Sounds of Amerıca

Gramophone’s guide to the classical scene in the US and Canada

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Virtual choir,

real talent: the disarming Eric Whitacre


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:p h o T o g R a p h y

What is the special appeal of Eric Whitacre’s music? Since 1991 the

American composer has been writing choral works that have proved immensely popular in the US. But his recent online project, the Virtual Choir, has taken that popularity beyond the choral world and, indeed, American shores. As if to prove it, he has just been signed to Decca – how many other classical composers have exclusive, long-term recording contracts with a major label? – and, this fall, he takes up a three-month residency in England, at the University of Cambridge. With a London recording session in the pipeline and a London Symphony Orchestra commission, it looks like Eric Whitacre has finally

Choir Master

Without fuss or fanfare, Eric Whitacre has finally achieved international recognition with his unique choral works, writes James McCarthy arrived on the international scene. But back to the Virtual Choir, which helped propel Whitacre to a worldwide audience.

The idea for the project came when a teenage fan of Whitacre’s posted a video of herself on YouTube singing the soprano part of Sleep (Whitacre’s most performed and recorded work), accompanied by Polyphony’s renowned recording. Whitacre was, obviously, touched (and a little bemused) by the tribute, but it occurred to him that if he asked others (altos, tenors and basses) to do the same he could stitch the videos together to form a “virtual choir”. The experiment was a YouTube hit and was taken further earlier this year when Whitacre developed the idea by recording a video of himself conducting Lux aurumque for singers to watch and follow while singing their individual parts, which allowed for a genuinely interactive choral experience. The individual parts were then sewn together and cleaned up by Scott Haines and the complete performance posted on YouTube (see Gallery View, page 16). At the time of writing this video has received more than 950,000 views. Whitacre’s music is characterised by a uniquely emotive harmonic language which emerged, apparently fully formed, at the age of 21 with his first published work. He is typically self-deprecating when I ask him how this voice came about. “The only thing I can think is that right before I wrote my first piece, Go, Lovely Rose, I went to a concert in Phoenix. It was the American Choral Directors Association, their national conference, and in this one concert were seven or eight pieces that completely blew my mind. There was music by Pärt, Tavener, Bernstein…I don’t know whether I happened to be exactly at the right place in my learning or if it was just coincidence but this collection of music just struck me. I think I may be still trying to recover from the effects of that concert. Right around that time Charles Anthony Silvestri [the poet and collaborator on many of Whitacre’s choral works] gave me two CDs – one grAMOPHONE AUgUST 2010