Sunday, November 30, 2008

Virginia Chorale Holiday Program notes

Since the Virginia Chorale's Holiday concerts are right around the corner, I thought I'd share my notes on the program. A couple of out-of-print selections have been replaced, thus the notes below are more up-to-date than those printed in the program when we went to press earlier this fall.

Holiday Festival of Light and Sound: Notes on the Program

In A Holiday Festival of Light and Sound we pay direct tribute to our founder, Donald McCullough. In so doing, we offer a program of music that reflects both the Chorale’s rich traditions and the wealth of exciting new music for the beloved medium of the a capella chorus.

Each of the sets of a capella works on the program link the old and the new directly, in music that spans 7 centuries, from 1420 to 2006. That newest work is the program opener, by the exciting young composer Ola Gjeilo. Born in Norway, he studied there, in London and New York, and now lives in Los Angeles. Prelude is framed by an exuberant, chant-inspired tune that sounds like music written 700 years earlier. Another living composer who evokes the sound-world of Medieval music is the composer and conductor, Paul Hillier. Founder of the acclaimed group, the Hilliard Ensemble, Hilliard is praised equally for his work in early and contemporary music. I sing of a maiden takes the anonymous 15th c. “Olde English” poem and sets it accordingly with a simple series of duets, culminating in an intimate chorale. One of the giants of 20th century choral and vocal music, Benjamin Britten is widely regarded as the greatest British composer after Purcell. Written at the start of Britten’s prolific career—he was just 17—A Hymn to the Virgin exhibits this composer’s gifts for setting poetic texts and creating colorful choral textures. In this Marian hymn, Britten assigns the anonymous 14th century carol to the main chorus, and intersperses those with words from a Latin poem, sung here by a solo quartet. Britten juxtaposes the poems brilliantly, heightening the word play of Ave and Eva, thus making palpable the connection between Eve and Mary, as composers have done for centuries.

Another gifted British composer, if less known and accomplished than his younger contemporary Britten, is Gerald Finzi. A complicated figure who lost both his brothers and his teacher in World War I, Finzi composed in a style indebted to the British romantics from Elgar to Vaughan Williams. Like his friend and mentor Vaughan Williams, Finzi was an agnostic who composed inspired and affective church music.

A gift both for lyrical melody and dramatic declamation infuse the Magnificat, one of the greatest settings of this beloved canticle. Written for the choirs of Smith and Amherst colleges in Massachusetts in 1952, this ten-minute musical canvas juxtaposes pastoral, folksong-like themes with music of grandeur and drama, exploiting the range of colors available to both the choir and the impressive organ part.

The first half of our program closes with a set of motets inspired by themes of light from which this concert takes its name. Beginning with a sublime hymn from the great Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, we jump ahead to recent works by the popular US composers, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. O Nata Lux is another seasonal text that has long been a favorite of composers. In between Tallis’ classic Renaissance setting and Lauridsen’s neo-romantic, chant-inspired one is a luminous new classic, Lux Aurumque by another one of the most exciting young voices in contemporary music.

The second half explores our Silver Jubilee theme of tradition and innovation in offering the old and new side-by-side, or in this case, intertwined in the same piece. Jan Sandström takes Praetorius’ famous carol-hymn “Lo how a Rose e’er blooming” and juxtaposes the traditional four-part chorale with a modern harmonization evocative of the rich tapestry of metaphors in the poem—blooming rose, breaking dawn, and human birth.

An exact contemporary of Sandström is the New York City composer, Robert Convery. A graduate of both the Curtis Institute and the Julliard School, Bob has built a career writing exquisite music for the voice and has dozens of award-winning works in his catalog. We are honored to have Robert Convery compose a 25th Anniversary Commission, to be premiered here on our Silver Jubilee Season finale in April. Tonight we share a simple, carol-like lullaby, Christmas Daybreak, representative of its composer’s gifts of lyricism and immediacy.

We have one last set of beautiful a capella choruses—imaging themes of light, hope, and birth while cloaked in nocturnal shadows, thus illustrating the movement from night to morn, darkness to light. If Hillier’s I sing of a Maiden evokes the medieval carol, then the 1420 version of There is no rose is the real deal. It is followed by another contemporary setting of an ancient seasonal text. O Magnum Mysterium, by Indiana composer Lee Dengler, is a compelling example of the renewed interest among choral composers in writing accessible music with chant-like melodies and plush, neo-romantic harmonies.
With this, they honor composers like Britten and Poulenc, who assimilated a variety of influences in forging an original and immediate voice that communicates effectively. Yet the music of Francis Poulenc is simply like no other. Mozart, Fauré, Debussy, and Stravinsky, for starters, are all present in his music. Hodie Christus Est is the ebullient closing movement to his 4 Motets for Christmas.

Before we conclude our Holiday program with carols in which we would greatly appreciate your participation, we offer a couple of Holiday favorites—arrangements of seasonal folk carols by my graduate school mentor and friend, the eminent conductor and arranger, Joseph Flummerfelt. Whether conducting folk-song arrangements by Vaughan Williams or leading his own, Dr Flummerfelt's ear for color and line shaped both his memorable interpretations and arrangements like the 3 folk carols presented here. We conclude our Holiday concerts with the perennial favorite Ukrainian "Carol of the Bells" before inviting the audience to join us in singing the beloved carols, Silent Night, and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.