World-renowned composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi was at Knox College this past week, working with Professor of Music Laura Lane and the Knox College Choir. The Finnish composer was in Galesburg to unveil a new piece joint-commissioned for the Knox College Choir and Monmouth Choir.
The joint commission was created due to the expense of Mäntyjärvi: not just the commission price, but travel and residence in Galesburg. Lane contacted prior student and friend Tim Pahel, who conducts the Monmouth choirs. Pahel, having written his dissertation on Mäntyjärvi and formed a close relationship with Mäntyjärvi, made the opportunity possible.
The two choirs joined under the conducting of Pahel this past Friday, May 2 at the Central Congregational Church. Each choir — the Monmouth Chamber Choir, Monmouth Chorale, Knox Chamber Singers, Knox College Choir, Nova Singers and the Galesburg Community Chorus — sung one of Mäntyjärvi’s pieces. The joined choir sung the commissioned piece, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
Prior to Friday’s concert Mäntyjärvi attended rehearsals for each of the Knox and Monmouth choirs. Listening to the choirs practice, he was able to work with the conductors as well as the students in an intimate setting.
“It was very enjoyable,” Mäntyjärvi said. “It is always nice to have a full rehearsal. It is much more rewarding than just flying out for the concert.”
Mäntyjärvi was not the only person pleased to interact before the concert Friday.
“They [choir members] have really loved the experience of interacting with the composers and being the reason a new piece is written, especially for them.” Lane explained.
Knox choir members shared Lane’s enthusiasm about the commissioned piece as well as Mäntyjärvi’s presence on campus.
“We’re really stoked we have this piece … It’s a really interesting piece, it’s not really like anything that I’ve ever sung before, so I appreciate that. It’s challenging in a variety of ways, and I think it is one of those pieces that has grown on a lot of people,” sophomore Kati Stemple, a member of the Knox Choir, said.
Working with two separate choirs raised some challenges that Lane and Pahel had to work out before Friday’s concert. The two choirs combined for a total of 95 members. With only one rehearsal together before Friday, this left little room to work out issues within the choirs, putting extra pressure on them during the days prior to Thursday’s rehearsal.
The commissioned work proved to be no small task as it is compiled of two texts together: one text in Latin, written by Copernicus and sung by the men, and the second text in English, written by Walt Whitman and sung by the women.
Lane and Pahel had been in steady contact with each other regarding every miniscule detail that might arise.
The piece, not easily learned, was also not easily composed.
“Whitman is hard to put into song,” Mäntyjärvi said. “The hardest part was figuring out which text should take precedence; which was clearly the Whitman.”
The piece was commissioned as the final year of a three-year commissioning project. Lane and President Teresa Amott created the project, the goal of which was to have a new piece commissioned for the Knox College Choir each year, where the composer would come and work with the choir. A concert would be held in the spring for the piece’s world premiere.
The idea was created when Amott suggested commissioning a piece for her installation as president.
This year the funds were split evenly between Monmouth and Knox. Funding for Knox comes from Amott, the music department, the Knox College choir, the Greig Post fund and the student co-curricular fund. Mäntyjärvi may have been the last composer of this project, however, as funding will end after this year and no other funders have stepped forward.
It is important to Lane that her choir students, as well as the students of Knox, focus on what a “wonderful opportunity” this is for Knox as well as the Galesburg community.
Lane explains, “It is important to be the reason that composers, now, write new works for choirs. That’s important too because this particular piece would not be in existence if we had not commissioned it, so that’s an important feeling for the students, to be a part of creating a new work, to be the reason that a new work is coming into being.”