Roanoke Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops features premiere from Salem composer

Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 12:00 am

By Mike Allen 981-3236

Roanoke Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Holiday Pops concerts will feature a premiere from a Salem composer.Though “Now & Forever” is 24-year-old Kirsti Davidson’s first composition created for an orchestra, it’s not her first piece of music written for Roanoke audiences. She’s composed choral scores for the Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir for many years. She’s been assisting her mother, choir founder and director Kim Davidson, since she was a teenager.

Count RSO conductor and music director David Wiley as one of her fans. “I have heard several exceptional choral compositions by Kirsti over the years,” he wrote in an email. “Knowing her skill and inventiveness, I asked Kirsti earlier this year if she had ever considered writing a festive work for large symphony and chorus, and several weeks later, she excitedly sent me a rough of the beautiful piece we will premiere.”

Kirsti Davidson wrote about how grateful she was for the opportunity Wiley gave her and the guidance he provided: “I was really never expecting that I would ever be able to compose something that would actually be performed by so many wonderful musicians — a full, real-life orchestra and over 200 voice chorus — it is just incredible.”

In video game culture, progressing to the next tier of skill is known as “leveling up,” and that’s what Davidson had to do to write her piece for RSO.

“There are a lot more parts to consider and write for when you are working towards a full symphonic sound that will utilize the beauty of so many unique instruments all working together,” she wrote.

“This made the composing process much more involved than anything I’ve written for choir before. A choir usually sings in 3 or 4 parts — the orchestra has over 30 different instrument parts that can all be going on at the same time!”

Though Kirsti, the younger of two children, grew up singing in the children’s choir, she hadn’t originally planned to spend her teens and 20s as her mother’s assistant. At 15, she developed mast cell activation syndrome, a chronic illness that affects the entire body, causing symptoms akin to extreme allergic reactions.

“She was bedbound for nearly two years and has figured out enough helpful strategies that she can sit up and do things in a modified version,” Kim Davidson wrote. “We have been to about 35 specialists in several states and although there have been many different diagnoses, there is no consensus of a clear diagnosis or help.”

“With my illness I am usually very limited with the amount of activity I can do in a day. I often have episodes that feel like a temporary paralysis of my legs and arms that last anywhere from an hour to several weeks,” Kirsti Davidson wrote.

Because of her condition, working on the new composition was physically difficult. “Even if I was completely exhausted and had been unable to move for hours before — as soon as I could move my fingers and hands … I would start working on it again with my laptop in my lap, sitting in my recliner chair. I hardly did anything else, often writing into the night, forgetting to eat, and even dreaming of the music.”

It took more than 300 hours, but the labor was worth it, she said. She had been having ideas for an orchestra composition for months before Wiley extended his invitation, and now those ideas have come to full fruition. The composition’s theme is both religious and deeply personal, she wrote. “It’s such a simple thing, and it is such an important thing. The words, ‘Now and forever God is near to me.’ That is the truth 100% as far as I see it. God is always there. And that is the main anthem of this song.”

“Once again, she exceeded my high expectations,” Wiley wrote.

The Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir will join the Roanoke Symphony Chorus and members of Virginia Tech’s choirs for the Holiday Pops performance in Salem. Philadelphia-based soprano Joy Lynn Jacobs will perform as soloist for all the upcoming Holiday Pops shows.

The program also features the premiere of a composition from Virginia Tech director of choral activities Dwight Bigler and one from Wiley himself, which he described as “a new symphony arrangement I did of the Ukrainian Bell Carol.” Naturally, there are also a number of Christmas season favorites, such as “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “The First Noel,” music from “The Nutcracker” ballet and the theme from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”