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A World Debut at Symphony Hall

Reprising music on campus: Composer Richard Cornell channels poet Gary Snyder, remembering September 11


In the slide show above Richard Cornell talks about composing and working with the BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus, with images from a rehearsal.

Celebrating the belief that it is musicians, as much as ballplayers, who really know the score, our musical coverage over the past school year ranged across multiple octaves of style, personality, and performance. This week, we’re reprising a handful of those offerings: literary encores.

For composer Richard Cornell’s latest piece, it wasn’t the melody. It wasn’t the harmony, either. There weren’t any notes traveling along a blank staff in his mind. The music didn’t come first.

“I got the ideas for this piece after hearing Gary Snyder read ‘Falling from a Height, Holding Hands,’” says Cornell, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of composition. “The poem really seized me. A lot of ideas came right away, which I put down in sketch form, working at a piano.”

After months working that sketch into a full choral and orchestral work, Cornell’s piece of the same name made its world debut April 28 at Symphony Hall with a performance by the BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus.

The piece, which reflects on September 11, 2001, starts softly, building with dissonance. It erupts with the full range of the chorus, echoing the words of the poem: “better than burning, / hold hands.”

“This concert is a bit tragic,” says guest conductor Craig Jessop, head of the department of music at Utah State University and former music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “We have a sense of foreboding throughout.”

Along with Falling from a Height Holding Hands, the concert will feature the Boston premiere of Dominick Argento’s Cenotaph, which incorporates the texts of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon, Laurence Binyon, and Sara Teasdale as a collective monument to fallen soldiers.

Also on the program was Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. Mozart’s wife, Constanze, sang the soprano solos in the premiere of the mass, written in 1783 as a peace offering to Mozart’s father after he and Constanze were married. The mass featured as soloists sopranos Elissa Alvarez (CFA’12) and Teresa Wakim (CFA’05), mezzo-soprano Kara Harris (CFA’09), tenor James Barbato (CFA’10), and baritone Adrian Smith (CFA’10).

Boston University at Symphony Hall was performed April 28, 2009, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. 

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

This story originally ran April 28, 2009.

Click on the audio player below to hear a clip from Falling from a Height, Holding Hands.


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