Concert Archives

flourish, May 15, 2016
gather, January 10, 2016
fray, November 1, 2015
As Birds Do Sing, May 17, 2015
40 Voices Singing, March 14 & 15, 2015
The Elements of Song, November 9, 2014
As One, June 1, 2014
To Arms, March 16, 2014
For Keeps, November 17, 2013
In His Care, October 26, 2013
Ahoy, Stranger!, June 2, 2013
Whither, Fairy?, March 10, 2013
Sing, Muse!, November 4, 2012
Songs to the Midnight Sun, May 6, 2012
This Green and Pleasant Land, March 11, 2012
Axis of Medieval, November 6, 2011
I Hear America Singing, June 12, 2011
The Food of Love, March 20, 2011
Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals, October 24, 2010
Music to Hear, June 6, 2010

flourish: reckless hope rises
May 15, 2016
Sonja Bontrager, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Brian Middleton, Bryan Park, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Emily Sung, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

Gabriel Jackson, To Morning
Healey Willan, Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One
James MacMillan, The Gallant Weaver
John Tavener, Village Wedding
Samuel Barber, Easter Chorale
Johann Sebastian Bach, Jesu, meine Freude
Orlando di Lasso, Justorum animae
Charles Villiers Stanford, Beati Quorum Via
Knut Nystedt, Lobet den Herrn
Stephen Paulus, Hymn to the Eternal Flame

Notes on the Program
When we were choosing repertoire for this year, we imagined the three concerts fitting together as a grand cycle. Our fall concert, fray, looked at endings in many forms, from the death of love to the apocalypse. In the darkest time of winter, we saw a glimmer of hope as we sang gather, our first-ever Christmas concert. With the arrival of spring, we sing of rebirth, new beginnings, and the promise that salvation grows from the good we sow in the darkest of times.

This is the central message of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, a true showpiece for the composer’s many-layered brilliance. It was intimidating to consider the question of whether we were up to the task of bringing that genius to life, and although we are not trailblazers in performing this music, the brilliance of Jesu, meine Freude will always surpass its ubiquity. It is a triumphant affirmation of life and of victory over our innermost demons. It is necessary music.

Gabriel Jackson’s shimmering invocation “To Morning” opens our concert, calling on the virgin huntress Diana of Greek mythology to bring forth a new day. Diana was also the goddess of childbirth, so William Blake’s poem acts as a supplication for rebirth. Broad, sweeping crescendos create a sort of musical sunrise. As we are awakened, we sing “Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One,” rousing our lover to come and witness the rebirth of the world after winter’s end. But frolicking with our lover in springtime is not always the way the world would have it, especially with the patriarchy standing in the way. The narrator of Robert Burns’ “The Gallant Weaver” vows to keep her true love in her heart, even as her father promises her to a wealthier suitor. MacMillan’s setting of this poem cleverly mimics the pulsing ebb and flow of a loom, weaving together strands of melody into a lush fabric of sound.

In his “Village Wedding,” John Tavener chose scattered lines from Angelos Sikelianos’ early 20th-century poem, offering starkly contrasting glimpses into a traditional Greek wedding ceremony and the culture’s devotion to both its mythical past and its Christian present. The refrain of “Oh Isaiah dance for joy, for the virgin is with child” most obviously refers to the virgin Mary, but a duality emerges with clear references—as in our opening piece—to the mythical virgin Diana, born with her twin brother Apollo on the island of Delos. Furthermore, when taken purely at face value (and with the title in mind), the poem could simply portray a shotgun wedding in a Greek village. The bride is forced to wed her unborn child’s father, but in doing so is poetically interwoven with goddesses. She is deified through her most personal struggle.

With Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” we are back to our exuberance at the arrival of spring, this time more clearly representing the rebirth and awakening found through the ascension of Jesus Christ. We take a bit of liberty in singing this with continuo organ today, as it was originally scored for brass, timpani, and full cathedral organ, but with the message in its text and Barber’s clear imitation of a baroque chorale, we couldn’t pass up the chance to end the first half with a little taste of the Bach to come.

The text of Jesu, meine Freude alternates between a 17th-century hymn by Johann Franck and St. Paul’s biblical letter to the Romans. The hymn depicts an all-out (but very private) brawl—let’s reimagine it as Rocky, with the titular underdog representing Faith and his impossibly accomplished opponent representing Satan, temptation, and death. As we watch the climactic bout on screen, St. Paul, sitting next to us, innocently interjects and gives away the ending (spoiler alert: if you live in the way of Christ, Rocky wins in the end).

Franck’s hymn makes up the odd movements, which grow in polyphonic complexity as the motet progresses, sometimes completely obscuring the chorale melody, as in movement five, “Trotz dem alten Drachen.” This progression culminates in the ninth movement, “Gute Nacht, o Wesen”—listen for the altos’ occasional interjections of the chorale melody, punctuating the endlessly wandering tenor line—before triumphantly returning to its original homophonic setting in the final chorale.

The even movements are freely composed, and without the restraint of the chorale melody, Bach was able to show off his genius for counterpoint. We get our first taste for fugal writing in the second movement, but Bach really takes off in movement six, “Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich,” where we have not one but two fugue subjects and a grand adagio coda to bring it all back to earth. The penultimate movement echoes the roiling energy from the second, signaling the soul’s inevitable victory over death.

Both Di Lasso’s “Justorum animae” and Stanford’s “Beati quorum via” distill the same message as the Bach: follow in the way of Jesus and receive the blessing of eternal life. Neither piece depicts the conflict or turmoil of the Bach, so the composers basked in the optimism of their respective texts to create lush polyphony, albeit from very different eras.

Like our opening piece, the last two works we sing today are invocations. Nystedt’s “Lobet den Herrn” is a playful and extroverted call to praise God, simply because he is worthy of being praised. We end, more simply, with a call to praise humanity. “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” from Stephen Paulus’ Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, is a reminder that, no matter your individual faith, no matter what darkness we face, the fire of rebirth lies within us all.

gather: in the stillness born
January 10, 2016
Sonja Bontrager, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Brian Middleton, Bryan Park, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

William Walton, Make we joy now in this fest
David Conte, O magnum mysterium
Arvo Pärt, Bogoróditse Djévo
Michael Praetorius and Jan Sandström, Est ist ein Ros entsprungen
Judith Weir, Drop down, ye heavens, from above
Philip Stopford, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
Jean Mouton, Nesciens mater
Abbie Betinis, Song of the Pines
Jan Pieters Sweelinck, Hodie Christus natus est
Kenneth Leighton, Lulla, lulla, thou little tiny child
Jonathan Dove, The Three Kings
Herbert Howells, Here is the Little Door
Steven Sametz, Noel!
Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, Videntes stellam Magi
arr. William Averitt, Star in the East
Ola Gjeilo, Serenity (O magnum mysterium)

Notes on the Program
In the Christian month of Advent, a new candle is lit each week, representing hope, love, joy, and peace. No matter our faith, at this time of year we share these kinds of blessings with one another, but for many of us, this is really a time of searching. We wander the desert like the magi from the East, and the good tidings of Christmas seem a distant promise. The light that guides us to Bethlehem is not a wreath of candles but the flicker of a distant star.

Imagine that today’s concert is a miniature of that storied westward journey. Before we set out, we rejoice at having seen the star whose rise was prophesied long ago. Walton’s “Make we joy now in this fest,” though a modern piece, wonderfully preserves its origins as a rollicking 15th-century English carol. We add our own bit of historical preservation by singing the Middle English pronunciation, which keeps the rhymes intact.

With the first footsteps of our voyage, we marvel at far-off rumors of the messiah’s rather impromptu birth in the presence of farm animals. David Conte’s setting of the ancient “O magnum mysterium” text, with its jarring shifts in tonal center and fervent overlapping lines, perfectly captures the wondrous anticipation we feel as we travel along. Could it be that salvation is truly a simple boy born in a stable?

More whispers reach our ears as we approach Bethlehem. The child was born of a virgin mother! We hear songs in praise of her virtue: breathless and overflowing, as Arvo Pärt’s “Bogoroditse Djevo,” and otherworldly, as Jan Sandström’s reimagining of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The latter builds gentle dissonance from cluster chords and employs rhythmic augmentation to create an ethereal (and somehow distinctly Swedish) setting of Praetorius’ familiar harmonization.

As we trudge on, we reflect on the Advent promise of comfort and renewal. “Drop down, ye heavens, from above,” Judith Weir’s crystalline composition based on the Gregorian Rorate caeli chant melody, is God’s steadfast assurance that salvation is just around the corner. What would that assurance sound like in the words of the infant Jesus himself? Philip Stopford’s jaunty setting of the familiar text “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” imagines humanity as Jesus’ true love. He personally calls us to follow him in a dance—his life on earth, and through it, our redemption.

Finally our journey reaches its improbable end at the rumored stable, where we find a mother nursing her newborn baby. Jean Mouton’s “Nesciens mater” is a masterful representation of this tender scene: an eight-part canon, where the lower choir is echoed, note for note, a fifth higher. We hold this moment of stillness with Abbie Betinis’ silvery “Song of the Pines,” its refrain an echo of the wonder in the O magnum mysterium. The wondrous mystery of Jesus’ birth, however, was not that mere animals were present, but that perhaps we ourselves are the ox and ass, bearing witness—despite our insignificance—to the arrival of hope personified.

Before we settle into the stable, we pause for a quick chance to step outside and help spread the good news. With unabashed joy, we announce the birth of Christ to any who will listen as we sing Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s iconic Renaissance chestnut “Hodie Christus natus est.”

As we quietly gather near the manger, Mary sings to her baby. The “Lully, lulla” we hear today is another modern setting of an old text. Kenneth Leighton places the refrain of this familiar lullaby in the mother’s singular, lofty voice as she sings her child to sleep, with the help of the choir’s soothing lilt. Scottish composer Jonathan Dove’s “The Three Kings” perfectly distills the full range of emotions behind greeting the holy family and presenting our gifts. We stand in hushed awe as the mother rocks her baby to sleep, but as the third king opens his chest of gold, joy overflows and the words of Mary’s lullaby are cleverly transformed into cries of joy: O balow! Balow la lay!

In her poem “Here is the Little Door,” Frances Chesterton moved beyond the gifts of the magi and hinted at the greater implications of the birth of Christ, suggesting that the infant Jesus gave rather weightier gifts of his own in return: a sword for gold, battle for frankincense, death for myrrh. The notion is timely for a poem that Herbert Howells set to music in the midst of the first world war, as England lost a generation and its Christian empire began to crumble.

We turn outward again for our next three pieces: Steven Sametz uses the words of a medieval English carol in his increasingly extroverted, four-part men’s canon—simply called “Noel!”—which calls the world to awaken and recognize the significance of this simple birth. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Videntes stellam Magi” is a jubilant, double-choir motet whose dance-like conclusion projects the joy we feel at the end of our long journey. “Star in the East,” William Averitt’s arrangement of a shape note hymn from The Southern Harmony, is our earnest ode to the brilliant light that first guided us out of the lonely desert. It ends with the sage reminder that, costly as our material gifts are, the most meaningful gift is our love.

Finally, we return (with cello!) to peaceful prayer, reflecting on the great mystery we first found in the stable, where kings and donkeys worship side by side. Standing in stark contrast to Conte’s opening conception of “O magnum mysterium,” Ola Gjeilo’s “Serenity” is stunning in its simple, profound beauty.

Today, our Christmas feasts have ended, and the wonder of the season inevitably fades as the new year and the cold winter make the tidings of hope, love, joy, and peace feel as distant as ever. But other candles still shine through the long nights, and we can still join together for little celebrations like this one. A celebration of birth, of searching, and of finding the true meaning of Christmas: giving freely of our riches in celebration of our humanity.

fray: as shadows fall
November 1, 2015
Sonja Bontrager, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Brian Middleton, Bryan Park, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

Edward Bairstow, Let all mortal flesh keep silence
Francis Poulenc, Vinea mea electa
Johannes Brahms, Rosmarin, Letztes Glück, and Verlorene Jugend
Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Turtle Dove
Eric Whitacre, A Boy and a Girl
arr. Moses Hogan, The Battle of Jericho
arr. Jeffery L. Ames, I’ve Been in the Storm So Long
arr. Edwin London, Bach (Again): Come Sweet Death
Jacob Carlo Gesualdo, Tenebrae Factae Sunt
Lajos Bárdos, Libera Me
Thomas Tomkins, When David Heard
György Orbán, Daemon Irrepit Callidus
Samuel Barber, Let down the bars, O Death
arr. Richard Bjella, Idumea

Notes on the program
You may know today as Día de los Muertos, All Saints’ Day, Samhain, or simply the day after Halloween. But across cultures in the Northern hemisphere, this time of year is one which tends to conjure thoughts of death—whether you believe the spirit world is closer to our own, or you just ponder mortality while watching the leaves fall to the ground during the third act of the Earth’s annual dance.

At any time of year, popular culture seems to be a bit infatuated with the end of times these days. This program, though, is not only about the apocalypse, though you will find hints of it in our music. Today, we explore the upheaval, the unraveling—the end of the world as we know it—in many forms (and we feel fine): from the death of love, to the death of a loved one; from the destruction of a storm, to painful betrayal. We’re sitting with the less-beautiful, inaptly polished aspects of life that have inspired these composers, and we’re aspiring to communicate the beauty that they found, even in life’s darkest moments. We begin our season with the end, but just as our season will continue, light will always follow darkness, and life will continue, too.

Let all moral flesh keep silence
We open with Edward Bairstow’s 1906 setting of “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Its text derives from the Liturgy of St. James, considered the oldest surviving liturgy, and depicts Christ’s second coming in advance of the Last Judgment. The text is largely celebratory, and Bairstow joyfully portrays the cherubic choirs hailing the savior. However, the overall musical setting feels portentous, reminding us lowly “mortal flesh” to “stand with fear and trembling” lest we be condemned. The powerful setting of this warning stays with us as we continue unraveling our program.

Vinea mea electa
In his lifetime and after his death, Poulenc was known as a lighthearted, even humorous composer, and his more serious works were overlooked. Thankfully, in recent years, his religious compositions have garnered more attention. “Vinea mea electa” is the second of a set of four Lenten motets composed in 1939. The text, from the responsories for Good Friday, references Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants: A landlord plants a vine and leases it. When the time comes for him to collect its fruit, his tenants beat and reject each of the servants he sends until he is forced to send his only son, whom they murder. Poulenc captures the anguish of the ultimate betrayal with extreme dynamic contrasts and unsettling shifts in meter and tonality.

Three Brahms Songs
The three Brahms songs we present are not the only examples of his exploration of the less-pleasant side of the human condition. He was certainly not alone in this thematic tilt—the Romantic era found artists more intrigued by tragedy than their predecessors. But perhaps Brahms felt misery wear on him more pointedly than did other composers. His love for Clara Schumann was forever at odds with his respect for decorum and for her late husband Robert (also his teacher), so his yearning was never turned to joy. He died less than a year after Clara.

In “Rosmarin,” Brahms allows the text, taken from a book of German folk poems, to carry the story. A young bride’s excitement turns to sorrow at the loss of her beloved; the text plays on the verbal similarity of the word for “roses,” intended for her wedding flowers, and “rosemary,” which symbolizes memory and mourning. “Letztes Glück” and “Verlorene Jugend” come from the same set of songs, and both deal with a longing for a different life in a different time—longing that will never be fulfilled.

The Turtle Dove
In Ralph Vaughan Williams’ mournful setting of this English folksong, we explore the fraying effects of distance between lovers. The choir builds under the melody as the urgency of the texts develops, with the forlorn lover vehemently promising that betrayal will not come unless the apocalypse does. Interestingly, Vaughan Williams married his second wife after they had a years-long extramarital affair.

A Boy and a Girl
Sometimes when things fall apart, they do so quietly. T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Octavio Paz’s poem “A Boy and a Girl” (Los Novios) describes such an unraveling. Whether one interprets the lovers’ fate as their deaths or the death of their love, the inevitable tragedy is apparent in its text. With its respect for the poem and for the pregnant silences between lines, Whitacre’s music lends the story an eerie beauty. Pitches come almost unbearably close but never quite together. The composer wrote of the piece, “The four measures that musically paint the text ‘never kissing’ may be the truest notes I’ve ever written.”

The Battle of Jericho
As with many traditional African-American spirituals, “The Battle of Jericho” references a Biblical story as a parable for freedom from slavery: Joshua leads the Israelites against Canaan; the Israelites raise their voices in a mighty shout as their priests blow ram’s horns; and the walls of the city crumble before them. (The heathen men, women, and children within are then duly slaughtered, though this part of the story didn’t make it into the spiritual.) Hogan’s arrangement sets the scene of a battle, with the men’s part marching along in heroic fashion contrasting the women’s three-part arrangement of the traditional melody. The musical battle ends as the voices come together in the triumphant collapse of the walls.

I’ve Been in the Storm So Long
The word “storm” is often used in spirituals to refer to life’s turmoils, whether that be slavery or contemporary trouble. Jeffery Ames composed this arrangement in response to a literal storm: catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. The rising and ebbing harmonic clusters that open the piece and support the solo line mimic the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico. With the beauty of the music, Ames reminds us of the beauty of hope, whether one hopes to reach heaven in the afterlife or simply desires a reprieve from troubles.

Bach (Again): Come Sweet Death
Philadelphia-born Edwin London was a prolific composer, but “Bach (Again)” has become his most well-known work of late because of its frequent performance by the Eric Whitacre Singers. To those of us raised on the Western music canon, there is perhaps nothing more familiar and comforting than a Bach chorale. Very little, then, will feel as unsettling as the way in which this arrangement literally comes apart as the ensemble repeats the traditional chorale aleatorily—each in our own tempo. The singers perform movements along with the music to highlight the disintegration of the music. But we encourage you to let yourself settle into the strange new harmonies we’ll create, perhaps finding a new kind of beauty in the unraveling.

Tenebrae factae sunt
Jacob Carlo Gesualdo is one of the most fascinating figures in Western music history, perhaps best known for gruesomely murdering his wife and her lover in 1590. Because of his noble status, he was not prosecuted for the crime. Instead, the “mad prince” punished himself, hiring servants later in life whose sole job was to beat him. Whether his crime, his psychological state, and his music are direct results of each other is impossible for us to conclude today, but in performing Gesualdo’s music, we consider them in total. To say his music was uncharacteristic of the sixteenth century may be an understatement; some liken him to twentieth-century atonal composer Schoenberg, and even to our twenty-first-century ears, Gesualdo’s rapid shifts in tonality are jarring. Perhaps there is no more apt voice than his for this Good Friday text, which paints the agony of Jesus’ last moments.

Libera Me
The Libera Me text is a Catholic responsory for the dead. It is used in several services, including the Requiem mass, and is also traditionally said tomorrow, on All Souls’ Day. Instead of focusing on the personal, pleading aspect of the prayer, Hungarian composer Lajos Bardos at first highlights the terror of Judgment Day with jagged, battling phrases. Such calamity makes the conclusion of the piece almost shocking in its quiet beauty, when the souls who survive the flames will be granted peace.

When David Heard
Thomas Tomkins’ anthem depicts the lament of David, the Biblical king, upon learning of his son Absalom’s death. Absalom rebelled against his father, turning many of his subjects against him. When they finally battled, David’s forces triumphed, and despite the king’s explicit orders, David’s chief officer killed the rebellious Absalom. Tomkins’ mournful phrasing expresses David’s grief and agony until the end of the piece, when, with a shift to a more consonant sound, Tomkins suggests that perhaps David accepts his son’s death.

Daemon Irrepit Callidus
With frantic, ominous-sounding lines underlying a jagged melodic fragment, Transylvanian-born Hungarian György Orbán’s piece gives life to the text’s warnings. One’s soul could be truly tried by the temptations of the Devil encroaching on “the honorable heart,” so the piece urges us three times to resist, insisting that such temptation is worth far less than the heart of Jesus. However, we must confess that the “trickery amidst praise” inherent in this piece is really fun to sing. Believe what you will about the fate of the souls of the Chestnuts.

Let down the bars, O Death
Samuel Barber was known among his friends for his sense of humor. He once commented that he would prefer to have croutons sprinkled on his coffin instead of flowers, and some of his friends honored that wish. That sense of humor about death is entirely absent in this setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem; he honors her words to the utmost. He repeats only the first line of text, with the dynamics reversed. We end with quiet, major chord, reinforcing that death can be a welcome peace.

Idumea
We close with a much less welcoming view of death. The chilling text of “Idumea” is rife with fear and trepidation at what awaits us when this life ends. The original sacred harp tune was written by Ananias Davvison in Shenandoah County, Virginia, at the start of the nineteenth century. It brought a new wave of interest to the shapenote tradition when it was featured at the beginning of the 2003 movie Cold Mountain to highlight the horrors of the Civil War. Richard Bjella honors the traditional sound while adding to the arrangement to highlight, for instance, the “flaming skies” at the end. The effect is sometimes terrifying yet quite stirring.

As Birds Do Sing: A Fifth Anniversary Concert
May 17, 2015
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Eddie Rubeiz, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

arr. Matti Hyokki, “On suuri sun rantas’ autius”
Felix Mendelssohn, “Die Nachtigall”
Josquin des Prez, “El Grillo”
Edward Elgar, “My love dwelt in a Northern land”
Abbie Betinis, “Be Like the Bird”
Thomas Fredrickson, “Such a pretty bird”
Charles Villiers Stanford, “The Blue Bird”
Patrick Ressler, “Hope is the thing with feathers”
arr. Edward T. Chapman, “The Three Ravens”
Lester Jenks [Harvey B. Gaul], “A Ballad of Tree-Toads”
Robert Lucas Pearsall, “Lay a Garland”
Nils Lindberg, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”
Daniel Goldschmidt, “Haiku by Basho”
Manning Sherwin, arr. Gene Puerling, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
John Chorbajian, “Loveliest of Trees”
Malcolm Dalglish, “Great Trees”
John Bartlet, “Of All the Birds That I Do Know”

Notes on the Program
The passage of time often feels as much a miracle as it does a constant. Despite the many springs we have each experienced before, every bright new blossom, beloved bird’s song, and lengthened day feels like a gift. As singers, we turn to music to celebrate this gift.

Today, we raise our voices in songs that pay homage to the springtime themes of birds and trees, to celebrate not only this spring but also our fifth year as the Chestnut Street Singers. To have not only survived—but thrived—as a small cooperative chorus is certainly cause for commemoration, and we thank you for celebrating with us today.

On suuri sun rantas’ autius
We open with a Finnish folk tune whose “lonely, lost” bird imagery evokes more than a touch of melancholy. But in this arrangement by accomplished choral conductor Matti Hyökki, the vocal lines encircle the melody with a warmth that feels like returning home.

Die Nachtigall
The nightingale has been a muse to many artists. Though she traditionally connotes lost love, longing, and sometimes melancholy, Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’s text is enchanting, with pleasing, soaring melodic lines. The simplicity of the song is highlighted by its homorhythmic structure. Here the nightingale, perhaps like us, is content to be at home and sing.

El Grillo
Josquin des Prez was a prolific Renaissance composer known for both sacred and secular works and, at times, a satirical sense of humor. In “El Grillo,” we celebrate the cricket. Josquin’s setting mimics the sounds of a cricket with its chirpy pairs of quarter notes, and it is thought to be a jab at the singing abilities of Josquin’s colleague Carlo Grillo; both were under the patronage of the powerful Sforza family.

My love dwelt in a Northern land
Although known primarily for his orchestral works, Edward Elgar composed a number of choral pieces throughout his career. He seemed to have enjoyed doing so as a form of relaxation between larger projects. One of his earliest choral compositions, “My love dwelt in a Northern land” was composed shortly after he married his wife, Alice. Perhaps this accounts for the pervading sense of joy in the music, despite the rather melancholy text by Scottish poet Andrew Lang. Alice, in fact, wrote an alternate text for the piece when it seemed Lang intended to refuse permission for use of the text––though thankfully, he finally relented, in Elgar’s words, “with a very bad grace.”

Be Like the Bird
In 1922, Abbie Betinis’ great-grandfather, Rev. Bates G. Burt, began a tradition of composing a carol each year and sending it to family and friends in his Christmas card. The tradition was continued by his son, Alfred Burt, whose carols remain well known to choral singers today. In 2001, Betinis––who is one of our favorite composers––revived the tradition, which had ended with Alfred’s death in the 1950s. “Be Like the Bird” was her 2009 carol. Its secular text is set to a deceptively simple tune, which, when sung in a round, develops layers of haunting beauty.

Such a Pretty Bird
The poetry set to music on today’s program is lovely, evocative, reverent of nature––and much of it is rooted firmly in the male-dominated canon of Western literature. Gertrude Stein deliberately sets herself and her poetry apart from that canon. Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry,” excerpted in this piece, reads like a meditation, with repetition bordering on absurdity. But in its many lines, Stein has composed a criticism of the male-dominated canon, using excess to parody and question its foundations.
Just as Stein’s poetry challenges the canon of literature, composer Thomas Fredrickson deviates from the choral canon by making his setting of the text a spoken word piece. In rehearsing this piece, we first found the lack of notes to be as unsettling as the poetry itself, but we came to enjoy its percussive nature. As Virgil Thomson wrote in the preface to the volume in which “Patriarchal Poetry” appeared, “Gertrude Stein’s lines do sometimes give up their secrets over the years.”

The Silver Swan
We return to the Western canon now to cleanse our musical palates. As do many of our selections today, Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan” mixes beauty with sadness in its bird imagery. The tale depicted in this song is the quintessence of such juxtaposition: the swan song. Although the swan does not sing until her death, the song she sings in that moment is beautiful, even as it expresses a readiness for death and a disdain for the world she is leaving.

The Blue Bird
Though brief and fairly straightforward, Mary Coleridge’s poem “The Blue Bird” paints an incredibly vivid scene. Over his career, Charles Villiers Stanford set eight of Coleridge’s poems to music, though most of his oeuvre fell out of favor after his death. “The Blue Bird,” however, thrives as a choral favorite and inspiration to many, including Stanford’s student Ralph Vaughan Williams. With the soprano line soaring like a bird over the still waters of the chorus, Stanford perfectly captures the reflective nature of the poem.

Hope is the thing with feathers
We are thrilled to present the world premiere of this commission by Patrick Ressler, an extraordinarily multitalented local artist and recent alumnus of the Chestnut Street Singers. Ressler writes, “Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ struck me as the perfect fit for a concert celebrating the natural world, including birds and trees—and the fifth anniversary of the Chestnut Street Singers. I was excited by the challenge of musicalizing ‘hope,’ a word that shouldn’t be understood as unequivocally positive or simple. In setting this text, I sought to reflect the uncertainty of hope, suspended and resolved, and ascending ever so slightly over time (note the chromatic bass line of the first four chords). Hope isn’t easily pinned down, and has a tendency to change us more than the object of our hoping.”

The Three Ravens
Birds are not always symbols of hope or harbingers of a beautiful spring. Here, we meet three ravens who are disappointed to have lost out on their intended breakfast: a slain knight. He is too well protected by his hawks and hounds and a “fallow doe,” likely symbolizing his pregnant lover. “The Three Ravens” is a traditional English folk tune that first appeared in a published collection in 1611 but is likely much older than that. This dynamic arrangement by Edward Chapman highlights both the sinister and the beautiful moments of this chilling tale.

A Ballad of Tree Toads
This light-hearted tune returns us to the bright, sunny side of our springtime program. Lester Jenks was one of many pseudonyms used by Harvey B. Gaul, a prolific composer and arranger based in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century. Silly though it may be, the song allows our talented men to show off their chops with tight-knit barbershop harmonies and tongue-twisting diction.

Lay a Garland
“Lay a Garland” is one of the most beloved English songs in the choral canon. Robert Pearsall revived the Renaissance tradition with this adaptation of text from The Maid’s Tragedy, an early seventeenth-century play by Francis Beaumont (1584–1616) and John Fletcher (1579–1625). In the play, the text is spoken by a heartbroken maiden whose betrothed is being forced to wed the king’s mistress. Out of layers of harmony and dissonance, with individual vocal lines vying for the spotlight, Pearsall creates beautiful warmth from the tragedy of betrayal––which, to a young maiden, may as well be death.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
Within other texts on today’s program, nature is exalted above the fickle, tragic lot of humanity. In his famous eighteenth sonnet, however, The Bard exalts his loved one over the harsh, fleeting seasons of the natural world. Swedish jazz composer Nils Lindgren published the suite O Mistress Mine in 1990, featuring a collection of poems written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I set to music. “Shall I compare thee” was, understandably, the best-selling choral score in Sweden the year its arrangement was released. It has also been a favorite of the Chestnut Street Singers since we performed it on our first concert in June 2010.

Haiku by Basho
Although we may recall haiku from our school lessons as poems with strict syllabic structures, they are in fact more defined by the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas and also usually contain a seasonal or natural reference. Basho, considered the father of the haiku, offers a wry, mournful depiction of the changing seasons. The unassuming beauty of the text is rooted firmly in the world around the poet, yet Goldschmidt’s setting beautifully captures its transcendence with unusual but stirring tonal progressions.

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
We return now to our friend the nightingale. Though sometimes a symbol of melancholy, here she is planted firmly in her role as a muse for poets and lovers, appearing in each instance of a nostalgic reflection on a past love affair. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was published in 1940 in London, becoming and remaining a standard both in England and the U.S. It has been performed by such legends as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., and even Rod Stewart. Today’s version is a Grammy-winning arrangement by Gene Puerling, as performed by a cappella jazz group, the Manhattan Transfer.

Loveliest of Trees
A recent favorite of the Chestnuts, John Chorbaijan’s “Loveliest of Trees” perfectly captures the poet’s dilemma. Faced with both the beauty of the world around him and his own harsh mortality, he determines to take inspiration from the changing seasons and more fully embrace his remaining years. Such a bittersweet tone, especially for a speaker of only 20, is typical of A. E. Housman’s work; despite a brilliant career, he was plagued by a lifelong unrequited love.

Great Trees
In this excerpt from his larger work Hymnody of Earth, Malcolm Dalglish expresses the utmost reverence for the world around us with his setting of Wendell Berry’s moving tribute to trees. The praise and awe the poem offers to the mighty sentinels of our earth is expressed through nuanced, lilting rhythms and the bright, folksy harmonies of the American tradition. Although much of The Hymnody of Earth features accompaniment from percussion and hammered dulcimer (Dalglish’s instrument of choice), “Great Trees” is far more hymn-like, paying special attention to Berry’s text. The choir’s sound crescendos in pace with the gentle growth of the trees themselves, and the deliberate pauses within each verse hearken to the green stillness of the woods.

Of All the Birds That I Do Know
We close our program with this light-hearted tribute to a noisy pet bird––or so it seems. Madrigals are known to be rife with innuendo, and this one is no exception, leaving the listener without doubt that “Phillip” is not a bird at all. In spite of the rather indelicate subtext, English composer John Bartlet’s setting is quite delicate, and whether it leaves you with birds or other subjects on your mind, we hope it sends you cheerfully into this spring evening.

40 Voices Singing: Masterworks for Massed Choirs
March 14 and 15, 2015
featuring the Chestnut Street Singers, The Laughing Bird, and PhilHarmonia
Josh Dearing and Mitos Andaya Hart, conductors

Vaclovas Augustinas, “Anoj pusėj Dunojėlio”
Jordan Nobles, “Lux Antiqua”
Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, “Heyr, himna smiður”
Thomas Tallis, “Spem in alium”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kyrie from Mass in G minor
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Gloria from Missa sine nomine à 4
Igor Stravinsky, “Russian Credo”
William Albright, Sanctus and Benedictus from Chichester Mass
Samuel Barber, “Agnus Dei”

Notes on the Program
Today’s program was designed as a showcase for ensemble-level collaboration: to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Chestnut Street Singers, Philadelphia’s only collaborative chamber choir, we are collaborating with other choral groups on works that none of us would be able to perform alone. This performance would not be possible without our dedicated, extraordinary, inspiring partner ensembles, The Laughing Bird and PhilHarmonia. They are a joy to sing with, and we are honored to share this program with them.

Even though this concert is meant to champion choirs and choral singing, today’s program does just as much to spotlight individual voices within the larger texture. The nature of choral singing usually lends itself to thinking of the choir as a faceless wall of sound–not so today. As fifty of the city’s finest choral singers surround the audience, you will hear some voices more than others. You will hear natural differences in tone, timbre, and phrasing, and you will hear individual voices singing independent lines and improvising on common themes.

Choral singers don’t usually encourage anything other than uniform sonic blend, but we find ourselves delighted with the juxtaposition between large-scale masterworks and the richly textured sound of individual singers. The contrast reveals the human scale of this ambitious repertoire: these cathedrals of sound are built on foundations made of little more than the breath and focus of individual singers.

This kind of musical high-wire act testifies to the strength and vitality of the Philadelphia choral community. Partnering to sing this repertoire requires technique and trust in equal measures. We are thrilled to have such resources at our disposal, and we are honored to share them with you.

Anoj pusėj Dunojėlio
We open with a traditional Lithuanian folksong embellished with distinctly non-traditional choral techniques. Composer Vaclovas Augustinas, who learned this tune as a child, preserves the piece’s original melody but instructs the female singers to perform the opening section heterophonically, with each singer entering in her own time and at her own tempo. The result is a complex cloud of sound, grounded by the men’s overtone singing. The heterophonic effect returns as the piece grows towards a climax, with each singer improvising around the same melodic theme.

Lux Antiqua
Jordan Nobles’ “Lux Antiqua” goes even further in exploring an unstructured choral sound. Written for “spatialized choir” so that the singers represent pinpricks of light within the night sky, the piece shifts in and out of a structured tempo, making recognizable patterns out of its deliberately unearthly incantations. The text is simply a litany of star names; as these stars are some of the brightest and most familiar to us, these names are centuries old, having served as inspiration and touchstones for even longer than the religious traditions represented elsewhere in the program.

Heyr, himna smiður
We return to a more traditional sound with Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s modern setting of a twelfth-century poem by Kolbeinn Tumason (1173–1208). The poem is the oldest surviving religious poem in Scandinavia; local lore holds that Tumason, once one of Iceland’s most powerful chieftains, composed the poem on his deathbed after being injured in battle. The resulting hymn is widely known in Iceland, where it is often sung at funerals, but it came to our attention in a viral YouTube video of Áristíðir, an Icelandic indie-folk band, casually singing in a German train station. The hymn’s simple structure and plaintive harmonies allow our men to make the most of the expressive text.

Spem in alium
Thomas Tallis is generally regarded as one of the greatest English composers, and “Spem in alium,” written for forty singers each performing individual parts, is his masterpiece. The piece was composed around 1570, likely inspired by a similarly complex work by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. Some historians even suggest that the piece may have been written to celebrate Queen Elizabeth I’s fortieth birthday in 1573, but Tallis’ motivation for the work remains obscure.

The motet is designed for eight identical quintets of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. The piece opens with each quintet singing in turn as the music moves through the eight choirs; the pattern is then reversed, with the music passing from Choir 8 back to Choir 1. In today’s performance, you’ll hear Choir 1 begin the piece from the front left corner of the hall, with the successive choirs standing clockwise around the audience. As the music intensifies, the choirs begin singing in antiphonal pairs—listen for a call-and-response structure moving across the circular choir. Although individual voices imitate earlier patterns, each part is unique. The piece builds to final triumphant crescendo with all forty voices weaving together.

Kyrie
For the second half of today’s program, we present an eclectic mass in which each movement is drawn from a different a cappella setting of the traditional liturgy. We open with the Kyrie from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor. The movement is grounded by a stirring chant line in the alto part, with the altos’ stately phrases bookending more modern harmonies in the choral and solo parts.

Gloria
We return to the late sixteenth century with the Gloria from Palestrina’s Missa sine nomine à 4. Palestrina was a tremendously prolific composer: he wrote more than 200 motets in the last decades of his life and more than 100 masses. Missa sine nomine à 4–literally the “mass without a name for four [voices]”––was written near the end of his life, probably around 1584.

Russian Credo
Stravinsky’s devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church is evident in his Russian Credo, so named to distinguish it from the Credo movement of his full mass. Although the mass, written in the 1940s for choir and orchestra, uses the Roman Catholic liturgy, Stravinsky’s standalone Russian Credo is to be sung in unemphasized, chant-like Russian. The simple, repetitive harmonic structure hearkens to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, with Stravinsky’s stern performance notes––“non forte, non espressivo”–– ensuring that the text retains its meditative feel.

Sanctus and Benedictus
In 1974, American composer William Albright was commissioned to write for the nine hundredth anniversary celebration of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England. The resulting work, Chichester Mass, was premiered by the Cathedral Choir in June 1975.

In the Sanctus, one can hear elements of improvisation and phasing to create what Albright envisions as a holy “cloud-like” atmosphere from which the text emerges in a “veiled and mysterioso” manner. In contrast to the vagueness of this movement, the upper voices proceed to the Benedictus in a quick, psalmodic fashion giving rise to a polychordal exclamation of “Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.” The traditional Hosanna––set only once at the end of the Benedictus rather than in both movements––blazes in modes of E with lively clips and buzzing fragments leading to the frenzied and ultimate climax.

Agnus Dei
We close with a choral masterpiece that wasn’t originally written for choir: Barber’s “Agnus Dei” began as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, also known as the Adagio for Strings. The original piece for string quartet was arranged for string orchestra in 1937; Barber re-set the music for choir in 1967, making only very slight changes to the orchestral arrangement. Like the “Russian Credo,” the “Agnus Dei” is a standalone piece rather than an excerpt from a full mass setting. As the close to our eclectic mass, it carries great yearning and power in its relatively simple musical structure.

The Elements of Song
November 9, 2014
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Eddie Rubeiz, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Silence & Music”
Thomas Morley arr. John Leavitt, “Fyer, fyer!”
Morten Lauridsen, “Quando son più lontan,” “Amor, io sento l’alma,” and “Se per havervi, oime” from Madrigali
Harry T. Burleigh, “Deep River”
John Bennet, “Weep, O Mine Eyes”
Alberto Grau, “Kasar mie la gaji”
William Billings, “Euroclydon”
Williametta Spencer, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”
William Horsley, “Come gentle zephyr”
Abbie Betinis, “Jerusalem Luminosa”
Claudio Monteverdi, “Ecco mormorar l’onde”
Loreena McKennitt arr. Jon Washburn, “Tango to Evora”
Ola Gjeilo, “Northern Lights”
Michael John Trotta, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”

Notes on the Program
Across continents and history, a worldview based on the four elements––earth, air, fire, and water––pervades many philosophies and religions, from China to ancient Greece. The system of elements provided a basis for comprehending the natural world around us: our ancestors believed everything was made up of some combination of these elements. Though now perhaps less scientifically relevant, the elements still figure in our reckoning of the natural world, especially through our arts. Music and poetry are, like the classical elements, a universal experience through which we try to make sense of our world.

Some philosophies included a fifth element, known in ancient Greece as “aether.” Aether was thought of as pure essence or the breath of the gods. As singers, this concept resonates strongly with us. Though many of the pieces on today’s program explicitly reference one or more of the tangible four elements, the fifth is with us whenever we sing. We hope these pieces both connect you to the world around you and lift you up into the aether. With our powers combined, we offer you the elements of song.

Silence & Music
We open with one of our favorite pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed in 1953 as part of an effort by ten British choral composers to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Vaughan Williams dedicates the piece to his teacher, composer Charles Villiers Stanford, and the legacy of Stanford’s choral work “The Blue Bird.” Like Stanford’s earlier piece, “Silence & Music” builds upon lush harmonies and a soaring soprano melody. Birds themselves are another repeated motif: the later piece’s text––by Vaughan Williams’ second wife, Ursula––carries us from sea to earth to sky to the realm of music. Vaughan Williams paints this text exquisitely: listen especially for our voices mimicking the four weeping winds. “Silence & Music” reminds us of the centrality of the physical world in art: “wind and sea and all of winged delight lie in the octaves of man’s voice.”

Fyer, fyer!
The late sixteenth century found Italian-style madrigals very much in vogue in Elizabethan England. Thomas Morley capitalized on this popularity by becoming, and remaining, the best-known English secular composer of his time. This song is actually a “ballett,” a dance-like cousin to the madrigal. The lively music can seem at odds with the despair presented in the text: the speaker’s heart is burning, presumably from the consuming effects of unrequited love, and no one comes to help him. The piece nonetheless maintains its dance-like character at times, perhaps referencing the dancing flicker of real flames.

Madrigali
Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali draws inspiration—and text—from the earliest madrigals, but the effect is worlds away from Morley’s. Madrigali, a six-part song cycle from which we have excerpted three movements, is also known as the “Fire Songs”: each text that Lauridsen selected makes reference to fire, whether the sweet fire of passion or the cruel, burning fire of obsessive, unrequited love. Like Morley and his contemporaries, Lauridsen uses text painting to bring the fire to life: listen for our growing flames (“Cresce la fiamma”) in our first selection and the smoldering burn at the end of the second. Throughout the cycle, Lauridsen blends the stylistic qualities of early madrigals with his own contemporary harmonies, including his signature “fire chord”: a minor triad with an added second, which recurs throughout the cycle.

Deep River
In this arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River” by Harry T. Burleigh, we turn from the potential danger of water to its spiritual significance. Though the origins of the song are unknown, Burleigh learned many spirituals from his grandfather who had once been enslaved. Burleigh’s arrangements of the tune for both chorus and solo voice were published in 1916 during his flourishing career as a composer and soloist in New York City; it is largely these arrangements that have made the song still so beloved and recognizable today.

Weep, O Mine Eyes
We remain with the element of water with this dark, melancholy madrigal by John Bennet. Here, however, we focus on seemingly innocuous tears. Their owner, looking to curtail his torment, begs his tears to grow as treacherous as the sea and thus end his life. Bennet composed the piece as an homage to John Dowland, a Renaissance composer known for his melancholy songs such aslike “Flow My Tears.” Similar to today’s other madrigals, Bennet’s piece employs text painting through lines that literally swell along with the tears.

Kasar mie la gaji
Water is starkly absent from Venezuelan composer Alberto Grau’s dramatic composition––instead we focus on the earth. The single repeated line, “Kasar mie la gaji,” loosely translates from the Hausa language of the African Sahel region to “The earth is tired.” In a quasi-minimalist style, Grau repeats the text over sections of repetitive phrasing, with a driving sense of rhythm throughout. The piece’s dissonance and vocal effects—including sighs and slurs—vividly depict the harshness of life in the world’s largest desert. And despite the distance and difference of the Sahel, this message applies to all our lives, as Grau wrote the piece as an environmental rallying call.

Euroclydon
William Billings, largely regarded as the father of American music, takes us on a musical journey through a storm of Biblical proportions. Here we experience the dangerous side of water and air as the sea and wind torment the poor brave sailors. Listen as the agitation of the music grows with that of the sea and the sailors and then finally calms down as the storm and the song end with grateful, hymn-like phrases.

At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners
John Donne’s dramatic poem, set here by contemporary American composer Williametta Spencer, paints the scene of Judgment Day. As in “Euroclydon,” the elements––in this case, floor and fire––in the hands of a higher power bring destruction to humankind. The poem’s speaker brazenly calls for the Last Judgment, only then realizing that he may not yet merit a heavenly pardon. Listen as the music’s character changes from bold trumpeting to meek supplication.

Come gentle zephyr
English composer William Horsley was known for his glees, which were a cappella pieces composed for men’s singing clubs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The texts were often idyllic, like “Come gentle zephyr,” so that they could be sung in the delicate company of women. Many editions of the score mysteriously attribute the text to Raunie, but the poem is identical to one that appears in the comic opera libretto The Prude, written in 1777 by Irish author Elizabeth Ryves. The speaker here appeals to a zephyr, named for Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind. In traditional mythology, Zephyrus serves Eros; our suitor therefore hopes the gentle wind will carry his sighs to his beloved’s ear.

Jerusalem Luminosa
Innovative Minnesota-based composer Abbie Betinis is a favorite of the Chestnut Street Singers. In “Jerusalem Luminosa,” the element of light represents peace. Though one might expect a piece about peace to have a gentler, placid sound, here the two voice parts intertwine, playing off one another with occasional dissonance. Betinis explains that she presents here “another vision of true peace: not a peace that pacifies, but one that engages in the act of peace-making––of compromise, and of joy in collaboration.”

Ecco mormorar l’onde
Claudio Monteverdi’s importance to music is difficult to overstate: he is regarded as the father of modern opera, his work marked the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period, and most importantly to our purposes, he was a prolific composer of madrigals. He composed nine books of madrigals; our selection today comes from his second volume. Monteverdi’s work and that of his contemporaries provided the inspiration for Lauridsen’s pieces, and here the text painting referenced in Madrigali is abundant. The poem beautifully describes the rising dawn, and Monteverdi’s music exquisitely brings it to life. Our voices paint the murmuring waves, the singing birds, and the golden light upon the mountain. Monteverdi’s work not only inspires many composers but is also a pleasure to experience.

Tango to Evora
Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt originally wrote “Tango to Evora” for the soundtrack to The Burning Times, a 1990 Canadian feminist documentary on the witch trials in early modern Europe. McKennitt’s version features harp and wordless vocals; this choral arrangement maintains the sultry rhythms and gradual build of the original. This is a mournful tango, commemorating the more than 60,000 people, mostly women, who were murdered during the Great Witch Craze. Like Morley’s “Fyer fyer,” “Tango to Evora” evokes images of flames, and the piece’s sensuality leaves us with a sense of yearning.

Northern Lights
Composer Ola Gjeilo was born in Norway but has made his home in New York since 2001. He composed “Northern Lights” while on a wintertime visit to Norway, during which he found himself reflecting on his newfound love for American life and the strange sense of feeling like a foreigner in his native land. Gjeilo’s use of a text from the Song of Songs grounds his longing in physicality on a human scale, while the evocative title draws our thoughts to the wider heavens. Like the composer’s sense of home, the aurora borealis is both familiar and foreign, sweet but “terrible” in its beauty. The music echoes this feeling, merging the familiar with the ever-changing. At the end, as the aurora fades into the cold, black sky, the music fades faster than we expect—as do so many other fleeting moments.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind
Composer Michael John Trotta, now based in Virginia, previously lived in the Philadelphia area after studying and teaching at Rowan University. His setting of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” from As You Like It, paints the scene of a growing winter storm, using our voices to musically and literally imitate the wind. Even the harshness of nature’s wrath, however, cannot compare to humankind’s cruelty to one other. The speaker of the poem, Amiens, is the attending musician to the court of Duke Senior, whose members have been exiled from their rightful court and are living in the forest; his bitterness towards his fellow man is perhaps understandable. Nonetheless, Amiens intersperses his commentary with a rollicking–if sly–wintry carol. This juxtaposition of the elements and emotion reminds us of our own ability to influence the world around us.

As One
June 1, 2014
Michael Blaakman, Elizabeth Chegezy, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Antonio Estévez, “Mata del Anima Sola”
Gustav Holst, “I sowed the seeds of love,” “The Song of the Blacksmith,” and “I love my love” from Six Choral Folk Songs
Michael McGlynn, “Dúlamán”
Zoltán Kodály, “Mátrai képek”
traditional Hebrew arr. Peter Sozio, “El Yivneh HaGalil”
Veljo Tormis, selections from Jaanilaulud
Miguel Matamoros arr. Conrado Monier, “Lágrimas Negras”
Frode Fjellheim, “Eatnemen Vuelie”
traditional English arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, “The spring time of the year”
traditional Slovenian arr. Aldo Kumar, “Dajte, dajte”
traditional Slovenian arr. Karol Pahor, “Pa se sliš’”
Abbie Betinis, “Long Time Trav’ling”

Notes on the Program
As an ensemble, we have always liked adventures: music that takes us somewhere new, that tells a story or tugs at our heartstrings. We are also fond of pushing ourselves out of our musical comfort zone, whether by attending shapenote gatherings to learn the right brazen tone or by calling the Icelandic embassy to ask for pronunciation advice.

Tonight’s concert combines those two impulses simply and joyfully: in a sampling of some of our favorite folk traditions from around the world. This program isn’t meant to be exhaustive—after all, we’re not the choral version of Epcot, and we must leave some challenges untouched for future concerts––but it does remind us of another of our favorite things: the universal appeal of singing with others. As we prepare ourselves for new adventures this summer and next season, these lively, poignant, deeply felt pieces are just what we need.

Mata del Anima Sola (Venezuela)
We open with the stirring “Mata del Anima Sola,” which brings us the rhythms and moods of Venezuela. Composer Antonio Estévez was part of the country’s second generation of important composers, but he takes inspiration from much older national traditions. The ringing tenor solo channels the figure of the llanero, a “man of the plains” who herds cattle alone on the high plains. The choir backs the soloist by imitating the instrumental sounds of the joropo, a traditional rhythmic dance–akin to a waltz–that is the country’s most popular folk rhythm.

Choral Folk Songs (England)
Like many of his contemporaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the English composer Gustav Holst developed an interest in his country’s folk music. In fact, Holst was encouraged in this pursuit by his good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was an especially passionate proponent of English folk tunes. The melodies in Six Choral Folk Songs are drawn from throughout the country; of our selections today, “I sowed the seeds of love” and “The Song of the Blacksmith” are from Hampshire, while “I love my love” is Cornish. Interestingly, these arrangements were not Holst’s first work with these tunes: some five years earlier, he had incorporated “The Song of the Blacksmith” and “I love my love” into his Second Suite in F for Military Band, which remains a staple of wind band repertoire.

Dúlamán (Ireland)
Michael McGlynn’s “Dúlamán” takes its text from a traditional Irish folksong narrating a nonsense conversation about amorous seaweed. Although the driving rhythms and the lightning speed of the Irish make this one of our favorite pieces to sing, we also like the nationalism embedded behind the silliness: the much-praised lover is repeatedly lauded as Gaelic seaweed, with literal and figurative roots firmly in Irish seabed, and the song itself dates from a period in Irish history when the coastal poor regularly relied upon seaweed as proof against famine. Although the lyrics praise the seaweed for his beret and his fine shoes–suggesting, perhaps, that he’ll be a promising match for the young girl–the song’s history reveals that the idea of the seaweed as salvation is less nonsensical than it might seem.

Mátrai képek (Hungary)
Zoltán Kodály’s Mátrai képek, or Mátra Pictures, is a boisterous compilation of folk songs from the Mátra region of his native Hungary. One of the most significant early figures in the field of ethnomusicology, Kodály was an enthusiastic student of folk songs, frequently going on research trips to remote villages with his friend and colleague Béla Bartók. Mátrai képek was composed in 1931, featuring five folksongs from Hungary’s mountainous northern region. Kodály’s setting emphasizes the narrative aspect of each tune, with stark emotional and dynamic contrasts: a depiction of the famous outlaw Vidróczki, a nineteenth-century bandit; an exchange between a village boy who yearns for a more cosmopolitan life and his no-nonsense sweetheart; a mournful plaint from one who has left his home; a playful and flirtatious exchange between a young woman working in the fields and a suitor who believes she deserves a gentler vocation; and finally, a rousing vignette of the comic dramas of country life, including uncooperative livestock, unwanted guests, and insufficient wine.

El Yivneh HaGalil (Palestine)
The sinuous tune of “El Yivneh HaGalil” dates from the fifteenth century, but the song became truly famous in the early twentieth century, when Zionist immigrants to Palestine used folk songs as a way to build community among people from disparate European backgrounds. The piece is deceptively simple, building in more complex harmonies as it grows to a ringing conclusion, and the text would have been understandably appealing to the early advocates for the new Jewish nation. Peter Sozio’s arrangement also includes the opening phrase of the fifteenth-century hymn “Adon olam,” which celebrates a benevolent and omnipotent god.

Jaanilaulud (Estonia)
The contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis is one of our favorite composers, and his Jaanilaulud, a collection of Estonian folk songs celebrating midsummer, does not disappoint. In Estonia and other Baltic countries, June 24 is celebrated as St. John’s Day, a Christian holiday overlapping with the pagan holiday of midsummer. Celebrations begin the evening before, when each town lights an enormous bonfire meant to burn throughout the night. Many rituals include offerings to Jaani, who will guarantee fertility, a good harvest, and safety for livestock in the coming year.

Tormis’ setting includes folk tunes from throughout Estonia, providing a sampling of different regional traditions. Even as the composer juxtaposes these distinct melodies, certain themes and textures predominate: listen for distinct contrasts between the men’s and women’s parts, given prominence by Tormis’ request that the choir stand antiphonally. This arrangement makes it easier to hear the different parts playing leapfrog, singing similar or identical lines with overlapping entrances.

Lágrimas negras (Cuba)
The lilting salsa rhythms of “Lágrimas negras” take us to Cuba, where composer and lyricist Miguel Matamoros premiered this song with Trio Matamoros in 1930. The piece is written in the style of the bolero-son, a version of the bolero, a popular slow-tempo Latin dance. The bolero-son has long been Cuba’s most popular dance rhythm, which accounts for its seemingly discordant use in this lament of heartbreak and despair.

Eatnemen Vuelie (Norway)
We have long been fans of “Eatnemen Vuelie,” in which Norwegian composer Frode Fjellheim juxtaposes traditional Sámi yoik with a beloved northern hymn, but we never expected it to show up in a Disney movie. Surprise, surprise–the piece was featured recently in Frozen. Fjellheim begins with the yoik, a type of chant-singing practiced by nomadic Sámi herders as they roam the tundra alone. Yoiks are improvised and usually secular, often about the singer’s connection to nature or personal life. The Sámi are nonetheless a devoutly Christian people, and “Fairest Lord Jesus,” which Fjellheim weaves into the yoik melody, is one of their most popular hymns.

The spring time of the year (England)
As we have seen, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was especially interested in his country’s varied folk traditions. The composer discovered the text and melody of “The spring time of the year” during a local performance near Norwich in 1908; he then, in his words, “freely arranged” the song for choir. Vaughan Williams’ setting emphasizes the achingly gorgeous melody, with the interwoven choral parts allowing the tempo to swell freely. Ironically, given Vaughan Williams’ general reverence for folk songs, he chose to set only the opening two verses of the song’s traditional eight verses. His notes on the piece state that “the rest of the ballad is not very interesting,” but in fact, the full song tells a story of looming war and star-crossed lovers. Such drama may not have been what the composer imagined for his lush choral setting––and given how satisfying Vaughan Williams’ version is to sing, we certainly won’t complain.

Dajte, dajte (Slovenia)
It may seem as though the biggest challenge when assembling a program of folk songs is simply mastering those songs’ many different languages and styles. It’s true that these pieces come with a steep learning curve, but what may be even more challenging is recognizing that each of today’s selections represent only a small fraction of their respective cultures. “Dajte, dajte,” for example, arranged by Aldo Kumar, is a delightfully energetic ditty from the Istrian region in southwest Slovenia. It is also unabashedly misogynistic and ageist (and possibly anti-mothers-in-law). We recommend enjoying the rollicking melody and the percussive dynamics and ignoring the actual meaning of the text.

Pa se sliš’ (Slovenia)
By contrast, “Pa se sliš’” is simply a lovely lullaby. The Slovenian composer Karol Pahor grew up in the easternmost corner of Italy, near the Slovenian border. His father employed Istrian laborers, and the family would often join the laborers in singing traditional Slovenian tunes like this one.

Long Time Trav’ling (United States)
Abbie Betinis, recently named one of NPR’s top hundred composers under forty, is another of our favorite composers. We are especially fond of her attention to textual detail and her thoughtful partwriting, and both traits, along with a reverence for American musical history, are on display in “Long Time Trav’ling.” The work combines two popular nineteenth-century shapenote hymns with additional text from a third such setting. The interwoven solo lines are sung with gusto, shapenote-style, while the rest of the choristers interject as both distant chain gangs and sightreading shapenoters.

To Arms
March 16, 2014
Michael Blaakman, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Rachel Haimovich, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

traditional English, “Agincourt Carol”
Joshua Shank, Two Songs of Release
Benjamin Britten, “Advance Democracy”
Arvo Pärt, “Da pacem Domine”
Kirke Mechem, “The Caged Bird”
Clement Janéquin, “La Guerre”
traditional Shaker arr. Nina Gilbert, “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn”
traditional Irish arr. Alice Parker, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”
William Byrd, “Ave verum corpus”
Stanford E. Scriven, “This Is the Day”
Sydney Guillaume, “Twa Tanbou”

Notes on the Program
This was a challenging concert to program. Owing to the structure of the concert season, each concert is titled and themed long before the full repertoire has actually been selected. We settled on the theme–“music of strife and reconciliation”–on the strength of several pieces that we thought could serve as anchors for the rest of the concert, but that left us with two-thirds of the program yet to finalize and a subtitle that seemed to mean both too little and too much. Wasn’t “strife and reconciliation” just a fancy way of saying “war and peace”? What was there left to say about either that hadn’t already been said, with more timpani and bravado than we could ever muster, by the great symphonic works of the twentieth century? What place did choral singing–too small for the bluster of Britten’s War Requiem, too large for the intimacy of mourning–have in grappling with the moving targets of strife and reconciliation?

Quite a bit, it turned out. In today’s culture, we still have moments of community singing during great triumphs or celebrations–think back to Olympic medalists and fans singing along to their national anthem, or to any Red Sox game in the past decade––but we do not usually sing in the midst of struggle or uncertainty. This is a relatively new development: not long ago, community singing–which is really just choral singing, minus the coordinated outfits and mandated rehearsals–was an integral expression of togetherness. This singing was accessible and vernacular, relating inspirational narratives or building off of easy-to-follow refrains. Many of the pieces on today’s program grow out of that tradition of music with an agenda. This is music on a human scale, meant for communities, not symphonies or soloists. We are honored to welcome you into ours.

Agincourt Carol
We begin with an anonymous carol from fifteenth-century England, depicting England’s victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In our performance, the narrative verses are sung by a pair of soloists, hearkening to the medieval tradition of heralds, appointed messengers from each side who would watch battles from a safe distance, narrate the proceedings as necessary, and even announce the victors. At Agincourt, the English and French heralds watched together, both agreeing that against all odds––including being hugely outnumbered–the English had triumphed. The piece is jaunty and brazen, belying the battle’s gore and bloodshed. Thousands of soldiers died in hand-to-hand combat or by being trampled, but the outcome led to a new period in the Hundred Years War, with a seeming truce declared in a marriage alliance between the two countries.

Two Songs of Release
Our program notes often use “by contrast” as a segue, pointing out a single, discrete difference between two back-to-back selections. That segue is of little use in this transition; nothing can be further from the bright, bombastic “Agincourt Carol” than Joshua Shank’s Two Songs of Release. Composed in 2003, and inspired in part by the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Two Songs of Release treads very different territory than “Agincourt Carol”: there are no appointed winners, no neat conclusions, and no benevolent deities in the struggles that Shank depicts in angular, dissonant harmonies. Although the composer draws upon canonical texts about warfare––Walt Whitman’s writings on the Civil War can feel inextricably linked to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ great Dona Nobis Pacem, a pacifist cantata written in the 1930s––the setting draws our attention much more to individual actions than to the grander scale of conflict. Shank writes for our crisis-deadened, news-glutted era, inviting each of us to play a role in breaking through the noise and disruption to achieve healing and growth.

Advance Democracy
Benjamin Britten’s “Advance Democracy” brings us back to bombast, though the sense of personal responsibility persists. This piece is our closest approximation to propaganda; the strikingly earnest text, by British poet Randall Swingler, is openly Communist and anti-war. Written in 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, “Advance Democracy” pleads for an outcome that won’t lead to a second world war. Britten’s pacifism is well known from his War Requiem, composed in 1962, but “Advance Democracy” reveals the composer in a younger, more naïve stance. The piece is nonetheless stirring: listen for the contrast between the disjointed, staccato chant and the soaring, eerie obligato in the other voiceparts.

Da pacem Domine
“Da pacem Domine,” by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, brings us into a more meditative mood. Pärt is known for his unique compositional style, which he calls “tintinnabuli,” in which a piece unfolds around various inversions of single chords. His music also evokes pealing bells, with voices smoothly overlapping in complex patterns and overtones. “Da pacem Domine,” which draws upon a seventh-century chant, was written in 2004; although the piece had been specifically commissioned, Pärt wrote in response to the Madrid train bombings, which had taken place just days before he began work and which killed or injured nearly two thousand people. The result is an anguished call for peace, with the repetitive chords and achingly slow tempo inviting reflection rather than reaction.

The Caged Bird
We close this first half with further introspection, courtesy of American composer Kirke Mechem and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The text of “The Caged Bird,” originally titled “Sympathy,” is more famous today for its first line–which Maya Angelou used as the title of her autobiography–than for its whole; similarly, Dunbar himself is often overlooked in the canon of American poetry. The son of former slaves, Dunbar grew up in Ohio during the Jim Crow era, making his living as an elevator operator and even selling volumes of his poetry to elevator passengers. Mechem, whose father was also a poet, handles the famous text deftly, with stark dynamic changes and a quickening tempo highlighting the poem’s growing emotion.

La Guerre
Clement Janéquin is one of our favorite composers, and “La Guerre,” his onomatopoetic depiction of the French victory over the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, perfectly illustrates why. Listen carefully as the battle intensifies: what begins as a nationalistic song meant to stir up comrades evolves into the sounds of charging cavalry, sackbuts, and cannonfire. This was a decisive and unexpected victory for the French: after decades of Swiss supremacy, the French forces had taken an unprecedented stand, hauling hundreds of pieces of artillery–including dozens of huge cannons––through the Alps before the battle. The French army’s shock and delight will be apparent in their declarations of “Victoire!” at the end of the piece.

We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn
We move into a very different mood with Nina Gilbert’s arrangement of the traditional Shaker spiritual “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn.” The Shakers, a religious sect founded in the late eighteenth century, believed that they were preparing for the second coming of Christ. Their communities were structured very intentionally, with all members vowing celibacy, and their reverence was known to be enthusiastic: the name “Shakers” comes from high-energy worship services that included dancing, speaking in tongues, and receiving visions. Like many other American Shaker hymns from the mid-nineteenth century, “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn” was not formally composed—instead, the Shakers believed it had been sent to them as a “spiritual gift” in a communal vision. “Mother” refers to Mother Ann Lee, one of the sect’s founders; the hymn’s insistence upon penance and prayer reflects the community’s belief in an imminent rapture.

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
“Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” also dates from the mid-nineteenth century: it was first published in Ireland in 1867, several decades after the Kandyan Wars during the turn of the century. The Irish, themselves under English rule, were unwilling conscripts into England’s colonial war in Sri Lanka. Arranged here by the venerable American composer Alice Parker, the tune’s jaunty rhythms offer a chilling counterpart to the powerful text: the relentless thrum of the repeating chorus line–
“with your drums and guns and drums and guns”–suggests that the war machine will grind on regardless of individual tragedies.

Ave verum corpus
William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” first published in 1605, returns us to a sense of introspection and personal struggle. This motet is considered one of Byrd’s most extraordinary compositions, with an unusual opening chord progression–alternating between major and minor–and very careful use of the traditional Eucharistic text. Byrd, like his teacher Thomas Tallis, was a devout Catholic; both men openly flouted the contemporary English laws mandating steep punishment for Catholics. We can hear this devotion reflected in “Ave verum corpus,” which stresses the word “verum,” underlining the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. The achingly beautiful ending of the piece–a prayer for mercy and a final “Amen”–emphasizes the pleading nature of the text, with prominent dissonance making the piece’s conclusion bittersweet.

This Is the Day
In contrast to the sectarian conflict behind “Ave verum corpus,” Stanford E. Scriven’s “This Is the Day” draws upon a text from the Bahá’í faith, which proclaims the essential equality of all people and the importance of peace and unity. Scriven’s setting, composed when he was just twenty years old, moves deliberately between suggestions of awe and grandeur and a more intimate, personal invocation. The piece has been warmly received by the international Bahá’í community, with featured performances at the country’s only Bahá’í House of Worship.

Twa Tanbou
We close with “Twa Tanbou” by the contemporary Haitian-American composer Sydney Guillaume. Like “Agincourt Carol” and “La Guerre,” “Twa Tanbou” is a straightforward narration, here depicting three different drums squabbling over their relative merits. As the drums try to outdo each other, the rhythms of the piece get more complex, with Creole poetry interwoven with onomatopoetic drum language depicting different percussion sounds. Anyone who enjoys ensemble music will foresee the resolution to the drums’ conflict: when they all play together, they achieve more than they ever could have alone.

For Keeps
November 17, 2013
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Knut Nystedt, “Cry Out and Shout”
Thomas Tallis, “If ye love me”
Bob Chilcott, “Love”
Ivan Hrušovský, “Rytmus”
Paul J. Christiansen, “My Song in the Night”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Sicut cervus”
Abbie Betinis, Carmina mei cordis
Michael Tippett, “Steal away”
Samuel Hernández Dumenigo, “Padre Nuestro”
Jordan Rock, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
John Chorbajian, “Loveliest Of Trees”
Johannes Brahms, “In stiller Nacht”
Heinrich Schütz, “Selig sind die Toten”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Choral Concerto”

Notes on the Program
Like centuries of others before us, we come together today to seek solace and inspiration in music. The repertoire on this program spans six centuries of singing, but the common thread in each piece—a yearning for grace, trust, and comfort—feels as timeless as our gathering.

Cry Out and Shout
Knut Nystedt’s “Cry Out and Shout” is like a trumpet fanfare in choral form. Only forty measures long, its jubilant, ringing chords ably fulfill the instruction of the title phrase. The overall effect is triumphal, with the clarity of the opening reflecting Nystedt’s studies with Aaron Copland. This powerful simplicity continues through the middle section, in which parallel harmony in the women’s voices is matched by contrary motion in the tenor line. The bombastic treatment may not immediately inspire feelings of comfort or grace, but the repeated text—“Cry out and shout, ye people of God! The Lord is strength and song!”—offers a clear statement of trust and stability.

If ye love me
The text of “If ye love me,” which comes from the Gospel of John, suggests another very basic path to comfort and even salvation: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Composer Thomas Tallis may have had particularly hard-won ideas about his own comfort and salvation, as he clung devoutly to his Catholic faith even as England became a staunchly Protestant nation during the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son. “If ye love me” is actually a product of Edward’s reign, which mandated that church services and anthems be in English rather than Latin. Moving between homophony and polyphony, the piece spotlights Tallis’ trademark expressivity while also obeying another of the Reformation’s rules: “to each syllable a plain and distinct note.”

Love
In contrast to all this comfort and stability, Bob Chilcott’s “Love” feels markedly unsettled. Chilcott relies heavily on an Impressionist technique called harmonic planing: throughout the piece, the top three voices move in the same direction, by the same interval, at the same time. With the voice parts remaining constant relative to one another, the chord moves through the scale but never changes. The result creates a feeling of seasickness, as the chords plane out of the major scale but remain relatively consonant.

This rootlessness is appropriate, echoing the caught-between-worlds feeling described in Alfred Tennyson’s text. The verses come from Tennyson’s larger work In Memoriam A.H.H., which was written in memory of Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at 22. Although the depth of the poet’s grief is obvious, this excerpt—and the poem as a whole—does not reflect the raw emotion of a recent loss. Tennyson spent almost seventeen years composing In Memoriam A.H.H.; the excerpt we sing here is indicative of a poet who will never cease to miss his beloved friend but who is at peace with both his loss and his own mortality. This overriding sense of comfort is given voice by the tenor and soprano soloists, setting love—not loss—as the touchstone of the work.

Rytmus
Ivan Hrušovský’s “Rytmus” is a study in pure rhythm, befitting the Slovakian composer’s status as an important voice in his country’s approach to music education. With only two lines of text, Hrušovský manages nonetheless to fashion an intricate pattern of pattersong, with the shifting chromatics and layered rhythms keeping the eighth-note pulse driving forward.

My Song in the Night
This arrangement of “My Song in the Night,” a tune that originated in the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp hymn collection, comes with a significant family legacy. The arranger, Paul J. Christiansen, was the youngest son of F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born choral conductor and composer who is largely credited with furthering the art of a cappella choral music in the United States. The Christiansens are especially associated with the choral traditions of the Lutheran church, with F. Melius founding the famed choir at St. Olaf College and Paul J. serving almost fifty years as conductor at Concordia College. Lush and expressive, Christiansen’s arrangement highlights the emphasis on blend and phrasing that his father made such an integral part of American Lutheranism.

Sicut cervus
After the plaintive longing of “My Song in the Night”, Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” brings us a different, simpler kind of yearning. The text, the first verse of Psalm 42, is clear and timeless, and Palestrina’s setting feels almost organic in its pellucid simplicity. “Sicut cervus” represents a quintessential Palestrina composition, and arguably his most famous: the motet structure grants each phrase of text a new melodic theme, which passes from voice part to voice part in lush, seamless counterpoint.

Carmina mei cordis
There is little that is simple about Abbie Betinis’ Carmina mei cordis, but the set’s combination of traditional chant with modern harmonics is remarkably striking. Both texts in the work are drawn from the Catholic liturgy: the text of the first piece in the set, “Aeterna lux, divinitas”, is actually traditional for early morning services, specifically those taking place at a time of year when the sun rises before the service begins. The text hails the light- and life-giving Trinity; accordingly, Betinis’ piece modulates between two primary modalities before unifying to form a third. Although the piece starts within a fairly limited chant register, the texture grows more complex as the voice parts modulate together, with the four voices eventually spiraling together into an exuberant canon.

The second piece, “Angele dei”, uses a text that is also sometimes known as the Prayer to a Guardian Angel. The chant elements return in the recurring soprano invocation, and Betinis continues to play with modality and rhythm, setting the soprano melody at odds with the mostly homophonic pulse of the lower three voices. She cites the choral music of Poulenc and Messiaen as her inspirations for “Angele Dei”, and we hear that lineage in the piece’s tension between consonance and dissonance.

Steal away
Though equally reverent, Michael Tippett’s “Steal away”, from the secular oratorio A Child of Our Time, has origins that are considerably less celestial than Betinis’ Catholic liturgy: the piece was composed in response to the events leading up to Kristallnacht in Germany. Structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, A Child of Our Time proclaims both the composer’s pacifism and his belief in the inherent goodness of all people. Interestingly, although the 1944 premiere was a critical and popular success, many objected to the inclusion of spirituals and jazz elements, denigrating them as improper for performance as classical music. Unsurprisingly, we feel quite the opposite about “Steal away”: in addition to being beautiful in its own right, we find it very telling that Tippett—a young Englishman wracked with terror and guilt over the emerging fascism in Germany and his own country’s militarism––relied upon African-American spirituals as the most poignant expression of his innermost hope and despair.

Padre Nuestro
The sense of solace that we find in other pieces on this program is especially poignant in Samuel Hernandez Duménigo’s “Padre Nuestro”. Duménigo is Cuban, which is all we know of him beyond what he provides in this piece. We may infer from the piece’s jazz inflections that its composer is a product of the late twentieth century, but we have no access to information about his other works or even about whether he is still living. That this lovely setting made it through the embargo at all speaks to music’s enduring power to transcend such barriers; unfortunately, as the piece is unpublished, tonight’s performance carries with it no benefit for the composer. Knowing the deprivations that Duménigo must suffer, the familiar inward-looking lines of the Lord’s Prayer have special resonance, directing our thoughts to his community instead of to our own needs.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
At the far extreme from a composer about whom we know very little is our own Jordan Rock, who composed “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” for us in 2011. The text, by William Butler Yeats, recalls the small island where the poet summered as a boy; lovely though it may have been, Yeats’ recollection is improved by time, and his imagined Innisfree is more utopian—and blessed with much milder weather—than the actual place. Jordan’s setting reinforces the poet’s real-life presence within his idealized vision, drawing upon a repeated triplet rhythm to mimic the natural cadence of Yeats’ own readings of the poem and changing the piece’s tonal mood as the poet’s thoughts move from utopian Innisfree to real-world Dublin.

Loveliest Of Trees
John Chorbajian’s “Loveliest Of Trees”, with text by A. E. Housman, suggests a more pragmatic view of bliss: we have little need of an imagined utopia if we take full advantage of the beauties available in daily life. The poem’s bittersweet tone is typical of Housman’s work: despite a brilliant career as a classicist, Housman was doomed to a lifelong and unrequited love for a college chum. Chorbajian’s setting emphasizes the duality inherent in the poem, shifting easily between the poet’s delight in the beauty of spring and quiet resignation to his own mortality.

In stiller Nacht
Continuing with this confluence of nature and emotion, we turn to “In stiller Nacht,” one of Johannes Brahms’ most beloved pieces. Although the piece is properly a lament, this folksong setting feels to us more like a lullaby. The texture is largely homophonic, with only occasional dissonance shading the poignant text as the phrases swell and contract. Like Brahms’ setting, the poem is not only secular but hugely Romantic, with the poet’s grief starkly reflected in —and perhaps even soothed by––the surrounding wilderness.

Selig sind die Toten
One of Brahms’ favorite composers was his countryman Heinrich Schütz, whose “Selig sind die Toten” takes a different approach to grief: blessed are the dead, for their works shall live after them. Brahms revered Schütz and used the same Biblical verses in the first and final movements of his Requiem. Schütz’s setting for six-part chorus hearkens to his own teacher: Giovanni Gabrieli, the master of polychoral composition. We hear the six voice parts trading off proclamations as if each representing different choirs; listen especially for the two interwoven soprano lines and the Tenor 2s’ triumphant “Ja!” half a measure before the rest of the choir.

Choral Concerto
We close the program with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text alone is powerful: Rachmaninoff features the Kontakion for the Dormition, the traditional prayer for the feast day commemorating the death—or “falling asleep,” hence “dormition”—resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Mary, the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer.” The prayer seems like an obvious candidate for loud proclamation and exaltation, but Rachmaninoff focuses most of the choir’s energies on more intimate, intensely concentrated gestures. This simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos.

In His Care
October 26, 2013
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Thomas Tallis, “Te lucis ante terminum”
Abbie Betinis, Carmina mei cordis
Bob Chilcott, “Love”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Sicut cervus”
Jussi Chydenius, “I am the great sun”
Michael Tippett, “Steal away”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Choral Concerto”
Knut Nystedt, “Cry Out and Shout”
Josquin des Prez, “Nymphes des bois”
Heinrich Schütz, “Selig sind die Toten”
Ivan Hrušovský, “Rytmus”
Samuel Hernández Dumenigo, “Padre Nuestro”
Paul J. Christiansen, “My Song in the Night”
arr. William L. Dawson, “In His Care-O”

Notes on the Program
Like centuries of others before us, we come together this evening to seek solace and inspiration in music. The repertoire on tonight’s program spans six centuries of sacred singing, but the common thread in each piece—a yearning for guidance, trust, and comfort—feels as timeless as our gathering.

Te lucis ante terminum
As befits an evening concert, we begin with one of the choral tradition’s oldest proofs against the fears and uncertainties of night and darkness. The text comprises the traditional compline hymn, sung at the final office, or church service, of the day. Despite the text’s venerable status––it dates to at least the eighth century, if not earlier—the hymn’s prayer for safety in the night strikes us ageless and all-encompassing, offering protection against everything from nightmares to sin. It certainly stirred Thomas Tallis, who published his setting of the text in a 1575 collection of Latin liturgical hymns. Such a collection was in direct violation of Queen Elizabeth I’s staunchly Anglican reign, which proscribed heavy penalties for practicing Catholics and the use of the Latin liturgy; we may infer that for Tallis, the solace and reverence he found in the hymn outweighed the potential threat of punishment.

Tallis’ setting retains the traditional plainchant of the liturgy in the first and third verses; we also follow the liturgy by having the cantor (in this case, the conductor) provide the incipit at the beginning. The second verse features Tallis at his polyphonic best, with the plainchant melody relegated to the sopranos and the other four voices briefly introducing each phrase while bringing new depth to the texture.

Carmina mei cordis
Several centuries later, we find contemporary American composer Abbie Betinis also drawing inspiration from the Catholic liturgical tradition. The first piece in the set, “Aeterna lux, divinitas”, is actually traditional for early morning services, specifically those taking place at a time of year when the sun rises before the service begins. The text hails the light- and life-giving Trinity; accordingly, Betinis’ piece modulates between two primary modalities before unifying to form a third. Although the piece starts within a fairly limited chant register, the texture grows more complex as the voice parts modulate together, with the four voices eventually spiraling together into an exuberant canon.

The second piece, “Angele dei”, uses a text that is also sometimes known as the Prayer to a Guardian Angel. The chant elements return in the recurring soprano invocation, and Betinis continues to play with modality and rhythm, setting the soprano melody at odds with the mostly homophonic pulse of the lower three voices. She cites the choral music of Poulenc and Messiaen as her inspirations for “Angele Dei”, and we hear that lineage in the piece’s tension between consonance and dissonance.

Love
Bob Chilcott’s “Love” takes that unsettled feeling even further with an Impressionist technique called harmonic planing or parallel harmony. Throughout the piece, the top three voices move in the same direction, by the same interval, at the same time. With the voice parts remaining constant relative to one another, the chord moves through the scale but never changes. The result creates a feeling of seasickness, as the chords plane out of the major scale but remain relatively consonant.

This rootlessness is appropriate, echoing the caught-between-worlds feeling described in Alfred Tennyson’s text. The verses come from Tennyson’s larger work In Memoriam A.H.H., which was written in memory of Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at 22. Although the depth of the poet’s grief is obvious, this excerpt—and the poem as a whole—does not reflect the raw emotion of a recent loss. Tennyson spent almost seventeen years composing In Memoriam A.H.H.; the excerpt we sing here is indicative of a poet who will never cease to miss his beloved friend but who is at peace with both his loss and his own mortality. This overriding sense of comfort is given voice by the tenor and soprano soloists, setting love—not loss—as the touchstone of the work.

Sicut cervus
Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” brings us a different, simpler kind of yearning. The text, the first verse of Psalm 42, is as clear and timeless as the “Te lucis” compline prayer, and Palestrina’s setting feels almost organic in its pellucid simplicity. “Sicut cervus” represents a quintessential Palestrina composition, and arguably his most famous: the motet structure grants each phrase of text a new melodic theme, which passes from voice part to voice part in lush, seamless counterpoint.

I am the great sun
Departing from this cornerstone of the canon, Jussi Chydenius’ “I am the great sun” takes inspiration from far-flung traditions. The text, by Cornish poet Charles Causley, was based on a seventeenth-century stone crucifix in Normandy, which was engraved with what became the first line of the poem; and the unearthly drone and eerie overtones with which the piece begin come from the throat-singing practiced by the Tuvans of southern Siberia. For all its exoticism and piety, the piece’s slow build-up and layered repetitions are almost reminiscent of a pop song; appropriately enough, Chydenius is perhaps most famous for his work in the Finnish a cappella ensemble Rajaton.

Steal away
Though equally reverent, Michael Tippett’s “Steal away”, from the secular oratorio A Child of Our Time, has origins that are considerably less celestial than Causley’s Norman cross: the piece was composed in response to the events leading up to Kristallnacht in Germany. Structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, A Child of Our Time proclaims both the composer’s pacifism and his belief in the inherent goodness of all people. Interestingly, although the 1944 premiere was a critical and popular success, many objected to the inclusion of spirituals and jazz elements, denigrating them as improper for performance as classical music. Unsurprisingly, we feel quite the opposite about “Steal away”: in addition to being beautiful in its own right, we find it very telling that Tippett—a young Englishman wracked with terror and guilt over the emerging fascism in Germany and his own country’s militarism––relied upon African-American spirituals as the most poignant expression of his innermost hope and despair.

Choral Concerto
We close the program’s first half with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text alone is powerful: Rachmaninoff features the Kontakion for the Dormition, the traditional prayer for the feast day commemorating the death—or “falling asleep,” hence “dormition”—resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Mary, the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer.” The prayer seems like an obvious candidate for loud proclamation and exaltation, but Rachmaninoff focuses most of the choir’s energies on more intimate, intensely concentrated gestures. This simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos. Interestingly, Tallis is not the only composer on today’s program who risked the ire of the church establishment: the “Choral Concerto” was never published in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime, because the slight changes he made to the traditional kontakion caused the piece to be banned by the Russian Orthodox authorities.

Cry Out and Shout
Knut Nystedt’s “Cry Out and Shout” is like a trumpet fanfare in choral form. Only forty measures long, its jubilant, ringing chords ably fulfill the instruction of the title phrase. The overall effect is triumphal, with the clarity of the opening reflecting Nystedt’s studies with Aaron Copland. This powerful simplicity continues through the middle section, in which parallel harmony in the women’s voices is matched by contrary motion in the tenor line.

Nymphes des bois
Josquin des Prez’s mostly secular “Nymphes des bois” also opens with an imperative, but here it is a call for mourning, not joy, as Josquin commemorates the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem in 1497. The text, written by fellow composer Jean Molinet, asks even the “nymphs of the woods” and “goddesses of the fountains” to express their sorrow. In a more touching testament to Ockeghem’s legacy, the nymphs are not the only ones who mourn: the text also names several of his students—Josquin included—as having lost their “good father”.

Josquin begins by cleverly mimicking the contrapuntal style for which Ockeghem was most famous. He then structures the piece’s polyphony around the introit chant of the Latin funeral mass—requiem aeternam—and weaves the four composed choral lines around a fifth voice intoning an augmented version of the original chant from the Liber Usualis. Composing a secular work around a sacred chant was common practice in the Renaissance for composers keen to avoid the church censors; listen for the “tenor” line—sung here by a contralto, a tenor, and a baritone—chanting the sacred Latin farewell.

Selig sind die Toten
“Selig sind die Toten”, written perhaps fifty years after “Nymphes des bois”, employs a Biblical text that echoes Molinet’s elegy: blessed are the dead, for their works follow them. Composer Heinrich Schütz fits into an admirable legacy of German composers who have set this text; his most famous colleague, of course, is Johannes Brahms, who revered Schütz and uses the same verses in the first and final movements of his Requiem. Schütz’s setting for six-part chorus hearkens to his own teacher: Giovanni Gabrieli, the master of polychoral composition. We hear the six voice parts trading off proclamations as if each representing different choirs; listen especially for the two interwoven soprano lines and the Tenor 2s’ triumphant “Ja!” half a measure before the rest of the choir.

Rytmus
If “Sicut cervus” and “Selig sind die Toten” are paragons of polyphony, Ivan Hrušovský’s “Rytmus” is a study in pure rhythm, befitting the Slovakian composer’s status as an important voice in his country’s approach to music education. With only two lines of text, Hrušovský manages nonetheless to fashion an intricate pattern of pattersong, with the shifting chromatics and layered rhythms keeping the eighth-note pulse driving forward.

Padre Nuestro
The sense of solace that we find in other pieces on this program is especially poignant in Samuel Hernandez Duménigo’s “Padre Nuestro”. Duménigo is Cuban, which is all we know of him beyond what he provides in this piece. We may infer from the piece’s jazz inflections that its composer is a product of the twentieth century, but we have no access to information about his other works or even about whether he is still living. That this lovely setting made it through the embargo at all speaks to music’s enduring power to transcend such barriers; unfortunately, as the piece is unpublished, tonight’s performance carries with it no benefit for the composer. Knowing the deprivations that Duménigo must suffer, the familiar inward-looking lines of the Lord’s Prayer have special resonance, directing our thoughts to his community instead of to our own needs.

My Song in the Night
This arrangement of “My Song in the Night,” a tune that originated in the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp hymn collection, comes with a significant family legacy. The arranger, Paul J. Christiansen, was the youngest son of F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born choral conductor and composer who is largely credited with furthering the art of a cappella choral music in the United States. The Christiansens are especially associated with the choral traditions of the Lutheran church, with F. Melius founding the famed choir at St. Olaf College and Paul J. serving almost fifty years as conductor at Concordia College. Lush and expressive, Christiansen’s arrangement highlights the emphasis on blend and phrasing that his father made such an integral part of American Lutheranism.

In His Care-O
We close with “In His Care-O”, a traditional spiritual arranged by the incomparable William L. Dawson. Just as the Christiansens have furthered the traditions of American Lutheran choral music, Dawson—along with Moses Hogan, another composer-turned-conductor—brought African-American spirituals firmly within the canon of American choral singing. Dawson’s interest in spirituals and folk music began in his childhood, when he would arrange—and sometimes rhythmically tweak—the traditional songs he heard at home and at church. Like all spirituals, “In His Care-O” carries with it a history of pain and hopelessness, but the jubliant refrain makes this a song of celebration, expressing not just comfort but salvation and joy.

Ahoy, Stranger!
June 2, 2013
Christopher Barron, Josh Dearing, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Eric Barnum, “The Sounding Sea”
Zoltán Kodály, “Norvég leányok”
Francis Poulenc, “C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince”
Robert Schumann, “Ungewisses Licht”
Gabriel Jackson, “A ship with unfurled sails”
arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, “Sometimes I Feel”
Einojuhani Rautavaara, “Lähtö”
David Ludwig, “The New Colossus”
Thomas Campion, “Never weather-beaten Saile”
Henryk Górecki, Szeroka Woda

Notes on the Program
As an ensemble, the Chestnut Street Singers have never sought to take our show on the road. For one reason or another–usually a combination of factors involving both time and money–we’ve always chosen to forego other venues and have embedded ourselves right here, in the blue-ceilinged church on Chestnut Street.

Despite this collective rootedness, we are nevertheless an ensemble of travelers. Our singers have taught in Asia, studied in Europe, worked in Africa. We are hikers and cyclists and walkers-to-work; we get stuck in traffic and swear at SEPTA and scout for free parking. Whatever the magnitude of our journeys, we are acutely aware of how these adventures–both large and small, farflung and very close to home––shape our lives and our music-making.

The Sounding Sea
How better to begin a concert than with an invitation to listen? Eric Barnum’s “The Sounding Sea,” using George William Curtis’ poem of the same name as its text, offers a compelling frame for our dual interests in this program: the pulsing, undeniable appeal of adventure alongside the lovingly bittersweet recognition that sometimes home is best. Barnum’s setting is a study in text painting, with the driving rhythms of the poem’s demand–Listen to the sounding sea–cutting through eerie vocal scoops. The character of the music changes as the narrator’s true perspective is revealed; the once-fierce sound of the sea turns to a nostalgic beckoning as the waves lap gently in the distance.

Norvég leányok
Zoltán Kodály’s “Norvég leányok” offers another view of the emotional repercussions of travel: the titular Norwegian girls give their smiles to “a foreign lad,” presumably a sailor, and they are left with no laughter for themselves at home. Kodály’s lilting melodic lines suggest both the girls’ unheard sighs and the ever-present sea breeze; the gentle persistence of raindrops–in both sound and text–throughout the piece situates us completely in this misty fishing village.

C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince
Continuing this scenario, Francis Poulenc’s “C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince” plays out the drama in miniature, presenting a romance’s entire narrative in this folksong-inspired jewel box of a piece. Here, the affections are explicitly grounded in music: the prince’s daughter is enchanted by a young sailor’s song. In a reverse of the traditional story of sirens or lorelais luring sailors ashore, it is the young girl who strikes out in search of the singer, joining him on board ship and traveling the world with her beloved and his fellows as she learns his song. The story doesn’t end happily, however; the ominous progressions in the choir’s lower voices underscore the princess’ despair as she realizes how thoroughly she has given up her heart.

Ungewisses Licht
Robert Schumann’s “Ungewisses Licht,” the second of his Four Songs for Double Choir, considers a voyage that is more internal than geographic. Schumann himself suffered greatly from the tumult of his own emotions; many scholars now believe he may have been bipolar, and he grappled for decades with crippling insecurity (especially as compared to his more successful but beloved wife), suicidal tendencies, and hallucinations. His work for double choir contains all the hallmarks of his Romantic genius, but his techniques in deploying the two choirs in this piece are suggestive. Although the poem sets up a binary–Ist es die Liebe? Ist es der Tod? [Is it love? Is it death?]–Schumann’s interplay between the two choirs, rarely putting the full forces of each ensemble in dialogue, suggests that the distinction between two extremes may not be so clear-cut. The wanderer’s uncertainty as to whether he sees sunrise or flame makes his situation even more precarious: he is bound either for damnation or renewal, but not both.

A ship with unfurled sails
“A ship with unfurled sails” places us in similarly uncertain territory, but here the questions resonate on multiple levels. The text, by Estonian poet Doris Kasteva, hearkens to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which achieved modern independence only in 1991. That Kasteva’s long-awaited ship comes sovereign, unclaimed by any nation, indicates how deeply the strife of occupation had cut—no flag at all would be better than the standard of a hated occupier.

Gabriel Jackson’s setting of this enigmatic text grounds the poet’s own experiences in striking text painting. The haunting wavelets in the alto line keep the melody off-center, unsure, and the recognition that something glorious may be to hand–Imperceptibly all is changed. All arrives so secretly.––comes in phases, allowing for a surprising expression of pure joy before the narrator can collect herself.

Sometimes I Feel
“Sometimes I Feel”, a traditional spiritual arranged by the revered Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, is more explicit about the darkness one may be forced to endure. Dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the song is also sometimes called “Motherless Child”, as it depicts the plight of a slave child who has been forcibly sold away from her or his family. The tune may have endured in part because of the many more accessible interpretations of the text; later performers took the lyrics more as allegories, describing their pain at being so far from heaven, a homeland, or loved ones.

Notably, one reading suggests a glimmer of hope even in the darkest verses: if the speaker only feels like a moanin’ dove sometimes, then there are other times when she has more agency. Parker and Shaw’s setting, which grounds the men’s voices in a keening repetition of “sometime”, hints at this optimism even in the grimmest opening lines.

Lähtö
Leaving aside the emotional repercussions of adventure, nothing caputres the venturesome feeling of setting off for places unknown so perfectly as Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Lähtö.” Like all Finnish composers, Rautavaara works in Jean Sibelius’ long shadow–indeed, he studied and later taught at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki–but here brings in echoes of other musical traditions. In “Lähtö,” we are urged onwards by the constant percussive gallop underlying the melody. The melody itself makes use of a Middle Eastern-sounding alteration between the natural and lowered second, creating a tenuous balance between major and minor tonality and hinting at the exotic and far-off promise of the narrator’s destination.

The New Colossus
We open the second half of today’s program with gestures towards home. Philadelphia composer David Ludwig’s “The New Colossus” sets Emma Lazarus’ sonnet of the same name, which most of us recognize as the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Ludwig’s setting allows the poem–and indeed, Liberty herself–to speak freely, opening with chant-like rhythms that mimic the text’s natural cadences. With a long unison beginning, “The New Colossus” expands into polyphony only as Liberty begins invoking the multitudes she hopes to welcome: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free! The chant-like feeling returns in the poem’s final line, offering solace and welcome to all who might need it.

Never weather-beaten Saile
The chant simplicity of “The New Colossus” makes a nice pairing with Thomas Campion’s “Never weather-beaten Saile,” the only piece on today’s program that pre-dates the nineteenth century. Campion’s legacy includes over one hundred pieces penned for lute; we hear that inclination in the delicate progressions of “Never weather-beaten Saile,” a choral rendering of a tune originally set for lute.

Szeroka Woda
We close with Henryk Górecki’s Szeroka Woda, which suggests that the pleasures and frustrations of home can be as bittersweet as any departure.

Szeroka Woda dates from a transitional period in Górecki’s own compositional history. In contrast to the lush, expressive moods in Szeroka Woda, Górecki actually first achieved fame as a serialist; he was lauded as part of the forefront of the Polish avant-garde. In the early 1970s, his music began to more deeply reflect Polish folk traditions ranging from medieval chant to simple ditties. Szeroka Woda draws most of its melodic content from a nineteenth-century collection of traditional folk songs; Górecki’s settings reframe the original melodies with languorous tempi–so slow and flexible that we think of them as musical taffy–and frequent repetitions of brief phrases. The effect is deeply moving, with the universal themes of longing and rootedness translating these folk narratives into something much closer to home.

Whither, Fairy?
March 10, 2013
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Scott Perkins, “The Stolen Child”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Three Shakespeare Songs
Josquin des Prez, “Nymphes des bois”
Thomas Greaves, “Come away, sweet love”
Maurice Ravel, Trois chansons
Sarah Hopkins, “Past Life Melodies”
György Orbán, “Daemon irrepit callidus”
Ola Gjeilo, “Unicornis captivatur”

Notes on the Program
The spectrum of earthly superstitions and otherworldly beliefs is wide and varied, peopled with strange beasts and stranger mysteries, but it is an enduring presence in human understanding of the world—or worlds—around us. Today’s program illustrates some of the hypotheticals on that spectrum. That this repertoire comes from such a broad span of time and space—we feature texts and composers from nine centuries and three continents––underscores the fact that questions of other worlds and other beings are much older and more natural than our own rationality would have us believe. To wonder is uniquely human—much like making music. How appropriate, then, to turn both faculties onto the not-quite-human mysteries that haunt the edges of our consciousness.

The Stolen Child
Generations of myths hold that children are particularly attuned to the otherworldly, and William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” is one of the most beloved and timeless depictions of this notion. There’s no shortage of stories in which malevolent fairies simply kidnap a defenseless human infant, but Yeats, drawing upon the Irish folklore of his childhood, creates instead a scene of deliberate wooing and enchantment, in which the child is invited to “come away” rather than simply snatched. Composer Scott Perkins focuses here on the first three stanzas of the poem, in which the child features only as a listener, not a victim; Perkins’ setting of the poem is the prologue to his larger Yeats-centered work, also called The Stolen Child.

The effect is spookily inviting, with Perkins’ lilting mixed meter adding a furtive undertone to the fairies’ beckoning. The lament that “the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” recurs with each invitation, with the repeated chromatic descent serving to neatly mirror the fairies’ feigned despair at the state of the human world.

Three Shakespeare Songs
Of course, if one follows the invitation to fairyland, one cannot help but assume that William Shakespeare’s characters are wandering somewhere nearby. Shakespeare’s fairy folk figure most prominently in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in the mid-1590s at the cusp of his most prolific period, and The Tempest, his last complete work before his death in 1616. In both texts, the supernatural characters inhabit liminal spaces between human civilization and the wilderness; like Yeats’ fairies, Shakespeare’s sprites and nymphs deliberately ensnare the human characters in compromising situations—and then, more nobly, lead them out again.

Appropriately for texts that are at once so famous in British literature and so emblematic of human trials, Ralph Vaughan Williams originally composed his trio of “Shakespeare Songs” for a British choral competition in 1951. That the set was intended to showcase a choir’s technical prowess is clear from the broad range of styles and techniques spanned within the relatively brief pieces. “Full Fathom Five”, taken from a scene in which a survivor of a shipwreck is deliberately separated from his fellows, features undulating wave-like rhythms and haunting dissonance to underscore the sprite Ariel’s deception. The sudden tonality changes and sense of awe in “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” evoke the composer’s Sixth Symphony, written in 1947; Vaughan Williams frequently explained the symphony’s last movement by referring to the lines that end “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers”: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” In “Over Hill, Over Dale”, the dissonance from the first movement returns, but more gently: these fairies mean no ill to the other creatures in the woods.

Nymphes des bois
Not all fairytales involve supernatural creatures meddling in human affairs—sometimes, these beings are simply our peers, sharing our joys and sorrows and reflecting our own cares. Such are the titular nymphs in Josquin des Prez’s “Nymphes des bois,” composed to mourn the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem. The text, written by fellow composer Jean Molinet, calls upon “nymphs of the woods” and “goddesses of the fountains” to express their sorrow. In a testament to Ockeghem’s legacy, the nymphs are not the only ones who mourn: the text also names several of his students—Josquin included—as having lost their “good father”.

Josquin begins by cleverly mimicking the contrapuntal style for which Ockeghem was most famous. He then structures the piece’s polyphony around the introit chant of the Latin funeral mass—requiem aeternam—and weaves the four composed choral lines around a fifth voice intoning an augmented version of the original chant from the Liber Usualis. Composing a secular work around a sacred chant was common practice in the Renaissance for composers keen to avoid the church censors; listen for the “tenor” line—sung here by two contraltos and a baritone—chanting the sacred Latin farewell.

Come away, sweet love
On quite the other end of the Renaissance spectrum, Thomas Greaves’ approach can be summed up in a single word: frolicking. For a second word, try “flirting”—these nymphs are neither mischievous nor menacing nor melancholy, and their playful skipping provides a charming vessel for Greaves’ polyphony.

Trois chansons
Maurice Ravel’s Trois chansons, for which he wrote both the music and the text, feature unexpected depth and cleverness behind their fantastical subjects. “Nicolette”, the first of the trio, reveals Ravel’s wry, ironic humor: the story seems to rehash the familiar Little Red Riding Hood tale, with poor Nicolette besieged by terrors and temptations from all corners. Nicolette is savvier than Little Red, however—when an old, ugly, incredibly rich suitor comes to call, Nicolette runs straight into his arms. “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis,” the second movement, offers more insight into Ravel’s non-musical life: it speaks of a beloved who has gone away to war, perhaps never to return, and the Trois chansons were composed in late 1914 and early 1915 just as Ravel himself was preparing to enlist in World War I. The composer’s likely preoccupation with getting news of friends and loved ones at the front may account for the second movement’s dreamlike narrative. Perhaps to avoid lingering for too long on the unpleasant implications evoked in “Trois beaux oiseaux,” Ravel returns to wordplay and silliness in “Ronde,” the third and final movement. Young men and women are warned against ever going near the woods of Ormonde, which are peopled with terrible creatures—or at least, the woods used to be full of terrible creatures, until the local busybodies scared them off.

Past Life Melodies
Sarah Hopkins’ “Past Life Melodies”, composed after the death of her father in the late 1980s, makes far different use of the composer’s inner emotional state. Unlike Ravel’s penchant for wordplay and Josquin’s clever mimicry, Hopkins transmutes her grief into an otherworldly soundscape of overtones and what she calls “heart songs”. The piece is deliberately meditative, inviting introspection and calm in the face of eerie overtones and unexpected, buzzing harmonies.

To achieve this effect, Hopkins draws upon several cultures’ unique musical techniques: the chant melody is inspired by the Aboriginal singing culture in the composer’s native Australia, where she spent eight years studying the musical traditions of the indigenous peoples. The overtone singing or throat-singing––in which two of our most versatile singers manage to sing two notes at once by manipulating the natural resonance of their voices—is a technique perfected by the seminomadic herders of Tuva, in southern Siberia, where throat-singing is revered for its ability to sound like a musical version of natural sounds like wind and water. Still, Hopkins’ interest in throat-singing may also stem from her experience in Australian music, as the technique also closely mimics the sound of a digeridoo.

Daemon irrepit callidus
For all the eeriness that “Past Life Melodies” evokes, it never sounds explicitly threatening, and even Ravel’s much-feared hobgoblins and ogres turn out to be little more than village lore. Not so the titular devil in György Orbán’s “Daemon irrepit callidus”—this ninety-second piece offers more perceived danger than the rest of the program combined. There are no nosy villagers to intervene, either: one must simply stand fast against the Devil’s temptations in order to remain worthy of the heart—and therefore the love and salvation—of Jesus.

The Christian text is the work of the Goliards, a secret band of clergy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who dared to mock and question the contradictions and excesses of the Catholic Church. Their most famous output, the sex- and drinking-crazed texts that became Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, is openly blasphemous and lewd. “Daemon irrepit callidus” shows more restraint but maintains the Goliards’ typical honesty in its description of the torments of temptation.

Orbán, a contemporary Transylvanian-born Hungarian composer, evokes those torments fully in his treatment of the text. The jarring chromatic lines that signaled weeping in Perkins’ “The Stolen Child” here serve as an unnerving reminder of the constant slow creep of temptation, while an unexpected hint of a waltz rhythm underlines the insidious nature of the Devil’s efforts, which go so far as to feature “trickery / amidst praise, song, and dance.”

Unicornis captivatur
We close with Ola Gjeilo’s “Unicornis captivatur”, another example of a contemporary composer taking inspiration from a medieval text. Gjeilo (pronounced “yay-lo”) is a U.S.-based Norwegian composer and pianist; although many of his choral works use standard liturgical texts, “Unicornis captivatur” has a more colorful narrative. The poem, which features wondrous beasts and more-wondrous resurrections to illustrate the story of Christ, comes from the Engelberg Codex, a late-medieval manuscript from a Benedictine abbey in Engelberg, Switzerland.

Gjeilo’s investment in the awe and wonder expressed by the allegorical text is clear in his joyous, almost dance-like treatment of the “alleluia” refrain. This madrigalian spriteliness contrasts nicely with the chorale-like figures in the verses, which bloom to seemingly inveitable progressions while retaining a rich and warm harmonic texture.

Sing, Muse!
November 4, 2012
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Caroline Winschel

Part I. Seeking Out Wisdom
Williametta Spencer, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”
Benjamin Britten, Hymn to St. Cecilia
John Tavener, “The Lamb”

Part II. Struck By Genius
Anton Bruckner, “Os justi”
Eric Whitacre, “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”
Olivier Messiaen, “O sacrum convivium!”

Part III. Stumbling On Inspiration
Daniel Goldschmidt, “Haiku By Basho”
Veljo Tormis, “Helletused”
Malcolm Dalglish, “Great Trees”

Notes on the Program
We’ve all heard the arguments: Creativity is an organic process, not to be rushed or forced. Genius can’t be prodded. Inspiration and respiration are etymological siblings, so the one should be as simple and effortless as the other.

This is a dangerous line of thinking. It suggests that the process of creativity should somehow be a smooth one, that an aha! moment will always arrive on schedule and that an artist will then have all the information she needs to move forward.

Today’s program teaches us differently. These visions of the creative process reveal that artists can’t rely solely on unpredictable flashes of inspiration; creativity is a muscle, and it must be exercised. Creative work is hard work—there’s little else as revealing and as nerve-wracking as trying to be innovative by oneself—and it demands regular effort and steely-eyed determination. It often requires stretching. Sometimes it even hurts.

At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners
With that in mind, we begin with a plea for wisdom gone dangerously wrong: Williametta Spencer’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”, using John Donne’s seventh Holy Sonnet as its text, asks God and all the angels to call forth Judgment Day and finally separate the sinners from the saved. The piece begins with the singers deployed as if in a trumpet fanfare, ringing out open fifths to reach the four imagined corners of the world. This brashness is tempered as Donne’s speaker begins to realize the enormity of what he has invoked, with the singers reverting to chant-like simplicity as the implications of the speaker’s request becomes clear.

The startlingly triumphal ending underscores the twist Donne deploys halfway through the poem, when the speaker concludes that what he seeks isn’t the last judgment—it’s redemption for his own sins. Even in that awareness, however, he falls short: in petitioning God for salvation, the speaker realizes that the absolution he wants took place centuries ago on a cross in Calvary, and his own sacrifice pales in comparison.

Hymn to St. Cecilia
That kind of unsought self-awareness strikes even more keenly in Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which also features a plea to the heavens. In this case, however, the plea is directed to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and what she delivers is not universal judgment but intimate critique.

Although Britten’s interest in St. Cecilia follows a rich tradition of English composers writing odes in her honor, he did not use one of the traditional Latin writings on the saint. Instead, his friend and frequent collaborator W. H. Auden wrote a Cecilian text expressly for Britten’s use.

The piece includes a number of the conventions established by earlier St. Cecilia odes: a hymn-like plea to the muse serves as a kind of refrain, and the third movement features invocations of several different musical instruments. But the arc of the poem itself hits a far more personal note. Though couched in imagery of inspiration and music-making, Auden’s text fiercely criticizes the young composer for his seeming unwillingness to accept and nurture his own sexuality along with his creativity. The message failed in its intended effect—Britten never returned Auden’s romantic interest, and their working partnership ended with this piece—but the images of corruption and purity raised in Hymn to St. Cecilia would color Britten’s work for decades to come.

The Lamb
John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” set to the poem of the same name by William Blake, continues this imagery of otherworldly wisdom being delivered to an innocent. Appropriately for such a wholesome piece, “The Lamb” was written in a single afternoon—Tavener has said that the piece came to him “fully grown”—and dedicated to the composer’s nephew for his third birthday.

The ease and simplicity of the piece’s composition are reflected in its structure, which relies heavily on retrograde and inversion to embellish an otherwise-plain melody. “The Lamb” opens simply, but as the poem’s narrator begins unpacking the comparisons between a lamb and the Christ child, the women’s parts invert, moving in different directions but using the same intervals. The effect is eerie, as if the voices were mirror-images of one another—appropriate for a moment when the speaker serves as a mirror for the lamb itself. This mirror-like effect recurs later in the piece when Tavener employs retrograde, causing each choral part to suddenly retrace—backwards—the notes it has just sung.

As the piece unfolds, the singers are kept at a restrained intensity, with each voice part spanning less than an octave in range. The use of unison and the repeated return to a familiar tonality reinforces the lullabye-like simplicity of the poem: an unassuming question with a tremendous answer.

Os justi
It comes as no surprise that so many of these pleas for wisdom and inspiration address the heavens—when mortal efforts fail, where better to look?—but it is interesting that so many of these pleas are met with disquieting or unexpected results. Unlike the Spencer and the Britten, however, Anton Bruckner’s “Os justi” suggests that in some cases, the wisdom of heaven is soothing and reassuring.

Composed in 1879, “Os justi” reflects the conflicting sensibilities present among musicians in nineteenth-century Europe. Bruckner is justly famous for his place in the Romantic pantheon, and he was revered by his contemporaries—Gustav Mahler among them—for his lush, monumental symphonies and his virtuosic organ improvisation. Bruckner’s choral output is less famous but equally significant; he wrote more than thirty motets, each one testifying to his strong Roman Catholic faith and incorporating the long, chant-like phrases of Renaissance composers.

Forward-looking in its use of sweeping melodic lines and sumptuous harmonies, “Os justi” is also anchored in the music of centuries past. Tellingly, Bruckner dedicated the piece to the music director at the school where he taught; the director was an ardent admirer of Palestrina and other early composers, which may explain Bruckner’s inclusion of a plainchant Alleluia at the end of the piece. Given that the psalm Bruckner used speaks of a believer who is steady in his understanding, this final return to such a familiar and accessible musical form seems especially fitting.

Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
No such comfort is accorded by Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”—where Bruckner’s subject was soothed by his convictions, Whitacre’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci reveals an inventor tormented as much by his talent as by his curiosity.

Whitacre and his longtime collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri approached the piece as if writing a short opera, with Silvestri piecing together a libretto from both his own poetry and da Vinci’s writings. The result is a striking and dramatic narrative: we follow da Vinci as his fitful sleep is interrupted by visions of flight (and falling), as he wrestles his ideas into concrete plans, and as he finally ascends the highest tower, completed flying machine in tow, and prepares himself to leap either to his glory or to his death.

Musically, Whitacre begins with the singers deployed as if in a Greek chorus, commenting on the inventor’s anguish without inhabiting it. As the drama grows, however, the choir becomes more integral to da Vinci’s frenzy: we hear the imagined siren call of the winds themselves, beckoning da Vinci to fly; the achingly effortless ascent of the pigeons whose wings da Vinci studies for new ideas; and finally, the whooshing, clacking takeoff of the flying machine itself. Its creation may have been torment—but its creator can fly.

O sacrum convivium!
The tension between the anguish of learning and the wonder of understanding is explored to very different effect in Olivier Messiaen’s “O sacrum convivium!” Messiaen’s deeply held Catholicism comes to the fore in his setting of a liturgical text honoring the Communion ritual; as in Bruckner’s “Os justi”, Messiaen’s choice of text suggests a certain peace and calm that comes with having made a deliberate and personal commitment to a faith.

Unlike Bruckner, however, Messiaen’s setting serves to challenge us as much as to inspire us. The complexity of the harmonic structure reminds us that Messiaen drew from varied and unusual sources for his inspiration; by 1937, when “O sacrum convivium!” was written, he’d become fascinated with Asian musical traditions and electronic music while still making his living as a virtuoso organist. Playing on this duality, “O sacrum convivium!” feels almost jazzy in its harmonies, bringing an unexpected sense of modernity to the sacred Communion ritual.

Haiku By Basho
Of course, many of us don’t ever experience the extremes of anguish or rapture depicted in these visions of heavenly or otherworldly inspiration. Our daily lives are no less thoughtful and creative for the lack of these celestial forces, and we find beauty and inspiration in mindfulness rather than in genius. Such discoveries are often all the sweeter for being so unexpected; seeing or understanding something in a new way is just as transforming as receiving a thunderbolt from the gods.

Daniel Goldschmidt’s “Haiku By Basho” offers just this kind of gentle stimulation, pairing lilting choral lines with texts by Matsuo Basho, who is commonly recognized as the greatest master of haiku. Indeed, the traditional haiku form seems especially appropriate for these musings on quotidian beauty: although many of us remember our elementary-school lessons on haiku’s strict rhythmic structure, these poems are more defined by the ways in which they each juxtapose two competing or seemingly unrelated themes and ideas. Haiku generally also have clear seasonal references, anchoring them in the daily and recognizable life of the writer.

The three used here serve as eloquent exemplars of their poetic form. Basho—who was constantly attuned to the poetry of his daily life, taking his pseudonym from the banana tree outside his hut—offers a wry, mournful depiction of the changing seasons, and Goldschmidt’s settings serve to embellish the unassuming beauty of the text. We are transported even as we recognize Basho and Goldschmidt’s understanding as our own.

Helletused
Veljo Tormis, a contemporary Estonian composer, may be himself the master of the balance between familiarity and otherworldliness. Keenly attentive to the importance of folksong in Estonian culture, Tormis has frequently explained his work by averring, “I do not use folksong. It is folk music that uses me.” He serves as a kind of medium for his country’s folk traditions, channeling the tunes that his people preserved during generations of Soviet occupation into spellbinding modern constructions.

“Helletused,” which means “childhood memory,” bridges that gap precisely. Like many Tormis pieces, it draws simultaneously on several elements of Estonian heritage. The “childhood memory” to which Tormis refers is in fact a national one: in rural Estonia, school-age children share the responsibilities of tending to their families’ livestock, and each family develops an unique call with which to herd their animals. Because the calls differ by family, the children use their calls not just to control cattle and sheep but also to howdy their friends in distant pastures.

Although many in Estonia would recognize this tenet of herding culture, “Helletused” is also keyed to a very particular childhood memory, that of Aino Tamm (1864–1945). Tamm was the first professional singer in Estonia, and like many of her generation, she learned traditional herding calls and folksongs in childhood. The first call in the largely wordless “Helletused”—“alleaa”—is one of Tamm’s own calls from her youth. This motif is particularly famous in Estonian folk music, as it first appeared in “Lauliku lapsepõli,” or “The Singer’s Childhood,” a beloved folksong setting that was composed for Tamm by Miina Harma (1864–1941), the country’s first professional composer. Tormis brings this connection of inspiration and collaboration full circle by quoting the first line of “Lauliku lapsepõli” in “Helletused”; amid the frenzied call-and-response riffing of the two soprano soloists, a quartet interjects with the only text in the piece: “Kui ma olin väiksekene” (“When I was a little one”). As Harma’s piece details how a singer learned songs and words from the natural world around her, we may intuit that Tormis finds similar inspiration not only in his country’s folk traditions but also in the creative work done by his predecessors.

Great Trees
That reverence for the beauty we can find in ourselves and in our own lives serves as the ultimate counterpart to the anguished search for inspiration we saw earlier. Malcolm Dalglish’s “Great Trees,” set to the poem of the same title by Wendell Berry, sums up that contentment nicely. Excerpted from Dalglish’s larger work The Hymnody of Earth, “Great Trees” reveals Dalglish’s appreciation for American musical traditions, using folksy, bright harmonies and nuanced, lilting rhythms.

Although much of The Hymnody of Earth features accompaniment from percussion and hammered dulcimer (Dalglish’s instrument of choice), “Great Trees” is far more hymn-like, paying special attention to Berry’s text. The choir’s sound crescendos in pace with the gentle growth of the trees themselves, and the deliberate pauses within each verse hearken to the green stillness of the untrammeled woods.

Dalglish leaves us in a contemplative, inviting space—perhaps just the atmosphere that might best nourish our own creativity. The prospect seems less daunting, somehow, after witnessing the trials and triumphs on display in this repertoire; knowing that inspiration and invention require just as much sweat as they do genius—thank you, Thomas Edison—makes it easier for us to exercise those underused creative muscles.

If what we create is as much a product of our will and our intellect as of fleeting moments of inspiration, then no, inspiration will never be as effortless as respiration. It shouldn’t be. We sing today of poets and believers, inventors and pioneers, and we recognize that none of these compositions would have been improved by having been easier for their composers.

The last phrase of “Great Trees” speaks to this marriage of genius and effort, bringing invited beauty before an attentive audience: “O light come down to earth, be praised!” In giving voice to this music, we are praising these composers while also taking part in their creative processes; by interacting with their art—either by performing it or by experiencing its performance—we become the final element in this cycle of inspiration and fulfillment. Here, finally, we find a true link between inspiration and respiration: breathe deep, friends. It’s time to sing.

 

Songs to the Midnight Sun
May 6, 2012
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Ellen Gerdes, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Dan Widyono, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer

Einojuhani Rautavaara, “Lähtö”
Waldemar Åhlén, “Sommarpsalm”
Jussi Chydenius, “I am the great sun”
Thomas Tallis, “O nata lux”
Morten Lauridsen, “O nata lux”
Charles Wood, “Hail, gladdening light”
John Wilbye, “Draw on sweet night”
Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, “Syngur sumarregn”
Eric Whitacre, “With a Lily in Your Hand”
Traditional Finnish, arr. Matti Hyökki, “On suuri sun rantas’ autius”
Veljo Tormis, Sügismaastikud
Edward Elgar, “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land”

Notes on the Program
A confession: when we started working on this program, we didn’t have a clear sense of what we meant by “northern.” Thinking about northern music in itself was difficult–without looking at today’s repertoire, how many northern composers can you name besides Sibelius?–but the idea of building a concert program around such a geographically and linguistically distant region felt audacious. We couldn’t even speak about our cultural impressions of the Far North without relying on what felt like reductive and contradictory stereotypes: reindeer on the tundra, the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, Björk in her swan dress, Ikea.

In a way, the arc of tonight’s program reflects that early uncertainty. As outsiders, we couldn’t easily parse the Nordic countries’ progression from clans of medieval Vikings to today’s incredibly community-minded social welfare policies, and the shifting intricacies of separate-but-related languages, indigenous cultures, and national loyalties threatened to overwhelm. Stepping outward, we realized that much of our hesitation stemmed from simply feeling daunted by the very alien geography with which we were reckoning: we couldn’t conceive of life in a place that felt so defined by its extreme weather, by its active volcanoes, by its almost-unbroken winter darkness and almost-unceasing summer light.

By taking those two extremes–winter darkness and summer light–we were able to begin imagining the rhythms of a place that so dramatically diverged from the cycles of our own days. We also began to see reflections of those themes and uncertainties in the more familiar sounds of North America and the United Kingdom, offering us a kind of control group against which to measure our first encounters with true northern music. Even as we reveled in Philadelphia’s early spring, we imagined that the very pace of life–and of change, and of love, and of worship–must feel different during the ever-brighter days of the northern spring and summer, and we knew that the music we sought would reflect this unmoored feeling. We expected, too, that absent the tremendous church-commissioned choral canon of the rest of Europe, the music of the Far North would feel different in our ears and voices, perhaps bound more to its ancient land than to the relatively recent arrival of the Christian faith. Knowing only that we would be immersing ourselves in foreign and unusual sounds, we started our rehearsals hoping for an adventure–and we weren’t disappointed.

Lähtö
We begin with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Lähtö,” which perfectly captures the venturesome feeling of setting off for places unknown. Like all Finnish composers, Rautavaara works in Jean Sibelius’ long shadow–indeed, he studied and later taught at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki–but here brings in echoes of other musical traditions. In “Lähtö,” we are urged onwards by the constant percussive gallop underlying the melody. The melody itself makes use of a Middle Eastern-sounding alteration between the natural and lowered second, creating a tenuous balance between major and minor tonality and hinting at the exotic and far-off promise of the narrator’s destination.

Sommarpsalm
“Sommarpsalm,” by contrast, brings us a wonderfully familiar sound and sentiment, celebrating the coming of summer in Waldemar Åhlén’s beautiful setting of a Swedish folk hymn. Although the Nordic countries have been largely Christian since the early Middle Ages, this kind of conventional-sounding hymn setting is more the exception to their sacred music than the rule. Åhlén, however, an accomplished organist and church music director, resisted the twentieth century’s focus on modern techniques and instead favored the warm, traditional sounds of English-inspired hymnody.

I am the great sun
Like Åhlén and Rautavaara, Jussi Chydenius’ “I am the great sun” takes inspiration from far-flung traditions: the text, by Cornish poet Charles Causley, was based on a seventeenth-century stone cr