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The multifaceted Eric Whitacre

Eric WhitacreL.A.-based contemporary composer Eric Whitacre is only in his late 30s but has already amassed quite a following, particularly for his choral works (audio examples below). A 2006 collection of his works by U.K. vocal ensemble Polyphony even outsold Mozart at some shops upon its release, and saw a stateside bump in sales after an NPR feature last year. And his rather rock star-ish appearance hasn’t hurt, to be sure.

He has also written for orchestra and wind ensemble, and his latest project is an “Opera Electronica” (more of a multimedia musical, really) for the stage entitled Paradise Lost. After first premiering as a suite in 2003 and then undergoing workshops and expansion, a full production opened in Pasadena earlier this year with a large cast, taiko drums, a DJ, anime backdrops and flying rigs for several performers. The overall show reviews were mixed, but nearly all praised the music.

Whitacre’s compositions are starting to be heard more frequently in the North Texas area, performed by professional ensembles such as the Dallas Wind Symphony and the Turtle Creek Chorale (see below) but also via high school and church groups. The composer’s blog even chronicles a trip to San Antonio in 2005 to premiere a transcription of one of his choral anthems, Lux Aurumque, with the Texas Music Educators Association All-State Band (a testament to the high standards still present in many of the state’s public school music programs).

The word “ethereal” is used far too often to describe certain types or pieces of music, but it really is appropriate when talking about many of his works. Whitacre frequently makes use of arching melodic lines, tightly-clustered chords and dramatic dynamic contrasts, but the most predominant element for me is his use of suspensions, in which a tone is held through a change of harmony to become dissonant before resolving downward to another chord. It’s a powerful musical device which he uses to great effect.

One of the more beautiful examples of his choral work is Sleep, Whitacre’s collaboration with American poet Charles Anthony Silvestri that is meant to depict the time between awareness and slumber. Judging from a search of Google and YouTube, it’s among the composer’s most-performed works (here is a performance by the Mesa Schola Cantorum in Arizona):

[Audio:http://mesascholacantorum.org/Music/Fall2007/04%20Sleep.mp3"][/audio]

Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale recorded the aforementioned Lux Aurumque as part of their new CD Serenade. The piece uses as its text a Latin translation of an English poem (usually the translation is the other way around) by Edward Esch about the birth of Christ, and is one of several Whitacre works to use a sacred text:

[Audio:http://www.kera.org/blogs/culture/audio/2007/tcc_whitacre_luxaurumque.mp3"][/audio]

You can catch the TCC this weekend at the Majestic Theatre as part of their “Children Will Listen” holiday concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Dec. 7-9).