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Creating, Composing, Conducting...Shirtz in 2024



"Every artist works on a constantly evolving journey, usually unplanned, and never on an assigned timeline…" 


Michael shared with a group of college students in 2016 while directing in Tennessee. "The creative mind shapes our pathway by what’s happening in the world, things that are changing around us, our own interests evolving as we are introduced to new concepts and ideas, enhancing our skills, reinforcing our passions, and seeking to continually be curious and find the deeper meaning to our craft."


Michael's career is certainly one that has seen an incredible journey. Performance, education, conducting, arts administration, producing, recording, directing, composing, arranging, writing, coaching, advocacy, consulting, a deanship, a vice presidency, and even work in building creative economic and community initiatives - an accomplished resume of impressive professional undertakings. Yet, through his body of work, Michael has only referenced himself as a musician who performers, conducts, and composes.


This past year, Michael posted that he was in his 20th year of choral conducting and recognized his mentors and many singers he's worked with along the way. While conducting today is a major part of his workload, it was not something he ever planned on doing. 


"In 2001 I wrote some choir charts for a Columbus Symphony program and in rehearsal Dr. Sandra Mathias asked me to direct the songs...I was like...you want me to conduct? That was a trial by fire if there is such a thing...but, it lite a flame for conducting."


Since then, Michael studied conducting with Donald Brinegar, William Belan, among others in Los Angeles while performing until 2006. Following a serious car accident and leaving performance for nearly a decade, he turned to conducting and education during this time. It wasn't long before his conducting credits included regional choruses, music festivals, honors choirs, musical theatre productions, workshops, and established the choral studies program at Terra State Community College in Fremont, Ohio.


"I was definitely figuring out my conducting skills early on and trying to bridge that understanding of the technical side of music with the emotional. I tend to get pulled to the emotional content quicker than the other stuff. But, to me, every song, whether it be a hymn or a full masterwork, is a story to be told. How do we best tell that story to the audience? That's my goal, I guess, as I approach every group. How do we convey that story so that it’s felt by the singers in the presentation and left in the hearts and minds of the listeners." 


Today, Michael conducts the Firelands Symphony Chorale in Sandusky, Ohio and is developing the Chautauqua Program for Music & Faith at Lakeside Chautauqua that includes musical opportunities for singers and collegiate music studies. He has built a reputation for working with large-scale choruses and particularly conducting masterworks. Never a classically trained musician, Michael credits his jazz background as a powerful tool in developing his musical leadership on the podium, "...the Bach continuo simply supports the orchestra musicians the way the rhythm section supports the big band players! It all swings and connects in its own way!" This year Michael is slated to conduct a series of music theatre productions, works by Bach, Bernstein, Poulenc, and newer pieces by several 21st century composers.


Another ambition defining Michael's 2024 is his compositional work. A lifelong pursuit, he was writing jazz songs while in high school, eventually leading to his first and second incarnations of the Michael Shirtz Quartet. MSQ has become a canvas for Michael's writing and a platform to introduce new ideas and concepts. While Shirtz has recently been called a “little less jazzy" - moving to more funk and singer-songwriter material in his performances - MSQ remains his foundation for composing and performing as a vocalist and pianist.


Michael's earlier writings followed the compositional styles of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Oscar Peterson. In his late 20's, Michael became fascinated by the classical music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The "3 B's" have joined the three jazz greats to become a constant influence in his writing and are found in his use of chorale-fugue and tempo-rubato elements. This has led to MSQ tunes like "Four Square," "Dear Mr. Mozart," "Coastal Sailing," and his version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," among other renditions.  


Michael began to explore masterwork writing combining jazz and classical genres for choirs, orchestras, and jazz ensembles with the oratorio In God's Light (2005), and the jazz suites Hymn to the Earth (2008) and Sailing the Bay (2010). Focusing on his interest in storytelling, he began writing 'musical narratives' with dramatic narration such as The Gift of a Generation (2015) and A Prayer for Hope (2021). Since 2012, Michael has written for musical theatre productions, choral selections for schools and churches, and a focus on historical stories. The musical Headliner has been in workshop with NYC's Tectonic Theatre Productions and is being re-presented with Kent State University's theatre in April.


With the release of To Rise Above: A Journey of a Tuskegee Airman (2022), Michael has established a style of composing for audiences of all ages, carefully blending multi-genres in telling historical and inspirational stories. Future plans include creating a musical narrative honoring the WWII Women Air Service Pilots and a multi-year project transitioning Hymn to the Earth into a full oratorio using world-texts about human unity and taking care of the planet. This year Michael will rerelease his 2009 cantata, The Solemn Blessings with new orchestration, added text, and narration on biblical passages surrounding the beatitudes. Michael commented on the rewrite, “It wasn’t a bad little piece. But, in reviewing it last year, I didn’t feel it was complete. I saw a work written by a young composer about a pretty mature topic. Having lived a little, I have a different perspective on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount that needs to go a deeper into the cantata.”


As Michael focuses this year on composing and conducting with greater importance, teaching and providing opportunities to students and enthusiasts in these areas are equally important to him. While he begins removing somethings off his plate to give more time to these endeavors, that doesn’t mean his work in performing goes away. 2024 still includes MSQ concerts, guest performances, new collaborations, and a potential recording project. As Michael says, “2024 needs to be a year I hone in on creating, composing, and conducting.”

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