EXULTET TERRA: Artist Interview with Amelia LeClair and Hilary Tann

We checked in with composer Hilary Tann and choir director Amelia LeClair following the recent release of EXULTET TERRA, and we’re pleased to share below some of their thoughts on the album’s background, influence, and their upcoming projects:

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When did you first become familiar with each other’s work?

AL:  At the Harvard-Radcliffe Women’s Chorus conference “The Moor” spoke to me so clearly that I introduced myself to the composer immediately after the performance, and told her I wanted to do that piece.  I remember kneeling at her feet as she sat in the audience, unable to move from her fan base, and her smiling gaze at me when I gushed “I have to do The Moor!”  Her generous spirit was immediate, and she and I became fast friends.  At the time, Cappella Clausura was a women’s chorus, and I felt the piece was perfect for my energetic young vocal performance majors. Our first performance of it still rings in my ears.

HT:  I met Amy at a circular discussion (we were in a circle) during a Radcliffe Women’s Choruses Conference under the direction of Jameson Marvin. The conversation moved to “The Moor” – the first piece on the new CD – and Amy and I seemed to have similar senses of what “sacred” might mean.  Subsequently, Cappella Clausura performed “The Moor” and in the same concert performed Hildegard’s “O Deus” … the opening of which has haunted me ever since and infuses my remaining works on the CD “Exultet Terra”.

What is the story behind the album’s title work: ‘Exultet Terra”?

HT:  By the time I came to write “Exultet Terra” (a 45-minute, five-movement work) Amy and I had already been paired in many concerts.  Cappella Clausura had performed “The Moor” again and also both of the “Contemplations” — the first of which (21,22) was written for the Radcliffe Women’s Chorus, and the second (8,9) was written for Cappella Clausura.  In addition, Amy had programmed my “Three Psalms” (another extended, three-movement work).  By this time Amy and I were friends and collaborators and Amy was urging me to write a “major” work — like a Requiem — a real musical statement.  In the event, it turned out that “Exultet Terra” was composed for the 2011 Women in Music Festival at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where I was composer-in-residence.  The Artistic Director, Sylvie Beaudette, asked me what I’d like to write as the festival commission and Amy’s large-scale piece was already in my mind.  Throughout my composing life, my twin inspirations have been poetry about nature, and nature itself.  “Exultet Terra”, which translates as “Let the Earth Be Glad,” allowed me to take favorite biblical verses and to combine these with three poems by George Herbert (1593-1633).  It is fitting that Cappella Clausura has the premiere recorded performance since their “O Deus” is so clearly the inspiration for the piece and since Amy’s urging for a”big piece” planted the early ideas in my mind.

What led to the pairing of Hilary Tann’s music with the music of Hildegard von Bingen?

AL:  As Hilary mentions in her answers, Hildegard’s “O Deus”, which begins with two sequential leaps of the 5th soaring to the 9th, was the inspiration for most of the pieces on this album, so we begin the exploration here with it, unadorned.  We wanted to highlight a bit more about Hildegard, and my arrangements of her chant, hence the addition of the chant “Rex Noster”, which I enjoy in particular because it’s text is suitable for men to sing, in fact it feels as though it is meant for male voices as it speaks of the tyrant being smothered by his own sins, a topic about which we now know perhaps too much! I very much enjoy pushing boundaries and having men sing Hildegard is one way to do that.

How do you think the latter would respond to the former’s music?

AL:  We might guess that Hildegard would have been shocked, in the 12th century, to hear polyphony, never mind a double chorus of men and women singing together. We do not know if she ever heard any reeded instruments, but the medieval shawm newly arrived in Europe from the middle east during the crusades in the 12th century, may have crossed her path. We suspect as she was a formidable and self-assured woman that she’d be pleased, and perhaps, not surprised to be so admired and emulated a thousand years after her death.

What do you most enjoy about directing a choir?

AL: I love harmony, living inside it, hearing beautifully rendered. I am fortunate to direct a vocal ensemble of professionals who can make harmony as it’s meant to be, with power and grace, filling up and expanding any acoustical space.  The well-trained human voice creates the most perfect harmony, unadulterated by tuning necessities.  In other words, when we sing well, we sing in perfect intervals, not tempered ones like most modern instruments.  These perfect intervals create partials in the air around one – and these are what one lives for as a musician, as a listener, as a human.  All of us have the capacity to sense and respond to the inherent vibrations created by harmony, which is why we call music the universal language.

It may surprise people that chant is intrinsically harmonic: the upper partials are evident here as well, and with careful listening, audible, but even if they’re not discernable by the average listener, they still inform the sound that arrives in the ear and brain, and that gently nudges the entire body.

What would you most like listeners to think about when listening to this album?

AL:  I’d like them not to think at all, but to just listen and allow the music in.  In our time of increased distraction, it is a rare thing to be able to sit quietly doing nothing but listening. Hilary Tann’s and Hildegard’s music is so arresting believe it compels one to do just that.

What are your next exciting musical endeavors?

AL:  In May, Cappella Clausura will perform works by women in the court of Louis Quatorze, including Antonia Bembo, Elisabeth Jaquet de la Guerre, Mlle. Laurant, and Leonora Duarte, with a viol consort and baroque dancers.  In June I’ll be directing an opera by Elena Ruehr entitled “Crafting the Bonds” based on a novel written by Hannah Bond, a former slave; next year our season will include a repeat performance of Patricia Van Ness’s transcendent “Birds of the Psalms” written for Cappella Clausura and premiered last May, a performance of Elena Ruehr’s “Eve” alongside Arvo Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament”, and in the future I hope to perform all three of Fanny Hensel’s masterful cantatas for chorus, soloists, and orchestra.

HT:  My saxophone quartet “Some of the Silence” is being performed at Bruno Walter Hall of Lincoln Center March 25th, then I have a choral premiere in Bethlehem, PA, April 22. My piano trio “Nothing Forgotten” is being performed in NYC by N/S Consonance, April 24.  A number of pieces including “Seven Poems of Stillness” are being performed in Saranac Lake April 30th, then I travel to Wales for a flute-cello-piano (Marsyas Trio) premiere, “In the Theater of Air”, May 25, as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  I’m looking forward to the CD release on Navona of my soliloquy for violoncello and orchestra, “Anecdote”, as well as my “Duo” (saxophone and viola) and “Solstice” (marimba and piano) on other compilations.  My most exciting future project is a trumpet concerto for a really great performer — but that’s still in the late planning stages.


Keep an eye out for Hilary Tann’s “Anecdote” to appear on an upcoming compilation of orchestral music on Navona Records, and in the meantime, you can purchase EXULTET TERRA on Amazon, iTunes, or ArkivMusic

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