Down East composer writes first choral work

Posted April 27, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:51 a.m.

Pianist Paul Sullivan reached back to his roots while writing and arranging his latest composition, “River.” When the piece is performed at the Blue Hill Congregational Church by the Bagaduce Chorale this weekend, it will showcase a talent fans of the Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer haven’t yet seen: choral composing.

“I looked at it as more of an opportunity than a challenge,” said Sullivan, who has lived and worked in Down East Maine for more than 20 years. “My first professional music training was in fifth grade when I went to a school in Cambridge, Mass., which was a choir school. We sang a lot, six days a week, under a very serious, skilled choir director. It was my most formative years as a musician.”

Those early choir experiences never left Sullivan, who is much better known for his instrumental work as a solo artist and with the Paul Winter Consort. “River” was specially commissioned by the Bagaduce Chorale to honor its 35th anniversary and the life and work of its founder, Mary Cheney Gould.

Bagaduce Chorale Director Bronwyn Kortge asked Sullivan to compose the piece for the group, which is made up of more than 80 auditioned singers from the Blue Hill area.

It’s Sullivan’s first-ever choral piece, and he’s spent the better part of eight months working on it.

“It’s inspired by two things. The first is about Mary and her life here in Maine. She’s a remarkable woman, and she’s lived on the Bagaduce River most of her time in Maine, so there’s lots of imagery about starting a choir and sailing down a river,” said Sullivan. “It remains very important to her.”

The other inspiration is the fun that Sullivan has had playing around with the choir.

“It’s basically an affirmation of life. It’s about saying ‘yes’ to life, even though people often say ‘no’ in different ways,” said Sullivan. “It’s a big, upbeat, high-energy piece. It’s very lively, and for people who know my music, it’s quite different. It’s very, very exciting to hear all those people thundering out your music. It’s thrilling.”

The chorale has spent its 2009-10 season working with composers on new pieces. Last December, the chorale premiered “Earthly Light” by composer Anna Dembska, writer of the Maine operetta “The Singing Bridge.” Sullivan hopes to find opportunities to perform “River” with other choirs — and he knows that this first expe-rience in choral composing will not be his last.

“It comes naturally to me, and I had never realized that it would,” he said. “I certainly hope to have the opportunity to do it again. It’s a satisfying thing.”

If You Go

What: Paul Sullivan’s “River;” pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Bernstein and more.

Who: Bagaduce Chorale

Where: Blue Hill First Congregational Church; Reach Performing Arts Center, Deer Isle

When: 7:30 p.m. April 30 and May 1 in Blue Hill; 3 p.m. May 2 in Deer Isle

Suggested donation: $15

Information: 326-9365 and www.bagaducechorale.org.

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