AGO Houston 2016 Distinguished Composer

By Dr. Michael Remson, Deputy Director, New Music Committee, AGO Houston 2016

It is with enormous pleasure that the New Music Committee for the AGO 2016 National Convention in Houston was able to present this year’s Distinguished Composer award to David Ashley White, and commission him for an exciting new work that will premiere at the convention: “With A Shining Like the Sun”.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing David for over twenty years, both as a student, as a fellow teacher and as a member of Houston’s increasingly vibrant arts community, and it is my pleasure to introduce him to those of you who may not yet know him or may know of him only by reputation. I also had the pleasure of chatting with him about his new work and can offer a “sneak preview” in anticipation of next June’s convention and world premiere.

David Ashley White is a seventh-generation (!) Texan. He grew up in South Texas, initially in San Antonio, Harlingen and Brownsville. It was after his family relocated to Alice where his musical talents first flourished as a young oboist. In college, he continued performing, earning a BM in oboe performance from the University of Houston. He then went on to perform in the United States Air Force Band Program, first in South Carolina and later in Virginia. He also served as principal oboe in the Charleston Symphony and Augusta Opera Orchestra. After his Air Force service, he was recruited back to the University of Houston by Professor Michael Horvit and would earn an MM in composition from UH before going to UT Austin to earn his DMA in composition.

Even before he finished his doctorate, White returned to the University of Houston as a faculty member. Starting as a lecturer, his is the classic university success story, first earning tenure, then full professorship and finally being appointed Director of the newly-christened Moores School of Music in 1999. Awarded the Margaret M. Alkek & Margaret Alkek Williams Endowed Chair of the Moores School of Music, Dr. White served the University of Houston with distinction until he handed over the reins of the Moores School in the summer of 2014. Today, he remains on the composition faculty at UH and is enjoying the accolades of a distinguished career. He was recently appointed composer-in-residence at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, his home parish, in Houston. In April 2015, he received the Esther Farfel Award for career excellence from the University of Houston, the highest honor that the university bestows. In July 2015, he was awarded the Raabe Prize for Excellence in Sacred Composition in recognition of his work “Spirit Moving over Chaos”. As a mayoral appointee, he recently completed two terms on the board of the Houston Arts Alliance.

As a composer, White’s compositions, both sacred and secular, have been widely performed and published. He has received dozens of commissions from performing organizations, schools and universities, churches, and individual performers. His vocal music can be found recorded on the Zephyr label (St. Paul’s Choir, Houston and Houston Chamber Choir), on Gothic (Palmer Church Choir, Houston), and on Albany (University of Houston Moores School of Music faculty and students). Other works, both vocal and instrumental, can be found on another thirty-nine commercial recordings. His hymns can also be found in several denominational books, including the Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal (1982) and its supplement: Wonder, Love and Praise; The United Methodist Hymnal and its supplement: The Faith We Sing; the United Church of Christ in Japan; Great Britain’s Worship Songs Ancient and Modern; and in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013). In addition, Selah Publishing Company (Pittsburgh PA), one of his primary publisher, has published four volumes of his hymns, most recently in I’ll Sing and Joyful Be (2014). Other publishers include E.C. Schirmer (Framington MA), Paraclete Press (Orleans MA), Alliance Music (Houston, TX), Augsburg Fortress (Minneapolis MN), Concordia Publishing (St. Louis), and Alfred Publishing (Van Nuys CA).

In his newly commissioned work, “With A Shining Like the Sun”, White clearly wanted to make a connection between this commission and his last AGO national convention commission in 1988 (also held in Houston). “The idea of using a hymn setting as an integral part of this composition is consistent with the process I used for my first AGO commission” he told me. This new work “has, as its genesis, my hymn tune, “Abbess of Whitby”, with words by Richard Leach, a fine writer with whom I’ve collaborated on many projects over the years.” (In 1988, Dr. White based his commissioned work on another one of his hymn tunes “Hammerling”, on Fred Pratt Green’s well-known text.)

That, however, is where the similarities end. In his 1988 commission, White featured the hymn tune throughout. For this new work, however, White told me: “I intended for ‘Abbess of Whitby’ to be included only at the conclusion of the anthem, serving as the summation of the… materials in the body of the piece. In order to maintain textual continuity throughout, I asked Richard to return to the sources that he used when creating his hymn text — passages from Psalms 72 and 85 and from Isaiah and Corinthians. From this material he produced a wonderful ‘libretto,’ one that makes the words of his hymn even more effective.”

As part of the New Music Committee for AGO Houston 2016, a central philosophy of our work that guided the selection of all of the commissioned composers was the desire that these works should have “legs”, or a vibrant life beyond the convention. This is a philosophy White embraced whole-heartedly, telling me: “I believe that a piece commissioned for the AGO convention should have a chance for life after its premiere, and for that reason, when planning this project, I did not aim to compose overly difficult music, especially in terms of the vocal parts. That is not to say that there are not musical challenges, but I nevertheless aimed for a certain kind of accessibility.” For those of you who know and admire David Ashley White, I can tell you that the piece is very much like he is: charming, approachable, possessed of a certain sparkle, and most of all, deeply rooted in its faith. I hope those of you attending the convention will join me on Monday, June 20, 2016 at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston for what will surely be a highlight of this year’s convention.