Nantucket, early writings inspire Cooman’s oratorio

Composers are inspired by many things. In Carson Cooman’s case, it was a combination of the daily wa
Carson Cooman
Carson Cooman

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Composers are inspired by many things. In Carson Cooman’s case, it was a combination of the daily walks he and his family took on Nantucket Island each summer and his interest in early writings that led to his composing “The Revelations of Divine Love (Metaphors from Sea and Sky).” The Burnt Hills Oratorio Society will give the New York state premiere on Sunday.

“I wanted to make a narrative that would be engaging,” said Cooman, who has a prolific body of work that ranges from instrumental to choral and opera and is also an organist. “I’ve used place as a focus before, but I’ve never done it quite this way with a chorus, solo voices and texts. The piece is significantly larger than my other works.”

Cooman chose texts adapted from “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love” written by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in 1393, which are believed to be the first writings by a woman in the English language. Julian, whose actual name is unknown, was an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. She lived as a recluse and was widely known even during her lifetime as being a spiritual authority with optimistic visions, Cooman said. He also used excerpts from the “Book of Margery Kempe” (1373-1438) translated by Christopher Brunelle, two poems by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) and one poem by Elizabeth Kirschner (1955-).

“I’d read Julian’s works 10 years before and used them in smaller pieces,” Cooman said. “I was inspired by her vision. I always had in the back of my mind to do an oratorio, so when I got this commission in 2008 from the choir of Royal Holloway (University of London), I pulled what I wanted from her writings and rearranged them.”

18 sections

The result is a work with 18 sections, which are sacred but not liturgical and are done without interruption and take a little over an hour to perform. Each section is connected in some way to a place on Nantucket.

Burnt Hills Oratorio Society

WHEN: 2 p.m. lecture; 3 p.m. concert on Sunday

WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

HOW MUCH: $20, $10, $3 off at door with Saratoga Arts Pass

MORE INFO: 416-4060; www.bhos.us

“There’s a lot of atmosphere. Some are quiet and mystical and others are upbeat and energetic,” he said.

His piece is not about describing the island’s geography.

“It doesn’t matter the time of day when you’re in the thick of it,” Cooman said. “The places are the inspiration and the experience of being there and in that moment. It’s mysterious.”

The work has been recorded (Albany Records) and is performed often, and despite its specific location, it has transcended this geographic inspiration.

“It seems to connect to audiences,” he said. “In California where few in the audience had any connection to Nantucket, people told me they had a sense of what I’d experienced there and that they wanted to visit. So it was not a barrier.”

The accessible quality of “Revelations” and the personal relationship she and her husband Al Fedak, who is a composer and organist, had with Cooman prompted BHOS artistic director Sue Fedak to choose the work.

“He’d written hymn tunes and dedicated stuff to Al, and Al had written stuff for Carson,” Fedak said. “I admired him. He’s only 32 and already written 1,000 pieces. And ‘Revelations’ was a new piece and I liked the texts.”

Links to geography

Fedak especially enjoyed the way Cooman had set the texts and paired them with his thoughts to connect them to a tangible geography, she said. The piece was also do-able for her chorus, which this season is about 60 singers.

“It’s a good balance between what’s challenging and those sections that are easy,” she said.

The work will be sung in English except for one section in Latin, and because there is a lot of unison singing, Fedak has been able to work on getting the singers to blend. Cooman chose modern harmony often using intervals of a second and seventh. Tempos change frequently but it’s easy to conduct, even though there is a lot of rubato and give and take, she said.

“Carson is very explicit as to what he wants,” Fedak said.

There are two soloists — soprano Anne Agresta Dugan and baritone Christopher Trombley — and there’s a 20-piece chamber orchestra. Cooman will talk about his piece at 2 p.m. and give background on the texts he used along with photography of Nantucket Island.

Another reason Fedak chose “Revelations” is that because of the way it’s written, people can have their own perspective as to either just enjoy the work superficially or to delve into the spirituality of the words, she said. That was one of Cooman’s goals, he said.

“The hope is always for people to engage in an individual way and not to overwhelm them but to provide context,” he said. “You never know with a big piece. It’s hard for a chorus to devote a whole program. I’ve been really thrilled that whether in London, Boston, California or Michigan, the piece has had legs.”

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