- Matthew Evan Taylor
Middlebury composer Matthew Evan Taylor's grandmother, Earnestine Colvin Taylor, had many talents. For instance, she sang while accompanying herself on a spinet piano, both in her home in Birmingham, Ala., and at her local church, the Saint Paul Smithfield AME Church, where she often took her grandson.
When his grandmother died in 2017, at the age of 90, Taylor began composing a series of works in her memory, which he calls the African American Requiem Series. He's completed four, the third of which honors Earnestine's singing: a work for chorus and orchestra called from despair...Light!
A Vermont Symphony Orchestra commission, that piece was originally slated to be performed in March 2020. After a long wait, it will finally receive its premiere at two VSO concerts called "Paradise and Light" — in Burlington on Friday, October 29, and in Rutland on Saturday, October 30.
The occasions also mark the VSO Chorus' first appearances with the orchestra since the pandemic began. The concert's guest conductor, a finalist for the VSO music directorship, is James Burton, the choral director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Burton will also conduct a second choral piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region, Augusta Read Thomas' 2010 piece Of Paradise and Light, and Antonín Dvoák's Symphony No. 7.
Taylor, who is on the Middlebury College music faculty and the composition faculty at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Mass., said from despair...Light! is about "resilience in the face of loss — kind of a direct lesson I learned from my grandmother's passing but also just her life."
Earnestine, a Black woman, grew up in the Jim Crow South and married a steelworker whose life was threatened after he became one of the first Black officers in the union, Taylor said. She had a career teaching art and loved ballroom dancing with her husband.
"She was elegant and eloquent and always positive," Taylor said. "We were always really close." He stayed with his grandparents often during childhood and lived with them for a time after college.
The African American Requiem Series draws on the musical traditions and liturgical forms of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Black Americans. Each of the first two pieces incorporates a hymn: "Prayer Service for Earnestine," for chamber orchestra, includes Earnestine's favorite, "Come, Ye Disconsolate"; and "Saint Paul AME," for jazz piano quintet, features a hymn composed by Taylor. In "Prayer Service for Earnestine," a bass clarinet solo evokes a pastor's sermon that slowly builds to a cacophony of congregational emotion.
All the works include hymn lining, an improvisational singing tradition in which voices form an overlapping polyphony around a single melody without actually uniting on the same note until the end. Taylor recommends listening to the grave-digging scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? for a sense of the technique.
Expressed by instruments in the first two works, this hymn lining finds vocal embodiment in from despair...Light!
The composer said the piece is "the grieving process in miniature. The first movement is discord and violence. In the second, voices are heard hymn lining. It's the first dawning of the loss. Voices will be full, vibrating loudly. The third is more austere and more direct, introspective. The fourth is simply the choir singing the word 'light' at the end: the dawning of acceptance and appreciation for the life that was lost.
"That's my grandmother, but obviously we have a larger context now that really fits it," Taylor added, referring to the pandemic. "So people's hearts will be able to follow along with the music."
"When you get to the fourth movement, you can almost see the light," said VSO chorus director José Daniel Flores-Caraballo, who is preparing the singers but won't conduct. "It really is written so spectacularly beautifully, I believe the audience will feel like they're flowing in the light."
Flores-Caraballo has augmented the chorus' ranks for this performance with singers from the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir and Albany Pro Musica, a chorus he directs in Albany, N.Y.
"While we feel hope and we see the light," the choral conductor added of Taylor's work, "the composer doesn't let you forget that it's sitting on top of a foundation of despair." Similarly, he said, "We are at the end of the pandemic, but we also know many lives were lost."
Over the five years Taylor has lived in Vermont, his work has varied widely and often been collaborative. A saxophonist, he joined Middlebury assistant professor of dance Laurel Jenkins to create "Beacon Fire," which the pair performed at Cold Hollow Sculpture Park in Enosburg Falls in 2021.
Earlier in the pandemic, Taylor composed "Postcards to the Met," a series of études recorded remotely and presented on Instagram, for the digital platform of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Those culminated in a 2022 performance of his work Life Returns, featuring Taylor on saxophone and two ensembles, in the Met's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Recently, Taylor has composed a series of interludes for the Washington, D.C., opera company IN Series and a piece commissioned by Metropolis Ensemble for an art installation at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
from despair...Light! is the composer's first choral work. It's also among his most personal compositions to date.
"My grandmother told me shortly before she died that I should write music 'full of flowers and light,'" Taylor said. "My previous pieces [in the Requiem series] gave her flowers. Now, here is the light."