April 14, 2008
Chorus, orchestra to collaborate on composer’s opus
By Jessica Moore
The universal themes of love, life, grief and loss are brought into focus through the musical lens of Richard Prior’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated work, “Stabat Mater,” performed by the combined forces of the Emory Symphony Orchestra and University Chorus April 17-18 at 8 p.m. in the Schwartz Center, Emerson Concert Hall. To create the highly lyrical and intensely dramatic work, composed in 2000 before his arrival at Emory, Prior interwove the traditional text of the “Stabat Mater” — the medieval Latin narrative of Mary, mother of Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross — with contemporary poems in English by mothers relating their experiences of loss through adverse circumstances.
Prior, Emory’s director of orchestral studies and coordinator of chamber ensembles, says he tries to keep his careers as composer and conductor separate; the decision to present the piece was made by Director of Choral Studies Eric Nelson. The staging of this work is the largest collaboration of the musical season, bringing together approximately 300 orchestra and chorus members and soloists. “Visually I always think that these collaborations are spectacular, having this large mass of bodies all unified in a moment of musical expression,” Prior says.
Engaging not only the audience but also the performers is very important to Prior. He strives to provide sufficient technical and artistic challenges for all performers, from the solo soprano to the second clarinetist.
His process for composing changes with every piece. Sometimes he improvises on the piano, while at other times the sound of the orchestration is in his head:
“The worst thing to do is to take it to the piano because you start to go down avenues that weren’t part of the original vision,” he notes.
The process is incredibly absorbing, he says. “You have the orchestration, melodies and structural possibilities running through your head constantly. That’s the point where you tend to become extremely unavailable for coherent conversation.”
Prior separated the Latin text from the purely Judeo-Christian message. “Fundamentally it’s about a mother witnessing the suffering of a child, which is an incredibly powerful and humanistic image,” he says. “Stabat Mater” will transport the audience on an emotional journey exploring the universal message of the fragility of human mortality and profound value of those lives around us.
For information on the free performance, or to read more, visit www.arts.emory.edu