Announcing “Sauntering Songs,” a cantata for Skylark Vocal Ensemble

Title reads "Sauntering Songs" with photo of a distant figure walking on a footpath in grass-covered hills
World Premiere Performances in April 2023

I am thrilled to share a once-in-a-lifetime, dream-come-true project, and my third collaboration with the world class Skylark Vocal Ensemble: Sauntering Songs.

A love letter to wanderlust, this World Premiere commission weaves together art songs, choral music, and literature into an expansive cantata on the theme of walking. Influences from rock, folk, and musical theater feature prominently in this score marrying Skylark’s voices with an instrumental quartet. From Walt Whitman to the present day, Sauntering Songs celebrates diverse characters who search for freedom and fulfillment through subversive journeys on foot.

This work is an expression of so much that I’m passionate about, in music and in life. I look forward to sharing this work with audiences in Massachusetts next spring!

Subscription tickets are available now for the three World Premiere concerts as part of Skylark’s 2022-23 season, “a tour de force of innovative programs that re-define the choral experience for singers and audiences alike.” Single tickets go on sale August 25. Learn more here.

THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)
Simon Center for the Arts
at Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, MA

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)
Church of the Redeemer
Chestnut Hill, MA

SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)​
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Newburyport, MA

Skylark Receives GRAMMY Award Nomination for “It’s a Long Way”

List of Nominees for Best Choral Performance, including "It's a Long Way" by Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s It’s a Long Way has received a 2022 GRAMMY Award nomination for Best Choral Performance!

I’m continually grateful and honored that Skylark featured this piece I wrote for them as the title track of their beautiful album, which gives expression to experiences of the pandemic through a musical program of courageous stylistic and emotional range.

The album is available for listening on all major streaming platforms and can be ordered directly from the ensemble here.

Skylark Releases Album “It’s a Long Way”

Album cover with black and white photograph of feather, by recording artist Skylark Vocal Ensemble, album title It's a Long Way
I’m deeply honored that one of my dearest collaborators, multiple GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark, is featuring my choral work It’s a Long Way as the title track of their new album! The album includes a varied selection of contemporary and historical music exploring Skylark’s collective experience of living through the 19 months since their last concert.

The album was released today, September 24, 2021 and is available for purchase directly from Skylark and streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

Commissioned by Skylark and originally recorded by a virtual quartet for educational use, my piece has been given further life in this stunning new studio recording by the full Skylark chamber choir.

It’s a Long Way will also be featured on Skylark’s album release tour next month in Massachusetts! Concert dates include Friday, October 8, 7:00pm @ the Simon Center for the Arts at Falmouth Academy, Falmouth MA; Saturday, October 9, 7:00pm @ Belleville Church, Newburyport, MA;  and Sunday, October 10, 3:00pm @ First Parish Church in Weston, Weston, MA. Subscribe to Skylark’s season to purchase tickets.

About the Music
“William Stanley Braithwaite’s poem “It’s a Long Way,” although published in 1904, speaks powerfully to me in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic…I’ve sought to honor Braithwaite’s bittersweet words of hope and determination with a choral setting for all of us striving to safely arrive at our journeys’ shore.” Continue reading & peruse the score.

Virtual Choir Performance of “It’s a Long Way” by SEMMEA Festival Choir

It’s rare privilege to receive a commission and premiere performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even rarer: receiving  two performances of a new work within a short time!

I was deeply moved by the virtual choir performance of my choral score, It’s a Long Way, given by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association Southeastern District (SEMMEA) Senior Festival Choir.

In early January 2021, nearly 200 high school students remotely rehearsed and recorded their parts with guidance from conductor Dr. Christopher Jackson. Their individual performances were then assembled into this beautiful performance documentation.

I also had the pleasure of participating in a virtual visit with the choir and a Q&A led by Dr. Felicia Barber, alongside fellow composer Joel Thompson.

Commissioned by Skylark Vocal Ensemble for their New Voices for Education project, this work was composed primarily for study by high school and college choirs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The score and a professional recording of this work may be found on Skylark’s website.

World Premiere Recording of “It’s a Long Way” by Skylark Vocal Ensemble

Painting of ocean, sky, and horizon with bright, pale light
“Seascape” (1901), watercolor, William Trost Richards (1833”“1905). Public domain.

The World Premiere recording of my newest choral work, It’s a Long Way, commissioned by GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark, has just been released!

Check out Skylark’s website for free access to the recording, score, and oodles of supplementary videos and study materials that their team of artist-educators has put together to make my score visible, accessible, and approachable for high school and college-level virtual choirs.

I’m honored to be featured in this project alongside Jonathan Woody, whose new work I Conquer the World with Words is a gorgeous and dynamic expression of the impact of language.

I applaud Skylark’s support of us living composers and encouragement of young singers’ engagement with new music, as well as providing students and educators with world-class choral study materials.

Skylark: New Voices for Education Commission

I am thrilled to have been commissioned by Skylark Vocal Ensemble to compose a new work for virtual high school and college choirs, to be featured alongside a work by composer Jonathan Woody! Skylark’s fundraising campaign, New Voices for Education, will fund our commissions and the ensemble’s production of free world class online study guides to support young singers performances of these new works in this era of remote learning.

I’m continually impressed by Skylark’s innovative projects through the pandemic and so proud to be participating in this fabulous initiative for choral education!

Learn more about Skylark: New Voices for Education and contribute to the campaign.

Interviews for Skylark, Reflections on Music and Nature, and Houston Grand Opera

Sklyark Plus poster with portrait of Nell
As composers, musicians, organizations, and our audiences work to stay connected during this extended hiatus from live performances, many are turning to online video interviews as a way to continue engaging with the motivating ideas and individuals behind the music of our moment.

Last month, I was honored to be invited by three different interview series for public conversations about my work as a composer writing opera, choral music, and music inspired by nature, respectively.

In early June, librettist Megan Cohen and I were interviewed by Patrick Summers, Artistic Director of Houston Grand Opera, in a private Zoom event for friends of HGO that explored our upcoming opera, Turn and Burn, commissioned by the company for a World Premiere production next year.

My next interview was with Matthew Guard, Artistic Director of vocal ensemble Skylark. Our conversation centered on my choral cycle inspired by Victorian art, Transform the World with Beauty, which Skylark commissioned and toured last year. To watch my interview and lots of great content, please consider subscribing to Skylark+, a special platform to support the ensemble’s artists during this pandemic.

Most recently, I spoke with a composer colleague, Ryan Suleiman, for his weekly interview series Reflections on Music and Nature. We discussed my approach and motivations in composing music inspired by landscape, nature, and place; artists as activists of the imagination; and Landscape Music, the international composers’ network I direct and which Ryan is a member of. Our conversation is available for viewing anytime on YouTube (see below).

World Premiere of “Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight” by Boston Choral Ensemble

Snow-covered field with tree shadows
Photograph: Nell Shaw Cohen, Taos, New Mexico, 2019

Saturday, December 14, 3:00pm
Boston Choral Ensemble Holiday Concert
Old South Church
645 Boylston St, Boston, MA
Purchase Tickets

Boston Choral Ensemble will give the World Premiere of Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight,commissioned through their 12th Annual Commission Competition, on the choir’s annual winter holiday concert!

Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight (ca. 9 minutes) features settings of three poems on the theme of winter: “Winter Branches” by Margaret Widdemer, “A Winter Blue Jay” by Sara Teasdale, and “A Winter Ride” by Amy Lowell, all written in the early 20th century by American women.

Each of these poets used vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world. I’ve grouped these poems together because I feel they form an aesthetically cohesive set, providing the basis for a musical narrative arc that moves from quiet contemplation (“Winter Branches”) to joyful exuberance (“A Winter Ride”).

I hope you may be able to join me at this very special performance!

New Recording! “Transform the World with Beauty” for Vocal Ensemble

GRAMMY Award-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark gave absolutely stunning premiere performances of my work Transform the World with Beauty, which they commissioned for their Spring 2019 program “Masterpiece” featuring musical reflections of visual art. They recorded my piece during their tour’s culminating concert on the Georgetown Concert Series in Washington, D.C.

In the following video, I’ve paired the ensemble’s recording with texts and images from the Victorian artists and poets,Julia Margaret Cameron, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris,who inspired my composition.

Watch below (or on YouTube here), and continue reading for my notes about this work.


video credits

Performed by Skylark Vocal Ensemble (Matthew Guard, Artistic Director). Audio Recording by Dan Shores. Video Editing by Nell Shaw Cohen.

ABOUT THE Work

Transform the World with Beauty, an 11-minute work for SATB vocal ensemble in three movements, is inspired by the flowering of visual art and poetry in Victorian Britain during the 1840s-1870s.

Julia Margaret Cameron, "Pomona," 1872

The first movement, “My First Camera,” celebrates avant-garde photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. In my adaptation of an excerpt from Cameron’s autobiography, this pioneering artist describes the power of her creative impulse when she first took up the camera as a 48-year-old wife and mother. (Image: Julia Margaret Cameron, “Pomona,” 1872.)

“In an Artist’s Studio” is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. She offers an incisive, feminist critique of her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his obsessive depictions of an idealized woman. (Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Annunciation” (detail), 1849.)

William Morris, "Strawberry Thief" wallpaper design, 1883

The final, title movement is inspired by the work and ideas of William Morris. The botanical and mythological titles of Morris’ sensuous textiles and wallpaper designs are juxtaposed with lofty sentiments from his philosophical lectures and essays. These two strands of Morris’ world, disparate at first, come together into a hopeful vision of society “transformed” through the beauty of nature and art. (Image: William Morris, “Strawberry Thief” wallpaper design, 1883.)

Boston Choral Ensemble Awards Nell Commission

BCE logoI’m thrilled to have been named winner of Boston Choral Ensemble’s 12th Annual Commission Competition to write a work for their annual holiday concert! It’s a great honor to have been awarded this highly competitive opportunity to continue expanding my work in choral and vocal ensemble music.

My planned work, Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight, will feature poems by early 20th century American poets Margaret Widdemer, Sara Teasdale, and Amy Lowell, each of which use vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world.

Stayed tuned for an announcement of the World Premiere performance this December in Boston, MA!