How Improv Helps You Handle Handel - Grinnell's Rommereim On Composing And Conducting

Apr 15, 2019

John Rommereim, Blanche Johnson Professor of Music at Grinnell College.
Credit johnrommereim.com
 

It's good to have many skills, but even better when they synergize. At Grinnell College, John Rommereim conducts choirs, writes music, teaches composition and theory, plays keyboards, and researches musicology. The strands are varied but they weave together into something more than their sum. What connects them, Rommereim told me, is imagination. He explains in this short interview: 

I asked the performers, in between the phrases, when they breathe, to breathe in a sense of grace ('amara' means grace). I wanted the piece to offer some comfort, to actually be a help to the performers - John Rommereim

Much of the "imagining of sound into being" he describes takes place before a performance, but some of it happens in the moment. He gives the example of a Baroque chorus, which is supported by a keyboardist playing from a written-out bass line. These bass notes come with numerals indicating what chords to play but leaving the details to the player, who can vary them as needed.

Rommereim goes further in his choral work Amara. While the vocal parts are composed, the entire saxophone solo is improvised.  Amara means "grace" in the West African language Igbo, and Rommereim says he "asked the performers, in between the phrases, when they breathe, to breathe in a sense of grace. I wanted the piece to offer some comfort, to actually be a help to the performers.” Here's a performance featuring saxophonist Dave Camwell, formerly of Simpson College in Indianola:

Baroque choral music figures in an IPR broadcast next Sunday afternoon. Rommereim recently took the Grinnell Singers on a concert tour featuring an early masterpiece of Handel, his thrilling Dixit Dominus, and a late masterpiece of Bach, his radiant Mass in A Major. With the chorus was a period-instrument band from Minnesota, the Lyra Baroque Orchestra, and four notable vocalists -  soprano Maria Jette, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, tenor Roy Heilman and baritone Thomas Meglioraza. The home concert was recorded and we'll broadcast it on Sunday, April 21, starting at 2 p.m. The performances are more than just polished and refined. They are enlivened by the kind of creative sympathy that's fostered by years of composing music - and of imagining it in the moment.