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Rethinking the Closer

At a concert by the Flower Mound High School Jaguar Chorale about a year ago, conductor Mark Rohwer chose to conclude the program with Tim Takach’s piece Goodbye, Then. The text—about parting with a friend and not knowing when you’ll see them again—had a tremendously moving effect on the audience and the ensemble. The high school seniors, singing their last concert with the chorale, were visibly weepy.


Though it was the last piece, Goodbye, Then was in no way a traditional “closer.” No fast-paced race to the finish; no huge crescendo to the final chord. Instead, as the final notes faded away, there was a silence, then a standing ovation. As a last piece, it was incredibly effective.


Why, then, do so many of us stubbornly cling to the idea that we must have a fast-paced “closer” to conclude every program? I’m certainly not opposed to fast-paced music; in the choral compositions being written today, I’d argue that there is a need for even more pieces that are fast-paced and meaningful, pieces that move us both rhythmically and emotionally. But good programming sends the listener on an emotional journey, and not all journeys start with a bang, nor conclude with one.


Sometimes the most effective ending to a concert is a piece that makes you sigh in acknowledgement, in recognition, at peace. On Ryan Guth’s choral podcast “Find Your Forte,” he asks each conductor he interviews what they’d choose to program on the final concert of their life. Listening to these interviews, I’m still waiting for anyone to name a traditional “closer.” Several have named the St. Matthew Passion or Mass in B Minor. Contemplating the end of one’s own life, no one programs a rousing, quick finish.


Generally speaking, unless a composer is commissioned to write an “opener” or “closer," she won’t think of a piece in these terms, either. Rather than asking herself how to send the audience out on a necessarily jubilant note every time, she’ll wonder how the music should best conclude based on the text. She’ll consider the emotional map that each particular piece presents and compose accordingly.


In a multi-movement work, too, the concluding movement will be fast only if it serves the overall arc of that composition. I just finished composing a 35-minute, eight-movement piece. The piece, a secular meditation on mortality, ends as gently as possible, with chords that mimic the intake and release of breathing. I want the audience to ease into these chords; to sync their breathing with the choir’s; and, finally, to continue breathing into that meditative stillness even after the piece has stopped.


If multi-movement, extended works don’t always conclude with something fast-paced and flashy, why should every choral program? Conductors putting together a program and composers writing a multi-movement piece ask themselves many of the same questions. We all think about the shape that a particular musical journey will take. We should also be asking, every time: How have our listeners changed at the end of this concert? How have they changed by the end of the final piece? How can we send them out in a different or better emotional place than they came to us?


In a concert centered around the theme of “Home,” for example, what if listeners were sent off not with whatever piece is the quickest and most attention-grabbing, but with something tender and heartfelt—a piece that feels like returning home?


Sometimes, yes, a traditional “closer”—fast, loud, rousing—is the best choice to conclude a concert. But I wish that when we chose pieces for the start and conclusion of a program, we’d pick them not for convention’s sake, but because those pieces were the very best choices for that program’s unique emotional path.


In the final concert of the school year for Flower Mound High School’s choirs, Mark Rohwer programmed for the musicians as much as for the listeners, embracing the emotions and uncertainty of high school seniors and their family members—What will change? When will we meet again?—rather than shying away from these difficult feelings. It was just as impactful, if not more so, than any traditional choice for a closing piece would have been. 

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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 2016.

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