`This Mourning' imparts hope

Critic's Corner//Music

Catonsville composer's Sept. 11 piece to premiere in D.C.

Critic's Corner//Music

November 14, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

When Joel Puckett first heard that the Grammy Award-winning Washington Chorus was considering him to write a work that would commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, he wasn't interested.

"I told them that if I'm going to do this, it will have to be from a positive, moving-forward point of view," says Puckett, of Catonsville, who teaches at Towson University. "It couldn't just be another thing that says `for the victims of 9/11.' It would have to be more about how a community comes together in the aftermath of a tragedy. It would be a piece about hope and remembrance."

On Sunday, that piece will have its premiere at the Kennedy Center. Titled This Mourning, Puckett's composition contains texts by Emily Dickinson and Thomas Bailey Aldrich and has as part of its instrumentation an unusual complement of 40 crystal glasses, tuned to various pitches.

"We wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of the Pentagon attack, which directly affected a number of our chorus members," says Dianne Peterson, executive director of the Washington Chorus, a nearly 200-voice ensemble that has been among the city's most respected musical organizations for more than 40 years. "Several people mentioned Joel to us when we were looking for the right composer."

Puckett, who moved to Baltimore two years ago after finishing up his graduate studies at the University of Michigan, writes in a fundamentally tonal style, influenced by such notable American composers as David Diamond, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty and Joseph Schwantner.

His music has been performed throughout the country by a wide range of ensembles. More than two dozen pieces are scheduled for performances during the remainder of this season, including a wind-band piece Thursday at Towson University and another that the U.S. Marine Band will play in Annapolis in April.

(Small world: One of Puckett's friends and fellow grad students at that same Michigan school is James Lee III, a recent addition to the Morgan State University faculty and the composer of Beyond Rivers of Vision, which premiered at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony Orchestra last month.)

This Mourning will be performed on a program led by conductor Robert Shafer that includes Mozart's Requiem. "In a way, Joel's piece takes up where the Requiem leaves off," Peterson says.

"I knew I would have to use the orchestration of the Requiem -- no flutes, oboes or horns," Puckett says. "My generation of composers loves flutes, so that was hard."

Puckett added harp, percussion and those crystal glasses to the accompaniment texture, and a tenor soloist to the choral framework. The ethereal sound of glasses, which will be located far upstage, is meant to provide "a stark and pure reminder of the lives lost," while the sung texts will reflect not just on collective grief, but renewal and hope.

"Certain composers will tell you that the worst thing you can do is write emotional music," Puckett says. "Well, I'm the opposite of that."


The Washington Chorus will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Kennedy Center. For tickets or more information, call 202-342-6221 or go to thewashingtonchorus.org.

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