Thursday, September 10, 2009

VC Program Notes: Sing in the Seasons

Virginia Chorale Fall Concert, Oct 2-4 (
Sing in the Seasons: Five Centuries of Songs for the Four Seasons
Notes on the Program

If the famous set of concerti by Vivaldi are the first name in classical music as far as the Four Seasons are concerned, the months of the year and their many accompanying metaphors have inspired all kinds of artists. Our opening program will examine a mere handful of the possibilities falling under the colorful umbrella of songs for the seasons. From Elizabethan England to today, these works come from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Norway and Finland.

Even if the foliage of Hampton Roads shows few signs of fall, Autumn Leaves is a perennial favorite. American audiences that associate the song with Johnny Mercer may be unaware its composer, Joseph Kozma, was a Hungarian Jew who studied in Budapest and Berlin before fleeing to France from the Nazis. Placed under house arrest and banned from composing, he still managed to be a successful songwriter and film composer.

Dominick Argento is one of our greatest living composers, and one who has enriched the body of American vocal music—operas, songs, and choral works alike—over the course of his prolific career. Sonnet LXIV is an elegy in response to the events of September 11, 2001. “When sometime lofty towers I see down razed” inspired an intensely felt and pungently harmonized chorale setting of Shakespeare’s verse.

Danny Boy is one of the most beloved elegiac ballads in the repertory. Joseph Flummerfelt’s arrangement seizes on the lyricism of the tune and its poetic sentiment.

While not explicitly concerned with autumn, the Witches’ chorus from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Double, Double, Toil and Trouble exudes Halloween and is a perfect close to our opening section of songs for the fall. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi has been an increasingly visible presence on the international choral scene since winning acclaim at the 1997 European Choral Composition contest. His skills as a professional Finnish-English translator are in evidence in the deft setting of Shakespeare’s grotesque recipe. He exploits the voices’ range, incorporates parlando (speaking) effects, and closes by using the choir as a massed percussion instrument.

Our section devoted to winter is framed by two impressionist triptychs. Hildor Lundvik was an important 20th century Norwegian composer, and his indebtedness to the fluid textures of Debussy and Ravel is apparent. His three Nocturnes use textures that conjure mid-winter frozen rain; spare harmonies echo the cold, and the varied use of modes (whole-tone & pentatonic scales) evokes the constantly shifting weather between late winter and early spring.

In between the impressionist works are two madrigals. April is in My Mistress Face is one of the classics of the Renaissance genre by its central exponent, Thomas Morley. Morley’s words and music chart a familiar metaphorical journey that begins with love in spring and ends unrequited in winter. New York composer Matthew Harris has written several collections of songs by Morley’s colleague and contemporary, William Shakespeare. O Mistress Mine (from Twelth Night) sounds like a popular ballad closer to top 40 than the Renaissance, replete with a crooning tenor solo.

Claude Debussy is one of the most important composers in music history. After all, how many composers are THE epitome of a ground-breaking genre? Debussy is music's great Impressionist composer (even if he claimed to disdain the term). In the brief span of his truncated career (he died of cancer in his mid-fifties), his oeuvre, though modest, would define a style and influence many of the developments of the 20th century.

His Trois chansons de Charles d’Orleans are among the great miniatures for the a capella chorus. The first chanson (song) is a lilting & simple sounding folksong. The attractive sheen this impressionist music creates belies the extraordinary care and detail in Debussy’s craft, which is anything but simple for the performer of his music. The second song, Quant J’ai Ouy le Tabourin features an alto solo accompanied by the voices imitating instruments, like the tambourine of the title. The final song, Yver, vous n’etes qu’un villain (“Winter, you are a villain”) requires virtuosic precision in rhythm and diction, with icicle like accents punctuating the alternating textures between individual sections, a solo quartet and the entire ensemble.

Spring opens with a fluid setting from the Song of Songs by the Canadian church music composer, Healey Willan. Rise up, My Love, My Fair One is a prime example of this composer’s gifts for text setting, effective melody and affective harmony.

We feature next another pairing of Morley and Harris. Now is the Month of Maying is a paradigm of the Renaissance madrigal, ebullient and effervescent, rounded out with the trademark fa-la-la refrain. Harris has written another pop ballad-inflected chorus in It was a lover and his lass. Here the line “with a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino” serves as the madrigal-esque refrain. The hummable tune is shared between the tenors and sopranos, with the lower voices providing accompaniment.

Another outgrowth of the Renaissance madrigal is the English part-song. Cousin to the French chanson and German Volkslied, the part-song is typically an a capella setting of a romantic or traditional poem. Finzi elevates the popular genre in his inspired setting of Seven Partsongs on poems of Robert Bridges. Nightingales is the fifth in the set, and uses the descriptive poem to create a sound world evocative of the natural one. The final stanza, narrated by the Nightingales themselves, depicts the “innumerable choir of day” building to an arresting & impressive finish.

Frederick Delius’ Two Unaccompanied Part Songs dispense with words entirely. To be sung of a summer night on the water (I & II) features jazz-like harmonies between the wordless voices, evoking the very image the composer identified in the descriptive title.

O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose, is a contemporary American part-song. David Dickau’s setting of the popular Robert Burns ballad is a lovely serenade, and typical of the immediately appealing style of its composer. Nocturne was the first piece of Adolphus Hailstork’s with which I fell in love. Here, Hailstork uses effects to create the atmosphere of a summer night abuzz with the sounds and signs of life. The chant-like soprano solo leads to a rousing tutti where the poet invites the beloved to “come and watch these skies with me.” The atmospheric opening of humming lower voices accompanies the solo soprano, returning to frame and close this striking nocturne.

No season is complete without Shakespeare, and Harris’ When Daffodils Begin to Peer is a rowdy, romp of a choral hayride. With bluegrass-tinged twang, Harris sets Shakespeare’s verses about the good life with wit and flair. We close our opening program with the quintessential song of summer, Gershwin’s Summertime. We hope you enjoy listening to these songs as much as we enjoy singing them for you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Willan, Finzi, and Delius on the same that's just LOVELY!!