Anybody That Performs My Work Is A Hero.

May 1, 2014 - 12:00am -- Michele Berman

Patricia Van Ness and Newton Choral Society together again.

Poet and composer Patricia Van Ness sits in the chancel of Eliot church and listens to Newton Choral Society rehearse the piece she wrote for them 6 years earlier. Nocturnes will be repeated in the upcoming final concert of the season, Saturday, May 20, and Van Ness will be there.  It’s all part of the Society’s 30th anniversary celebration.  But tonight the composer is at work.  She is here to decide if she likes the changes she has made to the original.

Back in 2000 Van Ness delivered exactly what conductor David Carrier wanted: an extended work for his chorus, with multi-movements, approximately 25 minutes long, and accompanied by brass. Nocturnes provided a nice contrast to the Verdi Requiem in that year’s May concert and it fulfilled the Society’s mission to introduce and support new choral work.  It just didn’t get any better.

So why change it now?  Because that’s what artists do. Their creative intuition doesn’t stop.  Van Ness will tell you that a commission goes through stages where during the first read-through people will look at what has been done so far and say, “Is this what we payed all that money for?”  At the next read-through more has been developed and people say, “Wow, this has gotten a lot better”.  But it’s never, ever completely finished.  It takes time to work things out. Then at some point the artist has to let go, to get it out there. “What has been let go, willingly or unwillingly from my hands often is greatly improved by the interpretation of another.”

That’s Van Ness: deeply committed to her work, loving the sound of the human voice, the structure of chant, the vowels of Latin, texts that speak of the deepest feelings in us.  Yet she is ready to refine, modify, ruthlessly throw out complete movements to achieve the simplicity and elegance that she admires in medieval and Renaissance music.  She is one prolific writer.  Take a look at her website,  It’s all there-- her poetry, the texts of her choral pieces, and the scores of her compositions.  As she says it’s “wicked unusual to have your work online, but I want it to be accessible to everyone.”

Nocturnes is all about night.  The opening statement, Invocation, invites us to go “deep into the night.” Each consecutive movement builds in texture and emotion and the text of Van Ness’s poetry speaks about grief or pain, often submerged, often close by in the night.  But there is hope and an incredible peace as we follow Moonfish who, to Van Ness, is a divine presence able to see the grief, who doesn’t flinch from it, doesn’t do anything but glide, and in gliding causes movement and allows our grief to surface and be comforted.  Without warning Van Ness gives us relief, going from solemn plainsong to The Mooncalf’s Ditty, a lighthearted dance of happiness by someone who’s curious, loves life, and finds joy in everything, including the dogs and cats that fight at night. The last two movements bring us to the other side of night where, with The Sleepwalker, we move through an incredibly rich six-part choral piece that Van Ness calls “stacked chant”, to the final glorious tribute, In Praise of Night.

So we’re done, back at the rehearsal.  Newton Choral has finished the last movement of NocturnesIn Praise of Night felt good, sung with conviction.  There is silence.  It seems like a lot of silence. We look over to where Patricia Van Ness sits and we wonder, “Is she pleased?”  She stands up, thanks us, and says,”Now get out your pencils.  We’re going to change the ending.”

Van Ness Nocturnes and Bruckner, Mass in E Minor will be performed in Masters of Vocal Tapestry, on Saturday, May 20, 8 pm, at Our Lady Help of Christians Church, 573 Washington St., Newton.  Tickets $20, seniors/students $16.

Martha Bancroft

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