But Why Commission New Music?

“We all know the saying ‘all music was once new music,’ but it really goes further than that” – Michael Pettry, Executive Director

Commissioning new works can be risky! They don’t come without a price tag. …and, scores of other “what if’s” to boot. This blog post explores the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's large-scale commissioning project…that initially began as a hefty project and ballooned in the best of all possible ways.

Nearly 5 years ago, Symphonic Choir leadership charted a course to commission a new choral composition. Thanks to financial support from foundations and individuals throughout the community, the project took flight and began with a series of Choral Roundtables – – group breakfasts and coffees comprised of choral leaders from schools, universities, community organizations, churches, temples, mosques, and of choral artists themselves – –  exploring the question:

“If the Indianapolis choral community were to commission a new work, what would that piece look like?”

Through-composed or multi-movement? SATB Choir or SSAATTBB? English text? What text sources? What topic and overall subject matter? What type of accompaniment – a cappella, piano, strings, full orchestra, etc? Any soloists? Any children/youth choirs? And we hadn't even began exploring who might write the piece!

The Symphonic Choir convened and guided a consortium of more than 60 choral-minded leaders representing a diverse cross-section of the Circle City. On top of it all, the Symphonic Choir (thanks to that generous support I mentioned earlier in this post) would cover all expenses related to the project.

Fast forward nearly three years  – –  after most of those questions had been answered – – to the debut of the commissioned work, Zabur, by uber-talented composer Mohammed Fairouz: Saturday, April 24, 2015. The place: Hilbert Circle Theater in Indianapolis. A stellar composition, a stunning performance, and a moving, timely new piece of choral-orchestral music boasting the fingerprints of the entire Indianapolis community. The Symphonic Choir in the choir loft alongside the Indianapolis Children's Choir, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on stage, tenor Dann Coakwell and baritone Michael Kelly, plus our own Artistic Director, Eric Stark, on the podium.

Now, this is where everything changes!

Why commission though? As if everything I've mentioned already wasn't enough – – a new, gorgeous work of music; interaction and new relationships with the Indianapolis choral community's leaders; navigating through sometimes-tense conversations about faith, values and art (a series of conversations that have shaped MY own understanding of this community and my role in it to this day) – – the seemingly-patented phrase zips into mind: “But wait! There's more!”

Bold thinking + advance planning + hearing the needs of our community > One piece of music!

Zabur - composer Mohammed Fairouz - released October 2016. Naxos American Classics.

From this commissioning project came two additional opportunities we did not anticipate on that course we charted initially: A return to Carnegie Hall – – performing the New York debut of our own Zabur on October 16, 2016 – – for our first time since 1978 PLUS the release of our April 2015 performance on the Naxos music label.

Dreaming big, taking a step (or three) 0ut on a new project that initially boasted more questions than answers paid-off dividends. This is not to say we were reckless or flip about the project – – we left little up to chance, best we could. Much like mastering jazz, one must first invest hours in the practice room covering scales, chords and arpeggios before they can improvise. The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir needed to do all we could to anticipate the needs and provide for a successful commissioning project, providing the opportunity – – depending on your perspective – –  for the muse to descend, luck to strike, or for years of planning to bear fruit.

And so, this week announce the release of Zabur on CD and for download on the Naxos music label – – followed 48 hours later by our performance of that same work at Carnegie Hall. Available beginning Friday, October 14, 2016, the recording speaks to the power of music, the vision of an entire city, and a reminder: Be bold, plan well, and watch for something even bigger to materialize.

Michael Pettry
Executive Director
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

Michael Pettry is the Executive Director of the 200-voice Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. Now in his 13th season with the institution, Pettry also serves as Guest Lecturer at Butler University. For more information visit www.indychoir.org.