Tragic slaying inspires professor's modern 'Requiem'

By Rich Copley
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - It started with a murder.

Certainly, Transylvania University piano professor Gregory Partain would have preferred a less tragic beginning for a decade-long project. But the fact is a good friend, University of Texas at Austin music professor Danielle Martin, was murdered, and he was invited to play at a memorial concert for her.

"I said to myself, I don't want to be just another pianist playing a piece, so I composed a choir work," Partain says.

What he wrote was In Paradisum, "which is traditionally the last movement of a requiem," Partain points out. "After the concert that night, one of my friends turned to me and said, 'Now you know what you have to do. You have to write a complete concert requiem.'"

That project finally came to fruition last week night on the stage of the Singletary Center for the Arts where the combined forces of the Lexington Singers, the University of Kentucky Chorale and a 40-piece orchestra came together for the world premiere of Partain's Requiem.

For Lexington audiences who know Partain, it was a different way to look at the musician who's best known as a pianist who has played solo recitals, with the Lexington Philharmonic, and on stages around the world.

"That has informed his compositional technique, but it's a very, very different animal," Lexington Singers director Jefferson Johnson says. "You basically have to reinvent yourself as a composer, as opposed to a concert pianist. But he has maintained his performance life."

Partain has been working on a project to perform all 22 of Ludwig Van Beethoven's piano recitals in seven concerts.

"The whole endeavor of composing I came to late in my career," Partain says. "I didn't study composition in college. I wrote a few choral works and I had written a few songs for singer and harp, a song cycle. But this really came out of nowhere."

Each movement of the Requiem is dedicated to a teacher or friend who has inspired Partain, including the legendary and late University of Kentucky piano professor Nathaniel Patch.

Being a first-time orchestral composer, Partain tapped a lot of expertise from pointers on composing to writing for specific instruments he was less familiar with, like brass.

"It speaks to his integrity as a musician that he would put his ego aside and go to other people and say, 'What do you think about this? Would this work? What would work better?'" Johnson says. "That's why this piece has gotten so good. He's polished the heck out of it."

To Partain, it was key to have the premiere in Lexington, with familiar collaborators such as Johnson.

"I knew we could work out kinks together and Jeff would be willing to make suggestions," Partain says.

For his part, Johnson appreciates Partain's willingness to take suggestions and make changes, noting composers often finish a work and consider it set in stone.

Of course, since it requires more than 200 musicians to perform, it is only now that Partain is getting to hear his creation in full.

Just as when he plays an iconic work that has been performed by the greatest pianists in the world, he feels he has something to add to the form.

"I wanted to bring this ancient text up to date and give it a modern setting and put it in a modern context," Partain says. "You have to think, 'I'm here now, and my listeners are my listeners now in the room, and this is an experience we share.' "

Published: Wed, Nov 25, 2015

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