Noteworthy: The Only A Cappella Work by an Orchestral Composer and DJ
Sirens, a series of six a cappella movements by composer Mason Bates, explores texts about things that are alluring or attractive. Ragnar Bohlin found the piece itself, particularly the fifth movement, so compelling that he knew he had to have his own chorus perform it.
“From The Book of Matthew” from the suite Sirens
By Mason Bates
Recommended by Ragnar Bohlin
From Ragnar Bohlin:
“From The Book of Matthew” is the fifth of six movements from Sirens by Mason Bates. When I attended the premiere by Chanticleer in 2009 at the San Francisco Conservatory, it made a huge impression on me. The piece is brilliantly written—among the best new a cappella music I’ve heard in decades. It’s a half-hour suite for 12-part chorus. As the title suggests, the texts are all about what is alluring or attractive to us. “From The Book of Matthew,” the only religious text in the suite, presents us with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee urging Simon and Andrew to become his disciples: “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
The suite is the only a cappella piece that Mason has written; he’s known mostly as an orchestral composer, with a resume that includes residencies with the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony. A 30-something composer who lives in Berkeley, he often writes for instruments and electronica. He’s also a DJ, and in many of his orchestral pieces he includes a synthesizer part for himself.
While I would not say those influences are apparent in “From The Book of Matthew,” the piece has a mesmerizing, haunting quality with impressionistic, tonal sonorities. I recommend it because it’s unusually beautiful and very original while at the same time being immediately accessible. When I performed it with my new professional chamber choir, Cappella SF, the singers loved it. We did the original version for 12 voice parts, which is fairly difficult, but because this movement has attracted particular attention, Mason has created another version for SATB with organ. The piece deserves to be much more widely known; in our debut concert, it made a huge impact on the audience.
Listen to "From The Book of Matthew"
Date of premiere: 2009
First performer: Chanticleer
Author/source of text: Matthew 4, verses 18-20
Length: 6 minutes 20 seconds
Publisher: Bill Holab Music
Recording information: Cappella SF, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin; February 22, 2014; St. Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco
Ragnar Bohlin is the artistic director of Cappella SF, and has been the chorus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus since 2007. Three years later, the Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, won three Grammy awards for their recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, including Best Choral Performance.
Bohlin was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, where he earned a master’s degree in organ and conducting. He studied choral conducting with the celebrated choir director Eric Ericson, orchestral conducting with Jorma Panula, piano with Peter Feuchtwanger in London, singing with Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, and through a Sweden-America Foundation scholarship he visited choruses throughout the United States.
Bohlin served as choirmaster of Stockholm’s Maria Magdalena Church and has toured internationally and won many competition prizes with Stockholm’s KFUM Chamber Choir, the Maria Magdalena Motet Choir, and the Maria Vocal Ensemble. Bohlin has appeared regularly with the Swedish Radio Choir, the Maria Vocal Ensemble, and the Maria Magdalena Motet Choir and has also worked with The Ericson Chamber Choir, the Royal Philharmonic Choir, and the Opera Choir of Stockholm.
A dedicated teacher, Bohlin is on the performance faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has taught at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, and served as a visiting professor at Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and Miami University. In 2006, he was awarded the Johannes Norrby Medal for expanding the frontiers of Swedish choral music making. In March 2013, Bohlin was awarded the Cultural Achievement Award from the Swedish-America Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco.
Chorus America’s Noteworthy web series highlights choral repertoire that may not be familiar to you—yet. Each month, a different conductor, music director, or other artistic professional recommends a piece of music that hasn't been widely noticed, but in his or her opinion, deserves to be heard.