A conversation with composer Cary Ratcliff

Congratulations on an incredibly prolific year!   You’ve released several new albums including a new recording of your opera "Eleni" and "For Better, For Worse, Songs About Marriage" and "On This Day, Earth Shall Ring."  How did you do it all? 

Yep, the year was like an all-out Triple Jump. You get a good running start, keep your eye on the last jump, and hope you land on your feet, not your behind. The two Madrigalia albums were based on the first two concerts I have done with them, and it was satisfying capturing the great sounds they have been making. My opera recording has been a dream for several years, and when Katie Lewek, my lead singer, gave me eight months' notice that she would have two weeks to come to Rochester last summer to record, I set out orchestrating the material for an 'affordable' size orchestra. I trained the choruses, and rounded up and rehearsed with the many solo characters. Finally we added 30 RPO colleagues, which brought it all to life.  I conducted the sessions, which was very satisfying as things came together. Everyone brought such dedication to it, and I am pleased that we got so much challenging music done well, so that listeners may know what this opera sounds like. 

I hear that the Texas-based ensemble Conspirare and director Craig Hella Johnson are preparing to release a recording of your wonderful oratorio "Ode to Common Things" on the Harmonia Mundi label.  Can you confirm or deny this lovely rumor?

Confirmed! Keep that rumor going. The CD is coming in September. I spent several days with Conspirare in Austin last October as they graciously absorbed my input for their premiere of the new Chamber Version ('The Twelve Hand Version' I call it - 6 players). This extraordinary group did not disappoint; they sing with such conviction and beauty of spirit. I was not involved in the subsequent recording week, but Craig's recordings with the Harmonia Mundi production team have a great track record (Track and Field again), so I'm honored that this group's rendition will represent my composition. 

What else is happening in your musical life that you’re excited about?

The decks are now cleared and I am focusing on writing chamber music for a while. On my piano now are sketches for a trombone piece, being written for a fine trombonist who just was appointed to the Virginia Symphony. He has this beautiful soft high sound that is uncanny. I'm trying to start the piece such that if you heard it on the radio, say, you would not even realize at first you were listening to a trombone piece. After that, it's piano and strings; that literature is so central to me. I'm learning some Rachmaninoff etudes right now, enjoying his wonderful imagination for pianistic textures.To the extent that my fingers 'help' doing my composing, and as I try to play everbody's part in what I am composing, I'm giving my fingers some Russian vitamins to get them in good fiddle. 


What do you like about working with the chamber choir Madrigalia?

They are great to work with. They are intelligent, musical singers, who listen carefully to each other. I like walking away from the podium as they are singing: once we've developed our approach to a piece, I'm pretty much dispensible. They balk at no challenge, they love working hard, and we like getting to the heart of what we are expressing. Collectively they are a bank of choral knowledge, and offer wise suggestions for repertoire and approach. Our rehearsal process is fun, and when a program is finally ready, these seasoned performers really fly with it. 

Your next concert on May 29th and 30th offers "Songs of Home and of Exile."  What is universal about the idea of “home” in Finland, Armenia, Hawaii, Australia, Sudan  . . . .? 

Like our program on Marriage, the answer unfolds that people's understanding of 'home' can be quite different, and can change with time.The program has sub-themes: Home is a Place, Home is People, Home is Oppressive, Leaving Home, Call to Return Home, etc. We could have covered all those themes with an all-American or an all-Czech program, but it has been so much more interesting to find these themes being addressed from 20 different cultures. We sing in 9 languages (all translated for you), and the styles are all over the place. The kind of tour de force this group is uniquely good at. It's a hoot!   

What are you listening to at home these days?

I've been circling back on some old friends on my phono player, pieces that I'll just never get to hear live, Rubbra's 8th Symphomy, Piston's 2nd, Lennox Berkeley. I recently marvelled afresh at Joshua Rifkins' understated but brilliant instrumentations for Judy Collins' album 'Wildflowers', using a seemingly mismatched group of instruments. Diana Krall's 'Live in Rio' - great jazz quartet work and bossa nova orchestra. Roots singer Mississippi John Hurt.

What are you reading?

 Orhan's Inheritance - a young Turkish man returns to his village "where time and progress are long-lost relatives who occasionally send a postcard", beginning a journey of confronting his family's involvement in the Armemian genocide. The setting is the region from where comes the Armenian piece that Madrigalia is singing. 

 The Invention of Wings- the relationship between a well-to-do Charleston girl and the slave her father legally obligates her to own. Based on the life of Sarah Grimké, who became a pivotal early abolitionist and feminist. 

Are you going to give yourself a summer break after your next concert?  

Yeah, a couple days I guess. But its gardening season, so I've already been out in the dirt with Marjorie (editor's note: his wife) a lot.


Cary Ratcliff composes in choral, orchestral, chamber music, art song and operatic genres. His numerous choral works range from the oratorio "Ode to Common Things" (on poems of Pablo Neruda), to the unorthodox "Requiem: Eric Wolterstorff in memoriam," to works for children's choruses. Other works include his operas "Eleni" and "Ellis Island," Moon Tiger Songs, Cello Sonata, and his prize-winning Viola Concerto. He has also composed orchestral soundtracks for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. He is keyboardist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and is Music Director & Composer-in-Residence at Bethany Presbyterian Church. He holds a doctorate in Composition from Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Joseph Schwantner and Christopher Rouse, and also accompanied in the voice studio of Jan DeGaetani. He has subsequently taught choral arranging and orchestration courses at Eastman, and conducted dozens of programs with the Musica Nova Ensemble and Graduate Chamber Orchestra.


Hear Madrigalia sing of home May 29 & 30, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. at the Baptist Temple, 1101 Clover St. at Highland, Rochester, NY.