Senior Thomas Johnson wins Hillert Award in Student Composition
Thomas Johnson, a senior music education major from Omaha, has received the Richard Hillert Award in Student Composition from the Center for Church Music at Concordia University Chicago for his women’s choir anthem “Closet Prayer,” setting a poem by Carrie Black, a senior English major from Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
“It is such an honor to have been selected for this award, I give all glory to God,” Johnson said. “He was the inspiration for Carrie’s text, as well as the music. It really is such a blessing to be able to see God working through this piece.”
The Richard Hillert Award in Student Composition is awarded every other year by the Center of Church Music at Concordia University Chicago. Nominations are open to any student at a Lutheran university or seminary in the United States. Submissions can be in any genre and must be three-to-five minutes in length, suitable for a church service. This year’s two recipients, Johnson and Owen Duncan of Concordia University Irvine, will be recognized with the award at next summer’s Association of Lutheran Church Musicians in Philadelphia.
Johnson said he considers Black to be an excellent and introspective poet, which is why he asked her to send him some of her works to see how they could translate into a choral anthem. Black’s “Closet Prayer” stuck out to Johnson because of its meter and rhyme.
“It sang itself,” he said. “I really focused on how I could capture the essence of the piece in macro and micro ways. Macro, in that the piece is very personal and soft. Micro in that there are many instances of the text painting implemented throughout. For example, the piece begins with each voice entering on the text ‘you say where two or three may be’ and the piece does not move on until all three voices have entered.”
Black wrote “Closet Prayer” in the fall of 2018, after spending the latter half of the summer in Milwaukee teaching summer school, where she was responsible for creating and teaching her own lesson plans for the first time. The experience was richly rewarding, she said, but the day-to-day was overwhelming at times. She found comfort in her daily ritual of praying in the closet of her classroom in the few minutes between staff devotion and students arriving.
“The poem is about the process of prayer and approaching God in the midst of isolation and hardship,” Black said. “Ultimately, however, it is about what the reader finds it to be. That’s how poetry works I think, and it’s beautiful that it functions in a way that I can say, ‘I wrote this and it’s for you,’ and not always know who the ‘you’ is, but whoever it is can still be so certain that the poem is as much for them as it is for me or the next person who reads it.”
As Johnson developed the piece, he worked with Dr. David von Kampen, his composition professor, to get it ready to be heard.
“David really stresses writing music that will be heard,” Johnson said. “He encourages us to write pieces for the composer’s recital every semester and if a piece is too difficult to be well performed, then sometimes he encourages us to go a different direction. With this piece, I knew the musicians at Concordia could absolutely handle anything I threw at them. This is not an easy piece because of the need for absolute vocal control and highly expressive singing. I knew the singers here could do both of those things.”
Asking another person to interpret your work can be difficult, Black said, but Johnson took such care and intention with the text to create a brilliant and beautiful composition.
“I’m grateful for Thomas for bringing me into his work,” she said. “I definitely cried after hearing it performed. The performance was already meaningful to me because it was something I had written and had been made into this remarkable choral piece by a friend of mine, and it was even more meaningful having my friends being the ones singing the words I had written. I don’t think everyone has the opportunity to have that sort of experience.”
Johnson is the second consecutive Concordia Nebraska student since 2015 to receive the Hillert Award, when the competition, previously only for students at Concordia in Chicago, was opened to all Lutheran universities and seminaries.
“Thomas wrote a lot of strong music during his lessons with me,” von Kampen said. “He consistently produced quality work for voices and instruments. The external validation is nice and well-deserved, but the creative work itself is the real point. Thomas did a great job composing this piece and conducting the premiere performance.”
Austin Theriot, a 2018 Concordia Nebraska graduate who also studied with von Kampen, shared the 2018 award with David Gilson of Concordia University Chicago. Theriot is now a graduate student in composition at the University of Texas.
“We have had so many terrific young composers come through Concordia,” von Kampen said. “I think that growing up in the Lutheran tradition and singing out of the hymnal every week uniquely equips many of our Concordia student composers with an intuitive ability for writing church music, and for voices in particular.”
Watch the performance of “Closet Prayer (SSAA) – Thomas Kyung, text by Carrie Black.”