Tuesday, April 15, 2014
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Cary John Franklin composes for students
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Red Wing High School was one of three selected to participate in the composer in residence program sponsored by VocalEssence. As a result noted Minnesota composer Cary John Franklin has spent three years working with the group. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
This Sunday three Minnesota high school choirs will fan out across the stage at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis to sing compositions written just for them. The concert is the culmination of a three-year composer in residence program featuring Cary John Franklin, who's become a creative force in the state's classical music scene.

Red Wing, Minn. — The Red Wing High School Choir gathers in its music room for one of the final rehearsals before the orchestra hall recital. Cary John Franklin is spending the morning with the students.

The group of 60 some upperclassmen spread across risers and blue plastic chairs as the practice session clips along. While Franklin's there primarily to observe his work being performed, he's not afraid to jump in or offer up some final words of direction. That's especially true in the case of his newly completed four part Gloria.

"It's like this idea of taffy or anything that kind of stretches," Franklin tells the choir. "All of the sudden you expect you're going to breathe there. The second time I want the audience to be surprised to that."

Franklin's clearly excited. He gestures elaborately with his hands as he explains his vision for the piece. The students pay careful attention, penciling notes on their sheet music. They've been through this process many times before. Probably none more so than for the song Wild Geese.

Franklin set a Mary Oliver poem to music he composed for the Red Wing choir. They performed it for the first time in 2003 and will bring it out again during this weekend's performance.

Senior Erin Droogsma says before meeting Franklin she had a hard time thinking of composers as real people.

"It's very cool cause you would talk about him - Cary John Franklin - like he's up on a pedestal and all of the sudden he came and it was like, 'You have written this song for my choir - you have written this specifically for us! And you're coming and telling us what the poem is supposed to be and just how we should interpret it and how we should do everything and it just makes the song perfect,'" says Doogsma.

In addition to working in Red Wing, Franklin's residency also includes Minnetonka High School and Como Park High School. The three-year venture was sponsored by the Minneapolis choral group VocalEssence which will lend its chorus and orchestra to the weekend event.

Mikkel Gardner's the choral director at Red Wing High School. He says it's been a tumultuous three years. There was a teacher's strike and major budget problems threatened the music program repeatedly. Both Franklin and VocalEssence lobbied hard to maintain the program and now Gardner sees it as the pinnacle of his 18-year career. Gardner says he's now hyper aware of the role of the composer. Plus he's developed a new favorite.

"When I reference works now I generally reference them by their composers name rather than say we are going to Hallelujah," says Gardner. "The problem is at the end of the year we are going to sing the Franklin, followed by the Franklin, followed by the Franklin, and finally, let's do two more Franklins. It really has let kids know that composers are normal people."

Cary John Franklin says it's a message he hopes the students picked up.

"If anything has come out of this its there's no need to be afraid of a composer," says Franklin. "You can talk to a composer. You can talk to an artist. Artists like to talk. They are not some strange creatures."

Sunday's concert at Orchestra Hall marks the end of the residency program. Franklin and Vocalessence hope to do it again in the coming years with other high school music programs. Red Wing Choral Director Mikkel Gardner says he won't be surprised if some his students now go on to become composers in their own right.

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