Photo by Scott Schuman
Lifelong Latter-day Saint Douglas Pew has been involved in music ever since he can remember, but it was a Catholic teacher’s words during a lesson in Poland that opened his eyes to his own gift. The teacher told him he felt that it was his own responsibility to carry on the tradition of writing sacred music, handed down to him by his father.
Brother Pew spent his youth singing and playing piano in his musical San Jose, Calif., family and eventually earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in composition from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Yet it was as a 31-year-old post-doctoral Fulbright Fellow at Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw in 2011-2012 that he truly glimpsed his potential as he sat with his teacher, Paweł Łukaszewski.
“His teachings about the importance of sacred music helped me understand parts of my patriarchal blessing for the first time,” he said. “I may not be a great composer, but I have a talent for hard work and a great desire to do my duty in building the kingdom. I don’t think Heavenly Father would’ve given me the urge to do what I do with music if it weren’t to spread the good word.”
Brother Pew, second counselor in the Lakeside Park Ward, Cincinnati Ohio Stake, was recently awarded a second commission by the Washington National Opera. “Penny,” a collaboration with Dara Weinberg, who wrote the libretto (words), is a new hour-long production that is scheduled to be staged at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 and 25, 2015.
The librettist, who was on Fulbright Fellowship in Warsaw the same time as Brother Pew, created the original story of a woman named Penny, born with a disability, who discovers a talent for singing; conflict develops when her family resists her desire to perform. This second collaboration grew out of the success of their first, “A Game of Hearts,” commissioned by Washington National Opera, “workshopped” in Washington, and selected for performance during the Opera America New Works Forum in New York City in January 2014.
Brother Pew is fitting in this latest commission while being employed as a copyist (preparing the vocal and orchestral parts for performers) for the Cincinnati Opera; an adjunct professor of composition and theory at Northern Kentucky University; and composer-in-residence at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Cincinnati.
He is composing a Resurrection cantata, “The Firstfruits of Them that Slept,” to be premiered by the Cincinnati Bach Ensemble at St. Thomas on April 27. The text centers on the Resurrection as recounted in the New Testament, with additional verses from Alma and Mosiah in the Book of Mormon. Phyllis Wocher, a member of his ward, has provided three original hymn texts that feature prominently in the work.
At St. Thomas, Brother Pew works with an LDS organist, Jason Gunnell, a BYU-Idaho graduate and a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati. He said the Episcopal congregation enjoys having “two Mormon boys” participating and “being able to worship the Lord together with music.” Brother Pew is working with a text from Matthew 25 for an anthem in the style of John Rutter and is considering Doctrine and Covenants 121 — Joseph Smith’s familiar “O God, where art thou?” — as the text for music to be used in a stage or concert setting.
The pieces Brother Pew composes for his work at St. Thomas are “more original than we could do in an LDS service,” he explained, yet appropriate in that sacred setting. He recently drew upon LDS writer Orson F. Whitney’s text “Savior, Redeemer of My Soul” to compose a piece for the Episcopal choir.
Seeing himself as a bridge between people and religions, and music as a way to make a connection, Brother Pew tells of being asked to say a few words before the premiere last summer of his choral piece in Latin, “Pater Noster,” based on the Lord’s Prayer. Knowing he faced a liberal and not particularly religious audience, “I told them we may believe different things and that’s OK, but I invited them to experience my personal feeling of yearning as we listened together for three minutes.” He wasn’t sure what the reaction would be, but comments afterward demonstrated that “I had let them experience the piece on a spiritual level, despite our differences.”
Even with time and experience, composing music doesn’t come easily for Brother Pew. “It’s like learning to walk again with each new piece,” he said. “You are creating your own little universe, a new one, fresh, each time.” It must be original yet accessible. For liturgical service, it needs to be “somewhat simple so the choir and even, in some instances, the congregation can sing it.” His operas are more dramatic and written in a contemporary style, as he is “trying to find new paths for myself through sound.”
Regardless of what he composes, Brother Pew believes music can be a spiritual bridge. “That human connection, the divine in all of us, is there.”
He and his wife, the former Janae Hansen, a violinist, recently added a fourth child to their family. They have lived in the Cincinnati area since 2007. Some of the LDS music Brother Pew writes includes “a bit more challenging” yet appropriate violin-piano hymn arrangements that he and his wife can play in sacrament meeting. He also considers his voice one of his main instruments and appreciates being able to write major choral works.
“To write anthems on the words of Christ from the scriptures is a wonderful opportunity,” he said, referencing a Latin mass he wrote in Poland, which was performed in a major event broadcast nationwide. He said that afterward, the priest told him, “Your music helped me to pray.”
Brother Pew said, “That meant more to me than any award — that people felt something. Those black dots I wrote on a page went into a voice, across a cathedral and down into someone’s heart.”