The story behind the creation of "Ave Maria" in 1994

July 28, 2015

Over the years, I've been asked many times to tell the story behind the creation of my Ave Maria, a work for treble voices (SSSAAA) written in 1994 at the request of Elektra Women's Choir for the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the Canadian Music Centre. Ave Maria premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse in October 1994, it was published by Cypress Choral Music in 1996, and it burst upon the international choral scene when it was sung three times (in a row!) by Elektra Women's Choir at their featured performance in the Sydney Opera House for the the World Choral Symposium in 1996. Since its auspicious Sydney premiere, Ave Maria has come to be considered "standard repertoire" for advanced treble choirs everywhere and it's been performed by thousands of women's choirs and children's choirs - including a massed choir of 500 children conducted by Bob Chilcott at the Newfoundland Festival from the Rock in 2000.

From the beginning, stories appeared about the creation of Ave Maria including a strange one that accompanied a video on YouTube saying it's about The Virgin as traffic monitor and that she appeared to ensure the children had safe crossings. Because of bizarre stories like that, I've decided to publish the true story behind the creation of Ave Maria (on my Official Website, no less), so please refer to this if you need a program note or are trying to settle a bet.

Part I: In 1994, I was deep in research for an opera I was writing about paranormal spiritual events in war-torn Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. It's a true story revolving around six children who receive daily visitations from the Virgin Mary beginning in June, 1981 and continuing for several years. Over time, the visitations are moved from the open countryside to the town of Medjugorje, where every evening at 5:30, The Virgin would receive the children in a tiny chapel beside the main church in the centre of town. For  thousands of believers, the children represent a connection to the Divine, and as such, they are worshipped, too. Every evening at 5:30, when The Virgin receives the children, the air is filled with the sounds of thousands chanting the Rosary (Hail, Mary! - Ave Maria!), as one by one, the children emerge from their homes to join the others. They are six little visionary rock stars! I pictured this event as a scene in the opera: a joyful Ave Maria sung by the chanting crowd as the children are trotted through town protected by a phalanx of guards, climaxing as they all arrive at the chapel and, in the electrifying silence at the conclusion, The Virgin appears! (This explains the fermata on the last bar of silence in the music.)

Part II: around the same time as the opera on The Visionaries was unfolding in 1994, Vancouver's Elektra Women's Choir commissioned me to make a new work for them in celebration of the Canadian Music Centre. I decided to craft an Ave Maria as a work in six parts - six children, six parts - that celebrates the feminine in the Divine. And what began as a meditation on The Virgin (as mother) transformed into a work about women as women and a celebration of the work that women do to make the world go round. The music is dedicated to my mother as a 65th birthday present (in 1994), but she merely represents all the extraordinary women who do all of the work - day after day after day after day. In all cultures, the repetitive work of women is endless, yet they do it with a love that knows no bounds. The women who sing this music know this because they embody the love that is celebrated in it. My mother, now creeping up on 89, sees Ave Maria as a gift that keeps on giving. Knowing this, one can understand why I have rejected many entreaties to arrange Ave Maria for mixed choir. It's sung by women or children - both of which suit my original inspiration. I'm happy this way.


Late Canadian Carols 

Nine Carols from Canada in English for Women's Choir and Harp

July 14, 2015

On July 8, 2015, I sent the completed score of Late Canadian Carols, a new thirty minute work for women's choir and harp to Belle Canto Women's Ensemble of Edmonton, the fine people who commissioned it with the generosity and support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The story begins back in November 2013. I'd been invited to Red Deer, AB, as a guest of Belle Canto Women's Ensemble, along with two other composers (Jeff Ens and Sarah Quartel) to do a session for the Alberta Choral Federation about the nuts and bolts of commissioning new works by Canadian composers for performance by Canadian performers, in this case, Belle Canto. I don't remember the exact title of the our event, but in my own mind I called it "Commissioning New Music: Best Practices". I've had lots of experience writing music on commission, from the best to the worst, so I have lots of thoughts on what it's all about.

But little did I know when I got up at 5 AM that morning in November 2013 I'd be sitting here today in July 2015, nearly two years later, blogging about a new piece of music that was set in motion that day, a work that has occupied most of my waking hours (and some sleeping hours, too) for the last 10 months. It's been a crazy ten months because I've been trying to invent something new all this time, something unique, something worthy of doing and yet for most of the journey, I didn't even know what it was about on a conscious level. Subconsciously, sure, I totally knew where I was going. But consciously? Uh-uh.

Writing new music is a perplexing business, as I'm sure any composer will tell you. Sometimes it's very clear at the beginning what I'm writing about and other times (like this time) it's not clear what the piece is actually, truly about until the very end when all the pieces suddenly drop into place. This was one of those crazy pieces that found its way by me groping in the dark, bumping into furniture and without my glasses on in a room that I've never seen before in my life! It's painful; I'm getting welts on my knees from all the bumping-into-things! Funny thing, the title Late Canadian Carols came easily, arriving before a word was found or a note of music was written.

You see, my trip to talk about "commissioning new music: best practices" with Belle Canto at the Alberta Choral Federation conference was an "audition" of sorts but I didn't know it. I must've passed it because when I left the conference in Red Deer 24 hours later on that cold November afternoon with chorister Sally McIntosh at the wheel of her early 21st Century sedan on our way to the Edmonton Airport, I had a handshake deal with Heather Johnson, the Artistic Director of Belle Canto, that I'd be creating a major new work of thirty minutes duration for her choir and harp, all subject to funding. We were looking at 2015-16.

When I met Heather and the Belles in Red Deer in November 2013, they had been singing my Ave Maria (in six parts a cappella for women's choir) for 15 years in seven countries winning prizes all the way. And, they'd been singing my Alleluia (in five parts a cappella for women's choir) for just over a year. I was thrilled to hear them sing both works on the Friday night when I arrived in Red Deer because it gave me time to hear the brilliance of their singing while meeting them personally in the warm, friendly atmosphere of the rehearsal hall - a place where all performing artists are most comfortable. Their rehearsal performance of Ave Maria was flawless and I didn't have a single suggestion to give them that would make it better. Fifteen years of singing a work can do that. Alleluia was another story, however. The tempo I'd marked in the score was too slow and I could hear it the instant they started singing. It wasn't their fault, it was mine. Alleluia had been published before I'd ever heard a premiere performance and so, naturally, I'd made a mistake. The recording I'd heard by Montreal's Concerto Della Donna under Iwan Edwards was perfect all right, but he had simply ignored my too-slow marking and done it faster because I wasn't in Montreal to say anything one way or another. Now here we were in Red Deer with Belle Canto and I could feel that my tempo marking was too slow. So, I moved it from dotted quarter = 66 to dotted quarter = 84, a pretty substantial tempo increase. And without changing anything else, the work suddenly came alive and became the joyous work it was intended to be!

After our wonderful rehearsal that Friday night and the conversations I'd had with the women, it was clear that I was in love with this ensemble. The women were like women I'd grown up with as a Saskatchewan boy forty-five years earlier; they were smart, funny and down to earth. They were great singers, highly disciplined and they had a rigorous, thoughtful director. I loved them and I loved how they sang my music!

As we went to dinner, Heather Johnson, the conductor, said to me "you know, David, I wanted to talk with you about maybe doing a commission for us." Without a pause, I jumped right in, “You know, Heather, I’ve always wanted to write a major work for women and harp as a response to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and put them on the same program - half a program for each.” She lit up considerably because the Britten is a work she knows very well and the notion of a 21C response to Britten’s 1942 masterpiece is an exciting prospect for her, I can tell. I explained that I’d always loved the piece, that I had sung the SATB version but enjoyed the SSA version much more (she agreed) and that I didn’t want to do an homage or copy-cat version of the Britten, but instead, I wanted to respond to Britten’s ideas and make my own piece using techniques he used in Ceremony of Carols such as early period text (Middle English), multiple movements, festive singing, women and harp, canon, fugue, stretto, etc. To me, it seemed a great work to “respond” to and place my work and his side-by-side in concert. And in the long run, it might give choirs another work to put alongside the Britten instead of John Rutter’s Dancing Day. And besides, carols don't have to be about the nativity, they can be about anything that's worth celebrating. Like the diversity of Canada, for instance?

Now, Heather is a very smart woman and she's always on the lookout for bright ideas that will enhance the women's choral repertoire. To my joy (but not surprise), she supported this idea immediately. The title emerged a few weeks later when I had to supply the company with a working title for a grant application. Since Britten's texts are in Middle English, I wanted my response to be in Canadian English on words created before Canada was a country - three, four hundred years ago. Further, I wanted to engage the notion of "carols" in the broadest sense of the word: folk songs or popular hymns celebrating a festive event. Without even having found my words, I knew they would feature stories of diverse peoples surviving adversity in this huge, rugged, northern land. And since the music for the carols is from the present day, they'd be, by nature, Late Canadian Carols as opposed to Early Canadian Carols. I gave them a title for the application and then we waited. Six months. In the meantime, I did a commission for Spiritus Chamber Choir of Calgary (titled Even In Our Sleep on words by Aeschylus quoted by Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King was assassinated) and Whitehorse Community Choirs of Whitehorse, YT (titled Cold Snap on words by Whitehorse poet Clea Roberts in five movements. A love song set in the deep freeze of a Canadian winter).

In June, 2014, we got the news: the Commissioning Composers program of the Canada Council had supported our project with a generous grant for 5/8 of my fee and Heather was sure they could raise the other 3/8 from other sources. It was on! Between June and September, I finished up the Calgary and Whitehorse projects and I had a workshop of my opera The Resistance of Mr. and Her produced by The Belfry Theatre in Victoria directed by Michael Shamata. In August, I managed to have 2 weeks vacation with Catherine by going to the beach everyday. Lucky for me I was starting a year-long study leave, so in September, 2014, I began the process of creating Late Canadian Carols. What a thrilling ride it's been! The process kicked into gear when I went to the library.



Tom Pinkerton - The Ballad of Butterfly's Son

June 30, 2013

At the end of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, the three-year-old son of Cio-Cio and B.F. Pinkerton is whisked away to America to be raised by Pinkerton and his American wife, Kate, even as Cio-Cio lies dying from a self-inflicted wound. This riveting and dramatic conclusion to Puccini’s beloved opera has inspired a new musical drama that I’ve created in collaboration with playwright Hiro Kanagawa.

Tom Pinkerton: The Ballad of Butterfly’s Son is set twenty years after this climactic event, when Tom is twenty-three.  We begin in Newport, Rhode Island in the year 1905. Since we’re proceeding as if the events in Madama Butterfly actually happened, it’s historically clear that treaty-port brides and samurai warriors ended around 1885, not where Puccini wanted them to be. Tom Pinkerton begins in 1905 as Japan has beaten the Russians at war and emerged as a military and industrial powerhouse in the early years of the 20th Century.

For me, Tom Pinkerton began in August 2006, when out of the blue I got an email from my old friend Hiro Kanagawa. We’d kept up since he’d received his MFA from Simon Fraser University in 1994 and I’d sponsored his candidacy. He had proved to be a brilliant mind and outstanding artist and he was searching for a composer to write the sequel to Madama Butterfly with him. What a great idea, I thought!

He sent me the script of his first draft and I was immediately struck by its potential. The first draft (called Trouble and Joy – a play with music) showed a story and characters rich in invention and intrigue (while mirroring details from Puccini/Belasco Butterfly), and possessing contemporary relevance because Tom is of mixed race and it’s a serious issue in his narrative. There was no music yet, of course, but there were bits of lyrics here and there, and places where songs could go.

Immediately, I said yes to Hiro, yes I wanted to work with him on this. (I’m always on the lookout for great librettos and here one landed right in my lap...) Yes, I wanted to magnify his creations with music that would take audiences beyond Butterfly and into our contemporary imaginations in a story about identity and race while continuing the narrative that began that fateful day of Cio-Cio’s suicide – the day that Kate Pinkerton brought young Tom into her marriage with the Captain. The day Kate became a mother.

But I wanted to expand the show to create an opera-sized score, not just ditties here and there. So I pitched the idea to Hiro that we expand his “play with music” into a full-fledged musical drama, a fusion of opera and musical theatre by using opera singers and musical theatre singers along with an opera chorus and a pit orchestra. I wanted our show to engage and respect its Puccini roots while becoming its own self – a contemporary musical drama that could stand on its own as the sequel to Madama Butterfly that would be called Tom Pinkerton.

To my delight, and after due diligence listening to my music, he said yes to this vision and in September 2006, together we accepted a commission from Rumble Productions to create Tom Pinkerton, The Ballad of Butterfly’s Son. Gratefully, the idea received funding from the City of Vancouver Office of Cultural Affairs and the Martha Lou Henley Charitable Foundation. We were on our way.

We worked feverishly for the next year, pushing each other harder and harder, sculpting the show into something we could be proud of. It was an intense time and as we hit the final climactic scenes in August, the heat of the summer and the drama of the story boiled over and we had to meet face to face a few times to clarify things. With generosity abounding, we kept going - riding out the storm. By October 2007, we had written 130 minute show with 100 minutes of music and we were ready to go into workshop. Whew!

Hiro let me cast the December 2007 workshop because I was looking for certain kinds of singers for each of the principals. From the beginning of this process, we’ve been fortunate to have Alessandro Juliani as Tom. Not only is he an outstanding actor with a beautiful baritone voice, but also he has superb sight-reading skills (says this grateful composer!). Tom is in nearly every scene, so it’s important that we have someone charismatic in the role. Alessandro fits the bill perfectly! And in real life, with his European father and Asian mother, he is mixed race, as is Tom.

Gracious, thoughtful, rigorous and fun, we worked the show from top to bottom with an outstanding cast led by Alessandro that included Andy Toth as Yuji (tenor), Tracy Neff as Nanami (soprano), Jonathan Winsby as Yoshimoto (baritone), Barbara Towell as Kate/Suzuki (mezzo soprano), and baritone David Adams as Pinkerton/Sharpless. (Pinkerton appears only once and he doesn’t sing.) The chorus included Heather Pawsey, Katherine Landry, Matt Stephanson, Michael Mori and Patti Allan as The Chanteuse. Kinza Tyrrell was music director, Rachel Ditor directed and Chris Allan stage managed.

An enthralled audience packed Canadian Memorial Church on December 14, 2007 to hear the first full performance of Tom Pinkerton in a concert performance. Following the performance, there was great excitement among the audience that indeed, we are onto something with this. “It was only a matter of time until you get a production”, said the theatre prophets.

Rumble Productions had commissioned Tom Pinkerton and they had produced the workshop. But the show had over-grown their small company and they passed on producing it. It would be a huge financial risk that simply couldn’t be borne by the company and we agreed with their decision.

Hiro and I were free to pitch it. We sent it to every big theatre in Canada and entered it into every competition. Many of those scripts/scores disappeared into oblivion but in 2012, Tom Pinkerton was recognized when it was shortlisted for the new prize of Best Musical (unproduced) by the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

Today is June 30, 2013. For the last four days (June 25-28, 2013), Tom Pinkerton has been the Featured Musical in development at the In Tune Conference – Creating the Great Canadian Musical co-sponsored by Touchstone Theatre and The Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, Canada. Co-curated by Katrina Dunn and Rachel Ditor, In Tune is trying to build a national strategy around the development of Music Theatre in Canada. Naturally, both Hiro and I are thrilled to be part of that mission with Tom Pinkerton.

Working with outstanding Canadian director/dramaturge Robert McQueen (currently based in New York) and a talented, dream cast of actor/singers including the excellent Alessandro Juliani as Tom, Sam Chung as Yuji, Dionne Sellinger as Kate, Kazumi Evans as Nanami and David Adams as Pinkerton/Sharpless, along with music director David Boothroyd, we held a workshop of the Prologue and the first three scenes culminating in a public presentation at the Arts Club Revue Stage on Friday, June 28, 2013. It was a grand success! Influential people were in attendance. People who know other people. Maybe we’ll get a production.

Perhaps. But more importantly, we made changes to the show that are good for the show. Cuts. Cuts to the score and book. Rearranging some dialogue. Clarifying things. For us, for the characters, for the audience. The first act flows better now. And the new song for Tom called In Between is a good addition to the score.

But a pattern is emerging: why does it take so long to get a new musical theatre work to the stage?




The Resistance of Mr. - an opera for man alone

April 13, 2013  

by David MacIntyre

The Resistance of Mr. is a new opera I've created with writer Stephen Miller for man alone and piano. Currently in workshop with Vancouver Opera's Young Artist Program, The Resistance of Mr. is about a highly successful, well-connected man (baritone) who speaks out against the authorities once too often. Suddenly, he finds he's being followed and then, without warning, he's arrested, jailed and tortured. His Kafkaesque trial is a sham and he's sentenced to death for "living an open life". The opera concludes with his last words.

I've been working with baritone Aaron Durand and pianist Michael Onwood for the past couple of weeks and it's been an extraordinary experience for all of us. It's a rare and wonderful occurance for the composer to be alone with the performers for a series of workshops like this - no writer present, no dramaturg, no conductor, no director. Wonderful! Direct communication through the score. This opera has been singing in my head for nearly two years now, so it's good to hear Mr.'s voice embodied in a sturdy voice like Aaron's. He's a singer with a future.

The fact that we're alone was pre-ordained. When we set up the workshop, it was already known that librettist Stephen Miller was previously booked for Hawaii. Too bad. We decided to go ahead anyway and Skype him in for at least one session and we did! How great is that? I brought my computer to rehearsal so Stephen was able to see and hear Aaron do his first run of the entire opera and his performance was singularly superb - especially for the first time through. Stephen was happy, so was I! This music sits right in the pocket of Aaron's voice and he sounds fantastic.

I have one more session with Aaron on Monday, April 15. Then, on Tuesday, April 16, we'll perform The Resistance of Mr. for an invited audience who will give me notes about what's working and what's not. Hopefully, we'll have a spirited conversation about this opera, about what it's saying and how it's saying it. Stephen will be flying back that night, so he won't be there. I'll record it for him - along with the notes I get from the audience critique.

I look forward to reporting back here after Tuesday's performance. There are a number of things I'm hoping to find out from the audience: Is the story clear? Is Mr. redeemed at the conclusion? Is the music engaging? Is the music of his character and contemporary society? Does the trial scene where Mr. plays all the characters (including the Judge, Officer of the Court, Defense Attorney and Prosecuting Attorney) work? What is the best way to describe the feeling of the trial scene? Are we moved by his last words at the conclusion? Does the journey feel complete?

Stephen and I have thought about writing a companion piece for The Resistance of Mr. in order to create a full evening show. Another 30-40 minute piece would be a good idea, but not for the same actor/singer. We've discovered with Aaron that Mr. is a big sing, so that will influence the companion piece, for sure. There's an imaginary woman Mr. sings to in the opera, so perhaps the companion piece is about her? We'll see. But for now, we'll see if Mr. has legs. The audience response is key to discovering that.

I'll be back after Tuesday night.



Franny sings Moon River