Kirke Mechem (HB Independent / December 4, 2012)

When the Orange County Women's Chorus commissioned Kirke Mechem to compose a piece to celebrate their 15th anniversary, he gave them "We Can Sing That" — a song about how the choir can perform any kind of music effortlessly.

If Mechem had titled the song "I Can Write That," it might have hinted at the composition's true achievement.

The choral composer, who recently turned 87, has relied almost entirely on others' texts over the years to provide lyrics to his tunes. Among the wordsmiths he's used are his own father, the poet Kirke F. Mechem, and even Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart, whose remarks about the moon landing formed the base of Mechem's "Island in Space."

When he sought the proper text for his Women's Chorus anniversary piece, though, Mechem couldn't find one that fit the occasion. So he turned to his rarest of all lyrical collaborators: himself.

"They wanted something to celebrate their achievement of 15 years and of the growth that they have come about during that time, a celebration that they're really a top group now," Mechem said Monday by phone from his San Francisco home. "And so I sent several poems that I thought might work and, no, they didn't work. And we talked about it, and I just woke up one morning and thought, 'Hey, why not just write a piece that's out and out saying that we can sing that, that we can do anything?'"

The four-minute piece that Mechem turned in begins with a short fanfare, then has the chorus running through one style after another — joyful, sorrowful, melody, harmony — with the words "We can sing that" as punctuation. Mechem wrote the song's latter half as a mission statement of sorts for the group, with lyrics declaring, "For harmony is the soul of the universe / and the heart of humanity / Though we can sing such harmony / from our hearts / we hope that all humanity will sing it, too."

The chorus will premiere Mechem's work as part of "The Singing Place," a show also featuring works by Joan Szymko, Louise Talma and others, Saturday at Newport Harbor Lutheran Church and Sunday at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach.

Artistic Director Eliza Rubenstein met Mechem a decade ago when her group performed a program of his music. Over the years, they became close over email, bonding over their love of music and also baseball and Mongolian barbecue.

Having Mechem craft a song specifically for the group was a longtime dream, Rubenstein said.

"I had hoped throughout the years that he might be someday enticed to write a piece for us, but he's an incredibly busy composer," she wrote in an email. "Happily, timing and circumstances converged this year to make a commission possible."

It's hardly the first time Mechem has been in demand the last couple of years. The Kansas native, whom the music publishing company G. Schirmer Inc. refers to on its website as the "dean of American choral composers," premiered the comic opera "The Rivals" last year at the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee, and he recently finished writing an opera version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Having heard the Women's Chorus before made it easier for Mechem to tailor a piece to their style, which he considers advanced.

"I have over-reached myself early in my career," Mechem said. "Sometimes I would think I was writing for a terrific group, and I would find out it was a really basic group. But I don't think I've insulted anybody by writing an easier piece than they wanted."

michael.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

If You Go

What: The Orange County Women's Chorus presents "The Singing Place"

Where: Newport Harbor Lutheran Church, 798 Dover Drive, Newport Beach

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and older, $10 for students with ID

Information: (949) 451-8590 or http://www.ocwomenschorus.org/hear-us

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What: The Orange County Women's Chorus presents "The Singing Place"

Where: St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church, 18631 Chapel Lane, Huntington Beach

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and older, $10 for students with ID

Information: (949) 451-8590 or http://www.ocwomenschorus.org/hear-us