Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer, a conductor, teacher, speaker, writer. But Whitacre has also become something of a prophet — a pioneer in using technology and social media to promote the cause of choral music.
Whitacre, who grew up wanting to be a rock star in Reno, Nev., is looking for the sun these days as an artistic leader at Cambridge College. He's stuck in foggy England (where he says he is very happy), but his reach extends to every corner of the world with his "Virtual Choirs."
Whitacre was inspired a few years back by a girl who sent a video of herself singing the vocal line of his "Lux Aurumque," and he had an idea.
He invited others to send in videos of themselves singing "Lux." With the help of a technical specialist, Whitacre blended the singers into a choir and posted his version on YouTube. It went viral. Whitacre has since produced four videos that in the most recent case ("Fly to Paradise") brought submissions from 5,905 singers from 101 countries. You can see them at ericwhitacre.com.
This week, Whitacre is in Minneapolis conducting the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale for the first time in several of his own compositions. His wife, soprano Hila Plitmann, is also on the program.
Whitacre is immensely popular with bands and choirs. He has composed the musical "Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings," and he co-wrote a theme for one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.
The mention of Minnesota brings reverence from Whitacre, who has studied the history of choral music here. He was up for questions when we reached him in England:
Q You seem to be a pioneer in the future use of classical music — particularly through the virtual choir.
A I'm not sure I feel like a pioneer. I'm a bit of a tech nerd. It's just a natural extension of two things I love. Tech and choral music. It seems totally natural. But no question it's thrilling.
Q But you seem interested in a mission that is larger than just composing and conducting.
A In some ways, the music is just a vehicle for connecting people, to feel part of something larger than myself. I don't know if it's a mission, but it's a huge part of my life.
Q As a composer, who are your influences? You started as a rock star and shifted over to choral music later.
A Well, I wanted to be a rock star. But daily I worship at the altar of Bach. The complexity, beauty and sheer volume of his work is … everything. And we don't have a third of what he probably did. Debussy, Byrd, Tallis. Morten Lauridsen, who I'm humbled to call a mentor. There is something about those close, shimmering dissonances that he writes. There is a tonal gesture that moves forward and stands still at the same time. That is my favorite thing, and Lauridsen is a master of that gesture.
Q You seem to strive for drama in your work. Is that just the production elements talking, or do you see music as being inherently dramatic?
A Yeah, I aspire to make every piece a drama in one way or another. I don't see pictures, but I see films. It's not pictures, but emotional drama. That's when I know I have found something, when it makes my heart hurt. If it's not moving me emotionally, it's not going to move other people. It means I'm on this emotional roller coaster. I wish I was more like Bach, who had so much structure that he could be divorced from feeling it.
Q In live performances, you do not use technology, so what mileposts do you look for to attain the right sound?
A. You use the conductor's toolbox — the elements of precise entrance, release, dynamics, modulation through the chord. It's a totally different skill from composing. Composing is solitary, introverted. The job of conducting is social and in real time identifying what the singers need from me, and what I can do to help. It feels like I'm motivating the sound, and surfing the sound that they give me. With a group as good as the Minnesota Orchestra, they have a collective wisdom far greater than anything I bring to the table. It's a dance between us, rather than the old-school approach of a tyrannical director.
Q You're a Nevada guy. In Cambridge, you can't possibly have the sunshine you need. What's attractive about being in England right now?
A England is a chance for me to shake up the snow globe of my life. I moved to England to find something different. On top of that is the chance to make great music and be closer to Europe. I'm on the craziest long leash ever — my mission is simply to add to the cultural life of the campus.