By Dan Forrest
Requiem for the Living Turns 10!
When the Hickory Choral Society (HCS) commissioned composer Dan Forrest to write a piece for choir and orchestra in 2011, little did they know the result would become one of the most performed extended choral works by an American composer in recent times. HCS premiered Requiem for the Living in 2013, and since then, the 40-minute composition has been performed over 1,000 times throughout the world. To commemorate the Requiem’s 10th anniversary, HCS will perform it March 18 at 7:30pm and March 19 at 3:00pm at Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory.
As HCS approached its 35th anniversary 10 years ago, the choir already had a history of commissioning choral compositions thanks to an ongoing commitment of HCS founding conductor Don Coleman. In 1982, the choir commissioned local composer and pianist John Coffey to write “Lamb of God”. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck accepted the choir’s invitation to write a new holiday piece in 1990, which resulted in “Hear the Bells Ring”. In 1997, British composer Jonathan Willcocks wrote Magnificat, which was a 38-minute composition and represented the first time the choir commissioned an extended work.
According to Coleman, Dan Forrest was a natural choice for the next project. The choir had previously performed a handful of his shorter choral pieces, and Coleman was fond of the young composer’s writing style. In 2008, Forrest wrote Three Nocturnes, a 15-minute choral piece in three movements. “Dan was becoming better known,” Coleman said, “and you could see that he wasn’t just writing church anthems anymore.” After consulting with the HCS Board of Directors in 2011, Coleman arranged for a meeting with Forrest in Greenville, SC. Soon after, the composer accepted the invitation to write a new 40-minute work for choir and orchestra. In a 2015 interview with WWFM Radio in Trenton, NJ, Forrest referred to the HCS request for him to write a big work of his choosing as “a composer’s dream come true”. He added that he chose to write a Requiem because he was “drawn to the weightiness and timelessness of the texts.”
Coleman conducted HCS and full orchestra in the Requiem for the Living premiere on March 24, 2013. The concert, held in front of a large audience at First Baptist Church in downtown Hickory, was dedicated to the memory of HCS patron Suzanne Millholland, a long-time patron who provided the funding for the Requiem commission. Seventh grader Michael Camiller was the boy soprano soloist, and the tenor soloist was HCS member Kevin Barlowe. Forrest was in attendance, and by all accounts, the premiere was a resounding success. Music critic John Lambert was impressed and wrote that the Forrest Requiem “embraces the listeners in warmth, peacefulness, radiance, and comfort” and would be “counted among…[the] great requiems in the active repertory.” Coleman expressed his appreciation for the choir via email the afternoon of the performance and to the singers wrote, “You will always be proud of the Requiem and the lift you gave this work and the excitement for Dan.”
Carnegie Hall and Beyond
HCS was invited by Distinguished Concerts International New York to perform the Requiem at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 2014. Joined by nine choirs from Mississippi and led by conductor Dr. James Meaders, the mass choir gave the work its New York premiere. In the past 10 years, Requiem for the Living has become Forrest’s best known work. It has been performed over 1,000 times and in nearly every European country and in most South American and Asian countries. Antarctica is the only continent that hasn’t hosted a live performance. The top three most viewed performances on YouTube have collectively accumulated well over one million views. When commissioned by HCS again in 2019 in honor of Coleman’s 42-year tenure as conductor, Forrest expressed gratitude for the Requiem commission and said, “One of the biggest ‘breaks’ in my career was when Don Coleman took a chance on a young composer and commissioned the first large-scale major work I’d write”.
The 10th Anniversary Performance
Later this month, HCS will perform Requiem to commemorate the work’s 10th anniversary. When current artistic director and conductor Ryan Luhrs reached out to Forrest to ask if he had performance suggestions for the choir’s second go-round, the composer suggested a multi-disciplinary collaboration with ballet. The March performance will include Hickory Ballet & Performing Arts, with choreography by Eva Peterson. To accommodate the space needed for dancing, a smaller, chamber orchestration will be used. Cory Westby, Director of Music of Episcopal Church of the Ascension and Lenoir-Rhyne University Adjunct Professor of Music, will play organ. The boy soprano soloist will be Brody Aiken, an 8th grade student at Mill Creek Middle School who lives in Sherrills Ford, the soprano soloist will be choir member Alexandria McNeely, Music Instructor at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, and the tenor soloist will be Tyler Young, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Appalachian State University. Luhrs became aware of Requiem for the Living when he was a doctoral student at Florida State University and considers it an honor to have the opportunity to conduct the work. “Forrest’s Requiem has become an impactful piece of music with wings that has taken it far beyond that premiere performance at First Baptist in 2013,” Luhrs added. “Congratulations to Don Coleman for his vision and to Dan Forrest for writing such captivating work. I’m proud to now be associated with the choir that initiated the project 10 years ago.”
Hickory Choral Society concerts are free and open to the public. Seating is available for the Saturday, March 18, 7:30pm and Sunday, March 19, 3:00pm performances at Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory. For more information, contact HCS at [email protected] or (828) 322-2210.
Photo: HCS performing the Requiem at Carnegie Hall in January 2014.