While in my second year at Juilliard (1996) I received a phone call from Vance George, the legendary conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. He wanted to know if I might be interest in a commission for their big Christmas concert, something that would feature their amazing accompanist Marc Shapiro and the ‘smaller’ choir of 80 singers. The only catch was that it was now the middle of October, and could I please finish the piece by the first of November.
I took the commission, of course (how could you say no to Vance George?) and my future wife Hila found for me the timeless E.E. Cummings poem ‘little tree’. I started writing as fast as I could and noticed something very strange happening on the page: I was writing with a completely different voice. Part of it was the nature of the poem, but most of it was residue from my first year at Juilliard. During that time I had studied composition with David Diamond, a notoriously old-school composer whose style is closest to early works of Barber and Bernstein, and I had become obsessed with intricate counterpoint and that very American sound from the 1940’s. It all ended up in the music somehow; so strange how these things work themselves out…
Anyway, I killed myself finishing the piece on time and then all of the musicians went on strike. The work didn’t receive it’s premiere for another year (1997), and Vance surprised me an hour before the performance and asked me if I would like to conduct. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus. In Davies Hall. With 3000 people in the audience. Oh yes…
little tree is dedicated with joy to my little sister, Kari.
Sheet music is available to purchase from J.W. Pepper.
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and right
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and I will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
E.E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962