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Composer's music speaks to - not down to - children

Boston.com, March 27, 2009
By David Weininger

John Heiss isn't a composer you would necessarily expect to write music for kids. A longtime faculty member at New England Conservatory, Heiss writes works of refined sensuality that have a unique sense of color and timbre. The accuracy of his ear became legendary when Stravinsky famously labeled him "the pitch doctor" after Heiss corrected some errors in one of the elder composer's scores.

Surprisingly, though, Heiss has intermittently written for children's chorus over the course of his career. His first foray in the genre was "Three Songs From Sandburg," a setting of three Carl Sandburg poems composed in 1963 for children's voices and piano. He recently revisited that piece in response to a commission from Winsor Music, the chamber music series curated by oboist Peggy Pearson.

The new version of the piece - featuring a greatly expanded instrumental accompaniment - has its premiere tomorrow night in a performance by the Boston Children's Chorus under artistic director Anthony Trecek-King, as well as a subset of Winsor musicians.

Speaking by phone from his Newton home, Heiss says that he's always marveled at the unique sound of the children's chorus. "It's beautiful - that kind of bell-like clarity. Hearing that for the first time was like a revelation."

But the inspiration to write for that specialized medium also came in part from "the marvelous children's settings that master composers have done," such as Bartok's "Mikrokosmos" and Bach's "Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach." "Without dumbing down what they write, they still compose on a level that is immensely appealing for young people," he says.

Writing for the children's chorus, he says, means that "you have to be careful you don't give them rhythms that are too tricky or intricate part writing. But if you make a unison or two-part setting and keep it fairly simple, you can put more advanced things in the accompaniment."

That's just what Heiss has done in the new version of the "Three Songs." The original piano accompaniment is now scored for an unusual ensemble of string quartet, double bass, oboe d'amore, and English horn. The larger forces allowed him to clarify and expand the instrumental counterpoint and create an especially rich timbre from the juxtaposition of the strings with the children's voices. It also allowed him to fulfill a request by Pearson, who, Heiss says, told him to "put all the flash in the oboe part."

The biggest challenge in writing for children, Heiss explains, is achieving a balance: offering them something that is appropriate to their abilities yet doesn't condescend to them. "You don't need to do that. Kids know when they're being talked down to."

He says that he's heard the Boston Children's Chorus three or four times in rehearsal and is impressed by the immediacy and enthusiasm involved in working with them. "When I stand up to say something, all the eyes are beading right on me. I think, 'Gee, I better say this just right because they're really paying attention.' "

In a way, Heiss has been thinking about young musicians for a good part of his life - namely, his two children and three grandchildren. The 70-year-old composer can remember writing a piece years ago for his daughter (a flutist) and son (a percussionist). "They used to have charming little tiffs about whether you count a rhythm this way or how loud you should play. So I wrote a piece for them - I put a family argument right in the middle of it.

"So I hope I can put my mind where children's minds are and be a good companion to them. How would you not give something to them that they can learn from and grow from?"

At Follen Community Church, Lexington; 781-863-2861, www.winsormusic.org