Welcome to this summer series on questions and possibilities for a new era in our personal lives, professional lives, the choral landscape, and in society! I’m so glad you’re here for the journey.
Despite being locked down for so much of the pandemic, my awareness of music and composers grew. Colleagues, good friendships, and other treasured relationships were forged or solidified. Even before COVID, I expanded the music I do in worship. A few years ago, I was looking for an anthem for Ash Wednesday when I came across To Dust by Karen Marrolli. I fell in love with it and have conducted it more than once. Another favorite of her’s that I enjoy is I Sought the Lord.
When I moved to Jacksonville, FL in July 2019, one of my goals was to commission an anthem. After successful Christmas Concerts in 2019, I knew that 2020 would be the year I would commission for the first time. Being impressed with her compositions for adult church choirs, I contacted Karen in early January 2020 about a commission for Christmas Concerts in December 2020.
Based on the initial conversation, I knew I was building the program around the Magnificat and the Christmas narrative in Luke 2. Karen and I discussed parameters, timeline, and price. All factors were amenable to she and I, and I was excited to have my first commission! As 2020 progressed, I had some additional thoughts on the Christmas concerts. On March 12, 2020, I sent Ms. Marrolli an email, right before things shut down in Jacksonville. In it, “the text” refers to the Magnificat.
“What’s really speaking to me about the text is how God upends expectations (brought down the powerful/lifted up the lowly, sent the rich empty away, etc.). Another stream of thought I’ve had is whose voices directly speak in the Magnificat and the Christmas story. To bring it to the present day, whose voices are left out, either socially or musically?”
Talk about relevant topics! After a few weeks, we decided to proceed with the commission, entitled My Heart Shall Sing, not knowing when it would be premiered. At first, I thought it might need to be a virtual choir anthem. As vaccination rates increased, I decided to premier it in worship on July 25, 2021. Hopefully in the near future My Heart Shall Sing will be published!
I had the good fortune to chat with Karen about how she has fared during the pandemic. She is the Director of Music Ministries at Central United Methodist Church in Albequerque, NM. In the early stages of the pandemic, she did a lot of singing at the piano, which impacted her composition. Karen wrote these solos with COVID in mind. Some of those solos are now arranged in 2 – 3 parts. Multi-media was an important priority for these new works. Here is an example of one of those projects:
Starting in April 2021, her church moved forward and started opening up. During worship, Karen had choirs sing outside, and that audio was piped into the Sanctuary during worship. Eventually worship moved inside in July. At first masks were optional for those vaccinated. Now masks are required. There is still social distancing of about 3 feet between people. However, these procedures may have changed in the past few weeks with the Delta variant running wild.
I asked Karen about the genesis of My Heart Shall Sing. It was the text of the Magnificat that was the initial springboard. She really liked the dichotomy of terms, for example “brought down the powerful/lifted up the only”. The text wasn’t just Mary meekly bowing her head, but rather saying something revolutionary. In the original project, there was a desire for the congregation to sing along, hence she included parts of the hymn Canticle of the Turning. With regards to the instrumentation (piano, violin, percussion), the Canticle is set to an Irish text. Karen mentioned she wanted to compose in the style of an Irish reel, hence the violin. As a traditional Irish reel needs a groove, she added conga drums to much of the anthem.
Thankfully, COVID has not impacted Karen’s commissions and she has been getting steady commissions throughout. Currently, she’s arranging some of her solos for choirs. She also just finished a piece for a church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and another for the Xia Singers. In the coming year, she hopes that “People take music more seriously and don’t think of it as a sideshow.” Karen also thinks that people have realized how much they miss singing and choir.
The best way to get in touch with Karen is through her website: www.karenmarrollimusic.com. She is accepting commissions!
From speaking with Karen and the commissioning process, I was reminded of a few things. Unfortunately, this pandemic is far from over, so it’s best to have multiple plans for the same event/activity. There’s something very special about helping to birth a new piece of music and adding it to the body of choral repertoire in the world. The composers I’ve spoken with are eager to accept commissions. Especially in a world with so much destruction, it’s inspirational to be involved in an act of creation through a new piece of music or even simply a regular rehearsal.