This month marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s historic landing on the moon, and arts organizations in Southern California are paying tribute. Up in Pasadena, Apollo 11—the Immersive Live Show, is offering a fully staged musical with video projections in a specially constructed lunar dome, a $5 million structure seating 1600 set up—appropriately for Pasadena—in the Rose Bowl parking lot.
Closer to home, at Escondido’s California Center for the Arts, a consortium of north county performing ensembles will mark this 50th anniversary by performing the world premiere of Stephen Sturk’s oratorio One Small Step on July 20, 2019, at 7:00 p.m.Celebrating the moon landing anniversary with a choral extravaganza is the brainchild of Joe Stanford, the august dean of north county choral conductors. “In a conversation last year with the English composer Alec Roth, he reminded me that 2019 would mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing,” explained Stanford. “But since he is not American, it set off in my mind to search for an American composer to tackle this musical challenge.”
Stanford decided on Stephen Sturk, a highly respected San Diego based composer of sacred choral music. To write their libretto, this duo happily snared Charles Anthony Silvestri, best known for writing lyrics for leading choral composers such as Eric Whitacre and Ola Gjeilo.
“In a conference call to Tony [Silverstri] we explained that wewanted some dramatic elements in the oratorio, so in addition to the chorus, we decided on two vocal soloists, a mezzo-soprano who would represent the moon—she is called Luna—and a baritone who would be the generic astronaut,” said Sturk. “Even the audience will have a special part, creating noise at the point of blast off.” The oratorio also contains two short videos of former President John F. Kennedy speaking about undertaking the challenge of a moon landing.
Like most oratorios, the heart of this composition is written for choir and orchestra, with the chorus taking on several roles. “Sometimes, the choir acts like a typical Greek chorus, commenting on the event, but in the fifth movement, the chorus becomes the people in Houston’s Mission Control, expressing the nervous excitement and apprehension of the mission’s scientists and engineers,” said Sturk.
As a composer whose compositions and commissions have typically been in the field of sacred music, Sturk admitted that he found writing a secular oratorio a challenge.
“Silvestri picked up on my concern, so he wrote the sixth movement as a “Celestial Hymn” in which I could use my customary musical vocabulary.”
In May, when Sturk completed the score, Stanford began rehearsing the music. “The Escondido Center Arts Chorale is the heart of the work’s choir, but since I wanted at least 100 voices for this new piece, I have assembled a festival choir with singers drawn from 22 contributing groups—churches and community colleges in the area. And each organization will be acknowledged in the program,” he added. The oratorio’s vocal tapestry also includes the Center Children’s Chorus.
Concerning Sturk’s musical style in the oratorio, Stanford praised its strong connection to the text and sensitivity to the emotions in the text. “This is traditional choral music, not overtly Romantic but certainly not 12-tone,” he noted. Sturk added that he was completely comfortable with the designation of his style as eclectic.
One Small Step will be presented in the Concert Hall of the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 North Escondido Boulevard, Escondido, on July 20, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. The new oratorio will be paired with selections of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation. The concert features conductors John LoPiccolo and Joe Stanford, mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano, and baritone Michael Sokol.