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Concert Archives

2010-2019

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Mar
15
to Mar 17

Behind Closed Doors

Behind Closed Doors

March 15, 2019: Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

March 17, 2019: St. Mark’s Church

Sam Barge, Sonja Bontrager, Jon Cronin, Lucas DeJesus, Conrad Erb, Julie Frey, Amy Hochstetler, Elissa Kranzler, Nathan Lofton, Cortlandt Matthews, Hank Miller, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Rebecca Roy, Jesse Scheinbart, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Emily Sung, Kevin Vondrak, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman


Morning Prayers, Philip Moore (b. 1943)

from Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Sibylla Libyca, Orlande de Lassus (1532–1594)

from Prophetiae Sibyllarum

Psalm 67, Charles Ives (1874–1954)

Even When God Is Silent, Michael Horvit (b. 1932)

Prayers in Time of Distress, Philip Moore

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, traditional African American arr. William Dawson (1899–1990)

Sibylla Samia, Orlande de Lassus

Ave Verum Corpus, William Byrd (1538–1623)

Whispers, Steven Stucky (1949–2016)

Sibylla Erythrea, Orlande de Lassus

Evening Prayers, Philip Moore

Sibylla Agrippa, Orlande de Lassus

Steal Away, traditional African American arr. Michael Tippett (1905–1998)

from A Child of Our Time              


Behind Closed Doors is a program of music and texts that were originally written for private consumption. The music on this program approaches this theme from a few different directions, incorporating works that were written without a public performance in mind as well as several musical compositions or texts that were truly created in secret.

 

The program is built around two larger-scale pieces, Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Philip Moore and excerpts from Prophetiae Sibyllarum by Orlande de Lassus. Moore’s 1980 work sets texts by the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was an opponent of the Nazi regime and spent the last two years of his life in a Nazi prison before being executed. Lassus’s motets, which look forward to the early twentieth century in their explorations of tonality, were composed for private performance in the 1550s but were considered so unusual for the time that they were not published until after the composer’s death, nearly a half-century later. Lassus’s texts, prophetic poems about the coming of Christ, are arranged to respond and comment on Bonhoeffer’s prayers.

 

The remainder of the program includes nineteenth-century experimental music by Charles Ives; a setting of a poem scrawled on a wall by a Holocaust victim; several arrangements of coded African American spirituals; and a contemporary work combining an illicit Elizabethan Catholic anthem with a poem by Walt Whitman.

 

Central to the program, though, are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) as set by Philip Moore. Bonhoeffer was born to a well-off family in Breslau, Germany, and showed early promise as an academic. After completing a Doctorate in Theology at Berlin University in 1927 (at the age of 21), Bonhoeffer came to the United States for further study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a prominent critic of the Nazi regime and spent the next several years lecturing, writing, teaching, and resisting Nazi influence within the church. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis for his involvement with the German resistance and executed in 1945.

 

Philip Moore (b.1943) is an English organist and composer. Following studies at the Royal College of Music in London, Moore embarked on a forty-year career in church music that included positions at Canterbury Cathedral, Guildford Cathedral, and York Minster. Moore’s music is firmly rooted in the English church music tradition, and the Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer draw particular inspiration from the music of Benjamin Britten and Herbert Howells.

 

The composer writes: “[Dietrich Bonhoeffer] wrote several books, of which one of the most well-known is Letters and Papers from Prison, written in 1943. Amongst the papers are seven poems entitled Prayers for Fellow Prisoners. Even in translation they are vivid, passionate, and intense, and spring from a deep sense of compassion, and a love and understanding of humanity. Although Bonhoeffer’s writings reflect his triumph of hardship and suffering, there is also a depth of despair that is perhaps only fully reflected in his poetry. This is particularly apparent in Morning Prayers and Prayers in Time of Distress. Evening Prayers, however, breathes a spirit of tranquility and acceptance; a spirit by which he was known and through which he gave comfort to his fellow prisoners.

 

“I first encountered Bonhoeffer’s Prayers for my Fellow Prisoners in 1966, and immediately felt drawn to the idea of setting some of them to music. The opportunity arose in 1980 when a newly formed vocal quartet, Equinox, commissioned me to write a work. The prayers were first performed on September 25, 1981, and the commission was funded by a grant from the South East Arts Association.

 

“Musically the construction of each Prayer is straightforward. The first two are each dominated by a particular interval––the first by a minor second and the second by an augmented fourth. Bonhoeffer frequently draws parallels between musical counterpoint and life, and because of this the third Prayer is in the form of a fugue. The subject is based on the first two phrases of the chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland [‘Savior of the nations, come’], which Bonhoeffer actually quotes in one of his letters. The complete chorale appears at the very end of the movement at the words ‘into Thy hands I commend my loved ones.’” 


Sibylla Libyca

“Sibylla Libyca” is the second movement of Lassus’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, one of the most enigmatic works by the great Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer. The piece is set in twelve movements, each declaiming the text of one of the ancient Greek oracles, who were believed by some to have foretold the coming of Christ. Though Lassus wrote the work when he was only 28 years old, Prophetiae Sibyllarum constitutes some of the most extreme, inventive, and chromatic music of his entire output: centuries before the arrival of atonal music, Lassus was experimenting with writing in all twelve tones and exploring rapid harmonic movement through chords foreign to the mode. The entire piece is set for four-voice, a cappella choir, and likely would have been sung one- or two-voices on a part during the composer’s time.


Psalm 67

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was born into a musical family in Danbury, Connecticut. The composer’s father, George, had been a bandmaster in the Union Army during the Civil War and following the war made his living as a musician and teacher. Ives inherited not only his father’s interest in music generally but also his interest in musical experimentation. Ives began composing at an early age, eventually going on to study with Horatio Parker at Yale. Following Yale, Ives embarked on a career in the insurance industry, all the while composing music that pushed beyond the niceties of late nineteenth-century music. Working largely for his own enjoyment, Ives was free to write music that was not bound by the expectations of a concert-going public or the technical limitations of performing musicians. Although Ives’s compositional activities largely ceased by the 1920s, his music did not begin to receive regular public performances until the 1930s. Indeed, many of his most significant works were not given their first performances until decades after they were composed. 


Ives’s first instrument was the organ, and he worked as a church organist from the ages of 14 to 28. Not surprisingly, church music makes up a large portion of Ives’s early output and the traditions of Protestant church music, particularly hymnody, are a significant influence even on Ives’s later secular music. Ives’s 1898 setting of Psalm 67 is firmly rooted in the traditions of church music, based as it is on homophonic, chordal Anglican chant. The experimental side of Ives’s musical personality is also evident in this setting, however, as Psalm 67 is a study in poly-tonality, in which the women and men of the chorus sing simultaneously in different keys. The technique became a favorite of Igor Stravinsky in ballet scores such as Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring, composed 15 years after Ives’s Psalm setting.


Even When God Is Silent

“Even When God Is Silent” is a setting of a poem found in 1945 on the wall of a basement in Cologne, Germany, by Allied troops. The poem is believed to have been written by someone hiding from the Gestapo. Composed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, Horvit sets the text simply in C minor; each voice part declaims the text in turn before joining in homophony. In each phrase, the repetition of the words “I believe” underscores the power of hope even in isolation and darkness.


Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

William Dawson was an African American composer and choir director from Alabama whose arrangements of African American spirituals have cemented his place in the standard repertory for American music for generations. His setting of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is known for its simple yet rich harmonies and sweeping soprano solo.


Sibylla Samia

“Sibylla Samia” is the fifth movement of Lassus’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Though brief, this movement exhibits the same wild inventiveness and extreme chromaticism as the other movements of the larger work. Known for his multilingual fluency in text setting, Lassus was and still is celebrated for his remarkable ability to declaim text with all the power and rhetoric of the spoken word.


Ave Verum Corpus

William Byrd, a student of Thomas Tallis and one of the most prominent English composers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is remembered today for his prolific output of Latin church music during a time when English Catholics were subject to harsh persecution for practicing their faith. “Ave Verum Corpus,” an SATB a cappella setting of a text central to Catholic worship, is one of his most well-known motets. It was published in 1605, in Byrd’s first collection of Gradualia. Set in G minor, the text unfurls largely in homophony with the frequent cross-relations and chromatic motion that characterize Byrd’s compositional style.


Whispers

Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Steven Stucky was widely recognized as one of the leading American composers of his generation. Commissioned for Chanticleer’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 2002, his piece “Whispers” juxtaposes Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” sung by a distant semichorus, with an original setting of lines from Walt Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death.” In Stucky’s description of the work, he writes, “Thoughts and images of death are so transmuted by the power of great art that the result is not sadness, but instead a kind of mystical exaltation.” Whitman’s text, sung by the main chorus, is set in undulating, chromatic waves that increase gradually in intensity and clarity, and through which snatches of Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” drift, phrase by phrase.


Steal Away

The English composer Sir Michael Tippett (1905–1998) wrote the oratorio A Child of Our Time during the first years of World War II. The oratorio tells the story of a young Jewish refugee who assassinated a Nazi official in 1938 and the resulting government crackdown, famously known as Kristallnacht: the “Night of Broken Glass.” Tippett breaks up the story with settings of African American spirituals, which function much the same way as the Lutheran chorales in Bach’s passion oratorios: providing moments of self-reflection within the narrative arc of the all-too-familiar, all-too-inevitable story. His arrangement of “Steal Away” comes at the end of Part I of the oratorio, one of the darkest moments in the narrative, after the soprano soloist despairs over the state of the world: “How shall I feed my children on so small a wage? How can I comfort them when I am dead?”

 

Tippett’s setting of “Steal Away,” though very much composed for public performance, brings together several themes that have emerged in this program. Like the pieces by Moore, Horvit, and Byrd, Tippett’s “Steal Away” is a response to religious and political oppression. Like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the spiritual “Steal Away” dates from the time of slavery in the United States and is imbued with multiple layers of meaning. Finally, Michael Tippett was gay and a pacifist––two things which were either unpopular or illegal in England for much of his lifetime. Tippett would have understood as well as any other composer on this program what it means to compartmentalize and stifle certain aspects of his own self-expression. 


View Event →
Nov
9
to Nov 11

We Who Believe

We Who Believe

November 9, 2018: Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

November 11, 2018: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Sonja Bontrager, Lucas DeJesus, Conrad Erb, Julie Frey, Joshua Glassman, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Nathan Lofton, Cortlandt Matthews, Brian Middleton, Hank Miller, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Rebecca Roy, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Emily Sung, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman


Hope, Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell (b. 1946)

Spiritual, Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell

A ship with unfurled sails, Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962)

Advance Democracy, Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)

What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980)

Mu isamaa on minu arm, Gustav Ernesaks (1908–1993)

El pueblo unido, Sergio Ortega (1938–2003), arr. Gene Glickman

she took his hands, Nicholas Cline (b. 1985)

Te Quiero, Alberto Favero (b. 1944), arr. Liliana Cangiano

we cannot leave (from Privilege), Ted Hearne (b. 1982)

Ella’s Song, Bernice Johnson Reagon (b. 1942)

Hold On! traditional spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan (1957–2003)


If you were hoping that a choir concert might represent the last apolitical space in our public sphere, you might be disappointed today. But this program is only as topical as you need it to be: singing together about revolutions isn’t especially revolutionary, as evidenced by this music that spans continents and carries the voices of earlier generations. The history of societal progress echoes with song, drawing as much from our faith in deliverance as from our need to keep motivated during the struggle.

In this context, returning to this music of progress isn’t simply affirming: it’s crucial. Raising our voices together is both our birthright and our responsibility; it is among the most intimate of public acts and one of the strongest, simplest forms of community-building. And although we are presenting these works formally, we ask that you receive them viscerally, with your whole selves. Your voice––your belief, your power, your faith, your fear––is needed if we are to grow together in community. When the call comes, sing out.

Hope

Today’s program would not be feasible without the ongoing work of Black and African American artists and teachers whose wisdom and talents infuse our contemporary understanding of both music and progress. Chief among these is Dr. Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell, a founding member of the internationally renowned vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and a celebrated composer, choral clinician, and master teacher in the African American musical tradition. She summed up much of her teaching and composing in 2016, addressing a workshop audience in Massachusetts: “I see songs as armor when you need it. And I see songs as a blessing. We’re back to the beginning. Songs have a function. That’s what I want people to understand. They come to you when you need them.”


Viewed then as a kind of mantra, Barnwell’s “Hope” builds out of complementary layers of influences, with her timeless text juxtaposed against polyrhythms that hearken to African drumming. The repeated structure makes it easy for any of us to call upon the song when it’s needed—or even to add new calls to action.


Spiritual

With its title defining both its genre and its cultural resonance, Barnwell’s anthem “Spiritual” explores the all-too-familiar uncertainty that comes to those living through unrest. Recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1993, Barnwell’s references here are to the headlines of the late twentieth century, like the global AIDS epidemic, South African schoolchildren protesting apartheid-fueled educational policies in Soweto, and the Los Angeles police force’s brutal beating of Rodney King. The repeated refrain takes us out of time, framing our shared vulnerability against this backdrop of systemic injustice.


A ship with unfurled sails

“A ship with unfurled sails” places us in similarly uncertain territory, but here the dividing line between possibility and hope seems more tenuous, with nightfall now presaging a new beginning. The text, by Estonian poet and translator Doris Kareva, is colored by the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which achieved modern independence only in 1991. That Kareva’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.


Advance Democracy

In contrast to Jackson and Kareva’s uncertainty, Benjamin Britten’s “Advance Democracy” offers us pure bombast and a more direct call to action. Written in 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, “Advance Democracy” pleads for an alternative to war, with stirring text by the British poet Randall Swingler. Britten’s own pacifism is well known from his War Requiem, composed in 1962, and though “Advance Democracy” clearly reflects the composer and poet’s own pre-war anxieties, there’s a grim familiarity to the mechanisms of violence and fear as political ploys. Framed with that resonance, Britten’s darker moments carry great weight: listen for the contrast between the disjointed, staccato chant and the soaring, eerie obligato in the other voiceparts.


What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?

Of course, Britten and Swingler’s pleas didn’t account for the genocidal horrors being wrought elsewhere in Europe, and the world did go to war for the second time that century. That war included Philip Spooner, a Maine native who served as a medic and a chaplain between 1942 and 1945. Decades later, in 2009, Mr. Spooner shared a glimpse of his wartime experiences before the Maine Judiciary Committee while testifying in support of marriage equality. In reference to the atrocities of the war, he said, “I have seen with my own eyes the consequence of a caste system and of making some people less than others or second class. Never again. We must have equal rights for everyone.”


After a video and transcript of his remarks went viral, Philadelphia composer Melissa Dunphy crafted this intricate choral setting of Mr. Spooner’s address. Although the rhetoric is lofty, Dunphy’s speech-like rhythms hold us tightly to Mr. Spooner’s hesitant, sometimes-shaky delivery, with the sweetness of the setting inviting us to consider that a man who has “seen much” may still be nervous about addressing his state legislators.


A few months after Mr. Spooner’s speech, Maine voted in favor of marriage equality. It might be tempting to ascribe this achievement in part to his testimony—as Dunphy herself laughingly admitted recently, the words of an octagenarian Nazi-fighting veteran are “pretty unimpeachable,” and the extraordinary digital reach of his remarks reveals the impact of a single person’s voice. Still, Mr. Spooner’s insistence on the equality of all people would suggest that his particular contribution to the discussion might as easily have come from someone else. And indeed, that may have been what he intended to share that day with the committee: after Dunphy’s composition received international attention, she was contacted by the canvasser quoted in Mr. Spooner’s remarks. As Dunphy explained recently, the canvasser suggested that all the viral transcripts had captured Mr. Spooner’s central question inaccurately: though his delivery was halting, he had actually asked, “What do you think our boys fought for at Omaha Beach?” Viewed in this light, we must wonder anew about just what Mr. Spooner has seen in his many years: not only about the losses he may have suffered during the war but also about the fears and grief he may have confronted afterwards as a partner and a father. He doesn’t betray any evolution in his own views—he was “raised to believe that all men are created equal”—and so we are left to wonder about how much this man has seen, and about how much he himself has sacrificed in the name of his ideals.


Mu isamaa on minu arm

In the same era as Mr. Spooner’s service, freedom and equality were at risk in Estonia, which was newly under restored Soviet control after only 26 years of independence in the early twentieth century. The Soviet Union was intent on destroying the cultural identity the Estonians had begun forming, and part of their imposed censorship included banning Estonia’s national anthem from being sung in public. 


During the 1947 Laulupidu (the once-annual national song festival), the first since the war’s end, composer Gustav Ernesaks debuted a new setting of the poem “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” an ode to the country written by the famous Estonian poet Lydia Koidula in the mid-nineteenth century. Taken up by the Estonian people as a new anthem of sorts, it too was soon banned, but it continued to be sung and was eventually allowed back on concert programs. In 1969, during the song festival celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Laulupidu, Ernesaks’s piece was performed by a choir, after which the audience—estimated at 100,000 people––and the choir on stage began singing it again in a burst of patriotic fervor. The choir stood firm when they were ordered to leave the stage, and a Soviet military band attempted to drown out the anthem, to no avail.


As referenced in Kareva’s poem, the power of Estonian singing was finally realized in the late 1980s, when it won its independence through the non-violent “Singing Revolution,” thanks to mass demonstrations at which people sang pro-independence songs by contemporary Estonian rock bands. Laulupidu still recurs every five years; in 2019, for the festival’s 150th anniversary, “Mu isamaa on minu arm” will return as the central theme.


El Pueblo Unido

From Chile comes another twentieth-century anthem, here by the storied Leftist composer Sergio Ortega. Ortega worked closely with President Salvador Allende, composing both his electoral theme song (“Venceramos,” or “We Shall Triumph”) and “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” in the same period of Allende’s brief tenure before being assassinated during a coup. Ortega was exiled from Chile in the early 1970s, but “El Pueblo Unido” remained part of the Latin America vernacular, known and sung by progressive forces throughout the region. This arrangement by the New York-based arranger Gene Glickman centers the piece’s title as if proclaimed by demonstrators.


she took his hands

“she took his hands” is a setting of an excerpt from a 2007 Washington Post article about the arrest of Elvira Arellano, an immigrant from Mexico who worked for seven years in the United States and took sanctuary in a Chicago church to remain near her U.S.-born son, before ultimately being arrested and deported by U.S. immigration officials for her illegal status. Chicago-based composer Nicholas Cline sets the text in sparse, haunting repetitions that carry the strength, fear, and faith of Elvira’s words to her son. 


Te Quiero

Another vision of activism and faith comes to us from “Te Quiero,” a bone-deep love song by the Argentinian composer Alberto Favero setting a much-beloved poem by Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti. Favero is known in Latin America primarily for his compositions of popular music; this choral version, by the Argentinian arranger Liliana Cangiano, captures Favero’s inherent expressiveness as he treats the lyrical text. Benedetti’s refrain—“Somos mucho más que dos”––can be a lover’s caress or a revolutionary’s cry; we like that it also speaks to the power of intertwined voices. 


we cannot leave

Ted Hearne’s music blends rock-inspired minimalism with social consciousness. Although educated on the East coast and based for much of his career in Brooklyn, Hearne now lives in Los Angeles and teaches composition at the University of Southern California. Hearne is best known to Philadelphia audiences through his association with the new music choir The Crossing, with whom he has collaborated on numerous occasions. Among these collaborations was Sounds from the Bench, premiered by The Crossing in 2014, which was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music.


Privilege, composed in 2009 for the San Francisco choir Volti, was one of the composer’s first major successes and has been performed by dozens of ensembles throughout the United States. Privilege is a collection of five short pieces for a cappella chorus: the first and third movements are settings of “little texts” by the composer that question a contemporary privileged life (his own). The second and fourth movements are settings of excerpts from an interview with TV producer and journalist David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire. Simon’s words are answers to questions about economic and educational inequality. The final movement, “we cannot leave,” which we share here today as a standalone piece, is a setting of As’ Kwaz’ uKuhamba, a Xhosa anti-apartheid song from South Africa.


The composer writes: “The first four movements are of course most closely related to contemporary America. Because the fifth takes a text from an outside culture (black South African) and is more removed historically (because the era of Apartheid is over we are able to process it as a chapter that has been closed), it can provide relief from texts that are more ‘close to home.’ But also […] there are common themes running between the movements, and in a way the distanced perspective makes the last movement the saddest or most tragic of all. One thing that should not be overlooked is the parallels between social and economic injustices in Apartheid South Africa and America.”


Ella’s Song

In addition to her role as the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon is a celebrated composer, arranger, teacher, and theater artist. In 1981, she was commissioned to compose the title song for Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker: the result was “Ella’s Song.” Although the lyrics seem shockingly familiar today, they are drawn from Baker’s decades of writings and activism against exploitation, racism, and injustice. As Reagon writes, “The first verse is from a statement Baker made about the murder of three Civil Rights Movement workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman during the Mississippi Campaign in the summer of 1964. A search was mounted after their disappearance that involved dragging the rivers of Mississippi. As they searched the muddy waters, they turned up bodies of Black men who had never been looked for because they were Black.” Although the call-and-response pattern means that only a few singers give voice to Baker’s words, Reagon’s score cautions that “all harmony lines must carry the emotional responsibility of the song.”


Hold On!

“Hold On!,” sometimes known as “Gospel Plow,” is a traditional American spiritual recorded by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Bob Dylan. The text implores us to live life to the fullest, committing ourselves to work for meaning and justice in this world.  Hogan's arrangement features small groups of voices sharing each verse while the rest of the ensemble emphatically supports them.


View Event →
Jun
1
to Jun 3

For Cherishing

For Cherishing

June 1, 2018: Proclamation Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr

June 3, 2018: First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia

Sonja Bontrager, Lucas DeJesus, Conrad Erb, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Nathan Lofton, Cortlandt Matthews, Hank Miller, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Rebecca Roy, Lizzy Schwartz, Zachary Sigafoes, Melinda Steffy, Emily Sung, Dan Widyono, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

Versa est in luctum, Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548–1611)

Introitus from Missa pro Defunctis, Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410/1425–1497)

Nymphes des bois, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/1455–1521)

Selig Sind die Toten, Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672)

Songs of Farewell, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848–1918)

1. My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars
2. I know my soul hath power to know all things
3. Never weather-beaten sail
4. There is an old belief

Funeral Ikos, John Tavener (1944–2013)

Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, Herbert Howells (1892–1983)

The Beautiful Land of Nod, Robert Convery (b. 1954)


Versa est in luctum

“Versa est in luctum” is a six-part motet by the great Spanish renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is one of several pieces that comprise the last publication of Victoria’s life: the Officium Defunctorum, a collection of funereal works that Victoria composed upon the death of his longtime patron, the Dowager Empress Maria, sister to the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Philip II. The text of this motet links two passages from Job: the first making evocative musical reference to the harp and flute, whose voices have been turned to grieving, and the second asking forgiveness before death––“Spare me, O Lord, for my days are as nothing.”

Introitus

Johannes Ockeghem is widely acknowledged as one of the great masters of the early Renaissance. Ockeghem’s fame during his lifetime (as evidenced by Josquin’s memorial to the older composer, “Nymphes des Bois,” next on the program) was a testament not only to his compositional skill but also to his comparatively wide travels. While Ockeghem was born at Saint-Ghislain, in modern-day Belgium, he travelled through the Netherlands, France, and Spain while holding positions in Antwerp, Moulin, and Paris. Ockeghem’s incomplete Missa pro Defunctis, or Requiem, from which this Introitus comes, is believed to have been composed either following the death of France’s King Charles VII in 1461 or that of his son and successor, Louis XI, in 1483. Ockeghem’s Requiem is the earliest surviving polyphonic setting of the Catholic Mass for the dead.

Ockeghem’s Introitus is based on a cantus firmus: a simple melody, often derived from Gregorian chant, around which other voices are added to create polyphony. In this case, the cantus firmus is the plainsong melody that would have been chanted during funeral masses prior to the emergence of polyphony. Ockeghem’s Introitus, set for only three low voices, is simple and austere. This simplicity and austerity allows space for meditation, by both listener and performer, on life, death, and the mysteries of existence.

Nymphes de bois

One of the most famous motets of the Renaissance, “Nymphes des bois” pays homage to Ockeghem, the master composer who was Josquin’s teacher. The text is an elegy by Jean Molinet, which combines figures from classical antiquity with contemporary mourners of Ockeghem’s death––among them Josquin and his peers, the composers Perchon, Brumel, and Compère. The piece is scored for SATB choir atop a tenor cantus firmus singing the Requiem plainchant.

Selig Sind die Toten

Heinrich Schütz is a transitional figure in music history, having lived and worked at a time when the elements that would come to define Baroque music were just beginning to emerge. Schütz was born in central Germany and spent virtually his entire career at the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. While based in Dresden, Schütz was able to travel and spent time in Venice studying with Monteverdi, another key figure in the emergence of Baroque music. Schütz is among the most influential German composers of the early seventeenth century, and his influence can be heard in the music of Buxtehude, Bach, Telemann, and even as late as Brahms and Bruckner. Indeed, the most famous setting of the text “Selig Sind die Toten” is in Brahms’ 1868 Ein deutches Requiem, a setting which itself draws heavily on the influence of Schütz and other early German composers. Schütz’s setting of “Selig Sind die Toten” first appears in the composer’s Geistliche Chormusik, a collection of 29 sacred motets published in 1648. “Selig Sind die Toten,” like much of Schütz’s music, contains many elements of the emergent Baroque style: frequent changes of texture, dynamic, and intensity; alternation between contrapuntal writing, with all six voices moving independently, and homophonic music in which all of the voices sing together; and a clear connection between the meaning of the text and the drama of the music. Nowhere is this last element clearer than in the second section of the piece, where the declamatory music of “Ja, der Geist spricht” is followed by the meditative “Sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit.”

Songs of Farewell

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s song cycle Songs of Farewell, comprised of six a cappella motets, is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century English choral music. With its rich harmonies, intricate counterpoint, and evocative setting of English text, the cycle bears all the hallmarks of the English choral renaissance, of which Parry has long been credited as one of the progenitors. Parry composed the cycle between 1913 and 1915, at the height of World War I and just a few years before his death in 1918. The texts and music reflect both a time of unimaginable loss from the war and also perhaps the poignancy of Parry’s personal farewell: by this point the heart trouble which had persisted most of his life had developed into a serious condition, and he may have known that he did not have much time left to live.

The six motets in Songs of Farewell occur in order of increasing complexity, with the first two scored simply for SATB choir and the final and longest motet set for eight voice parts. This program features the first four motets in the cycle. The first motet, “My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars” is probably the best-known piece in the cycle, set for unaccompanied SATB choir to text by the seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan (1622–1695). The frequently changing keys and meters do not disturb but rather enhance the lyricism of the text, showcasing Parry’s love for the English language and his skill in bringing it to life through this medium. The second and shortest motet, “I know my soul hath power to know all things,” is a setting of two stanzas from “Nosce Teipsum,” a philosophical poem on human knowledge and the nature of the soul by Sir John Davies (1569–1626). Also scored for four voice parts, this motet is nearly completely homophonic, with each phrase punctuated by dramatic pauses. The third motet, “Never weather-beaten sail,” scored for five voices, begins in homophony but quickly expands into a lush, lyrical polyphonic setting of the eponymous poem by Thomas Campion (1567–1620).

The fourth motet, “There is an old belief,” is a six-voice setting of poetry by John Gibson Lockhart (1794–1854). The first half of this motet unfolds through lyrical polyphonic writing very much like the preceding number. On the final sentence of the text, all six parts join in a unison proclamation of the plainsong Credo on the text “That creed I fain would keep” before returning to the lush harmonic writing that closes the piece.

Funeral Ikos

This setting of text from the Orthodox service for the Burial of Priests, here translated into English by Isabel Hapgood, is quintessentially Tavener. The setting, simple and elegant in equal measure, alternates between sparsely harmonized chants and a four-part Alleluia. While this Alleluia is musically unchanged through each iteration, it goes through several significant contextual transformations, being a song of mortal commemoration, heavenly praise, mourning, and comfort––possibly all at the same time.

Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing

Herbert Howells had a long and productive life with a great deal of professional success, including a sixty-year teaching career at the Royal Academy of Music. Howells’s life was also marked by several tragic incidents, however, and chief among them was the sudden death of his nine-year-old son Michael in 1935. Loss and grief are frequent themes in the composer’s music, and rarely are they more overt than in the motet “Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing.” Howells first set portions of Prudentius’s Hymnus circa Exsequias Defunctis as a study for his mammoth 1949 oratorio Hymnus Paradisi. Although the text was not incorporated into the finished oratorio, it remained in Howells’s mind, and the composer recalled it when he was asked to compose a memorial work for President John F. Kennedy in 1964. In “Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing,” Howells sets Prudentius’s poem in an English translation by Helen Waddell. The motet is episodic in its construction and consists of nine continuous sections. The first section begins with a subdued unison chant, reminiscent of plainsong and the Tudor church music Howells studied as a young man. This chant, which might symbolize a mourner’s inner sense of loss and grief, returns in fragments at points throughout the piece as a unifying motif. The second section (“Guard him well, the dead I give thee”) is a more extroverted expression of grief and begins with one of Howells’ signature harmonic devices: the choir sings a B Major chord, but then all of the voices but one move chromatically away from their notes and then back. The sound is akin to an uncontrollable wail. This section and the several that follow are harmonically searching and unstable. They could be heard as moving through stages of grief, from anger to acceptance, searching for some sort of consolation. Eventually we begin to hear the first hints at hope and redemption: “Open are the woods again, that the Serpent lost for men.” The piece finds its resolution, musically as well as dramatically, with an arrival on B Major and the words “Take, O take him, mighty Leader.” Although the harmonic wandering continues through the end of the piece, our “home” of B Major is never far away. The final section of the piece repeats the first lines of the poem, and the work ends quietly with a final repetition of the poem’s first line and title.

The Beautiful Land of Nod

Robert Convery was born in Kansas and raised in California before coming to the East Coast to study at Westminster Choir College, The Juilliard School, and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Although now based in New York, Convery has enjoyed long associations with many Philadelphia musical organizations, including The Crossing and its predecessor, The Bridge Ensemble. The composer writes about “The Beautiful Land of Nod”: “Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, famous for lines like ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone,’ wrote lyrical and affecting works. Unfortunately, for composers looking for poems rich in musical treasures to be excavated, Ms. Wilcox’s poems are too long to sustain themselves in single musical settings. Therefore, I took Ms. Wilcox’s ‘The Beautiful Land of Nod,’ pretended she approved, hung my head in blasphemous shame and whittled down her long poem into a practical length for a musical setting. I also focused the poem, eliminating tangential strayings. While doing this, I kept in mind the musical form I intended to use for the setting, the simple, sturdy Bar Form (A, A, B, A). I then elongated the form slightly (A, A, B, A, A extension, coda) to accommodate my shortened adaptation of the poem.

“The commission for ‘The Beautiful Land of Nod’ came in 2015 from The Crossing for a project called The Jeff Quartets. Fifteen composers were commissioned to each write a short choral work for this project. All fifteen works were then performed on a single program. Being a short work, I wrote it immediately upon receiving the commission, let the music sit a few months, rewrote it, let it sit for a few more months, rewrote it again, let it sit for a few months more, then copied it out neatly during a third rewrite, before sending it to The Crossing for rehearsal and first performance on July 9, 2016.”

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Mar
24
to Mar 25

Where the Truth Lies

Where the Truth Lies

March 24, 2018: Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church

March 25, 2018: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Sonja Bontrager, Lucas DeJesus, Conrad Erb, Joshua Glassman, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Nathan Lofton, Cortlandt Matthews, Hank Miller, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Rebecca Roy, Eddie Rubeiz, Lizzy Schwartz, Zachary Sigafoes, Melinda Steffy, Emily Sung, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

Conquest

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” –Hopi proverb

Windham, Daniel Read (1757–1836)

La Guerre, Clément Janequin (c. 1485–1558)

Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis, Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

The Dying Soldier, American folksong (c. 1863), arr. Nigel Short and Mack Wilberg

La Guerra, Mateo Flecha the Elder (1481–1553)

Hanacpachap cussicuinin, Inca hymn (c. 1631)

Devotion

Hymn to St. Cecilia, Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)

I am the Rose of Sharon, William Billings (1746–1800)

Love, Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)

I love my love, Gustav Holst (1874–1934)

History’s Stories, Dale Trumbore (b. 1987)


For thousands of years, we have created stories to chronicle, to educate, to entertain, and to explore our identities. This program begins by exploring stories of conquest and loss through the music of colonialism and warfare. We weave together the programmatic songs of Clément Janequin and Mateo Flecha, bookended by American and Spanish colonial hymns, to show how music can be used as a vehicle of conquest itself. Meanwhile, through the heartbreaking music of Maurice Ravel, Nigel Short, and Mack Wilberg, we feel how war destroys us by cutting short our stories with the people we love.

Selections by Benjamin Britten, William Billings, Bob Chilcott, and Gustav Holst then take us on a transcendent exploration of devotion, showing us how stories of love, both human and divine, have intertwined and nurtured each other through the ages. As with music and conquest, here we experience music as a vehicle for love, and love as an integral ingredient in music: no more so than in Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, a complicated love story about music itself. We begin and end our program with the same musing: how do stories take shape—in the telling or the retelling? Our journey closes fittingly with this phrase by American poet Diane Thiel, beautifully set in a final piece by Dale Trumbore:

       Our voices rise and leave, traveling, raveling, veiling

       currents across the sea, longing to reach each

       Atlantis, locate shapes that sounds recall––call

       back the world, as it was first encountered, heard

Windham

We open with “Windham,” a shape-note hymn set to a text by Isaac Watts with the more-interesting subtitle “The Almost Christian, The Hypocrite, or The Apostate.” More dogma than narrative itself, the angular sonorities and strident singing emphasize the piece’s Puritanical pessimism. Listeners, take heed: the forthcoming tales of love, triumph, and other frivolous things may wrench you from the narrow road of wisdom and salvation.


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.


Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis

“Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis” is the second of Maurice Ravel’s Trois Chansons, which together consist of the only a cappella choral music he ever published. Ravel wrote the music and texts for all three pieces between December 1914 and February 1915, while waiting to be enlisted in the army. The other two songs in the set employ light, whimsical music and texts, but “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis” is unmistakably the product of a man contemplating war. A woman greets three birds of Paradise, each representing a color from France’s tricolored flag and each bearing something from her lover, who has gone to the war. The woman’s anxious vigil at home is embodied by a soprano soloist, and the blue, white, and red birds of Paradise are sung by tenor (here a low alto), mezzo-soprano, and baritone soloists respectively. The three birds bring the woman snatches of her beloved’s voice and fragments of a story which she, far from the front, cannot access. Ravel’s heartbreaking music and evocative text invites us to contemplate the ways in which war and separation unravel our narratives with the people we love. 


The Dying Soldier

Exploring another perspective on the same theme, the titular narrator of “The Dying Soldier” is an American Civil War soldier who has been mortally wounded while fighting far from home. Lying on the cold ground, he shares final thoughts with his friend, Brother Green, relaying both his deep love for his family and his faith that they will reunite in heaven. The baritone solo carries most of the text, while the choir provides harmonic support and an ethereal quality.


La Guerra and Hanacpachap cussicuinin

Linked across time and hemispheres by imperial conquest, “La Guerra” and “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” will be performed together as a set. “La Guerra” is a sixteenth-century ensalada by Mateo Flecha the Elder that vividly recounts a heroic battle between the forces of Christ and the forces of the devil. An ensalada, which literally translates to “salad,” is named for its mix of textures: such pieces are comprised of quotations from popular melodies and texts set in varying meters, rhythms, and even languages, at the free discretion of the composer. The second piece, “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” is an anonymous processional hymn to the Virgin Mary written in Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire. Printed in 1631 in Peru, “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” was the first piece of vocal polyphony to be published in the New World, and it remains a relic of a time and place in which Spanish Catholicism and native Inca belief systems had begun to fuse together in a new and unusual religious environment.


By the time Flecha was writing his ensaladas in the 1530s, a Golden Age of arts and literature was dawning in Spain; at the same time, the Spanish Empire was at its height overseas, and the Inquisition was still underway at home. As a story about Spain’s holy war, “La Guerra” is very much a product of this time period. The piece has five sections: a call to battle; an interlude of fifes and drums; a song within a song, in which Christ’s assistance is requested and granted; the battle scene; and the final victory. The piece is fast-paced, rousing, and somewhat comic in character. Yet the subject itself––the supremacy of Christ over infidel forces and the conquest of Christianity over the entire world––is meant seriously. Flecha’s intent comes through clearly in the slower, less-jocular sections of music; in his use of formal language rather than vulgar or vernacular text; and in the sudden switch to declamatory Latin for the piece’s final stanzas: “This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith.”


Fittingly, “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” speaks to the ways in which the same era’s Spanish conquistadors used music as a tool for conversion in the New World. It also points to the fluidity of both Christianity and native belief systems in seventeenth-century Peru. The text is nominally a prayer of supplication to the Virgin Mary, but it features imagery that relates instead to the Inca goddess Pachamama, the Earth Mother, who was commonly incorporated into Marian devotion. Although the composer’s identity is lost to history, it is likely that they were an indigenous American musician writing in the Spanish polyphonic style: first, because the hymn was written in Quechua, and second, because of its use of syncopations and a 3-3-4-3-3-4 phrase structure––both features that were common in native music but unusual for European compositions of the time. 


Taken together from a time that saw both great change and great resilience within art, society, and religion, “La Guerra” and “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” give us a lively but deeply unsettling portrait of music itself as a tool of war and conquest.


Hymn to St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, and composers from Purcell and Charpentier to Mahler and Howells have written works in her honor. Hymn to St. Cecilia by the English composer Benjamin Britten, born on St. Cecilia’s feast day in 1913, opens the second half of our program. Britten completed the work in 1942, during an extraordinary period of creativity that coincided with the height of World War II. Britten was an avowed pacifist; notably, he produced some of his best-known works between 1939 and 1945, including not only today’s selection but also A Ceremony of Carols (1942), Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), and the opera Peter Grimes (1945).

 

In Hymn to St. Cecilia, the composer sets a poem by his friend and early mentor, W. H. Auden. The conductor Robert Shaw writes that the poem “is certainly more than occasionally obscure, but it is clear that it mixes erotic imagery (Blonde Aphrodite) with artistic and even religious symbolism.” At the time, Auden was encouraging Britten to embrace his own homosexuality, in hopes that this personal development would lead to even more artistic freedom. Shaw continues, “There is little doubt that in the beginning of Part II (‘I cannot grow, I have no shadow to run away from…’) Auden is urging Britten to begin to have ‘a past’––a ‘shadow’ from which he can grow.” 

 

Hymn to St. Cecilia is in three large sections, separated by settings of the refrain: “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions / To all musicians, appear and inspire.” The first section sets the most literal portion of the text with lilting music. The harmonies expand and contract as the “innocent virgin” constructs an “organ to enlarge her prayer” and the saint’s music reaches its first climax and quickly calms as “around the wicked in Hell’s abysses the huge flame flickered and eased their pain.” The first refrain sounds, set almost entirely in unison. The second section, a scherzo of sorts, builds upon this unison with a sprightly canon between the sopranos and tenors layered over slow octaves in the altos and basses. The section ends still in unison but with a much more intimate statement: “Love me.” After the second refrain, now fully harmonized, the third section of the poem begins as a passacaglia, with a repeated bass line. This music leads to a series of solos, beginning with a soprano voicing St. Cecilia herself. Other soloists impersonate instruments––a violin, a drum, a flute, and a trumpet––to convey Auden’s coded messages to Britten, using the saint’s own powers to reckon with this musician born on her feast day. After this outpouring of emotion, the final refrain returns to the music that began the piece, bringing the work to a quiet close. 


I am the Rose of Sharon

Revolutionary-era American composer William Billings was also a successful singing teacher, church musician, and leatherworker. A self-taught yet prolific composer, Billings produced six volumes of Psalms, hymn settings, choral anthems, and fugues.“I am the Rose of Sharon,” his choral setting of texts from the Song of Solomon, was first published in 1778 and remains one of his best-known works.  Billings juxtaposes choral solos, duets, and full chorus textures, creating charming interplay between the voiceparts and allowing each new idea in the text to receive its own distinct melody. Through tempo and meter changes, he evokes playful and dance-like moods to illuminate passages that still bring joy today: “For lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone!”  


Should this setting inspire you to similar musical outbursts, Billings also included a bit of advice for aspiring singers in the same 1778 publication: “SING that part which gives you the least pain, otherwise you make it a toil, instead of pleasure; for if you attempt to sing a part which is (almost or quite) out of your reach, it is not only very laborious to the performer; but very disagreeable to the hearer, by reason of many wry faces and uncouth postures, which rather resemble a person in extreme pain, than one who is supposed to be pleasantly employed. And it has been observed, that those persons, who sing with the most ease, are in general the most musical.”


Love

In contrast to the rollicking good cheer of “I am the Rose of Sharon,” 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. The bell-like soprano and tenor solos, sounding in unison against the choir’s undulating chords, remain as constant as the title, drawing us close against the “deep night” to assure that “all is well.”


I love my love

“I love my love” is one of Gustav Holst’s Six Choral Folksongs, published in 1916. A setting of a Cornish folksong, this piece tells the story of Nancy, a young woman whose lover was sent to sea by his parents, presumably in an effort to break up their relationship. As a result, she is so distraught with heartbreak that she has been sent to Bedlam, an old nickname for London’s St. Mary Bethlehem hospital, the oldest-known psychiatric institution in Europe and a place made infamous by its historic mistreatment of the mentally ill. Holst, who is still well-known today for his beautiful settings of English folksongs, alternates between the different voiceparts in the choir to illustrate the dialogue between Nancy and her lover and to switch between first- and third-person narration of Nancy’s story. We cannot help but wonder whose version of the story this is: is Nancy truly able to speak freely, or does the text come from the community that both condemned and redeemed her? But even as Nancy questions her immediate circumstances, she never wavers in her devotion to her beloved or her confidence in his reciprocation. At least the story seems to end happily, with both love and madness cured at once.


History’s Stories

Dale Trumbore is among the emerging generation of choral composers. A native of New Jersey, she is now based in Los Angeles, where she was a student of Morton Lauridsen at the University of Southern California. Trumbore’s works have been performed by The Esoterics, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, New York Virtuosos Singers, and VocalEssence, among many others. 

 

“History’s Stories” is actually three pieces in one: two separate pieces for women’s chorus and men’s chorus that can be performed simultaneously to create a third piece. This structure is derived from the poem by Diane Thiel, which can likewise be read three different ways: the body of each line makes one poem (set for men’s chorus), the final word of each line forms a second poem (set for women’s chorus), or the poem can be read in its entirety (the combined third piece). This structure is further highlighted in Trumbore’s setting, where the sopranos and altos echo the final word or syllable of each line sung by the tenors and basses. Trumbore’s evocative approach to Thiel’s plaintive text challenges us to consider the ripple effects of the stories we tell and hear: though the men and women sing simultaneously, they are functionally isolated, telling the same tale from very different perspectives. Listen for the distinct characters between the gendered choruses as the two stories unspool past each other, each hoping that art and music will bridge the chasm left by narrative.


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Nov
18
to Nov 19

The Northern Wild

  • First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
  • Google Calendar ICS

The Northern Wild

Saturday, November 18 at 8 PM
Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
8855 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia

Sunday, November 19 at 5:30 PM
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
2125 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia

Concert Program

In programming The Northern Wild, we searched for a musical kernel that would make a concert of a wide range of styles hold together in a compelling way. In that search, we realized that our favorite music by composers like Veljo Tormis, Jean Sibelius, and Eriks Ešenvalds simply sounds like it couldn’t come from anywhere else in the world. This is not to say that all the music we’ll sing sounds the same—far from it. Tormis’ folk roots could not be more different than the cerebral soundscapes of R. Murray Schafer, while Sibelius and Elgar teeter on the threshold between the late romantic and early modern. But despite all the differences, the wild North is the irreplaceable central character in all of the pieces. This music is grounded in visceral explorations of what it’s like to be in the North, to have the wild earth beneath one’s feet and to be in the unwavering watch of the same celestial bodies for months on end.

There is a loneliness in the way much of this music stretches out like the untouched lands and vast skies it evokes. But in regions still dominated by primal forces, there is great joy in making singular human connections—with a neighboring cowherd across acres of pasture, with a lover thought lost over the hillside, or simply with oneself in the stillness of the pines. These connections are why we sing together, and why we’ll be so glad to have you join us.


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May
15

flourish: reckless hope rises

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.



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Jan
10

gather: in the stillness born

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.



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Nov
1

fray: as shadows fall

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.



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May
17

As Birds Do Sing: A Fifth Anniversary Concert

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.


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Mar
14
to Mar 15

40 Voices Singing: Masterworks for Massed Choirs

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 

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Nov
9

The Elements of Song

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.


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Jun
1

As One

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.


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Mar
16

To Arms

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.


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Nov
17

For Keeps

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.


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Oct
13

In His Care

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.


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Jun
2

Ahoy, Stranger!

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.


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Mar
10

Whither, Fairy?

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.


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Nov
4

Sing, Muse!

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.


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May
6

Songs to the Midnight Sun

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Songs to the Midnight Sun

May 6, 2012: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

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

Lähtö, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–)

Sommarpsalm, Waldemar Åhlén (1894–1982)

I am the great sun, Jussi Chydenius (1972–)

O nata lux, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)

O nata lux, Morten Lauridsen (1943–)

Hail, gladdening light, Charles Wood (1866–1926)

Draw on sweet night, John Wilbye (1574–1638)

Syngur sumarregn, Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir (1964–)

With a Lily in Your Hand, Eric Whitacre (1957–)

On suuri sun rantas’ autius, traditional Finnish, arr. Matti Hyökki

Sügismaastikud, Veljo Tormis (1930–)

       1. On hilissuvi  

       2. Üle taeva jooksevad pilved  

       3. Kahvatu valgus  

       4. Valusalt punased lehed

       5. Tuul kõnnumaa kohal

       6. Külm sügisöö

       7. Kanarbik

My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

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. Even as we were reveling 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 Far North’s 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 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 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 is almost reminiscent of a pop song; appropriately enough, Chydenius is perhaps most famous for his work in the Finnish a cappella ensemble Rajaton.

 

O nata lux

   Chydenius’ unorthodox setting of a sacred text brings us neatly to a trio of non-northern sacred pieces that nonetheless complement the sounds we hear from these northern composers. The use of light as a metaphor for Christ is a familiar trope in all Western cultures, and it becomes all the more powerful when we consider the season-long darkness endured by those in the northernmost latitudes. We turn first to Thomas Tallis’ setting of “O nata lux,” published in 1575 in the Cantiones Sacrae, a joint venture with William Byrd and one of the first sets of sacred music printed in England. Although Tallis and Byrd were both staunch Vikings Catholics, Queen Elizabeth I granted them a twenty-one-year monopoly on polyphony and on printing choral music. Despite this royal dispensation, “O nata lux” makes conservative use of polyphony; its simplicity both reinforces the text’s plea for communion and hearkens to the unembellished clarity of true northern music.

 

O nata lux

   Morten Lauridsen’s take on “O nata lux,” on the other hand, is thick with individual melodies, with each of the four voice parts spiraling out of one another as they leapfrog through Lauridsen’s signature dense chords. Although Lauridsen’s “O nata lux” is as clearly sacred as Tallis’, the freedom of the tempo allows the piece to feel far more intimate and organic than what we traditionally think of as church music. Some of this may be attributed to Lauridsen’s unusually secluded compositional practice: since 1975, the composer has spent his summers alone on a remote island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, composing on a fifty-dollar piano inside a rebuilt general store.

 

Hail, gladdening light

   As we can hear from its warm Anglican sound, Charles Wood’s anthem “Hail, gladdening light” was likely not composed on an uninhabited island or a cheap piano. Indeed, this piece’s polychoral structure hearkens to the late sixteenth century, when Tallis’ contemporaries—many of them working in cathedrals that had multiple discrete choir lofts––refined the antiphonal style of individual choirs singing alternating phrases. For all his reliance on this centuries-old tradition, Wood, an Irish composer and organist, has much in common sonically with his teachers Charles Viliers Stanford and Charles Hastings Parry and his students Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells; “Hail, gladdening light,” a traditional evensong hymn, makes use of a broad range of textures and dynamics and two soaring soprano lines to evoke the majesty of god.

 

Draw on sweet night

   Because “Hail, gladdening light” anticipates the “sun’s hour of rest,” it seems a natural segue to contemplating night as a respite from the northern summer’s near-constant sunlight, and John Wilbye’s “Draw on sweet night,” published in 1609, yearns for nightfall as time of refuge and catharsis. By the time of Wilbye’s flourishing at the turn of the sixteenth century, Tallis and Byrd’s monopoly on polyphony had expired, and we hear Wilbye’s mastery of the new style quite clearly in “Draw on sweet night.” Wilbye is also renowned as one of the best-known English madrigalists, and his keen sense of the text and careful use of “false relations” between major and minor modes are especially evident here.

 

Syngur sumarregn

   Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, a contemporary Icelandic composer, seems especially well qualified to testify to the soothing qualities of the fleeting summer night, and like Wilbye, Rúnarsdóttir focuses on the intimate calm of nightfall. We hear here one of our favorite attributes of northern music, as the piece doesn’t quite settle on a tonal center; in “Syngur sumarregn,” that quality adds to the organic feeling of listening to a brief summer rainstorm. The repeated dissonant chords in the choral parts evoke the shadow of gathering stormclouds, and the soloist and choir only transition to a cheerful-sounding major chord when the nighttime sun breaks through the gloom in the last verse.

 

With a Lily in Your Hand

   Eric Whitacre’s “With a Lily in Your Hand” also illuminates an intimate moment in night’s darkness, but this piece has none of the calm reflection we heard in “Draw on sweet night” and “Syngur sumarregn.” In fact, the piece is a bit of a departure even for Whitacre: known especially for his use of dense, luxurious chords, the composer here makes use of insistent, jarring rhythms interspersed with wrenching, electric harmonies. Such anguished chords do well to illustrate the piece’s text, in which the poem’s narrator is determined to return to his lover despite the obstructions of space and time; intrigued as we are by notions of cultures drifting and changing over centuries, the poet’s willingness to admit to such obstructions feels refreshing.

 

On suuri sun rantas’ autius

   Indeed, the notion of planning a return to a cherished place—or a cherished person—despite a long absence recurs frequently in this northern repertoire. “On suuri sun rantas’ autius” is one of our favorite such folksongs; in this arrangement by Matti Hyökki, we especially like the warmth with which the choral voices envelop the melody line. Like a great deal of northern music, “On suuri sun rantas’ autius” centers around open fifths—rather than the major and minor triads that are more traditional in other European repertoire—and travels through more dissonance than we might expect before settling into its final chords. Despite such surprising  melodic structure, however, this piece speaks to us as viscerally as any Western folksong.

 

Sügismaastikud

   Veljo Tormis’ Sügismaastikud, or Autumn Landscapes, is a particularly dazzling and heartfelt depiction of the effects of time and distance on a well-loved place. Although less internationally famous than his countryman—and former pupil—Arvo Pärt, Tormis is certainly Estonia’s most famous composer, personally responsible for reviving and preserving the country’s significant culture of folksongs and public singing. Sügismaastikud is the rare Tormis piece that doesn’t contain actual fragments of folksong, but instead—coupled with the poetry of Viivi Luik, written when she was eighteen—it offers a privileged glimpse at the fleeting and ephemeral beauty of the Estonian countryside.

   Tormis’ interest in folksong underlies his tendency to create unadorned and clear choral works: though technically polyphonic, for instance, Sügismaastikud rarely pits one voicepart against another, instead highlighting the moving lines in one part with shimmering sustained chords in the others. As we heard in “Syngur sumarregn,” those chords rarely seem to easily settle into an identifiable tonality, remaining slightly unmoored from what we expect to hear even as they create beautiful and singable melodies. This organic quality pervades most of Tormis’ work, and it is rarely more evident than in “Tuul kõnnumaa kohal,” the fifth movement: the women’s voices move in carefully controlled parallel motion, but their precision culminates in the eerie sound of wind over the barren fields. Such careful use of text painting occurs regularly in Sügismaastikud, and we can hear not only the glissandi of rushing winds but also the atonal staccato of falling autumn leaves and the cascading melody of racing clouds on a windy day.

   Given our own interest in charting the passage of time in these high northern latitudes, we are understandably drawn to Luik’s delicate, frank poetry. Her awareness of loss—noting, for instance, that “this same summer / will ne’er return here”––seems far too knowledgeable for a teenager; one wonders just what a young woman in Soviet-occupied Estonia would have seen and understood to have been so clear-eyed so young. At the same time, we marvel at how eloquently she captures the cyclical nature of time and experience, as when she discovers the controlled burn of moorland heather replacing the glow of late-afternoon autumn sunlight. The piece ends with an unfinished feeling: as the heather blazes in the growing dark, the final chord swells past consonance—employing here strategically deployed sopranos to replicate the natural overtones we heard earlier––and we are reminded that the landscape and our place in it never stop changing.

 

My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land

   In a more Romantic mood, we conclude with Edward Elgar’s tone poem on the same theme. “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land” takes its text from Scottish poet Andrew Lang, and the delicacy of Elgar’s setting complements the clarity we heard in Tormis. As with Luik’s text, our awareness here is not simply of the beauty of the northern landscape but also of the perfidy that landscape commits when it does not respond to our own suffering or growth. Although that betrayal—and our own mortality—comes as the concluding shock of the piece, Elgar focuses most of his energies on the unhurried evolution of the “northern land” itself, wistfully underscoring our fleeting presence in comparison with its verdant permanence.

 

Just as we had hoped, this sun-soaked northern music takes us through an unfamiliar geography, one in which the landscape exerts its pull over us with far more delicate tools than snow and ice. We find an electric, haunting quality in this repertoire, and even as its striking tonality unsettles us, it reels us in. The latitude and the weather and the vowel combinations of the Far North may yet be foreign and unpredictable, but these sounds have become our own.

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Mar
11

This Green and Pleasant Land

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This Green and Pleasant Land

March 11, 2012: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, and Rick Womer

The Coolin                                               Samuel Barber (1910–1981) 

O Lady Leave That Silken Thread          Gustav Holst (1874–1934)

Jordan                                                     William Billings (1746–1800)

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav                      Naomi Shemer (1930–2004)

                                                                                       arr. Gil Aldema

Dúlamán                                                     Michael McGlynn (1964–)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree                                Jordan Rock (1982–)

Kasar mie la gaji                                                Alberto Grau (1938–)

Rest                                           Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground                   J. David Moore (1962–) 

Locus Iste                                              Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)

The Blue Bird                           Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)

Silence and music                   Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Faire is the Heaven                      William Henry Harris (1883–1973)

I Got Shoes         Robert Shaw (1916–1999) and Alice Parker (1925–)

Lux Antiqua                                                     Jordan Nobles (1969–)

Going Home                                          Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

This is a strange time for a concert about paradise. Given the upheaval of the past year—blizzards in October, daffodils in January, vexed farmers muttering about imminent summer drought—it would be easy to feel as though we could no longer rely upon the natural world. Our unease comes from more than the vagaries of our own weather: we have watched from afar as storms and cold and tornadoes rend distant communities, and we have kept silent tallies of the probability that such calamities would strike our lives.

   What helps us face this uncertainty, oddly enough, is history: we are far from the first to have lived through a seemingly unending cycle of natural disasters. The scale of our concerns may be more global, but the mere fact that earlier generations faced the same upheaval is comforting. We might think of early ventures to this country, when fleets of ships carrying whole communities were routinely swallowed by hurricanes; or of the centuries-long process of desertification in northern Africa, which forced untold generations of farmers into wandering and famine; or even of the cholera outbreaks that routinely ravaged nineteenth-century European cities before the advent of proper sanitation. The record of human history is pockmarked with these local tragedies, but the history continues each time regardless.

   In fact, our ancestors did not simply carry on in the aftermath of disaster—they responded. After nursing the injured or rebuilding the bridges, they implored their children to learn from their own misfortune and hubris; in Japan last year after the tsunami, villagers along the coastline uncovered centuries-old stone tablets indicating the high water points of ancient tsunamis, each one engraved with a warning against building on the vulnerable lowlands. As increasingly global communities, we can collectively adapt to new challenges and change our habits—and perhaps most importantly, we can uphold our continued yearning for a safe, verdant space that is somehow insulated from these catastrophes. Our willingness to try again propels us forward from disaster, but it is our perpetual belief in that attainable paradise that inspires our new efforts.

   We take our title today from William Blake, who deplored the pollution and exploitation he saw in eighteenth-century London even as he proposed the “green and pleasant land” of the British Isles as a latter-day Jerusalem. That contradiction seems appropriate for the close of this eerily mild winter. We can respond to the larger concerns in our world without giving up hope entirely, and we know that our salvation—however we may define it—begins with our own efforts. We can make a paradise here.

 

“The Coolin”

   In that spirit, we begin with Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin,” fully embracing the contradiction of finding lovers’ bliss on a cold, wet hillside. It seems appropriate to begin a place-centered concert with Barber, who was himself a native Philadelphian. Despite those laudable roots, the composer frequently referred to himself as a “throwback Irishman”; “The Coolin” is the last of Barber’s three Reincarnations, composed for the Curtis Institute of Music with text based on traditional Gaelic songs. We can hear echoes of Barber’s Irish inheritance in the Celtic style of “The Coolin,” as his frequently pentatonic melodies scale very large, dramatic ranges in each voice part. The voices thus lilt and sigh along with the wind, and the narrator and his beloved find themselves transported even as darkness falls over the hill.

 

“O Lady Leave That Silken Thread”

   Gustav Holst’s “O Lady Leave That Silken Thread” also calls upon lovers in nature, but it does so in quite a different key. (Nyuk nyuk.) Here, the outside world is genuinely paradisiacal, wreathed with otherworldly flowers and intoxicating perfume. Although the vocal parts are less sophisticated than those of Holst’s later works, this call-and-response texture—composed when Holst was barely twenty—evokes the raw ardor and joy of the narrator urging his lover outside on a heaven-sent spring day.

 

“Jordan”

   However trippingly we sing the interwoven lines of Holst’s flirtation, it can never match William Billings’ “Jordan” for sheer exuberance. Indeed, we consistently enjoy Billings for his brazen, earnest sound, and this Sacred Harp tune about an earthly Biblical paradise does not disappoint. In this context, Billings’ forthrightness seems doubly significant: his chosen text—taken from an earlier Protestant hymn—suggests that the singers see clearly (if timorously) the path to paradise before them. Although we tend to think of Billings for his influence on the musical developments that followed his lifetime, it is worth remembering the ways in which he may have been shaped by the politics and religion of his own era; as a citizen of Boston, the self-proclaimed “shining city on a hill,” Billings may well have absorbed early belief in American exceptionalism, suggesting here that inhabitants of his “model city” might be especially able to “stand where Moses stood.”

 

“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”

   Following Billings’ eighteenth-century vision of a holy city, we turn to Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” translated as “Jerusalem of Gold.” Written only three weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the song immediately became an anthem for the Israeli Defense Forces, celebrating the liberation of eastern Jerusalem and the Old City from the Jordanian occupation. Indeed, unlike Billings’ fairly vague and unattainable paradise, Shemer’s Jerusalem is a habitable, human-scaled place, complete with wells and marketplaces—temporarily inaccessible, perhaps, but not out of reach.


“Dúlamán”

   Michael McGlynn’s “Dúlamán” is similarly earthbound—literally, as the text is extracted 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 great fun 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. 

 

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

   Pausing in this Irish mood, we’re proud to premiere our dear friend and fellow singer Jordan Rock’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which he composed for us this winter. Yeats’ text—one of our favorites—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.

 

“Kasar mie la gaji”

   Earthly though we have been in this first half of the program, neither Barber’s windswept hill nor McGlynn’s nutrient-rich seaweed can compare with the genuine ferocity of Alberto Grau’s “Kasar mie la gaji.” Although Grau himself is Venezuelan, he takes his single line of text, which translates as “The earth is tired,” from a common phrase among the people of the Sahel, a semi-arid belt marking the southern border of the Sahara Desert. The theatrics of Grau’s work—sighs meant to evoke the susurration of wind across the savannas, heavy groans indicating bone-deep fatigue—make plain his environmental consciousness. This piece betrays the fears mentioned earlier; for all that we might strive to repair what we have wrought upon the planet, there can be no denying that the earth is tired.

 

“Rest”

   We step back from Grau’s fierce invocation of environmental strain for a soothing, calm response in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Rest.” Here we begin a slow ascent from the very earthly sensuality of the first half of the concert. “Rest,” which uses Christina Rossetti’s poem by the same name, delineates the liminal space between earth and heaven, mortality and afterlife, and sleeping and waking. Vaughan Williams does not describe an eternal contentment, but the sweet yearning of the piece makes it clear that in this in-between moment, the anticipation of paradise is paradise enough.

 

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground”

   J. David Moore’s “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground” makes use of the same technique—isolating a single moment of thoughtful contentment—in a very different way. Written for the eight hundredth anniversary of the poet Rumi’s birth, the piece’s palindromic structure makes each syllable a meditation on the importance of attentive, intentional living. Taken from a much longer poem on the same theme, this call for thoughtful, deliberate action seems the best response to the crippling fear engendered by our own anxieties about the world.

 

“Locus Iste”

   Rounding out this set of pieces devoted to single, holy places, Anton Bruckner’s “Locus Iste” brings us the most traditional approach: written for the dedication of a votive chapel in the New Cathedral in Linz, the piece consecrates hallowed ground as touchingly as any spoken blessing. Although Bruckner was widely considered the last great Romantic-era composer, “Locus Iste” feels achingly neoclassical, hearkening to Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” The piece is notably low in our collective vocal register, with the basses serving as standard-bearers for each new line of text, and this effect anchors the transcendent text to the earthbound foundation of the chapel and our voices, linking heaven and earth in both music and architecture.

 

“The Blue Bird”

   Bruckner’s trick of eliding earthly and celestial forces in “Locus Iste” is very much at play in Charles Villiers Stanford’s “The Blue Bird,” too, but here the link is simply a bird, soaring high above the reflective surface of a placid lake. Although much of Stanford’s oeuvre fell out of favor in his declining years, “The Blue Bird” remained consistently popular in the immediate aftermath of World War I, with the quiet rejoicing of the text—“the sky above was blue at last”—made more poignant by the memory of darker days during the war.

 

“Silence and music”

   “The Blue Bird” has had such perennial appeal that Vaughan Williams turned to it for inspiration in 1953, when he and nine other British composers were commissioned to write new choral pieces celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Vaughan Williams’ contribution to the “Garland for the Queen” is explicitly dedicated to “the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford and his Blue Bird,” and the piece’s structure—a pure soprano line soaring above the other three voice parts—mimics “The Blue Bird.” The text, written by Vaughan Williams’ second wife, Ursula, picks up on the elision seen in “Locus Iste” and “The Blue Bird,” but with a far more sophisticated tone. The result is a lyrical hymn to the power and depth of music—and silence, music’s necessary counterpart—and to our ability to find the full range of human and divine emotion within the few octaves spanned by our voices.

 

“Faire is the Heaven”

   Encouraged by Ursula Vaughan Williams’ conviction that divinity is accessible in our music, we turn now to more celestial versions of paradise. William Henry Harris’ “Faire is the Heaven” is by far the most literal and Christian of our selections, but the familiarity of the sentiment is enhanced by Harris’ resonant, joyous setting. Here we make use of the face-to-face antiphonal setup of the English church choirs for whom Harris composed, and we take special pleasure in the segues between the two choral parts, listening for the music to grow more complex as Spenser’s text brings us closer to a confrontation with divinity itself.

 

“I Got Shoes”

   Where “Faire is the Heaven” proclaims the beauty of heaven by listing the beauties of its inhabitants, “I Got Shoes” takes off from a far simpler notion: if we become angels in heaven, we get wings—and a robe, and a harp, and yes, shoes. The cuteness quotient of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker’s setting of this traditional spiritual makes it easy to forget its harrowing origins; like so many spirituals, “I Got Shoes” reworks the anxieties of enslaved African-Americans for whom even basic needs—like shoes—were inaccessible in this world. The refrain—“ev’rybody talkin’ ‘bout heav’n ain’t a-goin’ there”—hints at widespread hypocrisy within the churchgoing community; in heaven, then, one would find not only justice but true believers.

 

“Lux Antiqua”

   The trouble with programming a selection of pieces about celestial paradise, however, is that we don’t all identify with the visions sketched in “Faire is the Heaven” and “I Got Shoes.” As a counterpart to Harris, Parker, and Shaw, Jordan Nobles’ “Lux Antiqua,” which premiered this fall in Seattle, offers an exciting and engrossing portrait of the literal heavens. Written for “spatialized choir” so that the singers appear as pinpricks of light and sound within the night sky, “Lux Antiqua” 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 most religious traditions.

 

“Going Home”

   Compelling though the far reaches of the heavens may be, few of us are ready to live out the rest of our days there, so we close with something rather more familiar: Antonin Dvořák’s “Going Home.” What is recognizable here is made more remarkable by the fact that Dvořák didn’t actually intend to write a traditional spiritual—in fact, he wasn’t even writing for chorus. The music of “Going Home” was written as the Largo of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (“The New World”). William Arms Fisher, an American musician who attended the symphony’s premiere as one of Dvořák’s guests, was so struck by the melody of the Largo movement that he later turned that theme into a traditional spiritual, penning the authentic-sounding lyrics himself.

   In drawing upon Dvořák’s melody and traditional African-American spirituals simultaneously, Fisher demonstrated shrewd resourcefulness, calling upon both his understanding of traditional musical forms and his excitement over the new approaches sketched in the Ninth Symphony. Dvořák, having previously urged American composers to make better use of the great wealth they inherited from their melting pot of musical cultures, was pleased with Fisher’s innovation, seeing the adaptation as a victory for the entire musical community rather than an exploitation of his own work.

         Such ingenuity and generosity characterize much of the history of choral writing––and indeed, of choral singing. As singers, we tend to pay attention to the desires and influences of single actors: we talk about the composer’s wishes or the narrator’s voice or the conductor’s vision, but we rarely talk about the inherent community of choral singing. Today’s program spans a range of individual efforts to pinpoint or cultivate paradise, and the cumulative power of that range is in its diversity. As J. David Moore reminds us in the cascading women’s entrances of his piece, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground—hundreds of ways to express our devotion to, our appreciation for, and our creativity in our own beloved communities. We sing together each week in tacit understanding of this fact, and we perform today before you all in celebration of the bonds that link us to one another, to the greater Philadelphia community, and to the generations of choral singers and composers whose work we inherit. Yes, we may have also inherited an imperfect world—but together (and with a strong downbeat) we can face it.     


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Nov
6

Axis of Medieval

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Axis of Medieval

November 6, 2011: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler,Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, and Rick Womer

Congaudeant Catholici                   Albertus of Paris (fl. 1146–1177)

Jerusalem Luminosa                                         Abbie Betinis (1980–)

Three Psalm Tunes                              Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)

from Nine Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter

   First Tune

   Second Tune

   Third Tune

Easter Chorale                                         Samuel Barber (1910–1981)

Tristis est anima mea                           Francis Poulenc (1899­–1963)

from Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence

Концерт для хора                          Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

In Pace                                               William Blitheman (1525–1591)

Quatre motets sur des themes grégoriens Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)

I. Ubi caritas

   II. Tota pulchra es

III. Tu es Petrus

  IV. Tantum ergo

Two Anonymous Medieval Carols

   Orientis Partibus                                                             (c. 1200)

   Agincourt Carol                                                               (c. 1415)

Douce Dame Jolie                      Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377)

                                                                                     arr. Jordan Rock

Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

I. Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder

   II. Quant j’ai ouy la tambourin

III. Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain

Jézus és a kufárok                                   Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967)

Ave Maria              Franz Biebl (1906–2001)


If we built a time machine and managed to bring Albertus of Paris (fl. 1146– 1177) to the same moment as Abbie Betinis (1980–)—admittedly not everyone’s first goal upon building a working time machine—the meeting might not go very well. Albertus, who served as cantor at Notre Dame in the middle decades of the twelfth century, would certainly be stymied by Betinis’ American English, and he would likely be surprised—if not downright outraged—by her literacy and her independence and her penchant for wearing pants. The awkwardness of the contrived interaction would be our own fault, and our friends would shake their heads disapprovingly. What do they expect? they’d mutter. They don’t even speak the same language. And our friends would be right: the language barrier would surely be insurmountable, and Albertus simply wouldn’t know what to make of Betinis— unless we brought them here today. If they sat with one another for the opening of today’s concert, they would hear Albertus’ “Congaudeant catholici,” the earliest extant example of three-voice polyphony, followed by Betinis’ two-part “Jerusalem Luminosa,” which premiered in 2001 mere blocks from Notre Dame. The pieces have more than Parisian geography in common, and their time-traveling composers might have found that they did, too.

Given that in the mid-twelfth century, polyphony for two voices was still relatively new—the earliest surviving examples date from the early tenth century, and by Albertus’ time polyphony was still controversial within the church— Albertus’ venture into writing music for three independently moving voices would have been a daring exercise. For all that the structure of his piece sounds somewhat familiar—a moving, melismatic melody line atop the droning voices below—we can hear Albertus testing the limits of the expanded polyphonic form, inviting dissonance in the middle voice where we expect only unsophisticated consonance. In our imagined scenario, Albertus might have traveled those centuries with all his twelfth-century prejudices and biases intact, but he would nonetheless be a medieval maverick, willing to seek out innovation and energy in new and unorthodox places. We may therefore imagine that perhaps the performance of his own groundbreaking “Congaudeant catholici” would sufficiently distract Albertus from the surprises of the twenty-first century. Proud of his innovation, he would bask in his unexpected dissonance, and then he would recognize—perhaps with a frisson of surprise—the techniques of his own era in Betinis’ “Jerusalem Luminosa.” The opening monophonic alleluia—all the women in unison on a chant melody—would sound quite familiar, as would the two-voiced reiteration of the same theme, with the altos holding down the drone beneath the sopranos’ chant. The piece then spirals off into an ecstatic game of harmonic leapfrog, but it never loses touch with those medieval cornerstones. Albertus, one of the forefathers of modern music, would feel at home in the first two phrases of Betinis’ twenty-first-century piece, and in that moment, our time travelers would indeed speak the same language.

So much of medieval music history is about language and attempted communication that imagining the meeting of our hypothetical time travelers isn’t a wholly frivolous idea. The advent of polyphony called for new ways to communicate, for as music progressed beyond the monophonic plainchant of the early church, singers could no longer reliably learn everything by ear. The concurrent spread of Christianity added to the problem of faithful transmission; if the liturgy needed to be sung the same way in each of the far corners of Christendom, the musicians would need a consistent way to notate their new pieces.

Medieval music is therefore significant not only for its polyphonic innovations but also for its creation of a system of musical notation. Modern notation was codified in the early eleventh century, and the manuscript for “Congaudeant catholici,” for example, reflects many of the new conventions: Notes are arranged relative to one another on a lined staff, and different voice parts are clearly indicated on different staffs or even in different colors of ink. The handwriting is archaic and the rhythms seem unclear, but this is still recognizably—and singably—music.

For all that Albertus and Betinis might have been able to speak clearly to one another’s polyphony across an eight-hundred-year gulf, theirs was not the only approach for the musicians working within that time span. Indeed, debates about the morality of polyphony raged until the sixteenth century, when extreme factions at the Council of Trent proposed banning polyphonic singing—along with professional musicians and organs—for fear that the independently moving parts would distract from the sacred text. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585), whose homophonic psalm tunes seem quite distinct from the melismas of “Congaudeant catholici,” knew well the shifting loyalties required of early church musicians, and his musical genius was undoubtedly matched by a keen political savvy. Tallis served as a high-ranking church musician under several different—and vastly divergent— English monarchs, tailoring his music to suit the prevailing political and religious trends of each reign and remaining in favor with each successive ruler. A devout Catholic, Tallis was nonetheless a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, whose Anglican reign discouraged the liturgical polyphony that had been popular under Mary I. Tallis’ psalms—written in 1567 as a set of nine for the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury—reject entirely the florid Catholic polyphony he had employed during Mary I’s reign, relying instead upon vernacular English and clear, open homophony.

Although the psalm tunes remained obscure for generations after their composition, they have lately enjoyed a renaissance: Ralph Vaughan Williams used the Third Tune as the eponymous theme in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, providing us with both a handy example of the continued links between early modern and contemporary music and one of our favorite symphonic pieces. Samuel Barber (1910–1981), who shares his birth year with the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia, clearly saw no need to embellish on the early modern themes from which Vaughan Williams took inspiration. Instead, his “Easter Chorale,” also titled “Chorale for Ascension Day,” picks up neatly where Tallis left off four centuries earlier. Indeed, the continuity is so seamless that we can segue directly from Tallis’ Third Tune into Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” traversing the centuries in a single page turn. For Barber, the stripped-down homophony that Tallis employed to curry favor with puritanical Anglicans serves here simply to highlight the grandeur and exaltation of the piece’s text and occasion, as the “Easter Chorale” takes its secondary title from its original purpose: Barber composed the work in honor of the April 1965 dedication of the central tower at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The text, written by Pack Browning (1940–), who was then a graduate student at Berkeley, celebrates both Christ’s resurrection and the natural world’s return to springtime activity. The poem is sufficiently vibrant and evocative as to require very little embellishment from Barber’s music; instead, Barber treats the text reverently, allowing the varying intensity of his music to reflect the moods of the poem. Interestingly, the piece’s inherent exaltation is keyed to one of today’s literal high points: the “Alleluia!” refrain marks the first moment on the program at which our voices reach fortissimo, celebrating a very different but equally valuable kind of ascension.

If Albertus and Betinis illustrate one form of early music and Tallis and Barber build upon another, then Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) neatly straddles both options. His “Tristis est anima mea,” the fourth and final movement of Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, merges melismatic flourishes with unadorned chant, resulting in a chillingly dramatic mélange. In contrast to Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” which celebrates the purely triumphant moment of the resurrection, Poulenc’s “Tristis est anima mea” is in a different mode, spotlighting Christ in the moments before his execution. Poulenc makes effective use of text painting to heighten the drama: after the opening soprano solo peals upward in true melismatic fashion, the full choir comes in with hushed urgency, imploring the listener to escape before the executioners arrive. As the narrator gets closer to admitting the dreadful truth of his fate—“You will take flight, and I will go sacrifice myself for you”—the four choral lines become more frantic and disjointed, with dissonant runs trading off between voice parts. Once the terrible pronouncement has been made, however, calm settles, and an objective narration steps in with chant-like simplicity. Nevertheless, this quiet resolution cannot disguise the enormity of the moment, and the piece closes with its complexity intact: the baritones, now serving as the narrator, ascend on uneasy arpeggios while the rest of the choir shimmers on delicately inverted chords. This is resignation, not resolution, made more dramatic by the use of very old techniques to tell an even older story.

To achieve similar dramatic intensity, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) took a different approach for his Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text here is equally 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. As we saw with Tallis and Barber, this kind of simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos. Interestingly, medieval composers were not the only artists who faced censorship from anxious church officials: Rachmaninoff’s “Choral Concerto” was never published in his lifetime, because the slight changes he made to the traditional kontakion caused the piece to be banned by the Russian Orthodox authorities.

An even subtler, gentler form of dormition prayer comes via “In Pace” by William Blitheman (1525–1591). Here, the text is a prayer for the narrator himself; the calm with which the poem invokes the poet’s perpetual slumber is reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s famous “Rest,” which glorifies a “stillness that is almost Paradise.” Blitheman, however, does not let the mood of the text act as a soporific; instead, he cleverly combines several early musical elements without allowing the junctures between the genres to overwhelm the piece. Although the bulk of the piece is set as a traditional four-part motet, the phrases are interwoven with interjections of plainchant. The chants fill the interstices between the choral phrases, and the piece ends not with the expected motet resolution, but with yet more chant—a reminder, perhaps, that all things must end as they began. In that spirit, the second half of today’s program also begins with chant.

Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) makes his medieval inspirations clear in his title: Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens are indeed based upon Gregorian themes, with the original chant melodies woven into the choral settings. Such technique is typical of Duruflé, whose Requiem also relies upon familiar liturgical chant, and as a result the four-part choral pieces never stray far from their medieval chant roots. Just as the clear melody lines show the influence of the earliest polyphony, the extended sections of mixed meter clearly stem from the days before bar lines and standardized rhythmic notation.

Our two anonymous medieval carols highlight a different tradition, providing examples of the non-liturgical music of the period. “Orientis Partibus,” a three-part ditty written in France around 1200, is a cheerful mockery of the traditional “O Magnum Mysterium.” Instead of celebrating the “great wonder” of lowly animals being present for the birth of Christ, “Orientis Partibus” simply celebrates a lowly animal: “an ass, handsome and most strong.” The jaunty, interweaving parts are an early example of a profane—that is, non-sacred-––conductus, liturgical versions of which would have been sung while holy texts were being carried to the lectern. “Agincourt Carol,” which dates from 1415, serves an entirely different purpose: in describing King Henry V’s unexpected and bloody victory over the French at Agincourt during the Hundred Years War, it works as a kind of early journalism, narrating the battle and its aftermath for those who remained at home (as long as they could understand the words).

“Douce Dame Jolie,” originally written by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300– 1377) in the fourteenth century, rounds out our secular medieval programming. Machaut composed prodigiously, and his secular works center almost entirely on the three formes fixes—the ballade, rondeau, and virelai—dictating the rhythmic and rhyming structure of poems and music. “Douce Dame Jolie” is a virelai, a dance-like setting with a pattern of recurring rhymes. Our version, arranged by baritone Jordan Rock, pays homage to the dance origins of the genre in the insistent rhythmic interjections behind Machaut’s melody line. Jordan also provides us with slightly more text painting than Machaut’s original tune had made possible: the narrator, crazed with passion, begs his beloved to let him die rather than suffer further. The tone clusters that build in intensity throughout the third verse suggest that the narrator may be wishing for something other than to end his life, even though he does claim to be “without base thoughts.”

As an heir to the troubadour tradition of poetry and music, Machaut supplied music for many of his poems, but Charles d’Orléans (1394–1465) focused his output solely on poetry. Imprisoned in England after being captured at the battle of Agincourt, d’Orléans wrote most of his poems while in captivity. As a nobleman—indeed, he was heir to the French throne, which contributed to England’s desire to keep him in custody—he was afforded relative comfort during his twenty-four-year captivity, and he became friendly with his captors. Interestingly, all of his poems are in French in the traditional ballade and rondeau forms, suggesting that his learned fluency within the English nobility did not outweigh his French cultural heritage.

Charles Debussy’s (1862–1918) settings of three disparate d’Orléans poems honor their mixed medieval and early modern origins: the hemiolae in “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” remind us of the rhythmic instability in chant, the thrumming choral pulse in “Quand j’ai ouy la tambourin” serves as a vocal version of the percussive tambourin, and the quartal harmonies prevalent in “Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain” hearken back to medieval idealization of the interval of a perfect fourth. Returning to sacred text, Zoltán Kodály’s (1882–1967) “Jézus és a kufárok” relies similarly upon medieval techniques. Like Debussy, Kodály focuses heavily upon the quartal harmonies so revered by medieval composers. Text painting also returns to the fore; as the Biblical text describes the chaos and confusion of the interrupted market scene, the independent voice parts scurry up and down sixteenth-note runs, instigating a kind of call-and-response cacophony.

We close with Franz Biebl’s (1906–2001) “Ave Maria,” an entirely different kind of call-and-response. Biebl takes his cue from the medieval tradition of antiphonal choirs, in which the two choirs would have been arranged spatially along the cruciform arms of the nave of a church, the better to reflect the sacred significance of their music. Like Blitheman, Biebl interjects chant into his polyphony, here using the Angelus—Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel—alongside the traditional Ave Maria text. Biebl’s “Ave Maria” has achieved canonical status in contemporary choral repertoire, bringing these medieval echoes to yet another generation of singers.

It is these echoes and traces that make medieval music’s legacy so poignant. Modern music owes its development to the medieval composers who defied their church employers for the sake of writing polyphony; they risked termination—or worse—when they insisted upon integrating their new techniques into the church’s traditions. Ironically, however, the fears of the church elders may yet have been realized: the original efforts to ban polyphony or classify it as demonic music stemmed from a fear that increasingly sophisticated music would distract from the liturgy, gaining primacy over the sacred text. In a way, that’s exactly what has happened: the experiment of polyphony succeeded, and pieces like “Congaudeant catholici” are known and sung now not for their sacred text but for their musical interest. The musical frames that were once vessels for their holy words have become sacred in their own right, venerated by generations of musicians who worship this shared culture of intricacy and enlightenment. The words, as it turns out—and as Albertus and Betinis could have told us—are immaterial. The music is what sustains us.


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Jun
20

I Hear America Singing

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I Hear America Singing

June 12, 2011: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, and Rick Womer


Long Time Traveler                            Edmund Dumas (1810–1882) arr. Jordan Rock

Euroclydon                                           William Billings (1746–1800)

Four Motets                                           Aaron Copland (1900–1990)

I. Help us, O Lord
II. Thou, O Jehovah, abideth forever
III. Have mercy on us, O Lord
IV. Sing ye praises to our King

Sweet Prospect                                     William Walker (1809–1875) arr. George S. Clinton

Shenandoah                                         Traditional Folksong, c. 1800 arr. James Erb

Landis Settings                                              John B Hedges (1974–)

I. Amherst Noon
II. March Simile
III. Autobiography

world premiere

selections from A Child of Our Time         Michael Tippett (1905–1998)

Nobody knows
Steal away

A Ballad of Tree-Toads  Lester Jenks [Harvey B. Gaul] (1881–1945)

With a Lily in Your Hand                              Eric Whitacre (1970–)

 Long Time Trav’ling                                        Abbie Betinis (1980–)


We begin with leaving. Then again, most American stories begin with departures of some kind: from Spain, bound for adventure and mercenary glory; from the western coast of Africa, in bondage; from rocky English shores, for salvation. The arrivals are what make the stories famous, but the departures—wrenching and exhilarating, nerve-wracking and hopeful—are what make them stories. 

Grounded in this common tradition of departure, today’s program traces a shared culture of rootlessness and amalgamation, of roadside exchange and perpetually forward motion. It is a concert of reinvention and self-reference, such that some of the singers joked about making a game out of the citations and reprises, Pin-the-Tail-On-What-You’ve-Heard-Before. Our title comes from the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, which we read not for its sentimental image of discrete voices singing discrete songs but for its reminder that indeed, these voices and songs cannot help but build on one another, just as songbirds riff on inherited tunes to create new cacophony. The process of music-making is necessarily cumulative, but today’s cross-section reveals that the layers of tradition and time are not firmly fixed atop one another: this history is not linear, and these journeys frequently overlap. We set out today alone, but we will meet others along the way.

We open with an explicit demonstration of those meetings given voice: a dual arrangement of Edmund Dumas’ “Long Time Traveler,” which was originally published in the 1859 edition of The Sacred Harp under the title “White.” The title was an homage to Benjamin Franklin White (1800–1879), editor of the first three editions of The Sacred Harp songbook and progenitor of the American traditions of both Sacred Harp and shapenote singing. Although Sacred Harp and shapenote singing are not technically synonymous, they have became nearly so, in large part because of White’s songbook. Shapenote singing, invented in the late eighteenth century as a method to facilitate the teaching of singing and sight-reading, relied upon a system of four shapes—a triangle, a square, an oval, and a diamond—that each represented both a syllable and a musical pitch. Rather than use the seven-syllable do-re-mi solfege that is more familiar to today’s singers, shapenote used just four syllables—fa, sol, la, and mi—to cover all possible notes. The shapes and syllables are firmly linked—a triangle, for instance, is always pronounced “fa”—and their relativity to one another is fixed, such that mi, for instance, is always a half-step lower than fa. The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, standardized the many competing variations on shapenote, cementing both its reliance on only four notes and its simple harmonic structure, distinct from the more complex music being written contemporaneously in Europe.

Jordan’s rearrangement of “Long Time Traveler” takes its cues from two settings of the hymn: an unadorned three-part arrangement by the Wailin’ Jennys and the traditional, four-part version from the third edition of The Sacred Harp. The arrangement by the Wailin’ Jennys, a Canadian folk trio, serves us especially well as an aural demonstration of the kind of tag-team creativity that this program exemplifies; as additional voices join in and the harmonies build, the very simple tune at the piece’s core grows to something more transcendent.

It is admittedly unorthodox to start a concert with this kind of slow build-up, but the metaphor––of travelers meeting to combine their “varied carols”––is irresistible. So, too, is the reverence inherent in this opening trio: this is by far our most sacred concert this year, and beginning with a single, contemplative voice singing about the promise of heaven locates us carefully alongside the travelers whose steps we shadow. For the nineteenth-century Americans who would have sung simple harmonies like this and learned hymns out of songbooks like The Sacred Harp, departure and uncertainty were familiar and bittersweet parts of life in the United States. Americans of this era certainly knew more itinerancy than their European counterparts, simply because Americans had—and maybe still have—a tendency to move around a lot, whether for gold or for war or for better prospects elsewhere. In leaving, they knew that despite the advantages of efficient railroads and a well-organized postal service, they might not return to the places of their cherished beginnings. The moment of departure thus becomes a moment of reflection, setting out for parts unknown—to sea, to a new town, to an afterlife—while holding close to what sustained them.

The Sacred Harp setting of the hymn honors that same reverence with considerably more gusto. Shapenote singing is traditionally loud, twangy, and brazen in tone, meant for whole communities rather than trained singers alone. Shapenote singings have no consistent conductor; instead, singers take turns leading pieces, with everyone encouraged to mark time with their free hand. A new piece would typically be sung through on syllables alone, as we do here, before the words are added in on the repeat.

The sheer volume of shapenote singing may be unique to that style, but the twangy, rustic harmonies are not. William Billings (1746–1800), largely regarded as the father of American music, employed similar sounds in his prodigious output of hymns and patriotic tunes. Tellingly, Billings’ ultimate downfall as a composer was not his deliberately facile tunes but rather his legions of imitators. Without the benefit of copyright protection for his work, Billings’ most popular pieces—those that would have been the most lucrative for the composer to own—were reprinted, copyright-free, in songbooks like The Sacred Harp. Thus deprived of both the rights to and steady income from his work, Billings died in penury. Billings is not the only artist on this program whose work suffered reappropriation owing to the lack of copyright protection, but happily, most Billings tunes are today recognized as such. “Euroclydon,” named for the Biblical windstorm that causes a shipwreck, couples Billings’ signature harmonies with an affecting narrative of near-disaster, salvation, and homecoming. Betraying his ear for older musical traditions, the composer makes special use of text painting to depict his sailors’ torment, even as the final phrases of the piece sound suspiciously hymn-like.

Although Aaron Copland (1900–1990) is best known for his deliberate reliance on similarly rustic or folksy sounds, his Four Motets evince an unexpected delicacy even as they strum those same open fifths. Composed in 1921 during his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, Four Motets was Copland’s first choral composition; the precipitous key changes suggest that their composer may yet have lacked a full sense of how he wanted his music to sound. As Boulanger wrote to Copland, however, the pieces “sound in the voices in a stunning manner,” and the harmonies that sounded rustic and countrified in earlier works now begin to shimmer.

With William Walker’s “Sweet Prospect” and James Erb’s setting of “Shenandoah,” we see continued use of these traditional sounds. Walker, White’s brother-in-law and collaborator on the first edition of The Sacred Harp, composed “Sweet Prospect” in the early 1830s, and the tune was included in the original printing of The Sacred Harp. By contrast, the text is not original to Walker or The Sacred Harp: Samuel Stennett, an eighteenth-century British minister, penned the verses for a hymn setting of his own. In appropriating Stennett’s text for his own composition, Walker acts as another magpie in this cultural chronology, freely making new use of existing work. “Sweet Prospect,” scored here for women’s voices, returns to themes and sounds we recognize from “Long Time Traveler”: twanging open fifths, communal time-keeping, a relish for the text, and the promise of heaven.

Juxtaposed against the brazen Sacred Harp sounds of “Sweet Prospect,” James Erb’s “Shenandoah” comes as a lovely, soothing reprieve. In setting “Shenandoah,” Erb joins a long line of reinterpreters, not reappropriators: the origins of the song are murky, with most experts agreeing only that was first sung on the East Coast in the early nineteenth century. Because the melody is inherently singable, it was passed on orally through several different communities in the nineteenth century, many of whom added verses or interpretations that are still familiar today. One version frames Shenandoah as a Native American chief whose daughter plans to elope with the singer; another suggests that the song may have been sung by escaped slaves, who traveled through the river so as not to leave a scent trail on land. Erb’s arrangement treats the text quite simply, without wading into additional narrative verses, but the voices are structured so as to bring out the inner movement of the melody: the women sing one verse in canon, and when the men return on the chorus, all voices pulse the nasal consonants of “Shenandoah,” creating a rippling, rhythmic effect that suggests the very sounds of the river itself.

Amid this musical conversation of inheritance and inspiration, it is our joy and our privilege to sing the world premiere of John B Hedges’ Landis Settings, which was composed this winter for the Chestnut Street Singers. Philadelphia is a natural site for this premiere:  after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and earning a Master of Music at Westminster Choir College, Hedges returned to postgraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he worked with Joan Hutton Landis, now Professor Emerita of Humanities, whose poetry is featured in the work. Hedges’ connection to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Singers is not merely academic, as his older sister, Allison, is a dedicated member of our ensemble.

We gave Hedges very few suggestions for the directions his work might take, other than musing that it might be nice to include text by a contemporary female poet. Much to our delight, however, the three movements of Landis Settings fit neatly and evocatively alongside the rest of today’s program, complementing the more traditional pieces with a modern aesthetic all their own. Landis’ poems do similar work, paying homage to familiar traditions and icons—“Amherst Noon,” in particular, is a poignant portrait of Emily Dickinson––with a wry and cosmopolitan sensibility. Landis Settings thus couples tradition and innovation, hearkening to both 1940s jazz and the mid-century motivic atonality made popular by Schoenberg and achieving what Hedges referred to as “a bluesy, juicy jazz harmony vein.” It has been an honor and a pleasure to sing Landis’ texts and Hedges’ music, and we are delighted to premiere this work on today’s program.

Though the modernity of Landis Settings might initially catch us off guard, the underlying blues techniques have a sweet familiarity, like something that we almost recognize but that has been distorted by time. The two selections that follow, from A Child of Our Time, use the same strategy of tweaking well-loved traditions, but these draw from spirituals, the precursor to Hedges’ blues. Michael Tippett, the only non-American composer on today’s program, wrote A Child of Our Time after being inspired by the events leading up to Kristallnacht in 1938; the oratorio, structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, proclaims both Tippett’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 Tippett’s spirituals: in addition to being beautiful in their 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 own despair. Rather than being a niche tradition, bound only to shameful periods of American history, spirituals thus become an eloquent, cosmopolitan genre, universally accessible for expressions of both hope and anguish.

As the musical traditions of spirituals led to blues and, eventually, rock and roll, so too did the same heritage inform the barbershop sounds made popular in the early twentieth century. Lester Jenks’ “A Ballad of Tree-Toads” gives our men a chance to spotlight their facility with both close barbershop harmonies and tongue-twisting lyrics. Lester Jenks was one of many pseudonyms used by Harvey B. Gaul, a prolific composer and arranger and talented organist who lived in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century. The absurd text of the “Tree-Toads” was originally printed in The Pittsburgh Post, suggesting that Gaul, like his fellows on today’s program, took just as much inspiration from the mundane as from the classical.

We close this evening by pairing two luminaries in contemporary American music, both of whom are celebrated for combining innovative rhythms and voicings with lush choral sounds. Eric Whitacre, who recently made headlines with his YouTube-based Virtual Choir, has cemented his status as the golden boy of American choral music, known especially for his use of dense, unearthly chords. “With a Lily in Your Hand” is thus a bit of a departure from Whitacre’s usual style; although there are plenty of wrenching, electric harmonies, they are interspersed with insistent, jarring rhythms, pitting the poet’s stated intention to return to his lover against the obstructions of space and time. Abbie Betinis, recently named one of NPR’s top hundred composers under forty, creates similar juxtapositions of promises and doubts in “Long Time Trav’ling,” which she specially recommended to us after hearing about this program last fall. Betinis herself has a storied pedigree as an American composer; she is the great-niece of Alfred Burt, whose annual Christmas card carols included such favorites as “O, Hearken Ye” and “Bright Bright the Holly Berries.”

In “Long Time Trav’ling,” Betinis’ reverence for American musical history is evident; the work combines two popular—and by now, familiar to us all—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. For all that the text and the core melodies come from the shapenote tradition, however, the work’s complexity goes far beyond the deliberate simplicity of The Sacred Harp, with competing lines seeming to undercut the texts’ optimistic proclamation that “we’ll meet again.” As the piece swells to its final crescendo, it switches feverishly between major and minor modes, indicating that these travelers are well aware of the perils they face in leaving friends behind. In closing our inaugural season with such a work, however, we aim to make our intentions clear: we have cherished your part in this season’s journey, and we dearly hope we’ll meet again in the fall. Indeed, we have reason to be optimistic, for although “Long Time Trav’ling” ends without closure or resolution, it does not leave us without recourse. We can feel that the journey is unfinished, but we know how to find our way home from here.

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Mar
20

The Food of Love

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The Food of Love

March 20, 2011: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, and Rick Womer

If music be the food of love Jean Belmont Ford (1939–)

I Am the Rose of Sharon William Billings (1746–1800)

Nigra Sum Pablo Casals (1876–1973)

Rise Up, My Love Healey Willan (1880–1968)

Wahre Liebe Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)

I Am Not Yours Z. Randall Stroope (1953–)

Of all the birds that I do know John Bartlet (1565–1620)

Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

Farewell False Love George Kirbye (1565–1634)

The Tyrant Love George Kirbye (1565–1634)

O Vos Omnes Pablo Casals (1876–1973)

O Vos Omnes Blake R. Henson (1983–)

Frauenklage Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)

Dream of Heaven Blake R. Henson (1983–)

Acrostic Song David Del Tredici (1937–)

The title of today’s program may be recognized as the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which the lovesick Duke Orsino urges his musicians, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Our title, however––and our opening piece, by the celebrated American composer Jean Belmont Ford (1939–)––comes from Henry Heveningham’s seventeenth-century riff on Shakespeare’s famous prompt, turning Orsino’s plaint into a proper love poem. While Orsino seeks to drown his sorrows in melancholy music, asking for “excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die,” Heveningham’s narrator uses music as flirtation, drawing upon the sensual language of appetite to proclaim the beauty of the listener. It is in the spirit of Heveningham’s poem, celebrating the charms of music alongside those of a beloved, that we have assembled today’s program of love songs.

Ford’s piece is only the first reimagining of a familiar romantic text; “I Am the Rose of Sharon,” “Nigra Sum,” and “Rise Up, My Love” represent three distinct treatments of similar—sometimes identical— verses from the Song of Solomon. Religious interpretations of the Song of Solomon posit that the famously explicit text can be read as an allegory of the Judeo-Christian god’s relationship with Israel or with the Christian church, but more recent scholarship has illuminated similarities between the Song of Solomon and other ancient erotic poetry. For William Billings (1746–1800), Pablo Casals (1876–1973), and Healy Willan (1880–1968), the stanzas seem to signify very clearly as love poems, continuing the flirtatious pursuit begun by Ford. Appropriately for a springtime concert, each composer spotlights the text’s proclamation of spring as a season of renewal and sensuality.

Although both Casals and Willan were twentieth-century composers, their lush styles hearken back to earlier trends in music. Billings, too, a self-taught musician who is often considered the father of American music, bypassed the prevailing sounds of his day in favor of rougher, almost medieval-sounding harmonies. The inherent sprightliness of Billings’ “I Am the Rose of Sharon” contrasts nicely with the more mature colors of “Nigra Sum” and “Rise Up, My Love.” In particular, Willan’s “Rise Up, My Love” has a languorous quality that forecasts the speaker’s amorous intentions.

In “Wahre Liebe,” the last in this set of romantic overtures, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) continues that depth of sound. Here again, both the text and the music seem drawn from earlier traditions, with the delicate Renaissance-style harmonies complementing the references to the twelfth-century tale of Tristan and Isolde. Those lovers, however, for all that they symbolize pure devotion, were drawn together owing to a magical love potion; by contrast, Hindemith’s gallant declares that his feelings outweigh even Tristan’s in both purity and ardor.

If, as we hope, the lovers in these first pieces succeed in their seductions, Z. Randall Stroope’s (1953–) exhilarating setting of Sara Teasdale’s “I Am Not Yours” might seem an appropriate entrée to the next phase of their relationships. “I Am Not Yours” strikes a different tone from the flirtatious texts with which we began today’s concert; the narrator here need not convince her beloved of her feelings. Instead, the poem reads as though she is simply waiting for an appropriate opportunity to act on her infatuation. The poem’s historical context, however, suggests that it may be less an intent for assignation than a sign of resignation: Teasdale herself, a lyrical poet in the early twentieth century, did not enjoy a happy romantic life. Her unhappy marriage ended in divorce, and she was rumored to have harbored lifelong feelings for a friend and former lover who considered himself financially unable to marry her. “I Am Not Yours,” published only months after Teasdale’s wedding, may have betrayed her inner tumult on––and, perhaps, her resignation to––marrying another man.

Happily, John Bartlet’s (1565–1620) “Of all the birds that I do know” and Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” have no such tragic backstory. Indeed, they capture all the giddiness and abandon of new romance. “Of all the birds that I do know,” popularized by the King’s Singers in their Madrigal History Tour, wins the prize for being the most overtly suggestive piece on the program: although the poet celebrates a singing sparrow named Philip, the chorus indicates that Philip may actually be a woman—and she may actually be vocalizing something other than song. Like “Of all the birds,” “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” is a well-loved choral piece, and Charles d’Orléans’ earnest text is only the first of its many charms. Like the poem’s titular woman, the composition boasts many virtues: the tessitura in all four parts lends itself to very easy and lyrical singing and the voices move in parallel motion while the insistent three-versus-two rhythms—a hemiola, in which one part’s triplet rhythm is set against another part’s duples—keep the melodies moving smoothly forward.

Of course, Shakespeare himself would remind us that the course of true love never runs smoothly, and the delight embodied by Stroope, Bartlet, and Debussy may be finite. Things certainly took a tragic turn for George Kirbye (1565–1634), whose “Farewell False Love” and “The Tyrant Love” begin our descent into romantic despair. Unfortunately, Kirbye’s disappointment in love may not have been balanced by overwhelming professional success; today, his works are little sung and rarely published. As a madrigalist, Kirbye eschewed the light style made popular by his English contemporaries like Morley and Weelkes, preferring instead to work with serious texts, often in a minor mode. Like the Italians whom he imitated, Kirbye devoted careful attention to text setting, framing line and tempo to reflect the content of the verses. Given Kirbye’s relative obscurity, today’s performance may be the Philadelphia premiere of “Farewell False Love” and “The Tyrant Love.” (In fact, this may very well be their world premiere—our research has turned up no extant recordings and only incomplete performance records.) However, his sense of betrayal and resignation after having been crossed in love is likely just as familiar to modern audiences as Charles d’Orléans’ eager infatuation.

Much of today’s program features juxtapositions between musicians of similar eras but different styles, as in the contrast between Kirbye and Bartlet, who were born in the same year but approached their work with vastly different sensibilities. We continue our exploration of the lovelorn, however, with a pairing by composers of different generations but deliberately similar styles: two settings of “O Vos Omnes” by Pablo Casals (1876–1973) and Blake R. Henson (1983–), respectively. The text comes from Lamentations, which, unlike the Song of Solomon, is distinctly religious, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem and the wrath of an angry god. In the excerpt that becomes “O Vos Omnes,” however, the text is entirely secular, signifying only the speaker’s bleak despair. For all that Lamentations itself is selectively excerpted, the Casals and Henson pairing demonstrates true fidelity to source “text.” The Casals original, composed in 1942, generates a rich, somber tone, suggestive of Casals’ own stylings as an accomplished cellist. Henson’s homage, published in 2006, cites the first two measures of Casals’ piece before plunging into a gentler—but equally moving—setting of the same text. After stewing in Kirbye’s rage and wallowing in Casals and Henson’s sorrow, our narrative of lost love culminates in Hindemith’s “Frauenklage,” the second of his Five Songs on Old Texts. Like “Wahre Liebe,” the first in that collection, “Frauenklage” evokes earlier musical trends, using twentieth-century tonal language to evoke Renaissance harmonic patterns. The individual parts are written in traditional motet style, but they are layered upon one another to create complex polytonality. The text also returns us to an explicitly female narrator for the first time since “Nigra Sum,” although the quiet grief of Hindemith’s lamenting lady would likely seem totally foreign to Casals’ flushed and eager beauty.

Such privileged sorrow, however—the mature understanding that love can be cherished and celebrated despite the gentle ravages of time—is the necessary final development in today’s sequential narrative. Henson’s “Dream of Heaven” is part love song, part lullaby; his use of Samuel Rogers’ (1763–1855) “The Sleeping Beauty” marks the first text on the program in which the lover encourages his beloved to continue without him. The narrator may be telling an alternate version of the traditional fairytale, or he may be its unsung hero: after having presumably wrestled his way through the thickets and thorns surrounding the sleeping princess’ tower, he pauses in his moment of anticipated triumph and allows the young woman to “sleep on secure above control.” The lovers with whom we opened the program were appealingly romantic in their pleas, but the narrator of Rogers’ poem is almost certainly more admirable: in refusing to disturb the sleeping princess, he cherishes and respects her beauty and her mind more than he would have in waking her to live as his queen.

Henson’s setting of the text is unabashedly comforting in moments when the narrator is speaking to the princess, and the music reaches a fever pitch only when the narrator fears that the young woman might be stirring into wakefulness. When the moment of anxiety passes, however, Henson returns to the soothing melodies with which the piece opened, reinforcing the lullaby of his own composition with the familiar strains of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” arcing through the soprano and alto lines. The portrait of a young woman being allowed to grow up gracefully recurs in David Del Tredici’s “Acrostic Song,” although to more sorrowful effect. Del Tredici (1937–), who trained as a serialist in the mid-twentieth century, shocked the musical world with the 1976 premiere of the lush and neo-romantic Final Alice, of which “Acrostic Song” is the fifth act. Final Alice was originally composed for soprano soloist and a modified orchestra, conceived as a series of elaborate arias drawing upon the poetry in and inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The text for “Acrostic Song” is the concluding poem in Through the Looking-Glass, which was written five years after Alice’s Adventures and almost ten years after the fateful boat trip on which Charles Lutwidge Dodgson made up a story about Wonderland to entertain young Edith, Lorina, and Alice Liddell. Alice Liddell, who was ten years old at the time, became the inspiration for Alice herself, and she is memorialized in the poem, which spells out her entire name—Alice Pleasance Liddell—in the first letter of each line.

Much of Alice’s Adventures is wracked with anxiety about Alice growing up; owing to a combination of magic potions and Wonderland accidents, Alice is repeatedly too large to function properly in Wonderland, unable to fit through the door to the White Rabbit’s garden and eventually so Amazonian as to be able to use the Queen of Hearts and her court as playing cards. The poem at the end of Looking-Glass, however, written when Alice was already an accomplished young lady, does not begrudge her this inevitable and natural maturation.

Like Henson, Del Tredici treats the text with reverence, even shifting to minor tonalities for the most mournful passages of the poem. As a kind of elegy for a lost summer’s day, “Acrostic Song” is not nearly as calming as “Dream of Heaven,” but with its invocations of dreams, it becomes almost as lullaby-like. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” returns in the sopranos’ insistence that life is “but a dream,” and Del Tredici’s deliberate repetition of short phrases of text breaks the verses into nonsense syllables, as if language itself has yielded to the inexorable degradation of time. The piece, like the poem, ends without achieving resolution; for Alice––as for the Sleeping Beauty and as for each of us––there is more to the story, yet to be told.


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Oct
24

Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals

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Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals

October 24, 2010: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Cory O’Niell Walker, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Ellen Womer, and Rick Womer.

My Spirit Sang All Day                               Gerald Finzi (1901–1956)                                     

C’est trop parlé de Bacchus                 Pierre Certon (c. 1515–1572)                         

Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!                        Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623)

Come Let Us Drink (excerpts)                     Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

         I Gave Her Cakes

         Tom Making A Manteau

Art of the Ground Round (excerpts)          P.D.Q. Bach (1807–1742?);

         2. Please, Kind Sir               squarely edited by Peter Schickele

         3. Jane, My Jane

         6. Nellie Is a Nice Girl

Madrigal                                              Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988)

Sing We and Chant It                           Thomas Morley (1557–1602)

Can’t Buy Me Love                            John Lennon (1940–1980) and Paul McCartney (1942–); arr. Keith Abbs

Fair Phyllis I Saw                                        John Farmer (1570–1605)

Matona mia cara                                 Roland de Lassus (1532–1594)

Madrigali                                                     Morten Lauridsen (1943–)

       I. Ov’è, lass’, il bel viso?

II. Quando son più lontan

    III. Amor, io sento l’alma

     IV. Io piango

      V. Luci serene e chiare

     VI. Se per havervi, oime

Madrigal                                                    Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

Au joly jeu  Clement Janéquin (c. 1485–1558)

By definition, madrigals are secular works. In practice, they are also a uniquely flexible musical genre, as evidenced by the eras spanned in today’s program: this concert features works from the early sixteenth century, when madrigals first came to popularity in Italy, France, and England, juxtaposed against nineteenth- and twentieth-century interpretations of those first exemplars.

As is true today, a secular piece in the sixteenth century dealt with non-sacred subjects, including, to our delight, sex and drugs. Many madrigals draw upon the amorous poetry made popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chronicling both romantic success—as in John Farmer’s “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” in which Phyllis and her lover “fell a-kissing”—and despair, such as Morten Lauridsen’s “Io piango,” which laments, “So trapped by Love am I / That ever I lie in torment.” To further stress the significance of the text, madrigals draw heavily on “text painting,” a Renaissance technique in which the melodic lines reflect the meaning of the lyrics in pitch, rhythm, and expression.

Notably, these pieces are all written in the vernacular; we sing today in English, French, and Italian but, unusually for a chamber chorus, we have nothing in Latin. Indeed, many historians posit that the word “madrigal” came from the Latin “matricale,” which means “in the mother tongue.” In the Renaissance, Latin was the language of learned scholars, clerics, and bureaucrats; everyday vernacular was the language of lovers and revelers.

The choice of text was not the only way in which Renaissance composers made their secular intentions clear. Madrigals, like many other pieces from the Renaissance, are polyphonic works, in which multiple independently moving voices create an intricately textured melody. In the late sixteenth century, the church tried to ban polyphonic music, fearing that the moving parts would be a distraction from sacred text. Composers eager to embrace the new technique prevailed over their church sponsors in the latter half of the century, but by then the conflict had been well established. To write in polyphony in the early sixteenth century, as several of today’s composers did, was to flaunt the church’s established code of conduct. In other words, Elvis Presley was not the first musician whose “moving parts” scandalized traditional authorities.

In the interest of underlining the pervasiveness and adaptability of these themes, today’s program is deliberately arranged in non-chronological order, with complementary elements appearing and reappearing in works from different eras and aesthetics. We open with

Gerald Finzi’s vibrant “My Spirit Sang All Day,” the third of his Seven Partsongs set to poems by Robert Bridges (1844–1930). Finzi (1901–1956), a luminary in early twentieth-century British songwriting, had a thorough grounding in English literature and was noticeably conscious of text in all of his compositions, setting musical phrases to reflect the emotional progression of the poems. Here, Finzi echoes Bridges’ frequent interjections of “O, my joy!” with equally lively—and equally joyous—crescendos and vivacity.

Pierre Certon’s “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus” and Thomas Weelkes’ “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” serve to firmly anchor our repertoire in texts of revelry, not just love. Interestingly for composers celebrating the joys of liquor and tobacco, both Certon (c. 1515–1572) and Weelkes (1575–1623) were primarily employed by the church; the former served as master of choristers at Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, and the latter held a series of organist positions at English churches and cathedrals. Both, however, made their fame as secular composers, and both encountered trouble with ecclesiastical authorities: as a young man, Certon was nearly jailed for playing ball at Notre Dame and refusing to attend Mass, while Weelkes was discharged from his post at Chichester Cathedral because of public drunkenness.

Weelkes could have benefited from Certon’s instruction: in “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus,” Certon brags about his ability to drink copiously without getting sick, advising his fellows to imitate his accomplishment. Weelkes’ piece, however, is notably more intricate; in the opening verses, Weelkes employs a hocket, a medieval technique in which the rhythm of one voice—here, the alto line––is deliberately opposed to those in the other parts, creating a sort of hiccup (“hoquet” in French) in the rhythm. “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” extols the purported virtues of smoking tobacco, which became wildly popular in sixteenth-century Europe after Columbus’ crew brought it back from the Americas. Although Europeans generally smoked recreationally, they had learned of the indigenous American practice of using tobacco medicinally, which accounts for Weelkes rejoicing in tobacco as a panacea.

Men were not alone in their interest in such products; Henry Purcell (1659­–1695) chronicles a seduction by way of gift-giving in “I Gave Her Cakes,” in which a suitor presents a young woman with several types of alcohol, cakes, and jewelry while peppering her with kisses. Whether because of the gifts or because of the kisses, the young woman does seem to relent, and the pair is “wondrous merry.” 

Purcell’s “I Gave Her Cakes” is more a descendant of madrigals than it is a true madrigal. Instead, “I Gave Her Cakes” and “Tom Making A Manteau” are both catches, a polyphonic form popular in the seventeenth century, when traditional madrigals were on the wane outside England. Like madrigals, catches are unaccompanied, secular, and attentive to their texts. Unlike madrigals, catches are sung in the round, such that different parts enter at different times, and the lines can be carefully layered to reveal unexpected innuendo once all parts join in.

It is worth noting that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both madrigals and catches were overwhelmingly composed and sung by men. When women are factored in, they exist only as objects, usually of a man’s sexual conquest, and there are no extant madrigals composed by women crowing about the returned kisses of a male paramour. This is unsurprising: few women would have had the necessary linguistic or musical training available to their brothers. Any woman who did have such opportunities would have been too genteel to dream of putting her name to a bawdy or rollicking song.

Because Purcell’s catches were written to be sung by men’s voices alone, they don’t translate well to a mixed-voice setting; the juxtaposed lines are meant to be sung within the same vocal register. Rather than preserve their original arrangement, however, we found it more suggestive to grant Purcell’s catches to the women of the choir, putting a new spin on the old heteronormative texts.

As a counterpart, the men present three catches from P.D.Q. Bach’s Art of the Ground Round. Bach’s catches were obviously inspired by Purcell, as they use the same technique of overlapping voices revealing new texts. Bach (1807–1742?), however, interprets catches within the baroque tradition, adding a part for discontinuo, performed today on the euphonium. Baroque pieces commonly had continuo parts consisting of a simple line played by a bass instrument and an ornamental keyboard part. By contrast, Bach preferred the bass line alone, especially later in life, when his age and girth prevented him from comfortably reaching both ends of a keyboard simultaneously.

Kenneth Leighton’s “Madrigal,” using text by John Fletcher (1579–1625), introduces a modern interpretation of the madrigal form and completes the battle of the sexes laid out in the catches. Here, though, Leighton (1929–1988) repudiates the endless madrigalian reliance on love poetry; dissonant chords underlie the poet’s ominous warning that lovers commit themselves to betrayal when they commit themselves to one another.

We return to the traditional madrigal setting in “Sing We and Chant It,” by Thomas Morley (1557–1602). Morley’s piece is an old chestnut to

Renaissance choirs, with its bright melodies and its earnest promotion of the good life. The cheerful “fa la la” of Morley’s chorus is, interestingly enough, neatly echoed in Keith Abbs’ madrigalian setting of The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” adding actual rock and roll to this program of musical revelry. “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” by John Farmer (1570–1605), and “Matona Mia Cara,” by Roland de Lassus (1532–1594) flesh out our selection of classic madrigals. “Fair Phyllis,” in particular, is a sterling example of text painting; as Amyntas searches “up and down” for wandering Phyllis, the four voice parts echo his movements. “Matona,” on the other hand, reveals just how much bawdiness can be hidden behind lovely melodies; the joke is that the narrator, a German soldier, speaks such poor Italian that he doesn’t realize the full meaning of his words.

Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali draws inspiration—and text—from the earliest madrigals, but to a very different effect. A major figure in twentieth-century American composition, Lauridsen (1943–) is known for the lush density of his choral pieces. Madrigali, a six-part song cycle, is also known as the “Fire Songs,” because the piece draws extensively on a sonority called the “fire chord,” which opens the set and recurs throughout. The cycle blends stylistic qualities of early madrigals, like text painting, hockets, and counterpoint, with Lauridsen’s signature contemporary harmonic structure.

Like the Lauridsen Madrigali, Gabriel Fauré’s “Madrigal” bridges the divide between Renaissance madrigals and contemporary composition. Fauré (1845–1924) himself nimbly occupied the liminal space between the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning modernism of the twentieth. “Madrigal” employs Fauré’s customary lyricism against the now-familiar refrain urging pleasure instead of solitude. Interestingly, for all that “Madrigal” is a nineteenth-century composition, it is frequently performed by ensembles that otherwise limit themselves to the music of the Renaissance.

We close today with a return to the true Renaissance madrigal in the form of Clement Janéquin’s “Au joly jeu,” the oldest piece on the program. Janéquin (c. 1485–1558), like Farmer and Purcell after him, depicts a light-hearted scene of flirtation and coy playfulness, in which the melodies bounce along as merrily as the couple described in the text. We find Janéquin’s work especially fitting as a closing piece because of its vintage: as Janéquin was one of the first composers whose music was printed using the modern techniques of movable type, he embodies the shift from medieval to modern practices of composing and performing. So, too, do madrigals and their descendants forge a connection between the music—and musicians—of the sixteenth century and those we enjoy today.


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Jun
6

Music to Hear

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Music to Hear

Sunday, June 6, 2010
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia 

Maura Caldwell, Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer

Lobet den Herrn                                                 Knut Nystedt

Sicut cervus                             Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

God Be In My Head                                       Jackson Berkey

Ave verum Corpus                                                William Byrd

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day                   Philip Stopford

Esto Les Digo                                                            Kinley Lange

Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?             Nils Lindberg

 Le Chant des Oyseaux                                       Clément Janequin

Music to Hear                                                 George Shearing 

                    I. Music to Hear

          II. Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?

                 III. Is It For Fear To Wet A Widow’s Eye

                 IV. Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

                  V. Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More


When Chestnut Street Singers was founded in the winter of 2010, the ensemble’s original mission was clear: the group was to be a Renaissance choir. Almost immediately, however, the singers realized that although they loved singing Victoria and Palestrina, they didn’t want to deny themselves the privilege of working with more contemporary, albeit still Renaissance-inspired, works.

It is therefore very appropriate that we open today’s concert with Knut Nystedt’s setting of Psalm 148, “Lobet den Herrn.” Nystedt, one of the luminaries of twentieth-century Norwegian composition, is well known for his homages to Bach; indeed, the psalm text is best known musically in its Bach setting. Beyond his dedication to Bach, however, Nystedt frequently bases his choral works on medieval and Renaissance harmonies and textures. This juxtaposition—contemporary elegance with Renaissance techniques—perfectly exemplifies Chestnut Street Singers’ approach and ideology.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” and Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” offer a similarly complementary pairing. Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) is one of the best-known composers of the Italian Renaissance, famous both in his own lifetime and in musical scholarship. Most notably, he is often credited as the “Savior of Church Music”: when some church officials tried to ban polyphony from sacred music, fearing that the moving parts would interfere with the intelligibility of holy texts, Palestrina forcefully defended his technique. Like “Sicut cervus,” Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” features a simple, sacred text embellished by moving textures. The piece opens with a traditional chant incipit, and as it was commissioned in 1993 as an easy-to-memorize “signature piece” for the University of Wisconsin, the text repeats even as the harmonies build.

William Byrd’s “Ave verum Corpus,” which was published in 1605 with other pieces using private devotional texts, hearkens back to the Renaissance. Byrd (1540–1623) nimbly composed in many of the forms current in England at the time, ranging from consort music to secular English tunes to sacred music for both Protestant and Catholic communities. “Ave verum Corpus” appeared in Byrd’s collection of Gradualia, which contained more than one hundred motets using Catholic liturgical texts. Byrd was nonetheless favored by England’s Protestant monarchy; in 1575, Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a joint twenty-one-year monopoly on the patent for printing music and ruled music paper. They celebrated by producing an elaborate set of motets dedicated to and lauding the queen. Although his career as a printer was a financial failure, Byrd was overwhelmingly popular and successful as a composer during his lifetime. Today he is remembered even by non-musicians on November 21, when he—along with Tallis and John Merbecke—is venerated with an Episcopal feast day.

Like Byrd, Clément Janequin (c. 1485–1558) also has a place in the histories of both performed and printed music. Janequin was a Parisian contemporary of Pierre Attaingnant, who, several decades after Gutenberg, was the first to use single-impression movable type for printed music. Attaingnant published over 1500 chansons, but his output overwhelmingly featured Janequin above all other composers. As a result, few composers were more popular during their lifetimes than Janequin. The bulk of Janequin’s work is secular, and some of his most famous pieces are long, sectional chansons mixing onomatopoeia with traditional text. Besides “Le Chant des Oyseaux,” Janequin also composed “La Chasse” and “La Bataille,” which, as their titles suggest, call for the singers to imitate the sounds of a foxhunt and a battle.

Along with Nystedt, Philip Stopford, Kinley Lange, Nils Lindberg, and George Shearing represent the more contemporary composers on today’s program, though all of them dabble in earlier forms and traditions. Besides the obvious musical references to the traditional sound of Renaissance-era choirs, their textual choices are equally evocative. Appropriately for a springtime concert, we have the pleasure of featuring two complementary settings of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, first published in 1609. While Stopford, Lange, and Lindberg are earlier in their careers—in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden, respectively—Shearing is a well-established jazz pianist and composer in both his native Britain and in the States. His virtuosity in jazz and swing reinterpretations of classical techniques is especially evident in the five-part set “Music to Hear,” featuring Shakespearean texts, close jazz harmonies, and accompanying piano and double bass.

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