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O.C. MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : True to Their Words : Hopkins Set Out to Make Memorial's Music Enhance Its Poetry

April 21, 1993|CHRIS PASLES

USC composer James Hopkins wasn't daunted by being asked to write a memorial piece for a young Orange County man killed in a freeway accident.

"My music tends to be on the serious side," he said in a recent phone interview. "I felt very at ease with that. I did feel a little uncomfortable of how you do something that says 'Death is not the end, but something along the way.' "

The new work, "Songs of Eternity," will receive its premiere by the Pacific Chorale on Sunday. It was commissioned to honor the Pacific's 25th anniversary by the Orange County Philharmonic Society as a memorial to David Lee Shanbrom, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1986. He was 26.

The commission was funded through a donation from Santa Ana residents Edward and Helen Shanbrom, who also have established a memorial fellowship truck-safety program in their son's name at UC Irvine. The Shanbroms are OCPS supporters, and Edward Shanbrom is a former board member. The text of the work consists of three poems by Bengali poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. The Shanbroms picked the poems, which are drawn from Tagore's plays and not from "Gitanjali," the collection of mystical poems perhaps best-known to Western readers through the efforts of William Butler Yeats.

'We thought (the poems) had a universal appeal," said Edward Shanbrom. "And I know of nothing that has more universal appeal than music. . . . If one had to think of memorializing someone, I can hardly think of a better way of doing it. Everyone has a chance to enjoy it. It's permanent."

Conductor Alexander said that Tagore's poetry is "really extraordinary. It's a perfect poem for a choral setting.

"In commissioning the work," he added, "I wanted to get a piece that was in reach of many choruses across the country. There is a need for more (choral) literature. We depend too much on our European and English composers in works we chose for repertory. So my personal goal in commissioning this piece, that we do a work that is accessible to the country's choirs, as well as the country's audiences."

In setting the texts, Hopkins, 54, said he wanted the words to be crystal clear. "A text is not simply a skeleton you use to hang music on," he said. "The only reason for setting a text is that it must be clear. You have to enhance it or bring something else to it, otherwise there is no reason to do it."

In fact, "in the case of the third poem, 'Peace, my heart,' my biggest concern was just staying out of the way of the text. It was just so strong and beautiful."

Hopkins is a professor of music theory and composition at USC, where he has taught for 22 years. He was born in Pasadena, studied music at USC, Yale and Princeton and also has taught at Northwestern University. He has written seven symphonies, several other large-scale works and "lots of choral music" for a church in Pasadena where he is an organist.

In this work, he treated the orchestra and the chorus as a unit. "The orchestra is in no way an accompaniment," he said. "They are equal partners." In fact, unlike the case in most choral music, where the orchestra plays the same musical lines that the singers' sing, here the chorus is "absolutely independent," he said.

"That was a very deliberate decision. Orchestration is my specialty, and my experience has shown that when you start doubling vocal lines, you get in the way of the intelligibility of the words."

Conductor Alexander likes the way Hopkins keeps the words "paramount."

"Too often in choral-orchestra works," he said, "the texture becomes too thick and the interior of the work gets lost. This is a very lean score, although it uses a full orchestra, with a really healthy percussion section."

Hopkins said he "spent an awful lot of time studying the texts and taking them apart in the way I wanted to treat them" before writing a note of the piece.

"I found recurring words and ideas. I spent a lot of time trying to become familiar with them, and created motifs that go along with them--specific words such as 'song' or 'singing' or anything having to do with that, which recur in each of the three movements."

The next stage was doing lots of preliminary sketches. "I write out motifs and play with them, see what happens if you extend them or change them. When I get to the stage that they're complete in my mind, then the actual writing goes pretty fast."

Given these recurrences, not surprisingly, the work is cyclical. "There is common material in each of the three movements," he said. "There is an instrumental introduction that is somewhat incomplete which opens the whole piece, and that recurs, but in a complete form, at the end of the last movement. The piece is the most tonal thing I've written for years. But this is absolutely appropriate for that text. I didn't want any distractions from what was happening in that poetry."

* John Alexander will conduct the Pacific Chorale in the premiere of James Hopkins' "Songs of Eternity" on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program also includes Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and the West Coast premiere of Dominick Argento's Te Deum. $15 to $100. (714) 252-1234.

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