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How to create a concert theme – “Evolution (Creation)”

  • July 13, 2014

I love to hear how different composers approach similar topics or musical concepts, which is the major appeal of a thematic program. However, a “top-down” approach, “jar first, contents second,” can lead to a program containing filler, as one struggles to hew closely to the theme. Instead, I suggest starting with a broad concept, i.e., “Water Music” as opposed to “Moldovan Streams.” Another approach is to work from “bottom-up:” to allow a work one finds extremely compelling to generate an overriding concept; or find the thematic thread among several such works.

Here’s an example of an hour-long program I designed from the love of a single piece. The launching point for the program is Sandström’s Singing Apes. Inspired by a walk the composer took through a Thai forest, it is a thrilling wordless piece for men’s voices that alternates brutal chanting with plaintive beauty. A “Primates” theme, however, is going to hit a dead end pretty fast. A program featuring animal noises and other non-verbal sounds, or something more broadly nature-themed would work well. A more interesting variation occurred to me while considering other works. Nicholas Maw’s elaborate anthem, One Foot in Eden, invokes Paradise in a largely metaphorical sense, but it nonetheless suggests images of Adam and Eve. I thought it might be fun, and just a little naughty, to take Sandström’s apes as iconic figures of evolutionary theory, and pit them against a Creationists’ Eden. 

The first half journeys through the animal kingdom, with some emphasis on the primitivism of non-verbal sounds. The second half explores creation stories from three different cultures. 

“Evolution (Creation)”

A (mostly) 20th-21st century program for an auditioned, high-level, mid-sized (50-60) community or collegiate chorus, or professional ensemble. Mostly a cappella.

Jan Sandström: The Singing Apes of Khao Yai 

Martha Sullivan: Tyger, Tyger 

John Tavener: The Lamb

Adriano Banchieri: Contrapunto Bestiale alla Mente 

Josquin des Prez: El Grillo (arr. Paul Carey) 

Meredith Monk: Panda Chant II

Nicholas Maw: One Foot in Eden


Rytis Mazulis: Canon Solus

Steven Sametz: Kumulipo 

Brent Michael Davids: Of This Turtle Isle  

Aaron Copland: In the Beginning

I always like the theatre of putting a sub-section of the ensemble in a prominent place, as the men do here with Apes. The world of words returns with two settings of William Blake, as the women join the men. The approaches of two composers to the works of one poet opens another point of comparison.

The next set includes a mix of old and new, but all pieces feature animal sounds and themes. We begin with Josquin’s madrigal, El Grillo (The Cricket), in an arrangement for treble voices, which balances the earlier men’s piece and affords the singers a slight reduction in workload. Then follows Adriano Banchieri’s Contrappunto Bestiale alla Mente. Finally, we leap across the centuries to Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant II, with its non-verbal chanting augmented by claps and stomps. 

The “pivot” to the sacred comes next in Maw’s One Foot in Eden, a striking work of vivid contrasts featuring a solo quartet.

Rytis Mazulis’ Canon Solus concerns praise of God rather than Creation, but the progressively more complex canons that comprise the piece suggest “evolution” of musical material. In Kumulipo, Steven Sametz drew his text describing the creation of night from the eponymous Hawaiian chant. Brent Michael Davids’ Of this Turtle Isle refers to the Native American story of the birth of North America…on the back of a turtle. This 8-minute work requires flute and recorder, plus a narrator, who may be drawn from the chorus. The program closes with a staple of the American choral repertoire, Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, using several well-known verses from Genesis. 

Note that the above program balances slow with up-tempo works, and well-known (Copland, Josquin) with less familiar works. There is also great variety of choral texture, including works for full chorus, men, women, a work with solo soprano, one with solo quartet, and one with narrator. There are composers represented from 6 nations and the American works reflect a melting pot of Anglo-European, Jewish, Native American, and Hawaiian cultures. 

Jonathan-DavidComposer Jonathan David was raised in New York City and currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He has been commissioned by the NY Treble Singers, Duke Vespers Ensemble, Marble Collegiate Church, Carroll University, and the Manhattan Wind Ensemble, among others. Jonathan has served as Composer-in-Residence for The Greenwich Village Singers, Music Director for the chorus, Howl!, and was a founding member of the pioneering new music chorus, C4. He serves on the judging panel for the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Awards for best classical music writing. Jonathan’s music is available through Oxford University Press, See-A-Dot Music, and through his website,


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