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Cali Immersive Residency Resonates with Composer Eric Whitacre at Montclair State University

Grammy winner conducts an intensive choral and instrumental experience for Cali and high school music students

Posted in: Arts, Homepage News, University

Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre conducted 900+ musicians in performances of his music in the Alexander Kasser Theater during his Cali Immersive Residency. (Photo by Dennis Dalelio, Paramus High School, for the Cali School of Music)

The Cali Immersive Residency Program at Montclair State University rose to a crescendo with Grammy-winning composer, conductor and speaker Eric Whitacre leading a deeply embedded program of lectures, interviews on his music, master classes with students, workshops and performances of his music with John J. Cali School of Music ensembles and 500 high school choristers.

Whitacre is widely known for his exceptional choral works and innovative use of technology. His lush and emotional music was the centerpiece of the three-day residency, including master classes and workshops, interviews for a School of Communication and Media mini-documentary, rehearsals with choral and instrumental ensembles, and a high school choral workshop and concert.

“This residency had so many tentacles – it was a bold program with myriad moving parts – and it totally worked,” says Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Heather J. Buchanan. “It was a dream come true.”

The spring residency was organized to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and community engagement, Buchanan says. It actively involved various departments across the University, such as Communications, Business, English and the Honors Program. As a highlight of the program, a public event titled “Cali Conversations” was jointly hosted by Buchanan and Anthony Mazzocchi, director of the Cali School.

Eric Whittacre and Heather J. Buchanan
Eric Whitacre, composer, conductor and speaker with Professor Heather J. Buchanan, faculty coordinator and host of his Cali Immersive Residency. (Photo by John J. LaRosa for Montclair State University)

“Working with Eric Whitacre was nothing short of extraordinary. He carries himself with such kindness, curiosity and humility,” says Christine Tanko ’24, a Music Education major. “I believe that he brought new life into the Cali community that will last a very long time.”

Whitacre’s 30-year career includes 70 works: 58 for choirs, 17 for orchestra, 13 for band, three for solo voice and one musical theater work. In addition to original compositions, he has produced 16 recordings beginning with his 2010 debut CD Light and Gold that won the 2012 Grammy for Best Choral Performance. Several movements from his recent long-form work The Sacred Veil were a focus of this residency, as well as exploration of repertoire spanning his career.

A choral workshop brought 500 high school choristers from 18 New Jersey and New York schools to campus for a workshop and choral concert featuring Montclair’s Vocal Accord, Chorale and University Singers. Proceeds from the sold-out concert went toward Pathways to Music scholarships for deserving students through the Invest in Cali Fund. Four seats in Leshowitz Recital Hall were dedicated to Whitacre during the residency.

“Eric is humble and brilliant. He was generous with his time and absolutely magnificent in the way he engaged with our students,” Buchanan says. “To summarize this residency in a word: it was transformational.”

A man conducts an orchestra
Eric Whitacre conducts students from the Paterson Music Project and New Jersey Symphony Youth Orchestra performing October in collaboration with the University Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by John J. LaRosa for Montclair State University)

Whitacre worked on repertoire from his extensive catalog with all the Cali School choirs – Vocal Accord (chamber choir), Chorale (140-voice symphonic choir) and University Singers (elective choir), plus the Rose Quartet, Symphony Orchestra and Wind Symphony, as well student composers and Music Education majors. Two student composers, Ian Kearney, a junior majoring in Music Composition, and Dayla Spencer, a freshman Music major, were featured in the composer’s forum “Finding Your Voice.”

“Working with Eric Whitacre was such a valuable experience,” Kearney said. “It was amazing to be able to hear his insight as to what it means to be a professional composer. As someone who writes choral music myself, getting to work with him personally in the composition master class and in the choirs was so inspiring.”

Whitacre is among today’s most popular musicians. His works are programmed worldwide and his ground-breaking Virtual Choirs have united 100,000 singers from all over the world through the use of technology. At a Cali Midweek program on “Creativity, Connection and the Virtual Choir,” Whitacre described the continuing evolution of this art form that assembles into one performance the thousands of videos he receives of singers filming themselves performing his various compositions.

“We started hearing from people, their stories about how they come to choir and how much it meant to them, how they genuinely felt part of something larger than themselves by being a part of this, which we found extraordinary because very few of these people had ever met in person and will never meet in person,” Whitacre said.

“Almost overnight, our little experiment had become this global choir, this Earth choir and still singers were saying, when is the next one?” he said.

Adds Kearney, the student composer, “Whitacre’s music reaches so many people, and working with him made me feel like music can make anything possible.”

Photo Gallery

A man addresses an audience
500 high school choristers rehearsed and performed Sing Gently, The Seal Lullaby and Lux Aurumque under the composer’s direction. Senior TV Production students recorded the concert under the direction of Professor Stuart MacLelland. (Photo by Rob Davidson Media for the Cali School of Music)
Eric Whitacre at the piano
The first residency event was an interdisciplinary Creativity Master Class: The Golden Brick, where Whitacre described his process for finding the creative focus for a composition. (Photo by Rob Davidson Media for the Cali School of Music)
Singers stand in front of a projection of sheet music.
Student composer Ian Kearney receives feedback from Whitacre on his original composition Les Colombes. Members of Vocal Accord performed live during the workshop.  (Photo by Heather J. Buchanan for the Cali School of Music)
A chorus singer sings
University Singers Alto I, Alexa Tabbacchino ’24, who received a degree in Recording Arts and Production, captivated by Whitacre’s new work, The Sacred Veil. (Photo by Dennis Dalelio, Paramus High School, for the Cali School of Music)
Singers make hand gestures during a song
Members of the University Singers perform BACH (Again) – Come Sweet Death, a contemporary interpretation of a Bach chorale, the only non-Whitacre music on the concert program and a piece Whitacre enjoys for its uniqueness. “It’s the piece I wish I had written,” he said. (Photo by Dennis Dalelio, Paramus High School, for the Cali School of Music)
A chorus on stage with a man conducting.
Whitacre conducts the Chorale’s performance of Cloudburst, a choral tone-poem featuring piano, percussion, hand bells and body percussion with student soloists Omar Abdallah, baritone, Abigail Montesino, speaker, and Olivia Meyer, soprano. (Photo by Rob Davidson Media for the Cali School of Music)