May 09--Magen Solomon revisited a musical comfort zone when commissioning her first original composition for the Stockton Chorale.
"I've known him for, oh, golly, 20 years," Solomon said of San Francisco composer David Conte. "We've worked on so many choral pieces."
The latest is "I Heard You Singing," Conte's three-minute adaptation of an early 20th-century poem that provides the theme and evokes the spirit of the chorale's season-concluding Friday and Saturday concerts.
"There's a pedagogical dimension to our relationship," said Conte, who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "Magen's very committed to nurturing younger composers and supporting new works for chorus. She's a lovely person and we became close friends when called upon to work together."
Conte checks out his new creation Friday in Stockton, where Solomon -- concluding her third season as musical director and conductor -- has assembled a program of American music created between 1836 and now.
The 65-member chorale is joined by the Master Chorale; Youth Chorale, conducted by Joan Calonico; and newly formed Valley Youth Chamber Choir, led by German Aguilar.
The 23 selections include "At the River" by Aaron Copland; Mary McDonald's "America"; Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"; and a rendition of "America, the Beautiful" involving the three choirs and audience members.
The main chorale performs Conte's composition -- setting "I Heard You Singing," a poem by Harry Rodney Bennett (1890-1948), to music.
"It's a beautiful poem," said Solomon, 56, reciting it over the phone from her Oakland home. "It's not quite as gnarly as (Walt) Whitman."
"It's in the style of a 19th-century parlor song," Conte, 57, said. "It's a wonderful text about singing."
Solomon's vocalists concur.
"They love it," she said. "They absolutely love it. It's very beautiful. Very singable. It's very careful and evocative in the way it sets the text so well. It's lovely and lyrical and lush."
Since 1990, Solomon and Conte have collaborated on "six or eight" original compositions for her San Francisco Choral Artists and Oakland Symphony Chorus.
Conte, who spent a week crafting "I Heard You Singing" on piano, has written 80 choral works and seven operas.
"In many ways, the hardest part is finding the right text," he said. "And getting the picture and scene of the text, describing who speaks to whom -- creating scenes as it were -- and doing it very quickly.
"A good composer should be able write it in a couple of days. I worked all day long over a week. I always sing everything as I write. I hear they have a really fine pianist (Esther Kamalyan-Roche) out there."
Born into a musical family of three children in Cleveland, Ohio, Conte considers himself "lucky." His mother, Nancy, sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale, so he got to watch rehearsals as a "little boy." His father, Cosmo, played trumpet in the Air Force Academy Band.
He started playing piano at age 7, "composing right away. I was crazy about the Beatles. My first efforts were kind of short songs I could play on piano."
He wrote choral material, too. His classmates sang it: "I heard my music performed right away and that was really great. It's how it has to go ... in order to keep growing."
He continued that while studying with Nadia Boulanger (on a Fulbright scholarship) in Paris, France, at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University and while earning master's and doctoral degrees at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
A San Francisco resident since he was 28, Conte has developed film scores and created in a variety of choral genres, often working on commission.
Solomon would enjoy doing more of that, but it can be expensive for nonprofit community organizations.
"To buy a fresh commission every year would be a thrill," she said. "I would like to think people would be open to live music. Living music. It's also very important for our culture."
Contact reporter Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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