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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey man, great to see you in NYC. SO honored that you and the singers are performing Leonardo. Please send them my warmest regards.