Commissioning Journeys: When the Place Shapes the Music

With the 2015 premiere of TURBINE, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia helped celebrate a unique cultural landmark and its vital role in the history of the city.

The Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River is the oldest water purifying system in the United States, its elegant Greek revival structures belying its essential function over the decades of providing clean water for the growing Philadelphia metropolis.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the Water Works, executive director Karen Young asked Leah Stein, founder and artistic director of the Leah Stein Dance Company, to mount a dance at the site. After touring the grounds, Stein felt that she wanted to incorporate a chorus into this outdoor production. She called Alan Harler, music director of the Mendelssohn Club, with whom she had collaborated in a number of out-of-the-box, site-specific projects, most notably composer David Lang’s battle hymns (which Chorus America wrote about) staged in 2009 at Philadelphia’s cavernous 23rd Street Armory.

“It’s odd,” says Harler, “because I was planning to retire after 27 seasons with the Mendelssohn Club and was wondering, how do I want to end my last season. Somehow, TURBINE just seemed an appropriate way.”

Tackling a gigantic space

For the musical score, Harler turned to Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong, a self-described “site-responsive” composer with training in dance and theater who had created a number of works for outdoor spaces. Au Yong toured the Water Works in October of 2013, and came away impressed and a bit overwhelmed. “The site is gigantic,” Au Yong says. “There are a lot of areas of the site, and we wanted to use the entirety of the site.” The question became how to move singers and audience members through the site in a way that made sense.

Stein envisioned singers, dancers, and audience members migrating through the entire space from the gazebo to the grand plaza to the gear house to the grand pavilion to the river itself.

Au Yong’s melodies for TURBINE also evoked the idea of migration and the movement of water molecules. “Voices seep in and out of the sounds along the river,” Au Yong wrote in his notes about the work. “These include the noise of traffic and trains. Musical motifs connect and disconnect in a free molecular flow.”

Au Yong drew his texts from more than a dozen writers and thinkers from the early 1800s to the early 1900s—among them Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Frances Trollope, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—as well as from letters written by early visitors to the site who marveled at the human ingenuity that created it. The texts and the melodic material are organized in short fragments that can be recombined in a multiple ways. “The effect is something like looking at the text through the facets of a crystal,” wrotes Michael Moore, a Mendelssohn Club bass, in the program notes. “The recombination of text can create images which are congruent with their original context or which diverge in unexpected and striking ways.”

Many moving parts

The five movements of TURBINE required many different divisions of the chorus: a large tutti chorus, two choruses, and – for one movement only – four choruses. For some movements, the different choruses had different scores. Each group also had to learn choreography that coordinated with the music.

Though minimalist in style, the music was not easy to learn, several singers said. “The way it was constructed, in two-, three- or 12-measure fragments, was a challenge,” says Ellie Elkington, an alto with Mendelssohn Club. While Harler encouraged the singers to memorize their parts, some ended up using small crib cards to keep them on track.

The composition of TURBINE follows an overall structure, but many of the individual musical components – which phrase to sing, and its rhythm, dynamics and even octave – are left to the discretion of the performer. The music is shaped by the performers’ responses to each other and to the ambient sounds of the Water Works. “Each rehearsal and performance was quite different,” Harler says.

Photo by Sharon Torello.

This improvisational aspect required that the singers have a certain independence—and courage. “We were singing together, but almost as soloists,” says Rebecca Thornburgh, a Mendelssohn Club singer. “I have done a lot of solo work, so I was comfortable not having the support of my section. But it was challenging in places. It is so different than anything you think of as traditional choral music. You really have to take responsibility in singing on your own and finding your pitches.”

The Rehearsal Process

In order to simulate the large outdoor space where TURBINE would eventually be performed, Harler and Stein found a couple of large spaces for rehearsals. Harler estimates that the singers and dancers only had a total of “six or seven” full rehearsals at the Water Works site. Those rehearsals often took place in the chilly semi-darkness of early spring evenings.

With very few rehearsals, there was little time to grasp the overall feel of singing the piece. “We spent a lot of time just getting the singers to understand the space and where they were, which was very secondary to what they were singing,” Stein says. “That was so difficult. I so appreciate the openness and willingness of the chorus to just keep going, knowing just how unpredictable this process is.” 

Rehearsing and performing in a public outdoor space, meant that the sounds of the chorus intermingled with many other sounds—the river, a water fall, people walking by, street traffic, children’s voices, and at one rehearsal, even a lone bagpipe player. “It was a noisy space,” Harler says. “I had no idea how Byron would have a solution. But then he told us we were not to think of our music as being competitive with those sounds. The audience will hear our music as part of the overall sounds around them. That was like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ That was a moment.”

Shifting and Adjusting

Creating a work in such a large space and with so many moving parts inevitably means that things will change—even up to shortly before performances. For the last movement of TURBINE, Stein envisioned a singer performing from the deck of a boat at the river’s edge. That idea was almost sunk when the premiere of TURBINE was postponed because of schedule conflicts at the site, and the chartered vessel was no longer unavailable.

“But I just had to have that boat!” Stein says. In the end, the group found a different boat, and when they did a test run, the concept worked. “Then Byron rewrote the last section based on that,” Stein says. “That’s how it works. You shift and adjust as you go.”

The directors found a way to adjust, and keep the dream of involving a boat alive. Photo by Sharon Torello.

Though Mendelssohn Club singers were accustomed to “shifts and adjustments” of site-specific collaborations, that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. “The choreography is very organic,” says Moore. “You have to see it to know how it works. We would run a section and then Leah and Alan would confer and we would wait for notes to come back. There would be changes and then we would rerun the piece.

“It was frustrating at times,” he admits. “We are used to knowing what we’ll be doing well ahead of time. There are not a lot of surprises. The Mozart Requiem is always the Mozart Requiem.”

An Audience in Motion

Another unknown factor was the audience’s role in the performance. How would they respond to moving through the space with the singers and dancers? “It’s not like you’re at a classical music concert where you can hear everything,” Harler says. “You are hearing different things and you may even be missing something that’s being performed a half a block away. You’re hearing the sound of what is right in front of you.”

Thanks to a $216,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, along with gifts from other institutional and individual donors, the performances of TURBINE were free to the public. Attendees had only to register, and the marketing of the event informed them what to expect.

A large contingent of volunteer guides on-site gave instructions and helped move audience members through the experience. The chorus helped as well. “Leah choreographed so that the chorus would wrap around chunks of the audience and move them forward,” says Harler. There were also 50 chairs set up in three locations for those who needed to sit during the performances.

Inclement Weather

With an outdoor performance, the weather was the ultimate wild card. After torrential rains delayed the expected mid-May premiere, storm clouds gathered again at the time of the rescheduled performances at the end of June. The Thursday night run-through of the work at the site was washed out and a forecast of thunderstorms forced the cancellation of the Saturday night performance. “I almost threw in the towel at that point,” Harler says. But Sunday dawned rain-free, and TURBINE got its premiere—twice, at 5:30 pm, to accommodate the Saturday ticket holders, and at 7:30 pm. “After all of that, we still had a tremendous crowd for both performances,” Harler says.

Harler conducted TURBINE from several large boxes that were strategically spread through the space. One movement required three conductors because the singers were on all four sides of a small building. Harler often moved with the audience and chorus to the next location and sometimes conducted as he moved. For the final movement, Harler conducted the chorus, which was “on land,” in antiphony with the soprano soloist, who was quite far out in a boat in the river.

“That was a haunting and wonderful scene with the sun setting over the river,” Harler says.

Being swept away

At the performances, Stein allowed herself to move in and out of the crowd and was able to observe and hear people’s reactions. “People just loved being swept away and loved being in this site and being connected to the singers and loved the range of musical components,” she says.

A high point for many in the audience came at the end of the work when all the singers and dancers gathered together at The Grand Plaza facing the audience. “The singers and dancers all swayed together as one group as they sang and walked forward,” Stein says. “It was an integration of all different kinds of people and this large, large group united in this simple movement. There was something kind of epic about it that people responded to.”

What lingers for the Mendelssohn Club’s singers after TURBINE is a sense of the importance of stepping out of one’s own safety zone and trusting the creative process – a hallmark of Alan Harler’s 27 seasons with the organization. “Alan asked us to do a lot of things that you think, ‘Oh my God this will be horrible!’” Moore says. “But we learned to trust his judgment.”

Singer Rebecca Thornburgh says Harler is known for carrying around a battered file folder with the words, ‘We take risks’ scribbled on the back. “That phrase sums it up for our chorus,” she says. “We take risks. It may not work. But you’ll never know unless you try. If you want to change your experience of what choral music can be, you need to do this kind of open-ended work.”


Conversation with Harler, Stein and Au Yong about the making of TURBINE

Inspiration behind the choreography for TURBINE

Notes from the composer of TURBINE


TURBINE (Leah Stein/ Mendelssohn Club): Stein’s water-dances power the Water Works by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

“Getting creative down by the riverside” by David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, choral singer, psychotherapist, and frequent contributor to Chorus America's online and print publications. She lives in San Francisco.

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