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International Women’s Day 2024

NYC at 5: Young Composers 2018-19

It is an immense pleasure on International Women’s Day to mark the achievements of two hugely talented composers who came to our attention through the National Youth Choir’s ‘Young Composers’ scheme. It is much harder to reflect on the fact that their wonderful music was inspired by sad events and heartbreaking stories: the passing of a local heroine, Margaret Colfe, who dedicated her life in the 17th century to caring for the sick in London, and the tragic deaths of two young girls, Valeria (aged 23 months) and Gurpreet (aged 6), victims of the USA–Mexico border crisis in 2019.

One of the great features of the NYC’s programme is giving young composers the freedom to write music that is very personal to them: this is not ‘functional’ writing in the sense of having to fit a brief according to usage (say, for a sacred liturgical purpose) or according to a prescribed set-up of choral forces (so often, at least in the UK, a proportional ratio of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses that equates to roughly 40 : 30 : 10 : 20!). The two pieces we published from this first year of the partnership each demonstrate just how liberating and powerful the stimulus of writing music based on subjects with a deep personal resonance can be.

For Lillie Harris, it was an encounter with a memorial in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Lewisham, south London, that set a train of thought in motion that led to her piece Margaret (https://stainer.co.uk/shop/cn52/) . The text, taken from Margaret Colfe’s epitaph with a few additional words inserted by Lillie, honours its dedicatee, a woman who died in 1643 and who was in all but name – due to the time in which she lived – a doctor. A hymn-like style is beautifully employed as a fitting tribute to this ‘modern woman (born) out of time’; it is written with reverence, but also with a sunny harmonic disposition.

Shruthi Rajasekar has posed a devastating question in her piece did you know? (https://stainer.co.uk/shop/cn45/), and it relates to a centuries-old issue that is tragically as relevant today as it has ever been: migration. Shruthi was moved to write in response to deaths reported in the US–Mexican border region. The music, and her own text, were conceived from anger at all those, including ourselves, who can be said to be complicit. The stark writing, with occasional harsh and dissonant chords, is sometimes accusatory, but there is also a palpable sense of sorrow and grief. This is a short piece, but it deserves to be performed regularly, not least in order to ensure that such tragedies and the questions they raise remain in the forefront of our minds.                           

Complete scores and recordings for both pieces can be accessed free of charge by following the links to the titles above.

2024 update

Lillie Harris’s recent commissions and premieres include an art song Kind Regards for the Royal Opera House (text by Laura Attridge), a choral work and trumpet fanfare for Cheltenham Music Festival supported by the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Emerging Composers programme, a new work for Chapter House Choir York, and song cycles for children’s voices commissioned by Warwick: A Singing Town, and Glyndebourne, East Sussex Music and Berwick Church.

In addition to her composing activities, Lillie also writes the user manual for Steinberg’s music notation software Dorico. www.lillieharris.com

Shruthi Rajasekar’s recent projects include Sarojini, a thrilling large-scale choral-orchestral work blending Western classical and Carnatic (south Indian) traditions which was premiered to a sell-out audience at St Albans Cathedral, and new choral works for VOCES8, The Gesualdo Six, ORA Singers, Seattle Pro Musica, and Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music. In November 2021, her composition for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus was premiered at the United Nations COP26. Shruthi has been an artist-in-residence at Britten Pears Arts (Snape, UK), Tusen Takk Foundation (Michigan, USA), and the Anderson Center (Minnesota, USA). She is currently living in her home state of Minnesota. www.shruthirajasekar.com/

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