Learning From a Master: Famed Composer Wows Students
What started as a chance email from Pinecrest High School choral teacher Erin Plisco evolved into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her students last week.
Pinecrest’s choral program hosted internationally lauded composer Eric Whitacre as he held workshops, lectures and seminars, which culminated in a concert Wednesday evening that featured eight choral and instrumental groups at Robert E. Lee Auditorium.
Groups from colleges and other high schools joined the Pinecrest Chamber Ensemble during Whitacre’s three-day residency, including the Union Pines High School wind ensemble, the Christopher Newport University chamber choir, the Salem College choirs, the Palmetto Voices, the St. Stephens High School chamber ensemble, the Middle Creek High School choral ensemble and singers from the University of Tennessee.
Last year, after seeing how enthusiastic her students were about Whitacre’s musical compositions, Plisco didn’t see the harm in emailing his manager and asking if the composer would be willing to do a residency at Pinecrest.
Whitacre emerged as a “classical rock star” in the choral world when he compiled a virtual choir of 185 voices from 12 countries to perform his “Lux Aurumque” from their homes and upload their performance, which became a YouTube sensation. His debut album “Light & Gold” topped classical album charts in the U.S. and U.K. in the first week of its release last October.
Though he and his manager were initially apprehensive about the visit, Whitacre ultimately agreed to do it, thanks to Plisco’s persistence.
Last Monday afternoon, after two months’ preparation on Whitacre’s piece “Water Night,” Plisco’s students stood in silent anticipation waiting for him to take the stage for their first session. As he strolled out from stage right, the students erupted into applause.
Plisco watched her choir transform as they worked with the composer during the session.
“It’s an incredibly difficult piece,” she said. “Generally a high school choir wouldn’t sing a piece like that, and if they did, they wouldn’t do it until the end of the year. They’ve been working their butts off, but they’ve been doing a great job. If they sound like this now in October, I can’t even imagine what they’re going to sound like in the spring.”
Plisco’s students dived into “Water Night” on the first day of school.
Sophomore Ben Middleton began his first semester in the chamber ensemble wondering, “Who is this guy?”
“I quickly found out,” he said.
Now that he’s more familiar with Whitacre’s music, Middleton is impressed.
“We’re really thrilled to have him,” he said. “He writes in a way that speaks to everybody.”
Senior Emily Brownback woke up with a big grin on her face Monday morning as she realized that she would get to be in the same room as Whitacre that day, let alone work with him directly.
“I’ll look at this as a learning experience, treasure it,” she said. “This is such a rare opportunity. I can’t even process that I was just in the same room with Eric Whitacre — that he was conducting me. He spoke to me and answered my questions and was honest and forthcoming. It’s truly special.”
Brownback first heard Whitacre’s music during her freshman year at Pinecrest, when she went to a chamber ensemble performance that featured Whitacre’s “A Boy and a Girl.”
“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard,” she said. “They looked so into the music.”
As she prepared for Wednesday’s concert, Brownback enjoyed discovering how Whitacre expects his music to sound.
During one phrase, he urged to students to annunciate what Brownback called “one big, dripping conglomerate sentence,” which was different from what they were used to.
“It was interesting getting the person who composed it — their view of how they wanted it to sound,” she said. “It was just completely different from what I had been taught and what Ms. Plisco had taught us to do. It makes me wonder if we’re actually sounding like the way the composer wanted. How do we differ? What does the person envision?”
‘Inspiration and Joy’
During a question-and-answer session with Whitacre, Brownback asked him how he approaches developing such complex harmonies and melodies in his work. At one point during “Water Night,” the choir split into a 16-part harmony.
“It’s so intense,” she said. “I can’t imagine coming up with that and figuring out those notes and how they fit together.”
Whitacre compared his mindset during composition with that of Michelangelo, who once wrote that his role as an artist was to uncover the sculpture within a piece of marble.
“My whole job is just to dust if off and present it,” he told her.
After Monday’s session, Plisco said that though the day felt like it had been a week long, watching her students make the most of their time with Whitacre was the biggest reward.
“Seeing their faces,” she said. “I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it just makes everything worth it. I don’t have children, but I can imagine that feeling of pride. They are so happy, and they are so complete. This has just filled them with inspiration and joy. So all of the work, it’s worth it.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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