David Lang’s new piece is on the program of San Francisco Choral Society concerts this weekend at Davies Hall. (Courtesy Peter Serling)

SF Choral Society premieres Pulitzer winner David Lang’s ‘Teach Your Children’

Composer reflects on youngsters in the news in commissioned work

When the San Francisco Choral Society opted to commission its sixth new choral work in 12 years, it turned to Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning David Lang, who, according to SFCS artistic director Robert Geary, is on the “A list” of American composers. “Teach Your Children” premieres this week at Davies Symphony Hall, with the Piedmont Children’s Choir (which joined the group for 2013’s West Coast premere of Lang’s “Battle Hymns”). The program also includes Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” Lang recently spoke with the San Francisco Examiner:

What inspired you to compose “Teach Your Children”?

I knew [it] would include a children’s choir, so I started trying to notice where children fit into our news cycle. Our news is full of stories of heroic high school kids standing up against gun violence and of callous children in MAGA hats, stories of the bullied and the bullying, of teenage killers and of spelling champions; the news notices children when they are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. I always wonder if you can tell the moral universe of parents from the actions of children; are they becoming good or bad people because of things we teach them, or things they see us doing? What are we teaching our children, as parents, as a society, that makes them do good or bad? I wrote this piece so I could think about that.

Your works convey social messages, but also broader subjects. What are the socio-political motivations behind your compositions?

I don’t really think of myself as a political composer, but I use these pieces so I can spend more time thinking about a subject that is interesting to me, or that is bothering me. Since our politics is so messed up, I am spending more time thinking about that, and that steers the topics of my music. In “The Little Match Girl Passion,” for example, I was trying to pay attention to all the homeless people in my neighborhood in New York. I tried to contrast how Christianity is based on the idea that noticing the suffering of one man, Jesus, will make us better people, and yet we ignore the suffering of ordinary people every day. I rewrote Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” for the New York Philharmonic, so that I could think about how Beethoven’s message about the nobility of prisoners needs to be strengthened in order to be capable of dealing with mass incarceration and the caging of children. My version is called “Prisoner of the State.”

Why did you look to the internet for your texts in “Teach Your Children”?

I wanted a wide range of options, so I asked my search engine to autocomplete sentences about what people feel they need to teach their children, in the first movement, and what people think the truth of how our world is really put together, in the third. The text from the second movement is my paraphrase of a famous Jewish text in which second-century rabbi Ben Zoma asks his students the questions: Who is wise? Who is strong? Who is rich? Who is worthy of receiving honor? I thought it was important that a piece about teaching children should include at least one real lesson.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Choral Society

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 16-17

Tickets: $30 to $36 (free for junior high and high school students; email ticketsforkids@sfchoral.org)

Contact: (415) 221-5590, http://sfchoral.org

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