The story of Terra Nostra

The score of Terra Nostra | SF ChoralStacy Garrop’s new oratorio, created for SF Choral

SF Choral was proud to offer a major world premiere in 2015: A multi-part oratorio entitled Terra Nostra for the chorus, a children’s chorus, a string orchestra, piano, percussionists and soloists commissioned from composer Stacy Garrop. The Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir co-commissioned the work.

Stacy Garrop grew up in the East Bay and now lives in Chicago, where she teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. She has written widely-performed works for full orchestra, chamber ensembles, and, more frequently than many contemporary composers, choirs.

Stacy Garrop, composer of Terra Nostra | SF Choral“This was the largest-scale work I’d ever attempted,” says Garrop, who says she has always been passionate about vocal music. “I began singing in the third grade, and kept singing right through graduate school.”

Garrop chronicled the composition and development process for this work on her own blog. “Am I nervous? Heck yeah!” she wrote in her first post. “And excited too. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had thus far in my career, and I intend to enjoy every moment of it.”

The challenge of composition began well before writing down a single note, with the search for appropriate texts and then a sometimes complicated process to clear the rights.  Garrop envisioned Terra Nostra as a meditation on nothing less than humanity and its place on the planet. For the first part, she researched creation myths from cultures all over the world. “I wanted to encompass legends from as many continents as possible,” she says.

The performances in November, 2015, were tremendously well-received by audiences. In these brief excerpts, presented by courtesy of the composer and the performers, you get some feeling of the sweep and power of the work. In the first portion you can hear sections from the first (“Creation of the World”) and second (“The Rise of Humanity”) parts of the work, beginning with a chorus, “God’s World,” based on a text by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and continuing with the Piedmont Children’s Choir singing words by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Thine Own Child”; a solo by baritone Nickolas Nackley using a text by Walt Whitman, “Smile, O voluptuous cool-breathed earth!”; Nackley with the chorus in “A Song of Speed,” using a text by William Earnest Henley, and finally the chorus in “High Flight” drawing on the words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

The below excerpt features selections from Parts II and III (the finale, “Searching for Balance”). Jennifer Paulino, soprano, and Betany Coffland, mezzo-soprano, sing “Binsey Poplars,” a text by Gerard Manley Hopkins; tenor Joseph Meyers joins Paulino, Coffland, Nackley and the chorus in “The World is Too Much With Us,” drawn from the poetry of William Wordsworth; the chorus sings “The Want of Peace” by Wendell Berry, and concludes with another passage from Whitman, “A Blade of Grass/I bequeath myself.”

The orchestra accompanying the artists is the California Chamber Symphony.

In Terra Nostra, a range of influences

The texts guided the development of the music. Garrop cites a variety of influences ranging from contemporaries like Morten Lauridsen (whose Lux Aeterna was performed in the concerts headlined by her own world premiere), Moses Hogan and Einojuhani Rautavaara to masters like Rachmaninoff. “What’s important to me is writing something that has a strong formal structure,” she says, adding that, among other elements, “it’s partly about the balance between tension and relaxation.” She notes that Shostakovich’s string quartets do that particularly effectively.

Garrop met Geary more than a decade ago, and has since been commissioned to compose four works for Volti, a San Francisco vocal ensemble also led by Geary. “Because it’s Bob, I already felt very comfortable with the whole process,” she says. “Bob is a fantastic conductor for composers. There’s never any piece that’s perfect the first time it’s sung. I think I might get 98% of the way there before I first hear the work, and Bob feels very comfortable about working with me and the choir to make the piece stronger.”

SF Choral premiered the work’s first two parts in separate performances beginning a year ahead of the final, full performances. “It’s been a great way to build a work, and a chance to steadily build some buzz and excitement about the full performance,” Garrop says.

Help support new music!

The development of this important new work was made possible only because of SF Choral’s New Music Fund. If you’d like to help support this and other new works, please consider a contribution. Click on the below button, and simply designate your gift to the “New Music Fund” on the form.

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