Saturday, November 21, 2009

VC: Program notes--Sweet was the Song

Sweet was the Song, Virginia Chorale Holiday Program: Dec 4-5

Featuring selections from Mendelssohn's Six Proverbs and Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom; Britten's Christ's Nativity, and new carol arrangements by Andrews, Paulus, Scott Williamson, and a world premiere by Kile Smith

Notes on the Program

If not countless, the number of considerations involved in programming a concert are too many to name. Besides the obvious parameters of occasion or theme and personnel involved, the matching of form and content involves its own set of challenges. Will the program be centered around one major work, or consist of a series of sets of individual works, or involve a bit of both? When programming a series of individual works—whether they’re motets, anthems or carols—how do they fit together? In addition to tempo, text & “mood” the relationship between keys and tonality is important, as is how “sing-able” they are for the ensemble. Certain expectations exist for any Holiday concert of a capella choral music, including:

1. some of the music should be familiar (ie: carols); 2. as befits the occasion, seasonal music that is festive & celebratory is appropriate & welcome, making for 3. an uplifting experience.

A single work is often the impetus for a program—the core around which the rest of the structure is built. I usually begin with a single, central piece or a unifying theme and work outwards. This process involves brainstorming, drafting & sketching, and a gestation period of months before a program is finalized. As part of our Britten Project--an ongoing exploration of Benjamin Britten’s choral music, I wanted to program his little known Christmas Suite, Christ’s Nativity. Those who know and love his popular Ceremony of Carols will recognize the seeds of that work in the 2nd movement of this Suite (which gives our concert its title) Sweet was the Song. Christmas—with its itinerant images of new birth/life, mystery, possibility, and hope—inspired Britten throughout his prolific career.

With Christ’s Nativity as the central work in the 2nd half of the program, I wanted to find something to balance it in the first half. After nearly a dozen different drafts, I settled on selections from Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, to be prefaced by three of Mendelssohn’s short Proverbs. The final movement of Thompson’s work Ye Shall Have a Song is often excerpted and among the most affirming music this popular choral composer wrote. The text comes from the prophet Isaiah, poetry that resonates with both the Jewish tradition and the Christian season of Advent. The beloved Advent hymn, O come, O come Emmanuel, connects both traditions and is used as a thread in the first half of the program.

Mendelssohn, along with Britten, was one of music’s great prodigies. While the first name to come to mind in that category is Mozart, it is arguable Mendelssohn was the more gifted youthful composer. None of Mozart’s early works match the mature sophistication of Mendelssohn’s early String Symphonies or his brilliant Octet. Mendelssohn offers a fascinating window into the intersection of Jewish and Christian life in the 19th century. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the 18th century, and a founder of what would become the modern Reformed movement. The Mendelssohns did not see their conversion to Lutheranism as a betrayal of their heritage but rather as a fulfillment of the progressive, Enlightenment-era philosophy espoused by Moses. In works from the oratorios St Paul and Elijah to the many Psalm settings to these short Proverbs (Sprüche), we find Mendelssohn striving for a synthesis between the faiths of his and his grandfather’s generations.

Written for the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, The Peaceable Kingdom was inspired by “the preaching Quaker of Pennsylvania,” Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Thompson’s appeal as a composer of well-crafted, tuneful music is immediately apparent in this eight-movement cantata. The work is framed by large choruses that alternate between homophonic (chordal) and polyphonic textures. The final half of the work is offset by the meditative chorale, The Paper Reeds by the Brooks, an oasis before the marvelous closing third of the work. From But these are they that forsake the Lord through the climax of the final chorus 8 minutes later, Thompson composes a slowly building crescendo that enacts the theme of this half of the program, from prophesy to praise.

New settings of familiar carols frame & pervade the second half of the program. Britten’s Suite is a series of new tunes to old texts, and as such, embodies the “theme” of the 2nd half. Indeed, more than any other occasion, the Holidays inspire new music from old verse. Thus a new setting of the medieval Coventry Carol prefaces Britten’s suite. Britten, just 17 when Christ’s Nativity appeared, already displays his gifts for text setting, form, and balance across a multi-movement span. The outer and central movements are exuberant, festive carols, using a variety of textures to forward the narrative arc of the Suite. The 2nd and 4th movements offer points of contemplative repose in the form of a lullaby and a chorale, respectively.

I wrote Look up, sweet Babe while in residence at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in 2003. The metaphysical poem by Richard Crashaw inspired a setting indebted to the British choral tradition.

I had the great fortune of meeting the composer Kile Smith and hearing the premiere of his latest choral work last spring in Philadelphia. Kile has written a major work that embodies the spirit of “new wine in old skins” in his concert length Vespers. This work is modeled on the Baroque tradition, and is scored for an 18th century wind band (the acclaimed early music group, Piffaro, commissioned and premiered it) and chamber chorus. I hope we will be able to present this beautiful, spirited and strikingly original work for you soon. In the meantime, Kile offered us his Now ys the tyme of Crystymas. As you will soon hear, this carol is a rollicking, whirling, spirited update on the old English carol. Replete with witty madrigalisms (listen for the inner voices laughing “he-he-he’s”), this carol is as challenging to perform as it is entertaining to hear. We will close with another updated arrangement of an old carol. Paulus’ Wassail Carol, with its repeated wishes for a “Happy New Year” is a fitting finale for a program we trust will touch the heart, tickle the ear, and bring a bit of Holiday cheer your way.

And if you're not able to attend either the December 4 performance in Williamsburg or the Dec 5 performance in Norfolk, the Saturday night concert will be broadcast live on WHRO FM, 90.3, and online at

Come. Hear. Outstanding. Rewarding. Artists. Listen. Engage.

We hope you'll hear what we're up to December 4-5.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, IV

Previously I mentioned the charming French businessmen we conversed with at the Ferryman Pub at the end of our first day in Dublin. They were both surprised to learn we were going to Opera Ireland, as they weren't even aware Dublin had an opera company. They expressed their doubts as to whether or not it would be worth attending. Since one of our mutual friends, the exceptionally gifted soprano, Yunah Lee, had sung Madama Butterfly with Opera Ireland last season, we assumed their standards were high. Alas, the skepticism of our new acquaintances was closer to reality than our cock-eyed optimism. I do not intend to spend much time disparaging Opera Ireland's season opening production of Verdi's MacBeth. Nor can I accurately review it since we left at the interval. The title characters were quite good. Some aspects of the modern production worked well. I liked the device of casting dancers as the three leading witches who then morph into the servants at the Macbeth's castle. Their lithe physicality turned what could have been a gimmick into an effective bit of staging. Their presence also solved the technical problem of Macbeth acquiring the dagger (it "appeared" in the hands of the witches/servants). The ghostly trio also embodied the spectre of Banquo in the banquet scene. The other pleasant surprise was the presence of the President of Ireland, whom the audience greeted with warm appreciation.

Our early departure from the disappointing performance did allow us to witness the country's collective disappointment at losing their World Cup qualifying match to France. It also meant that this particular Saturday evening would present challenges to our farewell pub crawl, since most of the pubs in the city centre and surrounding were packed as sardine tins. We managed to find a hip pub/club and enjoyed the people watching over a couple of pints of German beer, a welcome change from the usual stout. We finished the night at a traditional pub, with the sturdy name of O'Neill's and had an appropriate vacation-ending round of Jameson's and Guinness.

The opera was the only less-than-stellar activity or event on the trip. Before the opera we had one of the best plates of fish and chips imaginable. The haddock lightly breaded and fall apart tender, preceded by savory soups--spicy creole for me and potato leek for Amy. We had visited Bull & Castle before Thursday's Evensong service at Christ Church and saw another visiting couple enjoy the fish 'n chips (the pair were not only American but from Virginia, and the husband a choral conductor to boot). So we thought we'd grab dinner there following Saturday's Evensong at the Cathedral.

This Evensong was even more memorable than Thursday's because of the pairing of two of Scotland's greatest contemporary composers, Kenneth Leighton and James MacMillan. Leighton's Second Service were the canticles of the day, and what an inspiring joy it was to hear them live. MacMillan's "A New Song" was the anthem. The two composers have much in common besides their shared provenance. Writing within a tonal context, their harmonic language does not eschew dissonance, and the layered textures that accumulate tension lead to inspired and moving moments of apotheosis and resolution. Both write evocative organ music and are gifted composers for the voice. Their styles are indebted to chant, the English choral tradition, impressionism and jazz. MacMillan has a gift for notating improvised-sounding ornaments in his melodies--turns, sighs, and cries derived from traditional Scottish song replace the older ornaments like the trill and mordent.

Leighton's Gloria Patri ("Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost..."), following the dramatic song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, is an oasis of calm and an affirmation of the infinite. It was the epitome of what sacred music sung in a sacred space should be, and brought welcome tears to my eyes.

Earlier in the day we visited the last museum on our "must see" list and one of the first to make the list to begin. The Dublin Writers Museum is in a Victorian house and is a fitting shrine to the list of great Irish writers. I expected fitting tributes to Beckett, Joyce and Yeats, and was not disappointed. I was surprised, however, by one of the first relics we came upon. In the first room sits the chair Handel allegedly used for the premiere performance of Messiah (which featured the choir of Christ Church Cathedral and occurred on the colorfully named Fishamble Street in what is now the hip neighborhood of Temple Bar and home to the Contemporary Music Centre, for those enquiring minds). Since no one was looking, we both sat for a moment in Handel's seat. I will let you know if our upcoming performances of Messiah are more inspired as a result!

Memorabilia, busts, first editions, letters, and biographical information line the walls of the museum. An edition of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies was on display ("The last rose of Summer" being among them). An informative corner devoted to W.B. Yeats mentioned his leading role in founding the Abbey Theatre at the turn of the 20th century, including a collaboration with Elgar on the play Diarmuid and Grania.

A copy of the script to J.M. Synge's provocative & controversial play, The Playboy of the Western World was on display at the Trinity Library. We learned at the Writers Museum its reception was so contentious 500 policemen were required to keep the peace during its opening run. That reminded me of the literal riot that broke out during the Paris premiere of Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring. I'm learning to be happy with life as it is, and don't necessarily long to live in the past. I do wish art was still as central to the lives of a city's citizens as it was as recently as a century ago. While an American President attending opening night at a major arts event is not outside the realm of possibility, a riot erupting over a play, or a new music premiere making the front pages is hard to imagine today. But I digress.

"I have met you too late. You are too old" is what James Joyce said upon meeting his distinguished elder colleague, William Butler Yeats. Joyce's piano was on display, in addition to various special editions of his works like Ulysses. His contemporary and rival, the satirist Oliver St. John Gogarty, was also widely displayed. I was bemused by his poem "Ringsend" which opens with,

"I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore"

It closes with a somewhat more lyrical image

"The sound comes to me
Of the lapsing, unsoilable
Whispering sea."

I first encountered the name "Ringsend" in an alternative band several of my former students formed, and first came upon the name of its author during one of our pub crawls, as one of the largest bars devoted to traditional Irish music is the Oliver St. John Gogarty in Temple Bar. It seems everything in Dublin is no more than one degree away from either art or a pint.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, III

We had bought tickets ahead for the Abbey Theatre (the National Theatre of Ireland) and Sam Shepard's play, Ages of the Moon, written expressly for the Abbey and two of Ireland's greatest actors, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley. This was a wise decision, and was a fitting bookend to an eventful day. We met Mr Shepard in the lobby prior to the play, and connected about Virginia (he lived in Scottsville for a while, it turned out). Both of the actors are better known in the US for their film roles, especially Mr Rea (who first appeared on my cultural radar with his outstanding turn in "The Crying Game." He has been a regular in Neill Jordan's films since then).

The play, set on the porch of a sparse cabin presumably in the woods in an unidentified corner of the US concerns two old friends reunited after many years when one of them reaches out for help. The 90' one-act is a touching, witty, story-telling dialogue that endears both men to the audience, despite & because of their flaws & foibles. McGinley was a sympathetic foil to Rea's mercurial and manic character, Ames. It was a pleasure to be seated in the second row to witness the banter, the jockeying, the conflict-turned-violent, and ultimately, the humble resolution. I was reminded of O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" and the great playwrights' gift for not merely expressing but enacting the complex bittersweet quality of human (adult, that is) existence.

Working backwards, our pre-theatre dinner was at another foodie joint, 101 Talbot. The pre-fixe special included wine and dessert, and was dee-lish and cheap. I had a chili-pepper hummus and Amy a duck liver salad, followed by an olive-tomatoe-feta pasta for me and a pork pot roast for her which we traded around half-way through. Both the tiramisu and the chocolate fudge brownie were delightful, as was the atmosphere and service.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon at another gem of a small museum, the Dublin City Gallery Hugh Lane. This museum was near the top of the list for its recreation of Francis Bacon's studio. I had no idea how impressive their centennial retrospective, "Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty" would be. In the middle of my last set of travel essays (June) I wrote about my visit to the Metropolitan Museum's comprehensive centennial of Bacon. Check it out if you want to learn more about this engaging, ungainly, controversial artist.

Bacon began to paint on the "wrong" un-primed side of the canvas when he was destitute in Monte Carlo and couldn't afford to buy more canvases. The grainy, textured appearance of his paintings is enhanced by the fact he often mixed the paint with sand and other materials to give it texture. That textured appearance, though, is mitigated by the garishly bright colors--orange and purple--he favored. His work is as fascinating as his life, and it is difficult to separate the two when dealing with Bacon.

His studio was one hot crowded mess. After his death in 1992, over 7,000 items were recovered from it. Over 500 books, 1,500 photos, 100 slashed canvases (he destroyed or at least mutilated work on which he got "stuck"), 1,300 torn pages, and some 2,000 artists materials, among others.

"Chaos breeds images" he famously quipped. This interview with the artist in his disaster-area-of-a-studio is shown in a short but fascinating film (that continuously loops) at the front of the exhibition.

"The mess around here is rather like my mind; it may be a good image of what goes on inside me. That's what its like, my life is like that."

In another statement, he qualified just how unruly the image-breeding mess could be:

"I believe in deeply-ordered chaos..."

And just as that may sound like a contradiction, his claims to be self-taught ("Thank God I didn't go to art school") are more ingenuous than his statements about not relying on form or technique. Craft is everywhere apparent in his paintings. He claimed not to do much drawing and sketching (and the drawings that DO remain could so attest) but rather worked out his ideas on the canvas itself. Hence the number of slashed and damaged canvases, several of which were on display. Fascinating to see a gaping hole in the middle of an abstract portrait and imagine what it was, and what it might have been...

He sought to create "not an illustration of reality but to create an image which is a reflection of reality."

I've never heard or read of Bacon referred to as a post-impressionist, but statements like that remind me of Debussy and his writings about his methods. They share a number of things in common, besides messy personal lives, and a dismissive attitude towards formal training (which is nothing original among artists of every age). The desire to create images rather than illustrations inform both the intent and content of the work of both artists, however different and incomparable their work may be.

Bacon was one of the great realizers of the male nude, and he acknowledged his debt to artists as disparate as Michelangelo and the photographer Edward Muybridge.

"Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together, and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo."

He also learned a thing or two from Picasso--line & color, among others--and all of the above are refracted through his highly individual and expressive imagination.

A number of representative canvases are on display, which was one of the pleasant surprises in store, as I was expecting an exhibit centered solely on the studio. I was taken with a paneled canvas that made me think of Bacon trumping Rothko, as it was layered in three distinct horizontal sections, not unlike the latter's abstract-expressionist-minimalist panels.

"Untitled (Sea)" from 1954 features abstract waves of blue, white & grey with lavendar shades on top of a black abyss of a sea at the center. Dull mustard sand is paneled below, and deep blue sky panels the top third of the strangely beautiful canvas.

Later in his life he befriended the wildlife photographer, Peter Beard, whose pictures of elephants Bacon found particularly engaging.

"Photos of elephants are naturally suggestive--what I a trigger--a release action--it releases one's sensibility & one's psyche, and all kinds of images crowd into you from seeing this particular image."

What a great description--in the "thinking out loud" form and the illuminating content--of how one artist literally finds the images that spark his work.

Many of the found items from the studio--photos, magazines, books, torn pages, and intriguing scraps of paper on which he scribbled notes--were also on display. One such scrap had the following two mottos atop one another:

"Highly controlled chaos

The brutality of fact"

Those two bon mots say as much as any critic could.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, II

This is the second in what will be a triptych of travel essays on our trip to Dublin last week. The second day of our four day trip was devoted to the sacred & historical places of Dublin. Our pilgrimage began with a visit to Trinity College, founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I for Irish protestants. It is a treasure trove of culture and history, and the main attraction is its famed library. There are two "must sees" here: the Long Room of the library (housing hundreds of thousands of historical books in a room that is as interesting as its holdings, and the museum of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells are one of the most famed collections of illuminated manuscripts, dating from the 9th century. One page from each of several books are on display underneath a glass case in a dimly lit room that can fill up very quickly. We were doubly fortunate in that the display room was nearly empty when we reached it, and the Book of Kells was turned to the first page of the Gospel of John, one of the most splendid examples of this exquisitely preserved art.

The opening verse of the Gospel of John is one of the most sacred texts in the Christian cannon. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Book of Kells, in Latin, features elaborate, ornate, and incredibly detailed script & figuration to "illuminate" the texts of the scriptures. They were preserved from the monastery of Iona, an island off Scotland, and brought safely to Ireland following Viking raids in the 9th century.

The opening of John's gospel features the evangelist seated on an elaborate throne. Behind him, and barely visible at the center of each of the four margins of the page--forming the sign of the cross--are the crown of thorns (ie: the head), hands, and feet of Christ. Details so small, so easily overlooked at a casual or cursory glance, yet so significant and symbolic. I had more trouble following the Latin of the opening verse on the right-hand page, opposite the fronts piece. "Principum erat verbum et verbum erat Deum."

The Book of Armagh, also on display, featured a page devoted to the Four Evangelists and their itinerant symbols. Matthew is symbolized by Man (Uomo), Mark by the Lion (Leo), Luke by the Calf (Utula), and John, the Eagle (Aquila). Earlier this year I wrote about our amazing Mediterranean trip which began with a couple of well-spent days in Venice. From Shakespeare's Othello and Monteverdi's Vespers (written for the famed Basilica of St Mark), its dual symbolism as both "Star of the Sea" (Ave maris stella) and "The Lion" (Il Leone), I had always associated both the Lion and St Mark's with Venice. I had never made the connection that the Lion IS St Mark.

Prior to the main room devoted to the actual illuminated manuscripts on display is a small museum outlining the history of the books, their contents & symbolism, the making of them, and other examples of illuminated texts, including original poetry by the monks. I was pleased to see a display devoted to the Irish monk Samuel Barber set in his "Hermit Songs." The poem that became "The Monk and His Cat" is dedicated to a white puss named Pangur. (It was a touching reminder to me, as an amateur poet & cat lover, still trying to adequately express the love for my recently departed little cat, Lucina. I'd like to think Pangur and his Monk, Jeoffrey and Christopher Smart, Lucina Kallmann Auden and her eponymous guardians are all reunited).

One of the other displays featured a poem from a soon-to-be-martyred monk. The "Martyrology of Tallacht" is a touching prayer that closes with the pious insight:

"Knowledge, steadfastness, patience
Silence without muteness
Humility, purity, patience
Take not the world, o cleric."

After the dimly lit and minutely detailed manuscripts, the spacious grandeur of the Long Room has its own awesome appeal. Some 40 floor-to-20-meter-high ceiling bookshelves line the Long Room, and a bust of a famous authors stands guard in front of each one of those imposing shelves. Shakespeare and Homer are the first to welcome you. In between the shelves is a rotating exhibit. The current one is devoted to a history of Dublin via Trinity College. Of particular interest was the case devoted to musical manuscripts. I was intrigued by the Tercentenary Ode (for Trinity's 300th birthday in 1892) by the composer Sir Robert Prescott. I was surprised the description of said ode made no comment on the fact it was written in the trinitarian key of E-flat (the key with 3 flats was one of Bach's favorites, and from his time on has been associated with the Holy Trinity). A part-book (the bass) for Handel's "Zadok the Priest" was also on display, as was a reminder that the world's most popular work of classical music was premiered in Dublin in 1742: Messiah.

We interspersed our sacred tour with another profane pub crawl, and took a short trip through the popular & hip neighborhood of Temple Bar. The Palace Bar, one of Dublin's historic pubs, was the first stop of the day. We had lunch and I had my first pint of Murphy's (my favorite Irish stout, actually) at The Temple Bar itself. We had our first taste of live Irish music on this trip, as "The Guitar Man" serenaded the crowded pub with traditional Irish ballads and popular songs.

We then walked down to St Patrick's Cathedral. Dating from the 11th century, this amazing church named after Ireland's patron saint, is actually an Anglican church. What gave it away was the fact that its most famous priest was Jonathan Swift, DEAN of the Cathedral. I'm sure we were a couple among many who naturally assume St Patrick's Cathedral in Ireland would be the holiest of holies for the Catholic church outside of St Peters in Rome. Regardless, it is an amazing space, its history complemented with extraordinary stained glass, an exquisite altar tapestry, and a magnificent organ. We were lucky to hear some of the service music the organist was practicing during our visit.

We then retraced our steps back up to Dublin's central cathedral, Christ Church. We attended the Thursday night Evensong, and had no idea what to expect, as the choirs of Dublin do not register on the radar of Anglican choirs the way those of Oxford, Cambridge & London do. We were more than pleasantly surprised, we were impressed and moved.

The Christ Church choir consists of 20 Lay Vicars, a mixed choir of young professionals, mostly from England, according to the organ scholar with whom we spoke after the beautiful service. John Shepherd's Second Service were the canticles of the evening (the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis--simply "Mag & Nunc" in choral-speak) and the remaining service music--the Preces and Responses--were by a composer new to me, Humphrey Clucas. I look forward to hearing more of this composer, whose service music elevated what is sometimes a perfunctory exercise into an inspired musical dialogue. The only disappointment was not hearing the anthem of the day, by one of my favorite Anglican composers, William Harris. The text to "Bring us, O Lord" from one of John Donne's sermons, was read instead.

The presence of young women in the soprano and alto sections (there were at least a couple counter tenors) brings a warmth and palette of color I prefer to the more monochromatic sound of the traditional choir of men and boys. I was so impressed with the sensitive and expressive shaping the conductor elicited from the choir, I looked him up on their website. I was delighted to learn they would be singing Evensong again on Saturday, and that service would feature Kenneth Leighton's Second Service, and an anthem by James MacMillan, "A New Song." The pairing of these two original & striking contemporary Scottish composers was serendipitous. I'm currently mulling over a program of English Anthems for the Chorale's 27th season next year, and want to feature both Leighton and MacMillan, as both are underrepresented in our programming.

On a side note, I corresponded with the Associate Director of Music (who led both Evensongs we attended), Tristan Russcher, to congratulate and thank him for the beautiful service Thursday, and the wish to let him know in person following Saturday's service. I learned the Harris anthem was cut because it was not up to their standards, and this was the first such instance in his 7 years with the choir. Not a bad batting average, eh?!?

We continued our pub crawl with a visit to Bull & Castle, where Irish micro-brews are the attraction, and followed it with another popular traditional pub, Thomas Read. We dined at a foodie joint called Gruel. I had the best Cottage Pie ever, and Amy had a scrumptious spinach gnocchi with an herbed cream sauce. We concluded the night with visits to the Quays and what would rank among our favorite pub/club hotspots, McQuires. They also had their own microbrews, of which the Belgian red ale was my favorite. Our guidebook said over half the population of Dublin is under 28. Based on our experience at these pubs last weekend, that is every bit the case, and makes for some fascinating & entertaining people watching. Sláinte!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, I

If you get an offer for airfare and hotel in Dublin that sounds too good to be true, it ain't necessarily so! Our 4-day-deal-of-a-trip last week was fantastic. We flew from JFK overnight and arrived at Dublin the morning of Nov. 11. Our hotel was the new, Euro-mod 4 & 1/2 star Mauldron hotel, in a developing neighborhood of southeast Dublin, just off the Liffey (Dublin's central river) beside the Grand Canal.

As we walked along the Quays that line the Liffey, we were struck by a bleach-white suspension bridge spanning the river near our destination. The cables connecting to the arch form half a rib-cage, an association reinforced by the blanched-bone whiteness of the structure, but the obvious association must be with one of Ireland's primary symbols, the harp. I guessed this bridge was a Calatrava design, and upon returning home and googling it, found that not only was my hunch correct but the bridge is named after my favorite Irish author, Samuel Beckett. Life is as poetic as one wants it to be.

Anyway, the Samuel Beckett bridge is still being installed, and like this entire corner of Dublin, is in the middle of a gestative birthing process. But the ubiquitous construction in the neighborhood & the added 5' of walk time to the City Centre in no way detracted from our appreciation and enjoyment of one of the world's greatest cities.

After checking in to our spacious and comfortable room (the friendly staff offered us an upgrade since we weren't able to check in as early as we'd requested!) we set out to explore. I'd been to Dublin in 2001 with the Shepherd College Chamber Singers, and loved it. But being a quick choir tour, I did not have nearly enough time to see & appreciate all Dublin has to offer.

My earlier visit, for example, did not offer an opportunity to explore Dublin's rich literary history, and the requisite pub crawl itinerant with it. So our first destination was to be the most literary of pubs, Davy Byrnes, central to James Joyce's Ulysses, and home to the annual celebration of Joyce and his dense, modernist masterpiece.

One of Dublin's legends is that if the city were ever destroyed, all you'd need to reconstruct it would be Ulysses. I won't try to "explain" Joyce, nor is this book easily (if at all) summarized. But on one level, the novel is a day in the life of a city and its inhabitants, telescoping Homer's epic adventure, the Odyssey, into the goings-on and affairs of a handful of everyday, working-class Dubliners, with the central character being the ad-man, Leopold Bloom.

Bloomsday, named after that narrator (if not hero) of Joyce's sui generis version of Homer is celebrated annually on the day Joyce's "narrative" occurs, June 16. Among other Joycean activities the Dubliners recreate are Bloom's fare at Davy Byrne's, a cheese sandwich and a glass of red wine.

Here's a literal (and figurative!) taste of the aforementioned passage from Joyce (which of course I am currently reading):

"Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow's digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat, drink, and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.
--Have you a cheese sandwich?
--Yes, sir.
Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy, take away that. Lubricate..."

In that nutshell of a window are contained many of the joys and challenges of making sense of Joyce and his polyphonic web of allusions. One of the chapters is based on an 8-voice fugue, in fact, and Joyce was a devotee of classical music, a lover of Schubert in particular, and an amateur pianist.

Joyce's elder colleague, William Butler Yeats, started out as a painter, in the mould of his father, John B. Yeats. W.B. Yeats' younger brother, Jack, was a great painter, and it was a wing devoted to his works in the National Gallery of Ireland that sidetracked our visit to Davy Byrnes.

The National Gallery ranked further down on my shortlist of museum visits (Trinity Library and the Book of Kells, the Dublin City Gallery and the Writers' Museum were atop the list) but I am so glad we acted on the spontaneous impulse to stop in and visit.

The National Gallery is not as large a museum as its name would imply. Room for room, however, it is an impressive one. The central work of not only the collection's main room but of the entire collection itself is Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ." The chiaroscuro shadings are among the artist's trademarks, and the vivid images that emerge from so many shadows one of the pleasurable oxymorons of the style--etched detail amidst pervading darkness. This exquisitely crafted composition is characteristically dark, and centered on the awkward embrace of Christ by his mutinous disciple, Judas. The scene has a disturbing and unsettling quality because of the undercurrent of violence vis-a-vis the embrace (and its foreshadowing of Christ's imminent fate). The affect is underscored by the latent sexuality of the scene. Judas' physical grasp is obviously an unwanted advance, and this fact is reinforced by Christ's deferential, downward turned glance, his interlaced fingers crossed passively in front of his submissive frame. Caravaggio has transposed a trope of archetypal roles--masculine/feminine, aggressive/passive, violator/victim--in this masterpiece.

Jack Yeats is one of those artists I know more by reference than experience. Amy and I were both grateful to have the experience of spending time in the triptych of rooms that make up the Yeats Museum wing of the National Gallery. His blend of early twentieth century styles--post impressionism & expressionism, with a nod towards the latter's abstract cousins--make for a series of canvases that are vivid and engaging. I was particularly struck by a pair of paintings from the mid 30's (Yeats lived from 1871-1957) whose deeply rich reds were portentous in their contexts.

"About to write a letter" centers on a gothic, almost vampire-like figure, whose pale face amidst a red-dominated room reminds one of blood. What kind of letter is this creature about to write?!? "Morning in a City" invites similar questions, as the bold-red base of the canvas conjures apocalyptic associations. Such associations, if less vivid and richly drawn as far as color is concerned, linger in his late and more abstract work, "Grief." Here, barely distinguishable figures populate a canvas that feels more barren for its palette of pale blues, greens, and grey.

Another harrowing apocalypse is Bosch's purgatorial depiction of "The Descent into Limbo." 400 years younger than Yeats, its background featuring a burning furnace is an eery (if apt) evocation of post-industrialist society, and the horrors witnessed in the centuries since Bosch's visionary work.

The Gallery also holds one of El Greco's strikingly modern portraits, that of "St Francis receiving the stigmata." If one didn't recognize the name or style of this Spanish iconoclast, one could be forgiven for thinking him a pre-cursor to Dali and modernism, and placing this 16th century painter closer to the 20th!

Other highlights of the Renaissance and surrounding schools include an exquisitely balanced Vermeer, and the always visually surprising & visceral canvases of Brueghel and Cranach.

Though modest in size, the Impressionist & early 20th century rooms are a veritable catalogue of names and representative works. At one end, romantic works that influence the modernists prepare the way. Corot and Delacroix are represented, and the latter's "Demosthenes on the Seashore" a masterpiece in and of itself.

Single paintings by Monet, Signac, Picasso, Modigliani, and a pair by Bonnard, complete the impressive collection of Ireland's National Gallery that I will certainly revisit on the next trip to Dublin.

I would also revisit Davy Byrnes, and not just to relive our own personal Bloomsday. Located on Duke Street, just off the central hub-bub of Grafton street, directly south of Trinity College, the pub pours a great pint of plain (Guinness) and has scrumptious Bangers [sausages] 'n Mash [potatoes]. This Irish staple, like the accompanying Dublin-based stout, is simply not the same outside of Ireland. The herb-seasoned sausages and Guinness-based gravy make the dish better than average pub grub. Dublin--and Ireland in general--gets a bad rap for being culinarily boring. Whatever.

As is our want when traveling, we followed our own path (with occasional reference to the guidebooks) and made our own literary pub crawl. Amy had the best Irish coffee at the Blarney Inn, and I have to say the Lombard Inn on Pearse Street poured the best pint I had (the locations of both, if not the pubs themselves, feature in the Ulysses itinerary).

After stopping back at the hotel and the cool-if-uninspiring Vertigo Bar there, we stopped into a traditional Irish pub on the corner of Cardiff Lane and Sir John Rogerson's Quay, the Ferryman. Though this pub isn't mentioned in Joyce's book, the literary and mythological associations were too ripe. Charon is the mythological ferryman who rows the departed across the river Styx to the underworld, Hades. The fifth chapter of Ulysses is Joyce's analog to Homer's section on Hades. And I think Joyce and Beckett both would approve of the "coincidence" of the location of Beckett's bridge to this particular pub (Dublin has the distinction of being one of the only places in the world to boast two bridges by Santiago Calatrava, and her first such bridge was none other than the James Joyce!)

Anyway, the Ferryman's location just next to the hotel (and the aforementioned associations) was too serendipitous to ignore. We ended our first day in Dublin with the pleasant surprise of sharing a few rounds with a couple of French businessmen who work the weekdays in Dublin. I loved my first experience in the city several years ago because of the balance of culture and history with the comfortable friendliness of the Dubliners themselves. This first day only affirmed that feeling, and augured well for the few days ahead.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New wine in old skins...

"No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17).

Don't worry, this is not a sermon. The title of this musing, lifted from Matthew, is also the subheading of the 2nd half of the Virginia Chorale's upcoming Holiday Concerts, Sweet was the Song. I will write about that program and post the program notes shortly.

Music is one discipline where new wine does more than merely fit in old skins. The alchemy of such pairing yields richly imaginative originals, invites comparison and connection, and adds layers of texture from which meaning is created and experienced.

One of my favorite past-times is sitting with my i-tunes library and creating playlists that pique my imagination at any given moment. (I have about 5,000 "songs" on my computer, grouped into about 60 playlists, only one of which is not classical. It is a list of about 70 songs, most of which are by the Beatles & Radiohead, for the record).

Last weekend, I was talking with one of my best friends, Steven White (artistic director of Opera Roanoke), about a gala-style concert program for the opera next season. We both had been thinking a lot about Faust (I mused on Gounod's Faust last month after a visit to Chicago--see "Romantic Triangles" below). Steven had put together a draft of a fantastic Faust program, drawing on excerpts from three of the great operatic settings of the legend--Gounod's Faust, Berlioz's Le Damnation de Faust and Boito's Mefistofele.

It happened to be Halloween, and with Faust and Mephistopheles on the brain, I decided it would be way-cool to create a "Scary Music!" list to play while the neighbors' kids trick-or-treated. As a spokesperson for the arts, a director, and an educator, one is always looking for another avenue to expose kids to classical music. I'm sure my Halloween playlist was lost on most of the kids and their parents, but I enjoyed it. Besides excerpts from the Faust adaptations, both those above and Liszt's Faust Symphony, Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" and "Witches' Sabbath" from Symphonie Fantastique made the cut, as did the opening of Verdi's Macbeth, and Mäntyjärvi's Witches chorus, "Double, Double, Toil & Trouble" (which the Chorale is reprising this Sunday in concert). The third movement of Henze's guitar sonata devoted to Shakespearean characters is a musical portrait of Lady MacBeth, and the "Dies Irae" from his instrumental Requiem is harrowing, and makes "scary" horror-film music sound like cartoons. Ives' "Hallowe'en" was the opening track and James MacMillan's stirring elegy to a falsely accused witch, The Confessions of Isabel Gowdie, closed it.

It was MacMillan's motet, O bone Jesu, that prompted the present essay. MacMillan is a Scottish Roman Catholic composer and one of the most widely performed, admired, and acclaimed composers around. He is not more well-known in the US because our country is stupid. His music is challenging--the "Confessions" mentioned above opens with beautifully sighing string lines that eventually yield to jarring, percussive attacks, like the fall of an axe (or guillotine). This music does not shy away from depicting the violence of its subject, the martyrdom of a falsely accused "witch." And therein lies much of its power and relevance. But such relevance is challenging--in a variety of ways--and that is (partly) why such music is not as popular here in our commodity-driven, entertainment-addicted, attention-deficit-escapist "culture." But I am not as jaded or cynical as that statement would suggest. I just want people to turn off their tv's, turn away from video games for awhile, and spend TIME with truly meaningful art like MacMillan's music. I don't condemn "pop" culture per se. I commend art culture. Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" is an analagous work--one that depicts centuries-old events AND works as a contemporary allegory through the prismatic lens of the creative imagination. Such works offer a mirror through which the participant (both the performer AND the audience) not only has a better understanding of history, but of human nature and experience. It is such understanding that adds meaning and contributes to what philosophers and teachers of all ages have dubbed "the well-lived life." SO, maybe this is a sermon after all...

Anyway, soap-boxes aside, I just wanted to write a bit about some new music inspired by some of the old. Macmillan's "O bone Jesu" was inspired by his Scottish ancestor, the Renaissance composer, Robert Carver (c.1484-1567). Carver's 19-part motet features virtuosic textures and allusions to numerology (composers have always been attracted by the mystic qualities of numbers, and the marriage of science--acoustics, physics--and sound). MacMillan echoes Carver's 20 repetitions of the central word "Jesu" in a work that is characteristic of its composer--evocative, striking harmonies, independently moving vocal lines, adorned with the cries and sighs of Scottish folk song, all balanced in a canvas of colorful originality that is immediate & engaging. If you have never heard MacMillan's music, stop reading and go download this piece!

Or, if you want a perfect example of the "new wine in old skins," the old-and-new-together, check out Harry Christophers and the Sixteen's new recording of MacMillan and Purcell, "Bright Orb of Harmony." The Sixteen is one of the finest pro chamber choirs in Britain, and along with Stephen Layton's Polyphony, my favorite, "go-to" ensemble when I'm listening. Following the passions of their conductor, the ensemble specialises [sic!] in Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary music.

In 2000, the Sixteen began a Choral Pilgrimage to contribute to Britain's Millenium Celebrations. What a novel idea. Arts organizations leading nation-wide celebrations by touring their country. If the commonwealth of Virginia is listening, I volunteer the Chorale to bring the finest choral music into the schools and communities of our great state. Oh, right. You cut our funding. Sorry...

Anyway, their 2009 Pilgrimage celebrated the 350th birthday of Henry Purcell and the 50th of his latest musical offspring, James MacMillan, and the aforementioned recording is one of the fruits of that tour. The pairing could not be more apt & fit. Purcell's singular, expressive, harmonically-pungent writing captures the essence of the Psalms, Litanies, and Prophets he set. If Benjamin Britten was Purcell's 20th century heir, then that torch has been passed to MacMillan, who consistently responds with deeply felt, richly drawn, yet unaffected, immediately appealing music. In addition to the Carver-inspired motet, O Bone Jesu, two of MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets for communion are included (so-called for the University choir that commissioned them). One of MacMillan's most effective miniatures is the a cappella elegy, A Child's Prayer. This was the first work of MacMillan's I ever programmed, and simply stating that produces an intense itch to program it again. It was a response to the 1996 Dunblane tragedy in Scotland, where a gunman massacred some dozen schoolchildren. As it was one of the first mass-killings of its kind outside of the US, it shook Europe with acute force.

MacMillan's simple & haunting motet features two solo treble lines who weave an angelic & transcendent, chant-inspired duet over a dirge-like choral texture. As the annotator in this new cd observes "its musical no less than its theological consolation provides a sense of peace beyond the desolation." If that sounds esoteric or, on the other hand, unsubstantiated, it is worth quoting the composer himself, a devout Roman Catholic whose mostly religious music transcends both the singleness of its inspiration and the specificity of its subject(s):

"Even in our post-religious secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music in their lives. Many people still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts."

I have been trying to get at why such music is "different." Not necessarily better (though I believe it is), but different, and significant, and worth the time and effort. And therein is another factor we can apply to my sermonette above about "pop" v. "art" culture and why the latter suffers in our country. Art requires participation--effort on behalf of the listener/observer/audience member. We've lost something in translation in our high-speed, hi-def world. And yet, amidst the latest version of Windows or the iphone or whatever, there is a renewed thirst for meaning, and a hunger for significance. I think there is also a revived interest in making connections and repairing gaps. And I believe music such as this may be just the think* to fill those voids. It's no surprise that many of the works on my newest playlist, "old and new" share that religious affinity upon which MacMillan remarks. Besides MacMillan & Purcell, I have Kile Smith's Vespers, another striking work--for chamber choir and Renaissance band (commissioned by Piffaro)--that looks backward for its source while sounding refreshingly original.

MacMillan's Roman lineage goes back to Monteverdi and the Catholicism of the Tudors (well, until Henry wanted a divorce, quite another digression). Kile looks to the Reformed tradition in a work that makes new wine of old Lutheran hymns. I hope the Chorale will be able to realize its dream of getting back to performing these masterworks, old and new. I'm planning on a Monteverdi Vespers for its 400th anniversary in 2010 (itself a study of old & new practices in a single work). Then I want to do Kile's Vespers. And then MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross paired with Buxtehude's passion-tide cantatas, Membra Jesu Nostri. The exciting young Brittish composer, Tarik O'Regan, has written a major work re-working the music of the medieval composer, Machaut, in his rousing Scattered Rhymes. Tarik's piece is not religious, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have those numinous and spiritual qualities that evoke such responses. I want to pair it with Machaut's seminal mass setting in honor of Notre Dame. A seven-hundred year-old work that is a specific product of a French Catholic still speaks in an ageless & relevant voice of the powers of the human imagination. There may be no one "universal" language. But music is a great second, and one that makes life more meaningful.

That's enough to keep me listening, making connections, musing, and sharing why, to paraphrase another modernist (Debussy, who looked back in order to move forward) "music is the best means of expression we have."

So this was a sermon, after all, Thank you for indulging me. Until next time.

*Neither I nor my spell-check caught this "mistake." Since its Freudian nature is rather apt, given the context, it stands.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

VC: Sing in the Seasons--Reprise

"Only connect" is the aphoristic motto of E.M. Forster's beloved novel, Howard's End. The image of Anthony Hopkins' gaze at the end of the Merchant & Ivory film still lingers in my memory as a classic example of an actor's silent expression expressing more than many words could.

I've already written about the Chorale's opening concert, "Sing in the Seasons." If you've read any of my other posts then my interest in making connections--between & across artists, genres, periods & styles--should be obvious.

The main reason we are reprising this opening concert is because many audience members and singers alike asked me to just do it again. I've never done a "back-by-popular-demand" performance this way, as my polymath wont is variety, newness, and adventure.

And I've never led a more well-received concert. Period. This program of varied songs with texts connecting to the seasons of the year was/is a motley mix I wasn't sure would work. The variety, eclecticism, and unexpectedness--the surprise of it--all contributed to its having universal appeal at each of the initial 3 performances. So we're doing it again this Sunday, November 8, at 5 pm, at 2nd Presbyterian (7305 Hampton Blvd), Norfolk. No tickets necessary. Just come and hear it!

Without analyzing too much, I want to make a few connections as to why I think it worked as well as it did. The program in performance proved to be better balanced than it appeared on paper. I quipped in my pre-concert "meet the music" chat that if a conducting student had brought this program to me I would have told him he was crazy! A modernist 9/11 elegy between an American standard and "Danny Boy?" Renaissance madrigals juxtaposed with pop-influenced Shakespeare songs? Impressionist miniatures by Debussy & a little-known Nordic cousin named Lundvik? And what about the unpronounceable Nordic name Jaakko Mäntyjärvi? How do these disparate pieces fit together?

Yet the melting pot--or melting cauldron--I should say, referring to the Mäntyjärvi work, the performance of which epitomized the program's reception. "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble," the Witches' chorus from Shakespeare's Scottish play was offered as a Halloween trick & treat, and was greeted with laughter, surprise, and spirited applause each concert, as it rounded off the eclectic fall season. The program opens with a muted arrangement of the Kozma/Mercer standard, "Autumn Leaves." Dominick Argento's piquant elegy to 9/11, a setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet LXIV, followed. The Argento was paired with Joe Flummerfelt's meltingly beautiful arrangement of Danny Boy. That pairing could not have worked better in concert. The Witches Chorus concluded the opening quarter.

I've already written about the connection of the Jewish composers on the program--Autumn Leaves, though known in the US as a Johnny Mercer standard, would not exist were it not for Joseph Kozma's music. Kozma was a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis for Paris, where his life and career had a 2nd act as a song-writer and film composer. The other book-end to the program is Gershwin's "Summertime." One of the most popular songs of all time was written by a NY Jew of Russian descent to a tune based on a Ukrainian folk-song that somehow captures the spirit of African-Americans in South Carolina in the wake of Reconstruction! Talk about making connections! And they don't stop there. Todd Duncan, the great baritone who created the role of Porgy (who would go on to a distinguished teaching career--I am proud to be among his vocal grand-children, as one of my teachers, Marvin Keenze, was one of Duncan's finest students) described his audition for Gershwin:

"Here I was a negro man singing for a New York Jew this old, Italian aria!"

Ground-breaking, boundary-bending, category-defying, indeed. Only connect.

Another connection to make where Jewish composers are concerned is to the English composer of Italian-Jewish descent, Gerald Finzi. Finzi's rhapsodic setting of Robert Bridges' "Nightingales" closes the section devoted to spring. The final quarter of the program, themed around summer, opens with a pair of songs by Finzi's elder contemporary, Frederick Delius. Both composers have ties to the English Musical Renaissance begun by Elgar and Holst, and epitomized by the pastoral, romantic music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The English pastoral sound is a not-too-distant cousin of French impressionism, and the influence of Claude Debussy can be heard in many of the works on our program.

Debussy described music as "a dream from which the veils have been lifted." The effect of an actor's silence--the impressions one gets from observing a great actor, like Anthony Hopkins, in the anecdote above--can be more powerful than emotions "expressed" at heightened pitch, volume, or force. Rather than "express" an emotion, or "represent" it, impressionism sought to convey a fluid sense of motion (picture a classic impressionist painting by Monet, for example, where the edges are blurred, and the colors blend and merge seamlessly together). Thus the canvases (and the scores) appear to be in motion themselves. By representing such a fluid process, Debussy attempted to convey "not the expression of feeling, but the feeling itself."

I think he achieved his aim, and his impressionist miniatures for a capella chorus are prismatic gems through which one hears the colors of his musical canvas. Debussy was famously influenced by the American painter James Whistler, and it was the latter's Nocturne in Blue and Grey that solidified Debussy's path towards creating musical equivalents to "the experiment of finding the different combinations possible within a single color."

The possibility of different combinations around a single color are explored in the Delius songs (themselves nocturnes), Hildor Lundvik's impressionist triptych (actually called "Nocturnes") and among other works on our program, Adolphus Hailstork's "Nocturne."

Adolphus' evocative work uses modernist techniques to evoke the atmosphere of a summer night. The individual sections of the choir--seemingly at random--hum and "buzz" short motives that intertwine and create a sound world reminiscent of a summer night outdoors amidst the stars and sounds of nature. The beautiful poem is declaimed by the sopranos, like a serenade atop the natural accompaniment of the insects & night-sounds. Hailstork's Nocturne was among the concert's highlights.

Other highlights of our eclectic cauldron of seasonal songs include three Shakespeare songs of Matthew Harris. The first two are juxtaposed with Renaissance madrigals by the Bard's contemporary, Thomas Morley. "O Mistress Mine" and "It was a lover and his lass" are both pop-influenced ballads. Connecting elements of the madrigal with a dash of impressionism, filtered through a contemporary, pop/rock/jazz sensibility, Matt has written a number of striking, original, and ear-ticklingly memorable songs. The penultimate song on the program, the one that sets up "Summertime" is a romping, choral hay-ride. "When daffodils begin to peer" has a new-grass twang to it, and sounds like what you might get if you combined a country tune with a madrigal texture set for a professional chamber chorus.

The avant-garde composer, John Cage asked that the line "we connect Satie to Thoreau" be spoken at the performance of many of his songs.

We're not performing any of Cage's songs on this program, but we've got a connection through some of the "chance" happenings in Hailstork's piece. And it's easy to connect Satie to impressionism, and though we're not offering any Satie (since he didn't compose any choral works), I think that most eccentric of French artistes would smilingly approve.

I think one of the most important connections with this (and all great) music is also the most obvious.

Great music simply connects us--to our emotions & experience, our memories & dreams. Music connects our minds to our hearts and souls, and ultimately connects us to each other. I hope you'll connect with what the Chorale is doing.

Come. Hear. Outstanding. Rewarding. Artists. Listen. Engage.