Martha Sullivan’s music has been praised as “vibrant” and “a singer’s favorite.” “Longed-for Rain,” her first commissioned composition for Ars Musica, will be performed on June 8 as a world premiere, part of Stravinsky & Bruckner: A Masterworks Concert. Ms. Sullivan sought to create a work that would express a clear connection to Ars Musica and to this particular program of great sacred music.
Her works are primarily for the human voice as she trained extensively in vocal writing, having studied opera performance at Boston University, following completion of her B.A in music from Yale. She is a professional singer and composer in the New York music community. Her work has been heard as far away as Tokyo and Zürich, and closer to New Jersey in New York’s Carnegie Hall, winning prizes such as the Dale Warland Singers’ Choral Ventures commissioning competition and the Sorel Medallion for Women Composers (bronze). Several other choral groups around the United States, such as Voices of Ascension, the Gregg Smith Singers, and the Esoterics (Seattle), have performed her pieces and she has garnered multiple commissions and awards.
Ms Sullivan wanted the text for her commissioned piece to evoke sacred poetry, match the other pieces on the program, and honor the strong links Ars Musica has with the Armenian community. She contacted James Najarian, an old friend from college, now an English professor at Boston College. Having always admired his writing, she asked whether he had anything that read like a psalm. He sent his poem “Longed-for Rain,” rich with images of dry desert and eventual rain, and the healing of the blind. The language is direct and modern, but the choice of biblical images ranging from Isaiah’s prophecies to Jesus’ healings connects the text to those of Stravinsky’s psalms and Bruckner’s mass.
Scoring is for SATB chorus, solo quartet, low strings, winds, piano, percussion, and a portion of the full ensemble that is used in Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and the Bruckner Mass No. 2 in E minor (both on the June 8 program). Ms. Sullivan views her piece as a bridge between these two works. She explains: “Because the text evokes early religious writings, it suggests vocal music. This piece therefore uses time-proven choral techniques such as antiphonal singing (call and response between soloists and choir), chant-like melodies, and imitative textures, all of which occur in sacred music from the time of Palestrina to our own.”
Ms. Sullivan is currently pursuing her PhD in music composition at Rutgers and regards sneaking off to New Brunswick a few times a week as a welcome change of focus. It is “where composing is something I am actually supposed to be doing, as opposed to something I feel guilty for stealing time to do.” She praises the Music Department at Rutgers as “very welcoming and generous,” and loves being immersed in music history, theory, and analysis and studying with her primary teacher, Charles Fussell, adding, “The academic work is helping me think more clearly about structure in music, about what gives a piece of music shape and direction. So I am becoming a better composer.” She considers composing “something to pursue in the long term: I hope to be like Elliott Carter and keep composing up to the day I die. At age 103.”