Marybeth Kurnat

Marybeth Kurnat

A chance encounter with another choral composer in southern Ohio set off a chain of events that will result in School of Music alumna Marybeth Kurnat’s new piece debuting at the PREMIER|Project Festival in Irvine, California, June 27-June 30.

Kurnat earned her degree in music education from NIU. She is a vocal and instrumental music educator in the DeKalb school district.

“I learned about the festival while I was chaperoning a trip to the ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) National Conference in Cincinnati, because DeKalb had nine students in the Honor choirs,” Kurnat said. “I was at the Graphite Publishing stand and Dale Trumbore was there. She’s one of my favorite choral composers, and she told me about this festival.”

The blind selection process appealed to Kurnat, who was one of 13 composer fellows from around the world selected for the festival. She was thrilled to be chosen and awed by the backgrounds of the other fellows.

“My first thought was, ‘wow,’ these others have master’s and DMAs in composition,” she said. “I have an undergraduate degree in music education and I teach middle school band for a living. The fact that I got this just on the basis of my own independent study is a huge deal to me. The blind process takes a lot of the bias out. Of the 13 fellows this year, seven of us are women and/or people of color, which is really cool.”

Once chosen for the festival in late March, Marybeth realized she was suddenly under a time crunch to get her new work submitted by the deadline of May 15.

“I thought I’d have until June,” she said. “But I managed to finish it ten days early. A part of the process is that you get five one-on-one mentoring sessions with someone who is well-established in the choral composition community. The first was about three weeks before the piece was due for submission. I had my first session with Derrick Skye on the 24th of April and it was 95% done.”

She said he wasn’t sure what to expect from that first session. She played her nearly finished piece through to Skye on Zoom. “I was watching his face and the piece is about five and a half minutes long and I was thinking, “Please don’t hate it. Please don’t hate it.'”

Spoiler alert: Derrick Skye did not hate it.

“He said, ‘Dude, that was cool. And he compared me to [French composer/pianist Maurice] Ravel, which is maybe the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me in my years of existence.”

Skye said he liked her approach and gave her suggestions on notations that would fit better with the loose, improvisational approach she was taking. Kurnat says the final result is five miniatures that make up the larger piece of music. Her inspiration for the piece is something familiar and beloved by generations of NIU students.

“This summer will be my 11th year teaching Jazz Camp at NIU,” she said. “I come back to campus every year, but I never really spend time on campus just to visit. Once you become an adult some things get away from you and your priorities take you elsewhere. But in the middle of summer last year I went to the Music Building to use a practice room. I practiced for a couple of hours and then I got the urge to just walk around. It was a really nice, unusually forgiving August day. I walked to the lagoon, then I sat down and started writing.”

That work became, “The Lagoon.”

“I’m really proud of this piece of music,” she said. “It’s different from anything I’ve done before in the way that I structured it and put it together. I was worried that these five ideas that go with each of the stanzas were not connecting to each other. I needed more melodic or harmonic content to act as that connective tissue. I focused really hard on that at the end of the process trying to make it sound like it’s all still one arc of the piece.”

Once at the festival, she will have four lab choir rehearsals with Choral Arts Initiative, the group that has been learning all 13 pieces and will perform them at the world premiere concert on June 30.

“Choral Arts Initiative’s whole thing is premiering new choral music,” she said. “They don’t do old-school stuff, or cult classics of the choral repertoire. Their whole artistic purpose is to give voice and agency to new composers who are trying to get their careers off the ground. Of all the groups I perform with, there’s a lot of new stuff that I wish we were doing but aren’t because it’s so easy to come back to the things that you know and are going to work. As somebody trying to get my name on the map, this is a huge deal.”

Marybeth’s fellowship includes four more private mentoring sessions like the one she had on Zoom with Skye, but these will be in-person at the festival. The Choral Arts Initiative will perform “The Lagoon” as part of the world premiere concert, and she will receive a professional audio and video recording of that performance.

But she is also looking forward to the seminars and roundtables she will be able to attend at the festival.

“There are so many clinics on the business side of this,” she said. “In college they teach you how to analyze chordal structures and create theme and variations and how to rearrange vocal works for instrumentation, but when you go out on your own you realize there’s so much else you need to learn. How do you handle contracts? How do you handle commissions? How do you decide what you’re going to charge for commissions? How do you work with conductors who are premiering your work? Do you form an LLC? Do you join ASCAP or BMI? How do you choose a publisher, or handle your taxes with income? All of that is insanely valuable, so to have access to that information is really really powerful.”

Being selected a PREMIERE|Project Fellow is just part of a great run of success for Kurnat. Her debut work, “Epitaph For A Romantic Woman” was premiered by the St. Charles Singers in October 2021. Her work, “I, Lover” was the 2021-22 winner of the Stephen Paulus Emerging Composers’ Competition. She submitted to other competitions, including HerVoice, Florida State New Music Festival, VOCES8, and ACDA-Illinois. She has been commissioned by soprano Elizabeth Shuman, The Chicago Choral Artists, Baker Memorial Church of St. Charles and The Giving Voices Collective.

Her trip to California for the festival will come on the heels of a 12-day choral tour of Spain and Portugal with the St. Charles Singers.

The PREMIERE|Project Festival was established in 2018. This year’s is held June 27-June 30 with the concluding concert on June 30 at Concordia University in Irvine, California.