its most organic here, leaping along with the poetry, and The Crossing rightly uses the text underlay as the starting point for their interpretation.
The following two movements in “Jazz” are equally wonderful. “there are not many songs” is a lush, half cabaret-piece, half lullaby, of which Smith writes in the liner notes, “I decided I would go all the way in [to the jazz idiom] and see what happened.” Thankfully, what happened was gorgeous, although the movement is slightly too self-consciously a song-about-a-song. “Cherubim and Palm-trees” gives us a vivid picture of what Lax calls a “jam-session of the just,” a vision of jazz as religious expression, that does not disappoint from a musical or textual point of view.
Smith’s intentions for the entire work seem to be laid bare in the opening of the second section, “I want to write a book of praise.” The poem describes Lax’s yearning to describe spiritual things without “the religious words,” but with “little words that people respect and do not fear.” Smith takes the instruction literally in that movement, alternating quasi-plainchant verses with a calm, reassuring chorus — but throughout the piece, too, he has (mostly) conspicuously avoided the “religious words” of the classical canon such as strict counterpoint and formal cadences. The Crossing has also heeded these instructions, singing the entire piece with a plain, non-vibrato tone. In fact, the only possible complaint about the singing on this album is the lack of vibrato: some of the movements desperately need it, like “there are not many songs,” “Psalm,” and “The Arc in the Sky.” There are a few, wonderful seconds’ worth of vibrato scattered throughout the album, but for the most part it seems to be the choir’s artistic choice to sing without it.
The rest of the piece has its highlights, the lament “Jerusalem” best among them, but it fails to live up to the expectations set by “Jazz.” The tempi in the second half of the work regress towards a mundane moderato, and the text setting becomes less inventive, with the final two movements relying far too heavily on repetition. Smith’s setting of the final poem, “The Arc in the Sky,” feels particularly underdeveloped, given the word play present in the poem.
Vibrato and structural issues aside, Smith and The Crossing have gifted us a new top-notch, emotionally charged choral work, with a superb recording to match. The Crossing continues to wow, and Smith has set a new standard for himself. With luck, this piece will inspire other settings of Robert Lax’s poetry. Strongly recommended listening for anyone; do be sure to read the insightful liner notes from the composer, to follow along with the text of the poems, and to enjoy the fitting album art by Christopher St. John.
SATB, 3 cellos, 1 percussionist playing vibraphone, bass drum, tambourine. 65′
(CD) American Record Guide, Nathan Faro, Feb 2019: “sensory setting … quiet and meditative, slowly building to ‘Our bed is in flower,’ the climax of the work … In other moments, nature mysticism … propulsive … a great debut recording from this ensemble. I’m looking forward to more from them … sound is crisp and well-balanced.”
(CD) Broad Street Review, Peter Burwasser, 18 Mar 2019: “hypnotically beautiful … delicately ecstatic … unabashed sensuality … in its simple beauty, seems to transcend any specific musical era … extremely careful musical pairing to the import of the poetry, in ways that are sweetly profound … I expect to hear this music again … the Vocal Arts Ensemble performs superbly, with rich tone and a natural sense of pacing … A brief, lovely piece titled Alleluia”
achingly beautiful… artfully crafted… masterfully written… a feast of textures and colors, including vocal solos, contained delicate choral sounds that blossom into rich, full-chorus swells, cello sounds that range from percussive pizzicato notes to solo and section passages with a very vocal quality, shimmering vibraphone lines and harmonies and definitive tambourine and bass drum interjections…. including some sounds from the chorus in the opening bar of the piece that sounded more like resonating fine-crystal wine glasses than a chorus of adult singers.—Elaine Schmidt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Composer Kile Smith is reshaping the choral repertoire: A modest ‘craftsman’
Listening to the choral music of Kile Smith – the ease and fluidity of its vocal lines, its graceful counterpoint, its shimmering spirituality – you’d never guess what a mighty struggle the Philadelphia-based composer typically goes through, what he describes as “moments of terror” and periods of “hitting a brick wall.” … Smith’s hour-long “Canticle,” which conductor Craig Hella Johnson and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati commissioned and premiered in 2016 and will reprise – and record – in January, is among a growing body of works, many religious in nature, that have earned accolades from listeners and critics around the globe. … Yet Smith seems modest to a fault, not just about his music, but about his writing … “It’s really, really hard. It’s the same thing with writing music. It never gets easy.” … “Choral singing is so ingrained in me that I found I was good at choral writing. I know the advantage of writing pieces with good voice leading.” … VAE conductor Johnson, himself a composer, says there is more than that to Smith’s art. “I got to know Kile and his music six or seven years ago through his ‘Vespers’ – an extraordinarily special piece. I fell in love with his music,” Johnson says. “His choral music takes a unique and distinctive path. His (compositional) voice is unlike any other. The music has qualities that are really grounded in choral tradition and practice, yet it feels very fresh and of its time. He’s an exquisite craftsman.” … “Kile was the first person I thought of for this project, and I was delighted when he said he’d take it on,” Johnson says. The conductor was envisioning a work that was “rich and satisfying and compelling, one that speaks to the larger body of us as people, that can have a universal appeal from a humanistic and spiritual standpoint.” … “Something that sets my choral music apart is that there’s a lot of counterpoint going on, and the individual line is very important to me,” Smith says. “The big wash of sound is very popular these days, and I like it too, but I really like to spin the lines, so that each singer feels like his or hers is the most important line.” … “Two big influences on this piece – things I haven’t really talked about – are (Carl Orff’s) ‘Carmina Burana’ and, strangely enough, Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” Smith says. “When I started the project and realized its scope, I had a moment of horror: How am I going to write this thing? “I looked at ‘Carmina Burana.’ It’s really so well done in how it plays out dramatically. And that’s a big part of the success of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ too. The back and forth, recitative, aria, chorus, and how he navigates the different keys to create a dramatic arc. “In a big piece like ‘Canticle,’ you’ve got to keep moving forward. You have to keep listeners’ attention. You have to grab them by the lapels and not let go.” … For years, he wanted to write his own “Alleluia,” one ”that a high school choir could sing, that anybody could sing, that had challenges but was accessible.”
VAE’s Johnson thinks Smith hit the bull’s-eye. “It’s going to be a staple of the choral repertoire, I can tell you that,” he says. … —Ray Cooklis, Cincinnati Movers and Makers
Without resorting to gimmicks or descriptive writing, Smith’s music allows for the text to ring clearly … His music also has an arresting beauty and delicate charm, and Smith’s melodic writing soars. … The instrumental writing offers some of Canticle‘s most stunning moments. Each of its three sections is prefaced by a Meditation, which unfolds in resonant, chant-like lines in the cello ensemble. … Smith’s vocal writing is eerily beautiful. “Answer of the Creatures” flowed in soft phrases, and the harmonies of “Swift-winged birds” seemed to fill the air like rain.—Aaron Keebaugh, Boston Classical Review, 12 Mar 2018
Kile Smith (b. 1956) has received commissions in a range of classical genres, including orchestral compositions, concertos, chamber works, and an opera, but a substantial portion of his output is choral music. Canticle is a treatment of the 40-stanza poem known fully as A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ by the 16th century Spanish mystic and Roman Catholic saint, John of the Cross. Although Christian symbolism is apparent, the poetry addresses universal spiritual themes and Canticle is, by turn, contemplative, playful, devotional, exuberant, and sensual. The writing for voices is exquisite—melodic, with a tonal/polytonal harmonic syntax, at times deriving its form from the imagery of the texts. The 67-minute work is presented in 18 movements, divided into three larger sections. The choir is accompanied subtly but quite effectively by three cellos and a percussionist who plays vibraphone, bass drum, and tambourine. Craig Hella Johnson conducts a chorus of 35 professional singers, the atmospheric acoustic of a Cincinnati church captured magnificently—especially in multichannel—by John Newton of Soundmirror—Andrew Quint, The Absolute Sound
SATB choir, organ
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.
SATB, crotales, bass drum
Top Ten 2018… a highlight of the year—Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, TheaterJones, Dallas
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
The piece I personally found most compelling was Kile Smith’s “Yes, it’s beautiful” from The Consolation of Apollo. Bringing vocal skills demonstrated throughout the concert, the Westminster Choir layered and split sound in ways that both intrigued the listener’s ear as it made the music whole. Overtones took this listener as far as the moon itself. Wonder appeared to overtake some members of the choir as they moved, by handbell lead, to combine into groupings that elevated their a cappella resonance in the room. It was stunning to hear the overlay of words from a newer world and a more ancient one in this selection, but to simultaneously see singers tuning in, almost listening as loudly as they sang made me look heavenwards too.—Mary Hutchins Harris, South Carolina Music Guide
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
Horn and string orchestra
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
[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
Renaissance band (also for brass quintet, opt. perc.)
Smith’s piece exploded into life…. A slew of heavy thwacks on a tabor (a Renaissance snare drum) launched Smith’s Fanfare, mimicking the bang of hammer on nail in Wittenberg. The rasp of shawms and the splendid snort of a quartbass dulcian (a bassoon-like instrument) intoned Luther’s great hymn melody as Smith worked bristling variations on it. It was a bracing opening gesture…—Minneapolis Star Tribune
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
Kile Smith pivoted among an emotional trinity of strident, tense, and placid in O Rex Gentium (O King of Nations).—Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Dec 2015
Soprano, clarinet, piano
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
Brass or mixed quintets or sextets
an excellent new Kile Smith piece… distant kinship to Monteverdi’s Orfeo overture… more rapid and dense than typical Smith—David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer
Latin band, vocalist
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
High voice, piano
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
High voice, SSAA, piano
A range of vocal strength—David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Nov 2009
Two Laudate Psalms 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.
Smith 3-0… 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.—Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, 4 Nov 2009
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.
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 [no] 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.”—Joe Barron, Montgomery News, 29 Oct 2009 (Montgomery County, Pa.)
The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick 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?
Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 23 June 2011: 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.
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.
In “Conversation in the Mountains” from Where Flames A Word, Kile Smith pushes his dissonances to the edge, lingering on them but ultimately resolving. His harmony-driven writing is lovely to hear, emphasizing the sonic mixture of voices rather than rhythmic movement or intricacy.—Eric C. Simpson, New York Classical Review, 20 Sep 2018
In a cappella choral writing, it is often a kink in an otherwise smooth canvas that sharpens or twists the meaning of a given word. In Kile Smith’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” to a text by Paul Celan, dissonances made you doubt that the passage’s two speakers, contemplating geology and language, really did see the same thing in a glacier.—Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times, 20 Sep 2018
“as sublimely beautiful as ever,” David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 Sep 2018 review of second movement, Conversation in the Mountains
Class act—Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, 24 Jun 2009: 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.
The Crossing sings ﬁnal concert of Month of Moderns festival—David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer: 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.
Retrospective concert by The Crossing: Mastery, exaltation, passion—David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Feb 2016: In the opening piece, Kile Smith’s imaginative settings of Paul Celan’s poems in Where Flames a Word address the listener directly – on matters you’d hesitate to discuss among friends.
Some moments in this 2009 piece were relatively plain and semi-declamatory; others had words tumbling all over one another, leading up to ecstatic moments warranted by Celan’s contemplations of nature so sensual as to be sexual. Is it a great piece? Probably, but we won’t know that until more hearings over several years. Recognition on that level is like canonization: It takes a while. And though the Crossing’s first performances tend to be amazingly confident, these Reprise concerts allow listeners and performers to fathom this music more fully, particularly given the Crossing’s increasing capacity for expressing exaltation.
Dave Allen, Hotbed of Intrigue: 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.