In the two short decades since its founding, Soli Deo Gloria’s commissioning division, SDG Music Foundation, has created a body of 37 original works of sacred music from 25 composers of 9 nationalities. Works commissioned by SDG have been performed in concert halls and houses of worship in 8 countries. Major collaborators have included the New York Philharmonic, Westminster Choir College, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, American Boychoir, and Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Through the years, SDG has worked with composers of many faith backgrounds, especially in the Psalms Project, and has inspired new generations through its international Project Uplift, which brings the sacred repertoire to audiences where funding for such performances may be in short supply.
Soli Deo Gloria also sponsors sacred concerts and recordings on CD and DVD, notably four highly regarded DVDs of classical sacred masterworks, conducted by SDG’s Founding Artistic Director, John Nelson: Bach Mass in B Minor, Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Haydn Die Schöpfung (“The Creation”), and Bach St. Matthew Passion.
Based in Chicago, SDG’s concert activities include the popular Chicago Bach Project which, since 2011 has presented a single performance each spring in which Maestro Nelson conducts a top-tier cast of soloists, orchestral musicians and choristers in one of J. S. Bach’s monumental sacred masterworks. The 2015 performance, the St. John Passion, is scheduled for March 20, 2015, at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
“Where are the Bach St. Matthew Passions and the Brahms Requiems and the Handel Messiahs of our time?”
It was this question that spurred a dinner conversation some twenty years ago between Maestro John Nelson, who had just made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, and Dr. Stephen C. Gieser, a young ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. As musically astute people of deep faith, they lamented the twentieth century’s lack of sponsorship for substantial sacred commissions, which musicians of past centuries had once received from both the church and the royal houses of Europe.
As others joined the conversation, they began to envision an organization that would raise support to commission the best contemporary composers to write great sacred choral-orchestral works. They also dreamed of recording the sacred masterpieces, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, as well as sacred works from lesser known composers they felt needed to be brought to the attention of the listening public.
With the encouragement and support of Dr. Richard G. Gieser, a childhood and college friend of John Nelson and Stephen Gieser’s father, Soli Deo Gloria, Inc. (SDG) was formed in 1993 as a nonprofit foundation devoted to the preservation, performance, and promotion of classical sacred music in the biblical tradition. The organization’s name, Soli Deo Gloria, derives from the 17-century Latin phrase meaning “To God alone be the glory,” which Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed on many of his compositions. Stephen Gieser became SDG’s voluntary director and president, and a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. provided funds to build the organizational structure and set up an office.
With Maestro Nelson as Artistic Director, Soli Deo Gloria was poised to emerge from a dinner-table idea to a reality.
"Throughout the centuries, composers have relied on benefactors. Imagine if you were the one who helped support Handel when writing the Messiah. Through SDG, you have a tangible opportunity to encourage composers to write sacred music and impact the classical music world, perhaps for generations."
—John Nelson, Founding Artistic Director
The organization’s first project attracted international attention in 1994 with the North American premiere performance and recording of Miserere by the renowned Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1923-2010). John Nelson conducted the combined choruses of Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their first-ever collaboration. Within weeks of its 1995 release on the Electra/Nonesuch label, the resultant Miserere CD found its way onto Billboard’s top 10 classical chart and sold over 100,000 copies.
Soli Deo Gloria’s worldwide sponsorship of sacred music concerts began in 1996 when the organization cooperated with the General Motors Corporation and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Chorus to sponsor three sold-out performances of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. Translated into the Chinese language by composer Bright Sheng and presented in the Shanghai Center Theater, Brahms’ Requiem was performed in China for the first time in the nation’s history and broadcast nationally on state television.
Soli Deo Gloria’s intention from the beginning was to encompass the three major branches of Judeo-Christian tradition: Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism. Fittingly, SDG’s first commission was a work by Paul Schoenfield, an American Jewish composer living in Israel. The world premiere of his full-length oratorio D’vorah, based on the Hebrew Bible story of the prophetess Deborah as told in the book of Judges, took place in Haifa in March 1998, followed by the U.S. premiere in April 1998, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
SDG’s role as a catalyst and coordinator—bringing together a gifted composer, chorus, orchestra, soloists, conductor, and venue—solidified as the organization began to commission additional works. In 2001-2002, Daylight Divine, a work for children’s chorus that SDG commissioned from Augusta Read Thomas, then Mead-Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had its world premiere at the St. Denis Festival in France with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and Ensemble Orchestral de Paris in 2001, followed by the U.S. premiere in April 2002 by The American Boychoir with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
“Soli Deo Gloria has the opportunity and privilege of commissioning the greatest composers in the world. We want these works to be part of the repertoire forever.”
—Richard G. Gieser, Lifetime Director and Chairman Emeritus of the Board
With five commissions under its belt, SDG was ready to take on its first commission of a requiem. The world premiere, the first performance of Christopher Rouse’s 90-minute Requiem took place in 2007 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and in May 2014, the New York Philharmonic and Westminster Symphonic Choir performed the Requiem to open Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music” Festival
Additional milestone commissions for Soli Deo Gloria have included works by pre-eminent Scottish composer James MacMillan. SDG has a long standing relationship with Mr. MacMillan, including MacMillan’s position as a member of SDG’s Advisory Board. In 2011, SDG brought MacMillan to Chicago for the world premiere of his commissioned choral work Alpha and Omega at Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.
Over the next three years, two further MacMillan commissions took shape with SDG’s help. In its first-ever intercontinental collaboration, SDG partnered with the Hebrides Ensemble, the Edinburgh International Festival, and Kings Place to co-commission MacMillan’s Since it was the Day of Preparation… , based on the New Testament Resurrection narrative and scored for small chamber ensemble and vocalists.
During the spring of 2014, Soli Deo Gloria was involved in a unique confluence of MacMillan premieres, starting with the world premiere his St. Luke Passion, co-commissioned by SDG, which too place on March 15, 2014, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The U.S. premiere followed on April 13, 2014, at Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. Three weeks later, SDG sponsored the U.S. premiere of Since it was the Day of preparation… on Sunday, May 4, 2014, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, with the Bartholomew Chamber Singers and Instrumentalists, conducted by William K. Trafka.
“These Chicago Bach Project performances are now an ongoing Lenten tradition and among the highlights of the classical music season.”
—John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
|Chicago Bach Project 2014: St. Matthew Passion
at Harris Theater, Chicago
In 2011, SDG launched the Chicago Bach Project, designed as a rotating concert cycle in which one of Bach’s three epic sacred masterworks is staged each year during the Easter season. Maestro Nelson has conducted the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, and the Mass in B Minor in Chicago, and returned to the beginning of the cycle April 11, 2014, to conduct the St. Matthew Passion at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
"This body of repertoire encompasses the full range of the sacred journey found in the Psalm texts. These new compositions both honor the traditions of the past and create new sound worlds in which contemporary audiences can experience the Divine."
—Eric A. Johnson, Founding Artistic Director, Cor Cantiamo
The most recent SDG project is the Psalms Project, a collection of fifteen contemporary choral works by the world’s foremost composers, expressing the text of the Hebrew Psalter in the Western Art music tradition for a 21st-century audience.
Made possible by a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Psalms Project has already premiered eleven new works by Peter Bannister, Gavin Bryars, Eriks Ešenvalds, Galina Grigorjeva, Daniel Kellogg, Aaron Jay Kernis, James Lee III, John Metcalf, Roxanna Panufnik, Sven-David Sandström, and Yehudi Wyner. New commissions scheduled for world premieres in November 2014 include Psalm settings by Paul Moravec, Victoria Bond, and Richard Dubugnon, and the fifteenth and final work, by Robert Beaser, will be premiered in early 2015.
“A top flight recording of Bach’s monumental opus … I can think of no better individual to conduct this work than John Nelson; a person of deep faith himself; he infuses every bar with what he believes is the essence of Bach’s spirit … a DVD of exceptional merit.”
—Audiophile Audition review of SDG's St. Matthew Passion DVD
In addition to the original Górecki Miserere CD, Soli Deo Gloria’s sacred-music recordings include the first-ever complete recording of Berlioz’ Te Deum, released in the spring of 2001 on the EMI/Virgin Classics label and nominated for the prestigious Grand Diapason d’Or Prize. In 2006, Soli Deo Gloria branched out into the realm of DVD, filming in partnership with Idéale Audience and medici.tv, John Nelson conducting Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (2006 EMI/Virgin Classics), Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Lisbon (2011/Idéale Audience), Haydn’s Die Schopfung (“The Creation”) in the Netherlands (2011/Idéale Audience), and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in France 2013/Idéale Audience; Blu-ray release 2014).
"To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself."
Since its launch in 1993, Soli Deo Gloria has advanced a veritable cascade of classical sacred music in the biblical tradition and, like Copland, we can't imagine breaking the flow. Will you help us keep the cascade of music—old, new, and as yet unwritten—flowing for decades to come?
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