"Give Thanks": A premiere and inspiration

by Victoria Aschheim

As one who has had the transformative experience of studying in Harvard's unique chamber music course Music 180 with Yehudi Wyner and Daniel Stepner, I am happy to report on what the Boston Globe called the "keenly anticipated" premiere of Yehudi Wyner's composition, Give Thanks for All Things for orchestra and chorus. The work had its world premiere on Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6 at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory performed by the Cantata Singers and Ensemble and conducted by David Hoose, music director of the Cantata Singers. Give Thanks for All Things is based on two Psalms, poems by Richard Wilbur and Walt Whitman, a passage from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and the Breton fisherman's prayer, "Dear Lord be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small."

Wyner is an illustrious composer of works in a variety of genres. He is a pianist with a diploma in piano from Juilliard, a graduate of Yale and Harvard (where he studied with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston), and winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Chiavi in Mano, which Wyner wrote for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Harvard pianist and professor Robert Levin. Wyner is also former head of the Yale University composition department, and was a member of the chamber music faculty at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1975 to 1997, as well as professor emeritus and Naumberg Chair in Composition at Brandeis University. He is also a frequent visiting professor at Harvard. In addition, Wyner has held other distinguished academic posts and received honors, including the Rome Prize in composition, two Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as commissions from the Koussevitsky and Ford Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the interpreter of the Yiddish lieder of his father Lazar Weiner (1897-1982). Wyner, like his father, has made a great contribution to music related to the Jewish heritage.

Also in the audience for the Wyner world premiere was Daniel Stepner, violinist and conductor, professor of the practice of music at Brandeis, preceptor in music at Harvard, first violinist for the Lydian String Quartet, and founding member of the Boston Museum Trio (in residence at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts). Stepner described Yehudi Wyner's new choral/orchestral work, Give Thanks for All Things, as "a wonderful celebration of life in the face of it finiteness. As always, his music is bracing yet lucid, with tonal reference (one always knows where 'down' is) and beautiful texturing. The work is substantial and I wouldn't be surprised in coming years to hear individual movements on choral concerts -- a number of them will stand on their own, though there are also textual and musical motifs that thread throughout the piece and make the whole meaningful. The Cantata Singers under David Hoose did a marvelous job with it on (no doubt) too few rehearsals, as is the American way, given strained funding and virtually no government investment in such institutions."

Stepner also reflected upon Music 180: "Teaching Music 180 with Yehudi is always a pleasure. He was my teacher at Yale in the '60s and early '70s and he remains vital and interested in new things. His youthful demeanor is always inspiring. It's interesting to me as preceptor in the course how different his approach to teaching is to Professor Robert Levin, the usual teacher. Both are consummate musicians, both superb pianists, both have had a wealth of experiece, both wonderful communicators and (for me) colleagues --- and yet so different. Let me count the ways...."

Let us "count the ways" in which Harvard artist-teachers touch our lives both in the Yard and beyond.

[Caption: Yehudi Wyner on stage after the performance of his "Give Thanks for All Things"]

[Caption: Robert Levin and Yehudi Wyner in Jordan Hall]