Eric Whitacre thinks big with choral music

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The wordschoral music and star are not often found in close proximity—but when they do appear, the name Eric Whitacre often follows. Known for using huge ensembles—his upcoming Vancouver appearance features the Vancouver Chamber Choir, the Pacifica Singers, the Focus! Choir of College & University Singers, and dozens of young vocalists pulled from the secondary-school system—and for linking Internet singers in innovative “virtual choirs”, he’s the closest thing to a media phenomenon that choral music has produced in several generations.

Yet when he’s reached at his London, England, home, the Nevada-born composer and conductor credits his success not to his own brilliance or hard work but to a simple twist of fate. Or, more accurately, several of them in quick succession.

“I got very, very lucky in a number of different ways, from stumbling into choral music and finding it that way to starting to compose at exactly the right time, when the kind of music that I love is becoming popular—relatively traditional tonal dissonance, I suppose I would call it,” he explains humbly. “And then the Internet happened, all while I was just getting started. Somehow I feel like I caught two or three waves in a row, out of sheer luck and sheer timing.”

There’s another factor that plays a part. Like his inspirations John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, Whitacre writes the kind of music that offers a spiritual experience in a secular context.

“That’s the highest compliment you could give me,” says Whitacre. “If I have any mission at all, it is to do that, at least through the music. To me, that’s what the greatest art does, and it’s certainly what I aspire to do when I’m creating.”

It’s the search for collective uplift rather than personal aggrandizement, he adds, that’s behind his deployment of some very large bands.

“There’s just this incredible energy when you have that many singers, all of them singing and breathing at the same time. And then, more and more, I guess it’s that as a composer I want so desperately to make this a communal experience, so that the performers and the audience members are all sharing the same ecstatic experience at the same time.

“I’m smiling at myself,” adds the self-described “hard-core agnostic”, “because what I’m describing, basically, is a religious experience, and I don’t know that I’m setting out to do that. But it sure sounds like Mass, doesn’t it?”

On a more intimate level, Whitacre has recently embarked on a smaller project that’s dear to his heart: setting Margaret Wise Brown’s timeless children’s book Goodnight Moon for mixed chorus and piano (though it’s not on the program here). It’s a text that he’s intimately familiar with, having read it “a thousand times” to his young son—but when pressed, Whitacre admits that his motives are not entirely pure.

His secret plan? Raising a whole new generation of choral-music fans.

“That, I would love,” he says, laughing. “I mean, yeah, that’s true. If there’s anything that I would like to do, it would be to turn people on to choral music. Choral music, and classical music in general, has to do with exposure. Ninety-five percent of the time, if you can just get someone in the room to see someone great, it’ll blow their minds. So, yes, if I can in any way become the gateway drug to choral music, that would be just fine.”

Eric Whitacre conducts the Vancouver Chamber Choir and many others at the Orpheum on Saturday (October 27).

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