Each month, Firebird Feature shines a spotlight on an individual doing big things in the arts, travel, or education.
This month, we sat down with renowned conductor-composer Steven Sametz to talk about his background, his extraordinary career in choral conducting and composition, and how artists can continue to create in the pandemic.
Firebird Fine Arts Tours: One thing that stands out about your career is your rich work both conducting and composing. Which did you pursue first? Can you share more about the origins of your passion for music and the arts?
Steven Sametz: I started in music and began singing when I was very young. I was the poster child for music education in public schools. I went through college really as the only person who knew exactly what he wanted to do. My peers wanted to go to Law School, but I wanted to be a choral conductor. I studied with Robert Fountain who was a contemporary of Robert Shaw. I’ve had the opportunity to work with great teachers. Then, I came to my first job at Lehigh University, and I’m still here 41 years later.
I always knew I was going to be a conductor, but on the side I was always writing. As far back as high school, I was encouraged to write for ensembles. I always thought of myself as a conductor who composed. That profile stayed for quite a long time. I was hired at Lehigh as a conductor, but I’ve always written for my singers here. That’s been a great lab experience for me—being able to write something on a Wednesday and hear it performed or workshopped at a Thursday rehearsal. Because I’ve always been so supported at Lehigh, I’ve been able to write larger pieces for choral and orchestra. The Lehigh experience has been supportive of growth because I’ve been able to conduct major repertoire and also do my own pieces. Then, other people started doing my pieces, and I made a connection with Chanticleer [the GRAMMY award-winning vocal ensemble], and I started to be known as a composer on the left coast and a conductor on the right coast. Those things didn’t totally connect with me until 2011 when I was asked to be the Brock Memorial Composer for the American Choral Director’s Association. I wrote a set of pieces called Three Mystical Choruses for premiere by Chanticleer at the 2011 ACDA National Convention in Symphony Hall, Chicago. Sitting there in Chicago, surrounded by my conducting peers at the Choral Director’s Association, as they were performing my pieces I thought, “I’m a composer.” Those two things—conducting and composing—are very vital in my life, in addition to my teaching.
FFAT: You’ve been praised for your work as Artistic Director of the Princeton Singers in expanding the group’s repertoire. Can you tell us a little more about your work with them?
SS: I have been working with the Princeton Singers for nearly 23 years. They are my professional group, and they can really do anything I write for them and record as well. I’ve been truly fortunate in my life to work at very, very high levels. The group had a very illustrious director for its first 15 years. The previous director was very traditional, and his love was British repertoire. The group was great with doing Renaissance and Victorian English music. There was definitely a period of transition when I came in: today, they sing in about 22 languages, and they perform everything from newly commissioned works (they have had two Pulitzer Prize winners write for them) to traditional pieces. They are a group whose touchstone is their versatility. That curiosity about all aspects of choral arts reflects my own background.
FFAT: What does your compositional process look like? When you begin to work on a piece, what is that process like for you?
SS: It used to look like me, in a bookstore, reading as much poetry as I could. Then, it looked like me in a practice room or somewhere with a pencil and a paper and a piano—that’s what it used to look like. Recently it’s shifted.
My process for a major work I recently wrote, A Child’s Requiem, was a completely different process. I determined that I wanted to start by exploring young children’s experiences with tragedy and loss. Following the events at Sandy Hook, I reached out across the country to teachers and religious leaders, asking them to send me drawing and poetry by children in response to tragedy and loss. It was a sensitive topic to introduce to children, and I was helped by very understanding colleages and teachers. I was surprised by the hundreds of responses I got. Then, I was featured on NBC News for the project, and I hadn’t written a note yet. For me, the process is very private, and this project went very public in a way that made me nervous. I thought, “Well, I better go write a really good piece.” That was a truly open, collaborative process.
Currently, the Princeton Singers haven’t been able to rehearse or meet, and I’m in the process of writing individual songs for each of the singers. That is an entirely new process. My request was for them to send me a text or write a text that meant something to them. I made a deal with myself that I’d work on whatever they sent me. That’s been a little bit of a shake-up to my process, but we have almost all of the songs done now. The process changes and evolves over time, and if it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong. It’s easy for me to imagine someone getting stuck if the process is anything other than evolving—that’s how you grow as a musician.
FFAT: In our current environment (in the COVID era), how do you think performers and artists can continue to find purpose in a world with significantly less in-person performance opportunities?
SS: Innovation is basically it. We are all now social media artists, whether we like it or not.
Lehigh is doing a project called “There’s No Place Like Home” where we examine the idea of community and belonging, and we write music and prose—setting poems to music. Hopefully, this arises organically and shows that it means for people to have “home” right now. Home for some could look great, and for others—they could be having a really hard time. We’re going to have videos of people talking about community and home, creating a longer narrative. We’re partnering with Voices 21C (a group out of Boston) that focuses on social activism issues, such as racism and global warming. We have to re-contextualize a little about what we do, but I have always thought choral music is more than people dressed in black with folders singing. You’re engaging the person in the spirit of their time. In the past, we’ve done programs about immigration and also worked with a choir individuals with of neurologically challenged singers: my students came away from these experiences with a much broader and richer sense of what it is to make music. Particularly now when we can’t do what’s “normal,” we have to do a little searching on how to be innovative, creative, and think about how singing impacts our lives. Choral music is about community, and choirs are really designed to be that kind of community.
FFAT: You have personally used Firebird and our tour services in coordinating tours with your own groups. What was your experience touring with Firebird Fine Arts Tours?
SS: Firebird has consistently delivered top-flight tour experiences in terms of exceptional venues and concert marketing, interesting cultural events, and door-to-door consideration for travel comfort and accommodations!