Composer Kile Smith is reshaping the choral repertoire

Conductor Craig Hella Johnson leads VAE in a rehearsal of “Canticle” in 2016.

Conductor Craig Hella Johnson leads VAE in a rehearsal of “Canticle” in 2016.

A modest ‘craftsman’

– By Ray Cooklis

Listening to the choral music of Kile Smith – the ease and fluidity of its vocal lines, its graceful counterpoint, its shimmering spirituality – you’d never guess what a mighty struggle the Philadelphia-based composer typically goes through, what he describes as “moments of terror” and periods of “hitting a brick wall.”

Smith’s hour-long “Canticle,” which conductor Craig Hella Johnson and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati commissioned and premiered in 2016 and will reprise – and record – in January, is among a growing body of works, many religious in nature, that have earned accolades from listeners and critics around the globe.

He also has composed works for various ensembles from brass quintet to Renaissance band to orchestra, and is about to embark on an opera project.

Yet Smith seems modest to a fault, not just about his music, but about his writing – engaging essays, personal blog posts, and thought pieces for Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review (including one about discovering goetta at Hathaway’s, the legendary Carew Tower diner).

“I’ve gotten to the point where I write just well enough to know how lousy a writer I am,” Smith laughs. “It’s really, really hard.

“It’s the same thing with writing music. It never gets easy.”

Surprisingly, Smith, born in 1956, didn’t come from a musical family and couldn’t even read music until he entered college.

“I sang in choirs as a youngster but really didn’t know music at all. I couldn’t read music. I was faking it,” he says. “I started at ground zero, but I took to it quickly. Choral singing is so ingrained in me that I found I was good at choral writing. I know the advantage of writing pieces with good voice leading.”

Composer Kile Smith

Composer Kile Smith

VAE conductor Johnson, himself a composer, says there is more than that to Smith’s art.

“I got to know Kile and his music six or seven years ago through his ‘Vespers’ – an extraordinarily special piece. I fell in love with his music,” Johnson says.

“His choral music takes a unique and distinctive path. His (compositional) voice is unlike any other. The music has qualities that are really grounded in choral tradition and practice, yet it feels very fresh and of its time. He’s an exquisite craftsman.”

So how did a Philadelphia kid who grew up with rock music and jazz records at home grow into a composer tackling such august material as the masterful 16th-century poem “Spiritual Canticle” by St. John of the Cross?

Credit Brahms.

His older sister, in a New Jersey all-state choir, sang the lesser-known Brahms choral piece “Nänie.” “I fell in love with it,” Smith says, “got a box album of Brahms’ works, put it on, and heard Brahms’ Requiem. It changed my life. My jaw hit the floor. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I decided I wanted to write a Brahms Requiem.”

Smith may not have a ‘Brahms Requiem’ under his belt, but ‘Vespers,’ the major work for which he is best known, has been praised as perhaps the finest, most moving setting of those texts since Rachmaninoff. (Mark your calendars: VAE will perform the Russian master’s Vespers, March 20, in Memorial Hall.)

No wonder Johnson and VAE leaders approached Smith when they were looking to take a leading role commissioning “not just for four- or five-minute choral pieces, but major works contributing to the choral repertory.”

“Kile was the first person I thought of for this project, and I was delighted when he said he’d take it on,” Johnson says.

The conductor was envisioning a work that was “rich and satisfying and compelling, one that speaks to the larger body of us as people, that can have a universal appeal from a humanistic and spiritual standpoint.”

What Smith wrote for VAE certainly addressed those criteria.

“Canticle” is written for chorus, three cellos and percussion. The text, here in English, is one of the treasures of Spanish poetry, a spiritual epic. Smith describes it this way: “Following the tradition of the biblical Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), St. John personifies, with symbolic and beautiful imagery, the journey of the soul, through the travails of the world, to union with her bridegroom.”

The choral setting is rich with symbolism, text painting and musical references.

“Something that sets my choral music apart is that there’s a lot of counterpoint going on, and the individual line is very important to me,” Smith says. “The big wash of sound is very popular these days, and I like it too, but I really like to spin the lines, so that each singer feels like his or hers is the most important line.”

Smith, who served for many years as curator of Philadelphia’s Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, also drew on some perhaps unexpected sources of inspiration: “Two big influences on this piece – things I haven’t really talked about – are (Carl Orff’s) ‘Carmina Burana’ and, strangely enough, Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” Smith says.

“When I started the project and realized its scope, I had a moment of horror: How am I going to write this thing?

“I looked at ‘Carmina Burana.’ It’s really so well done in how it plays out dramatically. And that’s a big part of the success of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ too. The back and forth, recitative, aria, chorus, and how he navigates the different keys to create a dramatic arc.

“In a big piece like ‘Canticle,’ you’ve got to keep moving forward. You have to keep listeners’ attention. You have to grab them by the lapels and not let go.”

Speaking of lapel tugging, the January VAE program and CD will also feature Smith’s updated twist on a well-loved choral staple: Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” familiar to school and amateur choirs everywhere since 1940.

Smith sang the piece often as a youngster. For years, he wanted to write his own “Alleluia,” one ”that a high school choir could sing, that anybody could sing, that had challenges but was accessible.”

VAE’s Johnson thinks Smith hit the bull’s-eye. “It’s going to be a staple of the choral repertoire, I can tell you that,” he says. The Grammy-winning conductor plans to “shop” the finished product to classical labels, to generate what will be VAE’s first commercially available recording.

Curiously enough, Smith got the opportunity to create his “Alleluia” only when Johnson told him there’d be extra room on the Canticle CD, and did he have anything else they could use?

“I said, well here’s an idea,” Smith laughs, and he got to work.

“Canticle,” Friday, Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m. Memorial Hall. 513-381-3300, 

(NOTE: Previously scheduled Jan. 11 performance has been cancelled.)

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