After 15 years of tearing through the most demanding and magisterial chorale works in the classical repertory, the Asheville Symphony Chorus needed something slightly more complex than the twinkling natural notes of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate its anniversary.
The chorus found it in Heritage Songs, a suite of American folk songs written by composer Stephen Paulus for the occasion. The composition is the first work commissioned by the group, a 100-voice-strong adjunct chorale of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
Founding director Dewitt Tipton discovered the going rate for custom scores had skyrocketed since the early 1980s, when as chorus director of St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville he paid $100 a minute for a short anthem. Heritage Songs, a resetting of five well-known songs for mixed chorus, flute, oboe, cello, harp, piano and percussion, has a $20,000 price tag.
“For us it really makes our anniversary special,” Tipton says. “For that reason only, it’s worth it.”
The chorus was formed in 1991 after Tipton, then teaching at UNCA, persuaded the ASO that a standing chorale could strengthen its perennially best-selling vocal offerings.
“The orchestra was experiencing financial difficulties, and I thought I’d love to do something to help,” says the conductor.
While Tipton speaks modestly of his contribution, many chorus members consider him a baton-waving Superman whose every skill merits a superlative. There is apparently little he cannot do: Should an accompanist go missing, he commands the keyboard with his virtuosic piano playing. When the tenors stumble, he demonstrates the part in an awe-inspiring voice. “Dewitt Tipton is such an amazing talent, so very inspiring, and a gifted instructor. I want the whole world to know why we are what we are,” raves Sandee Butterworth, who handles publicity for the group, in an enthusiastic e-mail.
Tipton’s musical gifts aside, he’s taken the same route to popularity that most high school quarterbacks and fraternity presidents follow: He’s a genuinely nice guy who likes a good time.
“One of my main desires is [for] people who participate [to] have a lot of fun. We’re all in the business of making the best finished product that we can, but I try to keep rehearsals enjoyable and lighthearted.”
Tipton’s bonhomie has earned him plenty of friends, and it was through personal contacts that he first met composer Stephen Paulus, who gets his own share of accolades.
“Mr. Paulus is going to be in the musical history books,” says Tipton. “I’m overwhelmed by his talent.”
Paulus, a Minnesota resident, has written more than 300 compositions, including orchestral works and operas.
“My wife and I made a pact when I graduated from school,” says Paulus. “I had three years to see if I could make it as a composer.”
Paulus has since established himself as one of the most prolific and consistent American composers working today. According to his Web site, he is one of few composers able to support himself through commissions alone.
In leaner years, Paulus worked a variety of jobs, including a stint as choir director of a predominantly African-American congregation housed in a decaying Cass Gilbert building in downtown St. Paul. Paulus had never before worked with a choir, but, he said, “the church was desperate.”
“The minister was an Armenian former used-car salesman from L.A.,” the composer reveals. “He was an adventuresome, crazy guy who made us think outside the box.”
Even without prodding, the idiosyncratic nature of the choir – some rehearsals were entirely devoid of sopranos – helped initiate Paulus into the world of choral arranging.
For Heritage Songs, Paulus faxed Tipton a list of 15 folk songs he thought were worthy of revisiting. Tipton had toyed with using a new text, but felt tweaking old songs was a way of preserving lyrics that might otherwise be lost. The two men eliminated a few choices, including elementary standards “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “This Land is Your Land,” and Tipton added some of his own.
“Dewitt suggested ‘Shenandoah,’ and I just thought, ‘Man, I’ve heard ‘Shenandoah,'” Paulus admits. “But I started horsing around with it, and I hope people will say they’ve never heard a version like it.”
In addition to “Shenandoah,” the completed work includes old-time ballads “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and traditional gospels “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
“We were buying into tunes we love and like,” says Paulus, who plans to attend the premiere.
Tipton says his goal was for Paulus to produce something so accessible even high school choirs — at least the better ones — could perform it.
“My hope was to have something other people would use. We’ve caused this to happen for the rest of the music world.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]
The Asheville Symphony Chorus premieres Heritage Songs at Arden Presbyterian Church (2215 Hendersonville Road) Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15/adults, $12/students and parties of 10 or more. 254-7046.