For Fresno’s Soli Deo Gloria, visions of Christmas and the joys of fatherhood
Soli Deo Gloria celebrates the season with “Joyeux Noel,” a concert that includes familiar Christmas carols from England, Scotland, Burgundy France and America. The highlight, however, is the premiere of a new piece by local composer E.J. Hinojosa. He wrote the music and text for “Christmas Visions,” which is set for women’s choir and chamber orchestra.
Pictured above: the score for E.J. Hinojosa’s ‘Christmas Visions.’
Hinojosa, a Fresno Pacific University graduate, is founder of the local “Composers’ Showcase,” a summer event featuring choral music by Fresno composers and musicians. I caught up with him to talk about his newest piece. (And be sure to read all the way to the end for some happy news!)
Q: How did you get the “vision” for “Christmas Visions,” so to speak?
A: I started with Julie (Carter, music director of Soli Deo Gloria). She asked for a work of music that has strength and power, and she commented that so much of the repertoire for women’s chorus focuses on just a handful of themes: romantic love, the beauty of nature, etc. She wanted something with fire and depth—something that embodies feminine themes without being “all butterflies and flowers” (which is how she put it, if I’m remembering correctly). And it needed to be about Christmas. So after lots of thinking, I decided that I’d write a piece in several movements, and that each movement would describe a scene from the Christmas story. That’s why this piece of music is called “Christmas Visions.” Regarding themes, I was drawn right away to the bond between a mother and child. There is a sacredness there, in that relationship, and indescribable depth. This theme is most apparent in movements two and three. The piece also embodies other themes generally associated with the Christmas story: Joy, Fulfilled Promises, and Praise.
Q: How do you describe the musical style of this work?
A: It’s Classical music. Contemporary Classical. I use a lot of harmony that comes from Jazz and Romance-era idioms—I think this has become a hallmark of my style. Some moments feel really “cinematic” to me. A lot of the choral writing features lush harmony and rich chord voicings.
Q: Did you write it on commission for Soli Deo Gloria?
A: I did. Julie and I talked last summer about doing this, but I asked if we could put it off for a year. At that time I was in the early stages of writing “The Compassion,” which received its premiere in April as part of the the Pacific Artist Series, and I really had to devote my creative time to that project. I emailed her the week after that concert and said “I’m ready!” We had lunch a few weeks later and started planning.
Q: Which did you write first: the text or the music?
A: It varies. As an example, I had a few lines set in stone for the first movement, so I went to the piano to try some musical ideas out for those opening lines, and before long I was writing more music than I had words for, so I devised text for those new measures as I went. That can happen a lot when writing choral music; at least it does for me.
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Q: Give us an example of the text (perhaps a stanza) and tell us about it.
A: From Movement II, titled “Intimacy”:
Still as the hanging moon
Calm as the sacred night
Blessed as Heaven
Savoring the closeness
Mother and child
This is the movement that most deeply embodies the maternal theme. “Intimacy” depicts the peaceful moments that follow the harrowing ordeal of childbirth — specifically, in this scene, the mother and child are Mary and Jesus. The text and the music are designed to evoke a feeling of “floating” — it just hangs in the air, still and directionless. The scene is one of calm and contentment.
Q: How did becoming a father influence the way you approached this work? And will your daughter be in the audience?
A: Sadly, Rosie will not be in the audience. She’s an incredible kid who’s full of life and strength, and maybe just a liiittle too animated at this age to attend a concert. So she’ll hang out with Grandma and Grandpa on Friday night (they’ll probably watch “Moana”).
Becoming a father has absolutely been a transformative experience. Erin permitted me to be by her side every moment of Rosie’s delivery (nine hours total), and the experience was exhilarating, exhausting, joyful, and harrowing. And that’s really what life has been like since that day. The experience of parenthood has brought new meaning to the Christmas story for me. The characters of Mary and Joseph have become more relatable, and the human element of the holy family has become more apparent. People talk about God when they talk about the Christmas story, but I think it’s important to remember that, whatever you believe about Jesus, the Christmas story is as much about human nature as it is about the divine. You know, the U.S. government began separating immigrant families in huge numbers during the time I was writing “Christmas Visions.” It had an impact on me, as a parent and as a human being. And I believe it had an impact on this project.
Anything else you’d like to say?
The fourth movement is titled “Proclamation,” and it depicts the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Shepherds. The movement culminates in a grand crescendo and the chorus sings “Peace be on the earth.” This is the climax of “Christmas Visions,” and it’s my most sincere and ardent prayer.
And, speaking of parenthood, I’m really thrilled to tell you that Erin and I are expecting our second child next year in June! How lucky can one guy be?!