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.

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