Creators wade into water imagery for Pacific Chorale's 'The Shore'

Creators wade into water imagery for Pacific Chorale's 'The Shore'
David St. John, right, and Frank Ticheli collaborated on a new piece for the Pacific Chorale at USC. They are photographed behind a statue of Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When David St. John makes his annual pilgrimage to Moonstone Beach, he looks at the crashing tide and recalls his incarnations from years past.

Sometimes, he envisions the child who splashed with wonder in the tide pools, or the teenager who piled in the car with friends for surfing trips. Other times, he sees the middle-aged poet who used the waves as a recurring backdrop. At different phases of his life, the ocean has signified adventure, mortality or hard-earned wisdom; he's sure that other epiphanies will come.


So when St. John got the call to write lyrics for "The Shore," the Pacific Chorale's new piece that will premiere Saturday, he approached the task not as an expert on the subject but as one acutely aware that he's only skimmed the surface.

"I never feel like I've figured it out," said the USC professor and National Book Award nominee. "There's always a whole new set of waves about to break toward you. It's a mistake to think you know what's coming at you."

"The Shore," which features music by his USC colleague Frank Ticheli, centers on metaphors of water; in addition to Moonstone, described as a haven with "milky moons / awash in the tides," the 30-minute piece includes a Venetian scene in which a black gondola symbolizes death. The closing lines take a metaphysical leap, as the narrator vows to stand by the waves "until the sea is dead."

While St. John, who based many lyrics on his already published poems, and Ticheli, a Louisiana native, had little trouble crafting an ocean-themed work, the genesis for "The Shore" began in the administrative offices above them. Three years ago, with artistic director John Alexander approaching his 40th anniversary with the Pacific Chorale, Newport Beach philanthropists Phillip and Mary Lyons gave him a monetary gift to commission a work of his choice.

Alexander, a lover of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony," sought a similar piece that felt modern and American. After he contacted Ticheli, the Pacific Symphony's composer-in-residence from 1991 to 1998, the composer enlisted St. John, and the partners finished their work last fall.

It proved to be a natural pairing, as well as a case of life imitating curriculum: For the last decade, Ticheli and St. John have co-taught a graduate class on collaboration between writers and composers. "The Shore," however, marked the first time they had actually co-written a piece.

Like St. John, Ticheli tapped into a childhood memory at the beach: The first section, which features scales that rise and fall repeatedly, mimicked the movement of the sand crabs he used to watch scuttling by the tide. When the composer paused and looked at his sheet music, he realized that the arching notes even had the visual look of crests.

"It just sort of happened by accident," Ticheli said. "I was trying to do these cascades of scales that fall in tight imitation with one another. So I had this whole series of scales falling, and before I knew it, it started painting that image of waves."

At the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday, "The Shore" will conclude a program of nature-themed works, which include Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" and Howard Hanson's "Streams in the Desert." The program, titled "The Moon, the Sea and the Stars," features the Pacific Symphony alongside the chorale.

While the piece marks Ticheli's first composition for choir and orchestra, his relationship with Alexander goes back a decade and a half. In the late 1990s, the chorale commissioned "There Will Be Rest," Ticheli's first vocal piece, and Ticheli has written additional works for Alexander's group and others since.

Saturday's premiere of "The Shore" will offer closure in a way: The Pacific Chorale will record it to round out a CD of all of Ticheli's choral works, to be released in the coming months on the Delos label.

"I think orchestras and choirs are going to love this piece and that it's going to be part of the standard repertoire," Alexander said. "That's what makes you the happiest — when you get a piece so that it doesn't die on the first hearing."