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flourish: reckless hope rises
May 15, 2016
Sonja Bontrager, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Brian Middleton, Bryan Park, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Emily Sung, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman
Gabriel Jackson, To Morning
Healey Willan, Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One
James MacMillan, The Gallant Weaver
John Tavener, Village Wedding
Samuel Barber, Easter Chorale
Johann Sebastian Bach, Jesu, meine Freude
Orlando di Lasso, Justorum animae
Charles Villiers Stanford, Beati Quorum Via
Knut Nystedt, Lobet den Herrn
Stephen Paulus, Hymn to the Eternal Flame
Notes on the Program
When we were choosing repertoire for this year, we imagined the three concerts fitting together as a grand cycle. Our fall concert, fray, looked at endings in many forms, from the death of love to the apocalypse. In the darkest time of winter, we saw a glimmer of hope as we sang gather, our first-ever Christmas concert. With the arrival of spring, we sing of rebirth, new beginnings, and the promise that salvation grows from the good we sow in the darkest of times.
This is the central message of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, a true showpiece for the composer’s many-layered brilliance. It was intimidating to consider the question of whether we were up to the task of bringing that genius to life, and although we are not trailblazers in performing this music, the brilliance of Jesu, meine Freude will always surpass its ubiquity. It is a triumphant affirmation of life and of victory over our innermost demons. It is necessary music.
Gabriel Jackson’s shimmering invocation “To Morning” opens our concert, calling on the virgin huntress Diana of Greek mythology to bring forth a new day. Diana was also the goddess of childbirth, so William Blake’s poem acts as a supplication for rebirth. Broad, sweeping crescendos create a sort of musical sunrise. As we are awakened, we sing “Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One,” rousing our lover to come and witness the rebirth of the world after winter’s end. But frolicking with our lover in springtime is not always the way the world would have it, especially with the patriarchy standing in the way. The narrator of Robert Burns’ “The Gallant Weaver” vows to keep her true love in her heart, even as her father promises her to a wealthier suitor. MacMillan’s setting of this poem cleverly mimics the pulsing ebb and flow of a loom, weaving together strands of melody into a lush fabric of sound.
In his “Village Wedding,” John Tavener chose scattered lines from Angelos Sikelianos’ early 20th-century poem, offering starkly contrasting glimpses into a traditional Greek wedding ceremony and the culture’s devotion to both its mythical past and its Christian present. The refrain of “Oh Isaiah dance for joy, for the virgin is with child” most obviously refers to the virgin Mary, but a duality emerges with clear references—as in our opening piece—to the mythical virgin Diana, born with her twin brother Apollo on the island of Delos. Furthermore, when taken purely at face value (and with the title in mind), the poem could simply portray a shotgun wedding in a Greek village. The bride is forced to wed her unborn child’s father, but in doing so is poetically interwoven with goddesses. She is deified through her most personal struggle.
With Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” we are back to our exuberance at the arrival of spring, this time more clearly representing the rebirth and awakening found through the ascension of Jesus Christ. We take a bit of liberty in singing this with continuo organ today, as it was originally scored for brass, timpani, and full cathedral organ, but with the message in its text and Barber’s clear imitation of a baroque chorale, we couldn’t pass up the chance to end the first half with a little taste of the Bach to come.
The text of Jesu, meine Freude alternates between a 17th-century hymn by Johann Franck and St. Paul’s biblical letter to the Romans. The hymn depicts an all-out (but very private) brawl—let’s reimagine it as Rocky, with the titular underdog representing Faith and his impossibly accomplished opponent representing Satan, temptation, and death. As we watch the climactic bout on screen, St. Paul, sitting next to us, innocently interjects and gives away the ending (spoiler alert: if you live in the way of Christ, Rocky wins in the end).
Franck’s hymn makes up the odd movements, which grow in polyphonic complexity as the motet progresses, sometimes completely obscuring the chorale melody, as in movement five, “Trotz dem alten Drachen.” This progression culminates in the ninth movement, “Gute Nacht, o Wesen”—listen for the altos’ occasional interjections of the chorale melody, punctuating the endlessly wandering tenor line—before triumphantly returning to its original homophonic setting in the final chorale.
The even movements are freely composed, and without the restraint of the chorale melody, Bach was able to show off his genius for counterpoint. We get our first taste for fugal writing in the second movement, but Bach really takes off in movement six, “Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich,” where we have not one but two fugue subjects and a grand adagio coda to bring it all back to earth. The penultimate movement echoes the roiling energy from the second, signaling the soul’s inevitable victory over death.
Both Di Lasso’s “Justorum animae” and Stanford’s “Beati quorum via” distill the same message as the Bach: follow in the way of Jesus and receive the blessing of eternal life. Neither piece depicts the conflict or turmoil of the Bach, so the composers basked in the optimism of their respective texts to create lush polyphony, albeit from very different eras.
Like our opening piece, the last two works we sing today are invocations. Nystedt’s “Lobet den Herrn” is a playful and extroverted call to praise God, simply because he is worthy of being praised. We end, more simply, with a call to praise humanity. “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” from Stephen Paulus’ Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, is a reminder that, no matter your individual faith, no matter what darkness we face, the fire of rebirth lies within us all.
gather: in the stillness born
January 10, 2016
Sonja Bontrager, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Brian Middleton, Bryan Park, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman
William Walton, Make we joy now in this fest
David Conte, O magnum mysterium
Arvo Pärt, Bogoróditse Djévo
Michael Praetorius and Jan Sandström, Est ist ein Ros entsprungen
Judith Weir, Drop down, ye heavens, from above
Philip Stopford, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
Jean Mouton, Nesciens mater
Abbie Betinis, Song of the Pines
Jan Pieters Sweelinck, Hodie Christus natus est
Kenneth Leighton, Lulla, lulla, thou little tiny child
Jonathan Dove, The Three Kings
Herbert Howells, Here is the Little Door
Steven Sametz, Noel!
Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, Videntes stellam Magi
arr. William Averitt, Star in the East
Ola Gjeilo, Serenity (O magnum mysterium)
Notes on the Program
In the Christian month of Advent, a new candle is lit each week, representing hope, love, joy, and peace. No matter our faith, at this time of year we share these kinds of blessings with one another, but for many of us, this is really a time of searching. We wander the desert like the magi from the East, and the good tidings of Christmas seem a distant promise. The light that guides us to Bethlehem is not a wreath of candles but the flicker of a distant star.
Imagine that today’s concert is a miniature of that storied westward journey. Before we set out, we rejoice at having seen the star whose rise was prophesied long ago. Walton’s “Make we joy now in this fest,” though a modern piece, wonderfully preserves its origins as a rollicking 15th-century English carol. We add our own bit of historical preservation by singing the Middle English pronunciation, which keeps the rhymes intact.
With the first footsteps of our voyage, we marvel at far-off rumors of the messiah’s rather impromptu birth in the presence of farm animals. David Conte’s setting of the ancient “O magnum mysterium” text, with its jarring shifts in tonal center and fervent overlapping lines, perfectly captures the wondrous anticipation we feel as we travel along. Could it be that salvation is truly a simple boy born in a stable?
More whispers reach our ears as we approach Bethlehem. The child was born of a virgin mother! We hear songs in praise of her virtue: breathless and overflowing, as Arvo Pärt’s “Bogoroditse Djevo,” and otherworldly, as Jan Sandström’s reimagining of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The latter builds gentle dissonance from cluster chords and employs rhythmic augmentation to create an ethereal (and somehow distinctly Swedish) setting of Praetorius’ familiar harmonization.
As we trudge on, we reflect on the Advent promise of comfort and renewal. “Drop down, ye heavens, from above,” Judith Weir’s crystalline composition based on the Gregorian Rorate caeli chant melody, is God’s steadfast assurance that salvation is just around the corner. What would that assurance sound like in the words of the infant Jesus himself? Philip Stopford’s jaunty setting of the familiar text “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” imagines humanity as Jesus’ true love. He personally calls us to follow him in a dance—his life on earth, and through it, our redemption.
Finally our journey reaches its improbable end at the rumored stable, where we find a mother nursing her newborn baby. Jean Mouton’s “Nesciens mater” is a masterful representation of this tender scene: an eight-part canon, where the lower choir is echoed, note for note, a fifth higher. We hold this moment of stillness with Abbie Betinis’ silvery “Song of the Pines,” its refrain an echo of the wonder in the O magnum mysterium. The wondrous mystery of Jesus’ birth, however, was not that mere animals were present, but that perhaps we ourselves are the ox and ass, bearing witness—despite our insignificance—to the arrival of hope personified.
Before we settle into the stable, we pause for a quick chance to step outside and help spread the good news. With unabashed joy, we announce the birth of Christ to any who will listen as we sing Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s iconic Renaissance chestnut “Hodie Christus natus est.”
As we quietly gather near the manger, Mary sings to her baby. The “Lully, lulla” we hear today is another modern setting of an old text. Kenneth Leighton places the refrain of this familiar lullaby in the mother’s singular, lofty voice as she sings her child to sleep, with the help of the choir’s soothing lilt. Scottish composer Jonathan Dove’s “The Three Kings” perfectly distills the full range of emotions behind greeting the holy family and presenting our gifts. We stand in hushed awe as the mother rocks her baby to sleep, but as the third king opens his chest of gold, joy overflows and the words of Mary’s lullaby are cleverly transformed into cries of joy: O balow! Balow la lay!
In her poem “Here is the Little Door,” Frances Chesterton moved beyond the gifts of the magi and hinted at the greater implications of the birth of Christ, suggesting that the infant Jesus gave rather weightier gifts of his own in return: a sword for gold, battle for frankincense, death for myrrh. The notion is timely for a poem that Herbert Howells set to music in the midst of the first world war, as England lost a generation and its Christian empire began to crumble.
We turn outward again for our next three pieces: Steven Sametz uses the words of a medieval English carol in his increasingly extroverted, four-part men’s canon—simply called “Noel!”—which calls the world to awaken and recognize the significance of this simple birth. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Videntes stellam Magi” is a jubilant, double-choir motet whose dance-like conclusion projects the joy we feel at the end of our long journey. “Star in the East,” William Averitt’s arrangement of a shape note hymn from The Southern Harmony, is our earnest ode to the brilliant light that first guided us out of the lonely desert. It ends with the sage reminder that, costly as our material gifts are, the most meaningful gift is our love.
Finally, we return (with cello!) to peaceful prayer, reflecting on the great mystery we first found in the stable, where kings and donkeys worship side by side. Standing in stark contrast to Conte’s opening conception of “O magnum mysterium,” Ola Gjeilo’s “Serenity” is stunning in its simple, profound beauty.
Today, our Christmas feasts have ended, and the wonder of the season inevitably fades as the new year and the cold winter make the tidings of hope, love, joy, and peace feel as distant as ever. But other candles still shine through the long nights, and we can still join together for little celebrations like this one. A celebration of birth, of searching, and of finding the true meaning of Christmas: giving freely of our riches in celebration of our humanity.