73. Interviews – Composer Kermit Poling on String Quartet No. 1 “Within the Orb of Glories Wearing”
The inaugural Sugarmill Music Festival is quickly approaching! This weekend—May 13, 14, and 15—join us at the Rosalie Sugarmill just south of Alexandria for three days of exquisite chamber music! One of the highlights of the 2016 festival is the West Edge String Quartet’s performance of Kermit Poling’s String Quartet No. 1 Within the Orb of Glories Wearing as part of the festival’s Saturday evening session. Poling—a composer, conductor, and violinist based in Shreveport—has led the West Edge String Quartet for many years. Among his compositions, Poling has written three string quartets, a new symphony, and this June will premiere a new concerto written for guitarist John De Chiaro. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Poling about Within the Orb of Glories Wearing, and he gave me several enlightening responses which I share here.
What was your inspiration for this quartet? Within the Orb of Glories Wearing was commissioned jointly by the Shreveport Summer Music Festival and St. John Berchmans Cathedral in Shreveport. The Shreveport Festival String Quartet gave the premiere on All Saints’ Day (November 1) of 2008. It was the first of an ongoing series of pieces highlighting the saints.
Who are the saints the movements depict? Why did you choose these saints and not others? The saints loosely depicted are St. Paul, St. Cecilia, St. Hildegard von Bingen, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Joseph Thamby, and St. John Berchmans. They were selected by Fr. Peter Mangum, the pastor of St. John Berchmans. The idea was to balance the piece with both well-known and lesser-known saints.
Are there particular melodies, motives, or themes we should be listening for? Are any themes directly inspired by the saints? Each movement is inspired by the life of a particular saint, but none are specifically programmatic. That being said, however, there are a few specific musical ideas used in reference to the saints being depicted. For example, St. Hildegard’s movement is based upon one of her own melodies, “O frondens virga.” In Thamby’s movement, the viola is used like the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument. Kolbe’s movement is decidedly dissonant which reflects Kolbe's time in Auschwitz; it also makes use of a Polish hymn tune. The last movement includes a loose reference to “When The Saints Go Marching In”—a request by Lenny Kacenjar of the Festival String Quartet.
How many times has this quartet been performed? Have there been any special performances you would like to mention? This quartet has easily been performed over fifty times by the Festival String Quartet over the years—probably with some movements excerpted even more frequently. A DVD has just been released of the piece as performed by the Festival String Quartet, and it includes interesting insights into each saint as provided by Fr. Mangum. We are expecting this video to be shown on an international cable network. The piece has also been performed by the West Edge String Quartet in various places. We are hoping to release a CD recording soon.
You have also created an orchestral version of this quartet. Did you make any substantial changes for the orchestral version, or is it basically the same piece with additional players? A lot of the music is the same but I did make some changes more befitting of a chamber orchestra.
Are there connections between this quartet and your other two string quartets? The other two quartets are a continuation of the saint series, although the commissions and premieres came from different places. The Second Quartet Along These Footsteps to Paradise is a bit more transcendent in feel—to me anyway—and the Third Quartet Visions of the Virgin focuses on the Virgin Mary.
Do you see yourself writing additional string quartets in the future? Yes, as there are additional commissions pending. And, there are a lot of saints!
Is there anything else you would like to say about this piece? Even though the histories of the various saints are fascinating, it is not necessary to be completely familiar with them to enjoy this piece. It really is more like a suite of contrasting movements that gradually builds to a finish.
Don’t miss Saturday’s performance of Within the Orb of Glories Wearing by Shreveport’s own Kermit Poling! In fact, don’t miss a minute of the Sugarmill Music Festival. It will be an unforgettable weekend of great classical music! The full concert schedule is posted online at the Sugarmill Music Festival website where festival passes may also be purchased. Check back Wednesday for my interview with another composer whose music will be performed at this weekend’s festival—Samuel Stokes of Natchitoches!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across Central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson will remain active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. Jackson has in fact written program notes for many of Central Louisiana’s key music presenters, including the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, Arts Council of Central Louisiana, and Northwestern State University. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. Jackson has followed classical music around the world, including trips to Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and the BachFest Leipzig in Germany. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His four-movement Suite for solo guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 and has also been aired on public radio. In fall 2016, Jackson will begin graduate studies at the University of Louisville with the ultimate goal of earning his doctorate in musicology. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.