A Poet's Christmas - Karin Rehnqvist

Dear Friends of Sacred and Profane,

If you've been coming to hear our concerts for a while, you've probably had the chance to hear us sing the music of Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist. I've been a devotee of Karin's for many years, and it's been wonderful to delve into her unique and very personal musical language.

Karin Rehnqvist

Karin Rehnqvist

 I was first introduced to Karin's music in 1995  when I was in Sweden conducting research for my master's thesis on Swedish music for women's choir. People kept telling me about a young composer who had written several works for teenage girls’ and  women's voices that challenged traditional notions of femininity. When I finally  heard her music, I discovered a treasure trove of choral works that seemed to fall into neither of Sweden's standard  categories of choral music. Neither lyrical and tonal, nor experimental and highly challenging, Karin's music was instead characterized by a concentrated minimalism, in which the intensity of the score grew out a focus on repetition of motives often based on Swedish folk idiom, as well as the use of kulning, a  high-pitched call traditionally used by women in the mountainous regions while tending cattle. Here was a fiercely unique composer who embraced her Swedish roots and her intense emotions, and championed strong, working women. I also found in Karin a composer with a fierce sense of humor and a commitment to the right of women and children to express their own full range of emotions, from joy to sadness and from fear to courage. After writing a thesis chapter on her first major choral composition, Davids nimm -- a work for three women soloists and four-part women's choir -- and performing the premiere of the choral version of that work with my women’s choir at UC Santa Cruz, I was hooked.

 A few years later, while looking for a topic for  my doctoral thesis at the University of Iowa, I  considered writing generally about choral  music by Swedish women composers. But in  my research I kept coming back to Karin's  music, which continued to strike me as some  of the most deeply personal, moving, and  significant repertoire I had encountered. I  approached her for permission to focus on  her music in my thesis, and travelled to  Sweden several times to meet with her and  discuss her music and process. In the summer of 1998, I accompanied  her to a rehearsal with Bo Johansson's girls' choir at Adolf Fredrik's Music School in Stockholm, one of Sweden's premier elementary music schools. I was honored to be present for their first rehearsal of Karin's I himmelen (In Heaven's Halls), a powerful work that she wrote for Johanssons' choir to sing during their tour of China that summer. I himmelen has gone on to be Karin's best known and most frequently performed work, sung by choirs around the world. It's the piece I most frequently recommend to fellow conductors who are curious about her music.

My thesis focused on Rehnqvist's use of feminist musical language: her tendency to write music that calls for women to sing in a powerful manner and men to sing in a warm manner, her frequent choice of feminist texts, and other musical characteristics. I often tell people struggling to finish that final leg of their Ph.D --  their dissertation -- to do as I did. Choose a topic that you will be in love with the entire time, even after you finish researching and writing. I feel fortunate to have found the perfect subject for me. I continue to be thrilled by Karin's music: its sound, its message, and the way it embraces much that's important to me personally – my own commitment to feminism and identity as a strong working woman, my love of Swedish culture, and my belief that we live complex lives rich with contradictions.

I have been equally fortunate to find a home with Sacred and Profane, whose board and singers have adopted my commitment to Karin's music. We have sung her music in almost every season since I joined the S&P family in 2004. In addition, it's been exciting to see the international music community champion her works. She has won multiple prestigious awards and commissions, and has recently completed an opera for the Swedish Royal Opera in Stockholm (I can't wait to travel to Sweden to see it when it's produced!).

When Karin was in San Francisco last year to hear the Kronos Quartet play All Those Strings! (a work that they commissioned her to write for string quartet and the Finnish kantele, a zither-like instrument), we spent a day driving around the East Bay with her husband Hans Persson. She showed me a new choral work that she had recently completed. Following several years of hard work on her opera and years of commissions, she wanted to write a piece simply for herself. She had heard the phrase "When I sleep, I dream of peace," spoken by an eleven-year-old Croatian boy during the Yugoslav Wars, and was struck by this articulation of a dream that we all share. She recorded her composition students from several countries speaking the text in their own language, and composed a work using those texts for mixed choir. Here is a composer who has embraced her own Swedish folk music idiom in her music, now incorporating an international palette of musical traditions – Russian, Arabic, African, and others – into a cry for appreciation of the richness of culture and the need to protect those cultures. In an age where many of our world's cultural and artistic treasures are being destroyed, I can think of no more important dream and call to action.

I was deeply honored that Karin asked Sacred and Profane to present the U.S. premiere of When I dream, and we're excited to sing the work for you in our upcoming concerts. Please come and hear this powerful piece! And a heads up:  we are in discussions with Karin about a commission for our 40th anniversary concert in May 2017!