Monday, March 30, 2009

Silver Jubilee Program Notes

We begin our Silver Jubilee concert with one of the most ambitious works in the popular catalogue of the Los Angeles-based composer, Eric Whitacre. Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine made Whitacre the youngest composer ever commissioned by the esteemed American Choral Directors Association for its national convention in 2001. “What would it sound like if Leonardo Da Vinci were dreaming?” the composer asks, and his answer, in the form of an “opera bréve” is this 9 minute choral fantasia. Charles Anthony Silvestri’s “libretto bréve” inspires a pastiche of Renaissance-inspired voice leading, virtuoso coloratura reminiscent of Baroque opera, neo-romantic tone clusters, repetitive, minimalist dance-like figures, all filtered through a sensibility owing as much to pop music from the 60’s to today.

Next, we celebrate composers who have been good friends with and to us. John Dixon is a vital voice in our fine arts community: an accomplished composer, performer, teacher, and an arts executive. That Renaissance-man personality is evident in his poignant setting from Wordsworth’s poetry, Ode on Immortality. Libby Larsen is one of the most prominent women composers in our country’s history. Larsen has worked closely with many of our local arts organizations, and we are proud to continue to program the music of this distinguished artist. Alleluia is a short choral scherzo, exploiting contrasting textures with dancing rhythms and piquant harmonies. Like Larsen, Stephen Paulus is a fellow Minnesotan, and friend to the Chorale and choruses around the country. His elegant, sing-able music is on transparent display in the beautiful chorale, Pilgrims’ Hymn, setting a poem by his frequent collaborator, Michael Dennis Browne.

Amy Scurria is another exciting new voice in contemporary music and another composer with strong ties to the Commonwealth. A winner of the 1991 Northern Virginia Composition Competition, she has gone on to receive prestigious commissions from the Minnesota and Philadelphia Orchestras. Press Onward was a work I commissioned in 2001 for the Shepherd College (now University) Concert Choir. With rhythmic vitality inspired by the title of Christina Rossetti’s poem, the ebullient setting is reflective of its composer’s gift for immediate and affecting music. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett is one of Britten’s successors, and his A Good-Night is testimony to that fact. Written at the request of Paul McCartney, Bennett’s gentle lullaby setting of Francis Quarles’ metaphysical poem is a memorial tribute to Linda McCartney. It is the concluding contribution to A Garland for Linda, a project honoring her life while raising awareness about breast cancer. An even newer voice on the British scene is the dynamic young composer, Tarik O’Regan. O vera digna hostia begins in tone clusters that open with prismatic luminosity, and then quickly dissolve into a stream of flowing wordlessness while a chant-like melody intones the ancient text attributed to St. Wulfstan. The cluster chords return and the two textures intertwine to bring this evocative work to a close.

Our first half comes to a close with the world premiere performance of Robert Convery’s The Little Fishes of the Sea. From the moment I applied for this coveted position, I asked many “what if?” questions. The easiest to answer was what composer I’d ask for a 25th Anniversary Commission: my colleague and dear friend, Robert Convery. Those who attended this season’s Holiday concerts had the pleasure of hearing his sublime carol, Christmas Daybreak. You will soon hear how Convery’s gifts for melodic grace and harmonic efficacy combine with an impeccable poetic ear and the rare gift of a truly human sensibility. Some composers excel at cantabile (ie: singing) melody, others at fluid harmony. Some have a keen dramatic sense and others a fine-tuned wit. Robert Convery possesses all of these gifts, and I believe deserves a place in the tradition of great vocal composers of the English language that stretches from Purcell to Britten.

The second half of our Silver Jubilee program opens with a pair of contrasting pieces from one of our dearest friends, Adolphus Hailstork. Never mind that Hailstork is one of the greatest African-American composers we have—he is one of the greatest composers we have, period. In 1995, the Chorale (then the McCullough Singers) released an all-Hailstork CD. It is our privilege to revisit some of these shorter works from Hailstork’s impressive canon, which includes music of every genre. Crucifixion combines an idiomatic sensibility indebted to the music of the Black tradition, especially the spiritual. Yet it is boldly original and in no way derivative. The Cloths of Heaven (from the same collection, Five Short Choral Works) is a strikingly beautiful setting of William Butler Yeats beloved poem. Using harmonic language redolent of French impressionism and American jazz, Hailstork weaves a fabric evoking “…golden and silver light/The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/Of night and light and the half-light.”

In addition to the celebration of composers whose works we’ve championed the past 2-½ decades, we’re proud to launch an initiative to cultivate the next generation of composers through our Student Composers contest. We are equally proud to begin a project revisiting and exploring the rich body of choral music from one of the medium’s giants, Benjamin Britten. Britten was that rare breed of human being, the prodigy. The Hymn to the Virgin we offered last December was a high school composition. His first major choral work, A Boy was Born, appeared while he was a student at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland. Following his studies, he apprenticed in Government-sponsored jobs writing music for films, theatre, and radio, and began an important friendship with the great poet, philosopher, and pundit, W. H. Auden. Like Auden, Britten emigrated to the U.S. as WWII proliferated and threatened more of Europe. He toured North America with his new collaborative partner, the tenor, Peter Pears, and it was in Grand Rapids, Michigan the duo consummated a personal relationship that would last until Britten’s death nearly 40 years later. The greatest art songs of the 20th century, the most important operas in the English language, and some of the best concert music written since WWII are the result of this extraordinary collaboration.

Following several years spent primarily in New York, Britten and Pears returned home. Following a slightly bumpy transition through Conscientious Objectors tribunals and the accompanying critical acrimony, Britten established himself as the bright star of British music, with Pears as his muse and mouthpiece. The decade following his return to Britain in 1942 is often referred to as his “English” period. From the opera that heralded his newfound status, Peter Grimes, to the coronation opera for Elizabeth II, Gloriana, Britten wrote works of all shapes & sizes indebted to his native land, its marine geography, and the people who storied it. The Five Flower Songs come from this fecund period. With the designation of op. 47, this cycle joins the dozens of others written by a composer still in his 30’s. Britten and Pears shared a deep love of poetry and a knack for collating various poems into collections. Pears deserves special credit for his still under-acknowledged role in shaping both the opera libretti and the cycles of art songs and choral works. It is poetic justice we begin our Britten Project with a cycle the composer wrote for the Silver wedding anniversary of his botanist friends, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. To Daffodils and The Succession of the Four Sweet Months, from the Elizabethan poet, Robert Herrick, establish the madrigal tenor of this affecting cycle. The first features effervescent exchanges between the voices and evokes the temporal aspect of its subject with incisive declamation, “We have short time to stay; as you./We have as short a Spring.” The months invoked in the second song, April to July, enter with each successive section—soprano to bass—and display Britten’s gift for imitative polyphony and the aural images such textures evoke. Marsh Flowers is a brief excerpt from the book-length poem by George Crabbe, The Borough. It was an article about the Aldeburgh poet that caused Britten to return home and begin work on his first opera. The abrasive, judgmental towns-people of the Borough play a central role in Peter Grimes, and the severe qualities of the flora and fauna in Britten’s and Crabbe’s native county, Suffolk, here serve as symbols. Evening Primrose is Britten at his most intimate, and it is not difficult to read layers of significance in the juxtaposition of Crabbe’s poem with another outcast, the “mad” poet, John Clare. Britten’s and Pears’ affinity with these poets and their autobiographical subjects is striking, as is their shared predilection for the hidden meanings of metaphors. The anonymous Ballad of Green Broom, another study in effective choral textures, quickly restores the extroverted levity to close the cycle with an accomplished flourish.

We close our 25th Anniversary celebration with a benediction in the shape of an exquisite nocturne. A Carol for All Children is one of Hailstork’s most beloved pieces and a favorite of singers and audiences alike. With a poem by the composer, its direct and sincere wish that peace, love and joy “in each heart be keeping,” reflects the sentiments of an organization grateful for the trust these past 25 years have proved.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Brush up Your Shakespeare

Amy and I are in Roanoke for a concert and educational outreach residency. Sunday, March 29 we present a recital, "Shakespeare in Song." (

March 27 we led an inservice for Roanoke County English and music teachers on Shakespeare and the arts. We started that enjoyable workshop with the quiz below:

I. Match the song to the play:

1. O mistress mine! Where are you roaming?
O stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journey’s end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

2. It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding-a-ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

3. Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid:
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

4. Who is Sylvia? What is she
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she,
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admired be.

5. When daises pied and violets blue
and lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men, for thus sings he,
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

6. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home are gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

A. As you like it
B. Two Gentlemen of Verona
C. Love’s Labours Lost
D. Cymbeline
E. Twelfth Night

II. Complete the quote: for extra credit, name its source, and extra-extra credit, the speaker!

1. We are such stuff as dreams are made on:

2. But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

3. Now is the winter of our discontent

4. To be or not to be

5. Is this a dagger which I see before me,

III. The following quotes or phrases inspired the titles of other works.
Name the play and the new work.

1. The Sound and the Fury

2. A Heart so White

3. What dreams may come

4. Brave New World

5. The Undiscovered Country

IV. Mixed Doubles: Match the pairs of lovers

X: I will swear by it that you love me,
and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.
Y: Will you not eat your word?

Y: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
X: There’s beggary in the love
that can be reckoned
Y: Celerity is never more admired
than by the negligent.
X: A good rebuke, which might have well
becomed the best of men
to taunt at slackness.

X. Thus from my lips by thine
my sin is purged
Y: Then have my lips the sin
that they have took.

X: What too curious dreg espies my sweet
lady in the fountain of our love?
Y: More dregs than water
if my fears have eyes.
X: Fears make devils of cherubims;
They never see truly.
Y: Blind fear that seeing reason leads,
finds safer footing than blind reason,
stumbling without fear.
To fear the worst oft cures the worse.

X: Thy virtue spoke of and thy beauty
sounded yet not so deeply as to thee
belongs myself am moved to woo
thee for my wife.
Y: Moved in good time!
Let him that mov’d you hither,
remove you hence.

A. Romeo and Juliet
B. Beatrice and Benedick
C. Petruchio and Kate
D. Antony and Cleopatra
E. Troilus and Cressida

Match the adaptation to the original:

1. West Side Story
2. The Boys from Syracuse
3. Prospero’s Book
4. Scotland, PA
5. Kiss Me Kate
6. I Capuletti e Montecchi
7. The Sea and the Mirror

A. The Comedy of Errors
B. MacBeth
C. The Tempest
D. The Taming of the Shrew
E. Romeo and Juliet

Part I: Songs
1. E; 2. A; 3. E; 4. B; 5. C; 6. D

Part II: Quotes
1. We are such stuff as dreams are made on:
and our little life is rounded with a sleep
The Tempest, Prospero

2. But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the Sun.
R & J; Romeo

3. Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
Richard III; Richard

4. To be or not to be: that is the question

5. Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?

Part III: Borrowed titles
1. Macbeth/Faulkner novel
2. Macbeth/Marias novel
3. Hamlet/Ward film (w/Robin Williams)
4. Tempest/Huxley novel
5. Hamlet/Star Trek film

Part IV:Mixed doubles
1. B; 2. D; 3. A; 4. E; 5. C

Part V: Adaptations
1. E; 2. A; 3. C; 4. B; 5. D; 6. E; 7. C

It is fascinating to revisit the plays and their songs in context. Most of us know "Who is Sylvia" in one version or another. We will begin our recital with Schubert's three settings of Shakespeare in German translations, and "An Sylvia" is the opener. We are offering multiple settings of the song lyrics in the first half of the program. So the Schubert will be followed by Finzi's "Let us Garlands Bring" (a Shakespeare set written in honor of the 70th birthday of his friend, mentor, and adopted "uncle" Ralph Vaughan Williams). Finzi's "Who is Sylvia?" is as cheerful as Schubert's and since "Two Gentleman of Verona" is rarely taught or produced, one misses the Shakespearean irony of this serenade in the middle of a scene where the "Gentleman" Proteus is showing the true colors of his despicable character. The context of one of the most popular song lyrics, "It was a lover and his lass" ("As You Like It") contains a prime example of Shakespearean wit. The jester, Touchstone responds to the exiled Duke's pages, who have just sung the song:

--Truly young gentlemen, though there was no great matter
in the ditty, yet the note was untuneable.
--You are deceived, sir. We kept time.
We lost not out time.
--By my troth yes. I count it but time lost
to hear such a foolish song. God buy you,
and God mend your voices.

We will sing three very different settings of this favorite lyric: I will sing Finzi's and Amy will sing Korngold's. We will share a duet by Roger Quilter. The Finzi treats the lyric as a stand-alone song, while the duet matches the play's setting of two singers, and Korngold's music comes closest to capturing the ironic wit of the scene.

As Harold Bloom writes in his exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" we owe much of how we interpret life in this world to Shakespeare. The number of quotes that have remained common currency, the unparalleled range of characters--from Kings & Queens to lovers, fools, & families--span the gamut of human experience. The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, "high" characters and "low" characters seems odd until we realize real life is exactly like that. Other authors have a singular enough style to become adjectives: Proustian descriptiveness, Checkovian humanism and Dickensian realism, for example. None ranks higher than Shakespeare. And while there may be similarities between the work of say, Verdi, and Checkov, we honor Verdi with the supreme compliment of calling his characters Shakespearean. Incidentally, that last adjective is the only one of the above not underlined in red by my laptop's spellchecker.

We don't have time or space for Shakespeare's vocabulary, but ours is richer for it. Shakespeare is the ultimate teacher. In the inservice that opened with the quiz, I closed with the following excerpts, dubbed "life lessons from some of the great speeches." (For brevity's sake, I'm not reprinting the entire speeches, but the act and scenes are included after each play, for reference).

Jacque’s “7 Stages” speech from As you Like it, II.vii:
"All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."

Polonius’ advice to Laertes from Hamlet; I.iii:
"And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;"

Hamlet’s “existentialist” musings:
From II.ii:
"I have of late--but wherefore I know not--
Lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises;
and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition
that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me
like a sterile promontory;"

and from III.i:
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"

Falstaff's advice for the good life, from Henry IV, pt. 2; IV.iii:
"A good sherry sack hath a two-fold operation in it.
It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish
and dull and crudy vapours which environ it; makes it
apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery
and delectable shapes; which, deliver'd over to the voice,
the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit."

Cleopatra’s eulogy for Antony from A&C; V.ii:
"His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted
The little O, the earth.
His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres..."

Launce’s devotion to his dog, Crab, from Two Gentlemen of Verona; IV.iv:
"When a man's servant shall play the cur with him, look you,
it goes hard; one that I brought up of a puppy; one that I saved from drowning,
when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it.
I have taught him, even as one would say precisely, "Thus would I teach a dog."

Prospero’s farewell from The Tempest; IV.i:
"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-clapp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Letter to DFW (1962-2008)

Dear David:

I may understand. I just freaked out myself
and suddenly started pounding my head
with my fists. You said you wore a bandana
to keep yours from exploding. Henze is doing
just that right now in his Dionysian Third
on my ipod (Yes. That means I have a Henze
playlist. And an extensive one at that).

What we do matters. Despite what
the critics in Poetry magazine write,
we don't do it for recognition.
Like you said, we do it to prove
our status as human beings.
We do it to live.
If not to give meaning,
then to offer multiple readings--
alternate takes--on life.

And even though you left
yours unfinished (does anyone
really, truly finish...)
You made a difference, man.
You lodged stories and characters
where they will stay for who knows how long.
(Who says fiction isn't real?!?)
What we do matters. Art matters.
How else can one make sense
of life--much less approach death?
(this should be an endnote,
a la Infinite Jest, but alas,
it is merely parenthetical:
religion as art; philosophy as art;
relationship as art--all creative acts.
Every leap--whether aesthetic, ontological,
existential--is an imaginative feat,
a stance, a statement
both of will and being)

Yet we shouldn't be so hard
on ourselves. Or our work.
The restless, insatiable,
demanding ones (and if not
indefatigable, then relentlessly
searching, questioning, attempting)
should give ourselves a break
before we break ourselves.
(I didn't mean for that to
veer into cliche. Yikes.
Please forgive me)
What I meant to say was:
You lived the questions into art
and cracked open claustrophobic spaces.
In the process of your
unbecoming you left us
something, and that matters.