The man behind the music
Spiritual quest, live choral music and a Los Angeles film premiere come together Nov. 2 in a Visions and Voices event that pays tribute to a USC musical giant: Morten Lauridsen, winner of the 2007 National Medal of Arts and the most frequently performed American choral composer alive.
The program, which begins at 7 p.m. in Bovard Auditorium, is built around Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, a 74-minute film that layers misty vistas of the San Juan Islands (the lifelong source of Lauridsen’s inspiration) over soul-stirring passages of his choral works.
Early in the documentary, Lauridsen tells of his first encounter at the age of 9 with tiny Waldron Island, where he was visiting his aunt and uncle.
“I found complete freedom on this island,” the Washington native recalled. “I just fell so deeply in love with this place. … So I had to come back.”
In 1975, he moved into an old general store perched on a bluff — arriving with some hand tools, a sleeping bag and a $50 spinet piano.
“On that piano, I finished ‘O Magnum Mysterium,’ ” Lauridsen said, referring to his 1994 choral masterpiece.
Again and again, filmmaker Michael Stillwater lingers on Lauridsen’s gentle, craggy face as the composer gazes upon the serene seascape and sublime waves from his Lux Aeterna, Mid-Winter Songs and Madrigali flood the senses. Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout praised the film as a “a heartening rarity, a thoroughly intelligent classical-music program that strikes an appropriate balance between words and music.” Stillwater’s calm assurance is all the more surprising, given that Shining Night is his filmmaking debut. A singer-composer specializing in healing and spiritual music primarily for palliative care, he is completely self-taught as documentarian. Co-produced with his wife, Doris Laesser Stillwater, a psychologist, Shining Night has been presented at eight film festivals to date, winning prizes at three — including best documentary at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. It premiered in February at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs.
That the Los Angeles premiere will take place at USC “was just a meant-to-be kind of thing,” said Stillwater, who will travel from his home in the Swiss Alps to participate in the event. “It had to happen at USC — as a tribute to Morten for his many years of teaching there.” Lauridsen, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Waldron Island, studied composition at USC and has been on the USC Thornton School of Music faculty since 1967.
Friday’s event begins with a performance of two poems set to music by Lauridsen. Singers from the Woodland Hills-based Angeles Choir perform “Dirait-on” from Les Chansons des Roses, the composer’s 1993 setting of five poems by Rainer Maria Rilke; and “Sure on This Shining Night,” from Lauridsen’s 2005 Nocturnes. The film borrows its name from the latter poem, penned in 1934 by James Agee. After the screening, Lauridsen and Stillwater will engage in a conversation hosted by poet, musicologist and USC faculty member Dana Gioia.
Gioia, the USC Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture, was personally connected with Shining Night, making an appearance 15 minutes into the documentary.
“Morten Lauridsen … is one of the few composers who, I have conviction, will be performed 100, 200 years from now,” Gioia asserted. “His music has a kind of authority as well as beauty. He seems to recapitulate the entire history of Western choral music in his compositions, which still seem fresh and contemporary. He is — I think there is no other word for it — a genius.”
The venue has been moved from the Ray Stark Family Theatre to Bovard Auditorium to accommodate for a bigger crowd.
Free tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at the event check-in beginning at 5:30 p.m. Doors will open at 6 p.m. For more information, please call (213) 740-2584.