Thursday, December 31, 2009


It is hard to believe that the busiest night of the year for the professional singer, Christmas Eve, was just one week ago. It feels like at least a month, and the beginning of this "most wonderful time of the year" a distant memory, shrouded in mist.

Amy and I returned home in time for services at First Pres, VB, following memorable performances of Messiah at the beautifully restored Community Theater of Morristown, NJ on December 22, and the famed Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall on the 23rd.

The Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra (of NJ/NY) is renowned for its annual performances of this most famous of oratorios, and holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of complete Messiah performances. That's right, all three parts, and every single number between the opening Sinfonia and the closing "Amen" some three hours later. But what a swift three hours it was! We both agreed it was the most memorable and meaningful Messiah of which we had been a part. And that is no small compliment, given the variety and number of Messiah performances in which we have been involved.

Just as the accretion of single movements & constituent elements in a major work culminate in a power no single detail could muster, so do the varying performing forces contribute to a whole greater than the sum of any individual voice, part, or section. Put another way, there was not a "weak link" in these performances of this most sprawling of masterworks. For starters, the conductor, Andrew Megill, is one of the finest musicians of his generation, a baroque specialist, and a conductor of emotional and dramatic intensity. One telling detail is how much the players not only respond to his conducting, but how much they enjoy playing for him. Anyone in the music business knows so-called "choral" conductors are among the most resented of maestros by orchestras. One of the reasons for this is the frequent lack of stick technique which can make choral conductors more difficult to follow. Anyone who's watched a church choir director making circles with his arms has witnessed this. Combine that with a lack of expertise and experience where both the individual instruments and the inner workings of the sections are concerned and an orchestra's frustrations are completely understandable.

Andrew's conducting is not "conventional" from a purely technical standpoint, as he forgoes a baton and often abandons the standard beat pattern in order to express a dramatic or musical idea. He is not marking time as much as he is evoking the musical--and affective--gesture. And such expressiveness, such direct engagement with the music, text, and narrative is compelling and inspiring, and results in a performance reflecting those qualities.

Though playing on modern instruments, the Masterwork players are baroque specialists, "get" the style and play with extraordinary sensitivity and expressiveness. To cite one example among many, in the famous aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound" the solo trumpet not only embellished repeating phrases with ornaments, but the violins--en masse--followed suit. One doesn't hear a modern orchestra take such risks--such "in the moment" spontaneity is usually the purview of chamber groups and period orchestras, comprised of specialists who play little else but 18th century music. It was the kind of performance that sent chills down the spines of the musical nerds attentive to such telling details.

The chorus sounded anything but amateur, and were especially effective in simply telling the story. Technically polished, they sang with a full palette of dynamic range--the hushed opening of "Since by man came death" was sit-up-and-pay-attention good, a worthy partner to the quiet intensity which framed the opening section of the 2nd part ("...the iniquity of us all"). The 85 voice avocational chorus executed the brisk tempos of "All we like sheep" and "Let us break their bond" with professional accomplishment.

The quartet was exceptionally well received (I consider myself privileged to be in such esteemed company). Much of the soloists' impact can be attributed to Mo. Megill's inspiring leadership. He challenged all of us to engage with the text and the musical ideas with imagination and a refreshing newness. It is another tribute to his gifts that after leading dozens and dozens of performances (of such an ubiquitously familiar work) he brings such creativity to every outing.

He assigned "But who may abide" to the soprano, and with no disrespect to my alto, counter-tenor, and baritone colleagues, I never want to hear another voice essay it. As Andrew said, the soprano is the only voice that can really sound like fire. And Amy's facile, lightning-quick coloratura evoked the "refiner's fire," as did her stratospheric cadenza (which I humbly take pride in suggesting). It climaxes on a high d, and wakes up any remaining Rip Van Winkles in the house! Another welcome change was offering the 12/8 "Rejoice Greatly" (the standard version is in 4/4). Though skeptical at first, I am now a convert to this version. Besides the fact the jaunty and lilting triplet figures sound like what the text means, the compound meter balances the earlier alto aria, "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." Both arias have the same textual affect (ie: joy), and this parallel is only reinforced by singing "Rejoice" in a similar meter.

The mezzo, Patricia Thompson, was as bold and engaging as any I'd heard in this work. Unafraid to use her chest voice as an expressive instrument, her "He was despised" took no prisoners. The longest aria in the oratorio can either be a highlight or a low-point. It was clearly the former, and Patricia's ability to enact--rather than express--emotion with her voice forced one to pay attention. She was a worthy successor to Susanna Cibber, who premiered the role in 1742. It was Cibber's return to the stage following a very public scandal in which she was disgraced and humiliated. Imagine making one's comeback from such notoriety with the aria "He was despised and rejected of men." One anecdote relates that a priest from Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral declared "woman, thy sins are forgiven" following her performance of the aria!

My friend, Richard Lippold, was outstanding, and sounded better than I'd ever heard him (though we realized we'd mostly sung together as pro choristers). Though a lyric baritone, his engagement with the character of each of his arias made me forget he doesn't have a Sam Ramey-like low range. His coloratura rivaled Amy's, which is no mean feat, either. "Why do the nations rage" was as exciting as it should be, and that Richard inspired the superb trumpet of Terry Szor is testimony enough of his technique and expressiveness.

For those inquiring minds, everyone in both theaters stood for the "Hallelujah" chorus. We don't really know how this tradition came to be (the veracity of the anecdotes relating to King George standing are tenuous at best, as we don't really know whether or not he attended a performance of Messiah). We do know that there was a tradition of standing for any number of Handel's choruses. Indeed a letter from the 1750's attests to the fact that the "socialites" (and Christians) knew when to stand for which choruses, while the "unwashed" remained ignorantly seated.

Both audiences stood again at the conclusion of the oratorio, and we left both stages feeling as appreciated as we ourselves felt grateful to have been part of so meaningful an experience.

I would be remiss if I did not mention an unexpected and most pleasant surprise which contributed much to the meaningfulness of the experience. We were the happy and lucky guests of Laura DeFelice (a soprano in the chorus) and her husband, Mike Capatides. Their villa of a home, Acacia, was our refuge for the 10 days we were in town. We enjoyed not only their company, but that of their fantastic boys, Gus (12) and Max (almost 5). Their oh-so-chill retriever, Fred, kittens, Co-Co and Tiger, and trio of turtles (led by Kim Mr. Kim) made the mansion feel like a real home for us. And if that weren't enough, we were the fortunate beneficiaries of their copious wine collection, housed in their large wine vault, appropriately called the Capalice cellar.

We both have been blessed to make lasting friends literally all over the world from our travels and stays. There are times where nothing beats a nice hotel room and the chance to be quiet and anonymous for a few nights. In this case, we couldn't have been more grateful to stay with Laura and Mike, and we know our new friendship with them will continue into 2010 and beyond.

It was a fitting book-end to a very eventful year of music and art. In no particular order, 2009 brought a bevy of performances around Virginia, from the Beach to Williamsburg to Lexington and Roanoke, up and down the East Coast from church services in Florida to recitals in the DC area, concerts in Pennsylvania, NJ & NY, and a memorable few weeks at the Bard Festival in upstate NY. Amy performed with the Kalamazoo Symphony and I sang Britten with the Maryland Symphony, and we travelled around the Mediterranean, singing recitals in Croatia, Italy and France. It is fitting that immediately prior to the Holiday concert craze (16 concerts in the first 3 weeks of December!) we took a quick trip to Dublin, and among many other treats, sat for a second in the chair from which Handel conducted the premiere of Messiah.

Quite a year 2009 has been. It gives me pause to give thanks to friends, old & new, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.

This morning my eye caught an apt verse from the letter of James:

"...yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."

Though the many memories of this eventful year may fade, I doubt they will vanish. And I will be grateful for however many number of tomorrows 2010 may bring.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

Amy and I are in New York for performances of Messiah with the Masterwork Chorus (in Morristown, NJ on Dec 19 and at Carnegie Hall, Dec 23). Following our first orchestra rehearsal, we visited the Guggenheim museum to see their Kandinsky retrospective.

Following a very eventful couple of weekends of Holiday concerts in Virginia, where works very dear to me spoke with equal depth to the audiences, I have been even more preoccupied with substance and meaning. I wrote previously about Finzi’s cantata In Terra Pax, and have posted several essays about the Chorale’s Britten Project. It was Britten’s difficult and little known suite, Christ’s Nativity, that made the strongest impression—to our pleasant surprise—on the Chorale’s Holiday concerts, and it was the Finzi cantata everyone was talking about following the Cantata Chorus concert (where Haydn and Vaughan Williams might have been the expected favorites).

And if that were not enough grist for our aesthetic mill, the Messiah we are singing for Andrew Megill is anything but another Messiah. For starters, the orchestra plays with exceptional sensitivity, and though using modern instruments, sounds like a top-notch Baroque orchestra. I have known Maestro Megill for 15 years, and every time we collaborate, I learn more and experience a deeper connection to the music and its content. He is among the most expressive and musical conductors I know.

We almost skipped the Guggenheim, as saturated with art as we were, but Kandinsky (1866-1944) proved to be the perfect companion. I have long loved his expressionist abstractions, and admired his writings on art. Friends with the Viennese modernist, Arnold Schönberg, Kandinsky is one of the most musical of painters. In his most famous book, On the Spiritual in Art, he likens painting to music. His synaesthesia (associations between the senses, particularly “seeing” colors with certain music, or “hearing” music when looking at certain colors) only heightened this connection.

Kandinsky described three types of painting, each with obvious musical associations. Impressions were based on real-life images (and yet still abstract) and reveal his debt to Monet, the post-impressionists AND Viennese expressionism (some of his early works from the turn of the century look like a mix of Monet, Van Gogh & Richard Gerstl).

Improvisations are just as the term implies: fluid abstractions that dance and seem to be in perpetual motion. They are so peripatetic, in fact, they appear to be three-dimensional, as one’s perception of line and depth changes with the perspective.

The last category of musical paintings, Compositions, are more formally conceived, with structure and form organizing the abstractions into at least the semblance of order.

Indeed, all three categories inform and intersect with the others. The Improvisations give the Impression of figures—birds, fish, people—thus the line between representation and abstraction is ever blurred. And the fluid, improvisatory abstractions of the “formal” Compositions are difficult to distinguish from the “true” Improvisations.

The exhibition is sprawling and literally spirals upwards, beautifully mirroring the museum’s architecture. The first floor displays some of the more derivative early work, with the main room devoted to four improvisatory panels representative of the abstract expressionism he pioneered in the second decade of the 20th c., following the publication of the aforementioned treatise, On the Spiritual in Art.

While the heart of the retrospective is devoted to those works, one sees the progression in the development of Kandinsky’s aesthetic, as representation yields to abstraction. His palette was among the most vivid of any 20th century artist, and his influence continues to be felt. If the heart of 20th century art was the Abstract Expressionism of American artists from Pollock & Rauschenberg to the still active Cy Twombly, then Kandinsky was father to each.

His style continued to develop through each decade of his long life, and was sometimes precipitated by forced exile. Following the productive period from c. 1907-1914, World War I forced him to leave Germany. He returned in the early 1920’s, and began collaborating with the architect Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus institute in Weimar. This period saw the artist’s style take the first in a series of turns towards a sparser, cleaner approach. His friendship with Paul Klee, and his interest in science, mathematics (and geometry in particular) informed works with more space & line.

Following the forced closing of the Bauhaus, and the Nazi’s labeling of Kandinsky’s work as “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst) he settled in Paris. The final decade of his prolific career showed his indebtedness to surrealism, and a continued paring down & lightening of his compositions. Miro’s playful, quasi-impressionist abstractions appear as particular influences, along with the continued interest in geometry and science. Some of these works from the 1930’s juxtapose surrealist images in works of tight order and control. Gone are the expressionist improvisations and bold splashes of primary color. The palette is softer, the canvasses ordered by surrealist figures that resemble hieroglyphic symbols. One senses the aging artist composing an epilogue to a sprawling career with a composition of the highest order, a succinct & tightly argued work that speaks for itself.

After reflecting on Kandinsky’s evolution, I was reminded of composers whose careers spanned a half-century and evolved accordingly. Stravinsky and Britten, to name but two, achieved an austerity through a similar paring down, a refining of the palette in lean, taut works. Stravinsky quipped, “less is more,” referring to the economy of means to generate entire works.

Kandinsky’s favorite shape was the most elemental, the circle. The symbolic & aesthetic circle is complete in such comprehensive retrospectives as this one. Kandinsky’s belief that abstract art harnessed transformative powers that could unite the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual realms now appears not as much utopian as simply prescient.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And on Earth, Peace...Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax

Tonight is the Cantata Chorus dress rehearsal for Saturday's concert And on Earth, Peace. This concert--with members of the Virginia Symphony and a great quartet of soloists--opens with Haydn's beautiful & pastoral Missa Sancti Nicolai (St Nicolas Mass) and ends with Vaughan Williams festive Fantasia on Christmas Carols. In between is one of my favorite works for this season, Gerald Finzi's cantata In Terra Pax. Below are notes I wrote for a performance several years ago in Connecticut. If you are able, I hope you'll join us Saturday at 3 pm at Trinity Episcopal as part of the FREE Olde Towne (Portsmouth) Holiday Music Festival.

(We are also listed on the Finzi society's website: under the "performances" tab)

Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax stands alone among his later works in being wholly un-commissioned. The work was written for the local community orchestra he founded and led, the Newbury String Players, and premiered in 1955. As we shall see, Finzi's life was marked by tragedy. In Terra Pax can be viewed as one of many noble responses throughout his career. Begun in 1951, he re-worked and completed the score in 1954, after having being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, an illness which led to his death in September, 1956 (just three weeks after conducting this valedictory work at the famous Three Choirs Festival).

Born of Italian-Jewish parents assimilated in London, Finzi–youngest of five–lost his father and three brothers between 1909 and 1918, his closest brother having been shot down during World War I. Moreover, his composition teacher and friend, Ernest Farrar, was killed in action the same year. Finzi followed in the stylistic footsteps of Elgar, Holst, and Vaughan Williams, as a 'pastoral' British composer (opposed to the 'modern'–though not avant-garde–composers like Britten and Tippett). He is known today for a mere handful of works–the cantata, Dies Natalis, a Magnificat, several cycles of Thomas Hardy poems, and among a few orchestral scores, a striking Clarinet Concerto.

Finzi remarked to a fellow composer, "most do not know the difference between choosing a text and being chosen by one." Finzi proved up to the task when 'chosen' by poems, and In Terra Pax is a telling example of his gift for both finding a poetic line and weaving it into musical fabric. Juxtaposing the familiar account of the angels and shepherds from the Gospel of St Luke with Robert Bridges meditation, Noel; Christmas Eve, 1913, is a remarkable enough gesture itself. Finzi finds succinct musical phrases to wed the two texts, and the relationship of these two simple motives unifies the work. The first phrase (heard in the lower strings and harp) is a pair of descending, interlocking fourths, reminiscent of church bells the composer recalled from adolescence. The second motive, immediately following, is a melodic fragment from the refrain of the carol, "The First Nowell." The bell-ringing music will find its apotheosis in the climactic setting of the angels' song: "Glory to God in the highest," and the second phrase offers a denouement fittingly attached to the words, "and on earth peace, good will towards men." A male soloist frames the Bridges stanzas–with exquisite musical prosody fitting the text like tailored gloves–around the choral declamation of the Gospel text. The soprano soloist is, appropriately enough, the "angel of the Lord" who announces the nativity. Her music yields to the aforementioned choral outburst, "Glory to God..."–the chorus divided and stacked canonically, representing the "multitude of the heavenly hosts." That an agnostic composer of Jewish descent should write so particular a sacred work, after being diagnosed with a fatal illness, springing from neither professional necessity nor apparent occasion, gives one pause. Perhaps the reason is in the composer's own words, a propos the Newbury String Players premiere of the work:

“I did rejoice to think that agnostics, Roman Catholics, Anglo-C's, Jews, Chapel, and Church of England were all gathered together, seeing a beautiful sight, listening to decent music and with all their ridiculous differences dropped for at least an hour.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"to adventure, art, and peace:" Britten & parables

[Below is an essay I originally wrote for the members of the Connecticut Chorale Society in December, 2006, for a performance of Britten's "Good Samaritan" parable for the Red Cross, Cantata Misericordium. The connection to the Chorale's Britten Project, and the strong impression his suite, Christ's Nativity, made on the audiences of this past weekend's Holiday concerts are why I share it here.]

The subject heading is the last phrase from an Auden poem Britten set as a carol in 1944 for an unrealized Christmas oratorio. The last stanza reads:

"Inflict thy promises with each occasion of distress
That from our incoherence we may learn to put our trust in thee
And brutal fact persuade us to adventure art and peace."

Another quote by Auden is apt for Cantata Misericordium and as I will attempt to elucidate, much of Britten's output:

"There must always be two kinds of art, escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love..." (W. H. Auden, 1935)

The Cantata was an intensely personal piece for Britten, written at a pivotal point in his career. Britten scholars are fond of calling it the 'epilogue' to his monumental War Requiem. That work is one of THE great works from the 20th century, and was scored for huge forces—large orchestra and chorus, chamber orchestra, boys' choir, and 3 soloists, and occasioned by the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed in WWII.

Britten used said occasion to make one of his most overt philosophical statements. By juxtaposing the Latin text of the mass for the dead with the poems of WWI poet (and fellow pacifist) Wilfred Owen, Britten illuminates the familiar Latin liturgy with a poignancy that is specific as it is universal. To take but one example from that work, the Lacrymosa, with chorus and soprano solo, begins in the lamentoso style associated with the masterpiece Requiems of Mozart and Verdi. Britten literally cuts off the Latin lament with interjections of Owen's poem 'Futility,' which is an elegy from one soldier to a fallen comrade. Thus the ceremonial mass is interrupted by the immediacy of personal testimony, and the community is confronted with individual suffering.

I expound here only to illustrate Britten's keen poetic and dramatic sense, and the integration of every element (text, musical forces, musical material, texture, space/acoustic, etc) at his disposal to achieve those ends. He deliberately chose soloists for the War Requiem from different corners of Europe, to symbolize the devastation on all sides of the conflict. The soprano was to be Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of Mstislav Rostropovich), the baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a prisoner of war) and the tenor (Britten's partner & muse), Peter Pears. It is not mere coincidence that Fischer-Dieskau and Pears were the soloists for Cantata Misericordium. It is equally telling the roles they were assigned, since the German baritone played the Jewish victim, and the composer's lover, the outsider/outcast Samaritan.

To return to Auden's mention of 'parable-art' vis-a-vis Britten, one can trace a line from the earliest works of his youth to the end of his life marked by music engaged in expressing human consciousness—of suffering, lost innocence, and compassion.

Britten and Pears were Conscientious Objectors--not a critically acclaimed subgroup in Europe in the 1940's--and faced difficult tribunals as a result. Britten opened his 1942 statement to the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors with courageous and unpopular sentiment:

"Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation...and I cannot take part in acts of destruction."

Lest we mistake Britten's position as the facile posturing of a disgruntled protestor, this creed permeated his life and work, without limiting his 'message' to dogma, or didactic 'preaching.' Britten and Pears were well acquainted with the suffering the 'outsider' experiences (both as pacifists and openly gay men who lived together for nearly 40 years) and the works Britten wrote—the majority of which featured leading roles for Pears—reflect a deep empathy with human suffering. To read the letters they exchanged, from the beginning of their friendship in 1937 to Britten’s death in 1976, offers one an intimate perspective on these aspects of their relationship, and indeed, on one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of Western art.

I believe the oversimplified, binary political discourse permeating our own society colors the appreciation of someone like Britten's position, regardless of what 'side' one chooses. Following the Allied liberation, Britten and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin toured the concentration camps and played concerts for survivors. The music he wrote following that experience has a heightened dramatic sense he would continue to hone and concentrate, leading to the austere, even severe style of his later works. Cantata Misericordium is one of the first fruits of this long-germinating process. But I get ahead of myself; I want to elaborate about parables…

Britten's operas can be viewed as secular parables. Peter Grimes (his first opera, and the work which solidified his reputation after returning to Britain from self-imposed exile in the US) is cast as a visionary outsider, misunderstood and maligned by the community. The Rape of Lucretia is given a moral specificity when the narrators of the story equate Lucretia's suffering with Christ's. That allegory is already present in the Christ-like figure of Billy Budd. Britten deepens the associative force of that work by giving even minor characters scenes of poignant empathy (there is one particular moving scene between the flogged novice, and his compassionate, Good Samaritan-like friend). Given equal focus in these works is the loss of innocence—again, no coincidence Britten wrote so much great music for children and young people. Billy Budd is followed by Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, a compact, moving scena depicting the imminent sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. As in the Cantata the two soloists intone the 'moral' of the story in music that recalls ancient chant & organum. In a sense, Abraham and Isaac is to Billy Budd what the Cantata is to the War Requiem: epilogues that reconsider and refocus in compact form what has been presented and developed over a much broader canvas. The Canticle, War Requiem, and Cantata share a characteristic 'lullaby' feature prominent in Britten. The tenor solo in the Cantata, 'Dormi, Amice' echoes the close of the War Requiem ("Let us sleep now" sung by the tenor and baritone) and the Isaac's farewell to his Father ("Father, do with me as you will").

The Cantata is pivotal in Britten's output for several reasons. As a personal, concentrated response to the renewed fame brought by the success of the War Requiem (and the wave of celebrations for his 50th birthday, in 1963) it signals a turn to a leaner, sparser, more concentrated style that would color the works of the remaining dozen years of his life. Britten had also taken several important trips to far-Eastern locations: to Bali, to Japan, and to Russia. The Gamelan music heard in Bali, the Noh theatre in Japan, and the friendship with the Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich all colored Britten's music. As a parable, the Cantata is an important precursor to Britten's 3 Church Parables, which are among the masterpieces of his late years: Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968).

These are in essence, sacred operas, dramatizing parables with a blending of eastern-influenced musical styles (gamelan-inspired percussion writing, 'exotic' whole-tone scales, Balinese-like heterophony, etc).

I want to mention just a few of the interesting compositional elements at work in the Cantata, in the hopes of connecting them to our performance. The dissonance prevalent throughout the work is--as in so much of this composer's music--symbolic of the tension and ambiguity inherent in being human. That 'Beati' (Blessed) is repeated to cross-related pitches (e# v. e natural in m.6, for example) is reference to the above and harkens back to Bach, and the musical representation of the Christian cross. (Bach used his initials musically B=B flat; A=A, C=C, and H=B natural--in German...thus the name of this most devout of composers is itself symbol of his faith...).

The tonal tension of the entire Cantata pivots between the (Christian) interval of the 3rd (=trinity): D v. F#. This association is solidified by the third repetition of the 'Beati' motive at rehearsal #3, where the 'X' (=cross) chord appears in the orchestra: an F-sharp chord overtop D in the bass. One only need look through the score with this relationship in mind to see how it is manifest and developed (the moral of the story--the T/B epigram at the beginning and end, pivots on F# and ends on D; the “happy ending” to the Good Samaritan scene features the work's only extended section in the bright & mellifluous key of F #--reh. 30, and so on...). Other musical parallels which give the work formal unity include the musical depiction of mercy--the lilting melody first heard in the soprano ("misericordes")--being assigned to the Samaritan (ie: "we know this is the good guy because he's singing the pretty music..."). And there’s the return of the 'X' chord and 'cross-related' voicing when the 'Beati' motive is assigned at the end to 'Vade' ("Go, and do likewise"). Britten is implying that the Beatitude is applicable when one actually acts on it. This implication is supported by a telling detail in the musical narration of the story: neither the priest nor the Levite are heard from--they pass in silence; only the orchestra “speaks” when they enter and exit the scene--and as one commentator points out: "Doing nothing is, very palpably, the sin against which this work speaks."

I will close with a quote from Britten himself, who I believe would be disappointed, if not heart-broken, to find his music "too difficult" or not accessible, for one of his expressed aims was to write music for people, to be performed by all types of people and enjoyed by all types of people and to serve a variety of functions (from escape to parable). In articulating this wish, he was also very clear about the responsibility each participant in the process of music-making has: composer, performer, and listener being equal parts of a 'holy triangle.'

In talking about the ideal circumstances for musical experience, he cites the importance of honoring the composer's intentions as a way of better appreciating the meaning of any work (ie: hearing the St Matthew Passion on Good Friday in a church, as opposed to in a concert or on a recording):

"One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far from the original as it is possible to imagine: I do not mean simply Falstaff being given in Tokyo or the Mozart Requiem in Madras...Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can listen to the B Minor Mass upon one condition only--that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort--faith, virtue, education, experience, age...If I say the loudspeaker is the enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of a true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place...some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener." (from "On receiving the First Aspen Award," 1964).

The Cantata Misericordium is a demanding piece by a demanding composer who wanted, above all, to communicate expressively about this mystery of being human.

We have the privilege AND the responsibility to do whatever we can to re-create this moving, challenging, and necessary piece of art to our world. I consider myself blessed to be singing it with you all, and look forward to this weekend, which promises to be inspiring, challenging, moving, and full of meaning.

(NYC; XII.06)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Inside view: My take on "Sweet was the Song" (12/4)

The Chorale had the first of two Holiday concerts last night at Williamsburg. I was about to write a note to the singers with my comments on the performance, as preparation for tonight's performance at Christ & St. Luke's, Norfolk (which will be recorded by WHRO and then broadcast on FM 90.3. It will be available online at Podcasts of my radio interviews are under the "Arts Conversation" section of the podcast tab on their website, fyi).

I mentioned our new webpage ( and blog at last night's concert, so I thought that another reason to share my impressions on the concert. The single question I am most often asked after a concert is, "What did YOU think?"

I thought the Chorale's performance of "Sweet Was the Song: a cappella classics for the Holidays," was quite accomplished. The group's blend is better than ever, the tone bright and focused while still supplying warmth and richness of color. Individual sections are clear, and inner voices audible in the groups singing of 8-10 part a cappella choral music.

"New wine in old skins" was the concert's theme, as new versions of old carols met traditional carols, and 20th century classics from Thompson and Britten were juxtaposed with Mendelssohn on the one hand and a world premiere on the other.

The concert opened with a simple, chant-based processional on the advent carol, Veni Immanuel (sung in English by the men, later joined by the women, as the singers quietly processed in the candle (bulb)-lit sanctuary. Three of Mendelssohn's "Proverbs" for the liturgical year followed. "New Year's Day" opens with a hushed unison phrase in the minor mode, before splitting into an 8-part, double-choir texture based on the Italian baroque style of cori spezzati (separated choirs). The singing was fine, but for this listener's taste, could have tilted towards the brighter clarity exemplified by Northern European choirs. Since Baroque examples were Mendelssohn's model, the argument for singing these works with an "early music" approach is not only viable, it is essential for their comprehensibility. Still, the Chorale's performance was excellent, the diction clear, and the phrases shaped by the natural inflection of Luther's German Psalm texts. "In Advent" begins with a lilting double-chorus mini-fugue ("Let us rejoice"), and of the three anthems, is the most complex, rhythmically and texturally. The closing work of this tryptych honoring Mendelssohn's bicentennial, "On Christmas Day" was an exuberant and festive double-chorus chorale that demonstrated the virtues of both composer and performers alike.

Another pair of verses from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" separated the Mendelssohn from the first half's centerpiece, 5 movements from Randall Thompson's cantata, The Peaceable Kingdom. Thompson's settings of the prophet Isaiah inspired his greatest work. The opening chorale, "Say ye to the righteous" is based on an instrumental model. After an opening hymn-like introduction, an andante fugue unfolds, with Thompson's sturdy craft much in evidence. The contrapuntal verses are offset by a series of interlocking chords on the words "shall howl for vexation of spirit." Both the technical demands and the expressive nuances were well-executed by the Chorale. The subtle and sensitive dynamics were even more evident in the haunting motet, "The Paper Reeds by the Brooks."

The final section of The Peaceable Kingdom is a great arch of a crescendo, starting with the men intoning "But these are they that forsake the Lord." Here and in the following recitative intonation issues emerged for the first (and almost only) time in the concert. Williamson started "Have Ye Not Known?" again, as the pitch had sharped considerably enough the first sopranos and tenors would have strained themselves on the excruciating tessiturra of "Ye Shall Have a Song." Though surprising, the move was the right one. The pitch--and timbre--settled the second time around, and the closing double-chorus doxology was beautifully shaped and exceptionally sung. It was an inspired and inspiring close to an interesting first half of not-your-typical Holiday fare!

The second half of the concert featured 20th and 21st century settings of Olde English carols. A new version of the brooding "Coventry Carol" started things off with style. Doug Andrews' updating juxtaposes jazz & pop-inflected harmonies and textures (respectively) to pique the ear's interest in how each verse of the carol will evolve and resolve. The Chorale caught the subtleties of the stylistic changes and sang a clean, clear, and again, sensitive performance.

The centerpiece of not only the 2nd half but of the entire concert was Benjamin Britten's student Christmas suite, Crist's Nativity. A set of 5 original settings of Old English texts, this was Britten's earliest vocal anthology, as Williamson pointed out in his illuminating--if slightly long-winded--pre-concert notes and demonstration. Indeed, the Chorale joined their conductor for a few minutes pre-concert to demonstrate some of the motives and themes Britten uses. One cannot judge a work on a single hearing. Every critic--and every listener and performer--needs reminding of that basic tenet from time to time. Especially so in our 21st-century-media-saturated, analytically-obsessed world. That said, Britten's early Suite is a complex web of fluid harmonic variety, rhythmic vitality and dense textures (often in 8-part/double-chorus). That complexity is rewarding, and the Chorale's performance offered many glimpses of why Britten's work can be so affecting. The opening carol, "Christ's Nativity" announces its composer's distinctly original voice from the opening chord, "Awake!" The defining feature of the arresting chord--which performs the word's action perfectly--is the piquant interval of an adjacent major 2nd. The chorale's blend and intonation were crystal clear in this challenging and engaging opening movement. The second carol is in a more familiar style, as it has clear intimations of Britten's most famous choral work, A Ceremony of Carols. "Sweet was the Song" features a contralto solo (beautifully sung by mezzo, Lisa Coston) supported by gentle rocking accompaniment in the 4-part treble writing. The line between sensitive and tentative in pp singing is a fine one. And one was not always sure on which side of the fence the excellent ladies of the chorale were, but the performance was an effective one, led by Coston's sensitive and deeply felt singing.

The third movement, "Preparations" is the most complex and challenging of the five varied carols. Modeled on 18th century baroque counterpoint, Britten writes a harried double-fugue that is exciting, if not daunting, to hear (& sing). The Chorale did a fine job of maintaining clarity and distinction of individual voices. Recognizing the difficulty such writing presents to performers, one wanted a bit more dynamic contrast, especially where levels softer than ff were concerned. Following the double-fugue, the piece "rests" at the dramatic fulcrum of the poem, and Britten's music is extraordinarily controlled and accomplished for one so young and inexperienced. The Chorale relished the rich textures of Britten's climactic setting of the phrase "and, as at first/still lodge him in a manger" and sang with beautiful tone and moving intent. It was the kind of moment one expects to hear at a Chorale concert--a glimmer of true excellence where technical facility meets musicianship beautifully sung with intent and meaning.

The fourth movement should have built on these qualities and, in the extended, Renaissance-based contrapuntal chorale, displayed a through-composed panorama of sensitivity & expertise sung with intent & control. Kimberly Markham's soprano solo was the most consistent and engaging aspect of this sober meditation. The chorale sang well, but one missed a sense of the slowly unfolding arc of the work, and that precarious line between tentative and sensitive pp singing appeared again (even if it was not quite crossed). Some intonation issues emerged for the first time near the end of the movement. It was, however, a beautifully sung performance of another challenging original by one of music's great prodigies. Britten's assured control of form and architecture is amazing in these middle two movements especially. Kudos to the Chorale for executing both structures with such clarity and accomplishment.

The closing carol was delightfully sung, the lilting melody dispatched from section to section, and the varied palette of textures and layered dynamics more clear here than in any of the preceding movements. It was a spirited performance and an exclamation mark to close this installment of the Chorale's ongoing, interesting--& bound-to-be-surprising--Britten Project.

Britten was followed by a set of new carols. Williamson's "Look up, Sweet Babe" wears its debt to Britten & co., if not proudly, then visibly. The fluid miniature was well-sung, the colorful chords punctuating the texture were clean and focused. Except for a glitch or two in the soprano line near the closing section of the work, the performance was quite accomplished. And, as I can speak for him, the composer was duly pleased, grateful, and proud. Kile Smith's vivacious carol, "Now Ys the Tyme of Crystemas" received an accomplished world premiere performance. While some of the madrigalisms (laughing "he-he-he's" and "do-do-do's" in the inner voices) did not achieve the witty affect with the audience they did with the performers, the clean, sprightly performance was well-shaped, and engagingly sung.

New arrangements of the "Wassail Carol" and "Silent Night" (by Paulus and Jalkeus, respectively) rounded out an evening of interesting, often inspiring, always engaging music. It was not your typical holiday fare, and that is as good a reason as any to hear it. Here, moreover, is an ensemble worth hearing: for the accomplishment and polish of the singing, the variety and interest of the programming, and the sensitive, inflected, & meaningful delivery of each performance.

In a world where's there's a lot of loud noise and mindless background music, groups like the Virginia Chorale are not just a luxury, but a necessity.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

VC: Britten Project, II--Christ's Nativity

The Chorale's Holiday concerts are already here, our dress rehearsal is tonight, and I have Britten much on my mind. The centerpiece of the program is his early suite of original Christmas carols, Christ's Nativity. See my previous entry for notes on the entire program. For now, I'm going to talk a bit about Britten and the marvelous set of carols left unpublished until 1994, nearly 20 years after Britten's death.

I was speaking with David Nicholson, an informed reporter from the Daily Press (Newport News) about our upcoming concert, and he asked me "Why Britten?" In addition to the fact Britten is beloved of singers--especially professional ones (I'll elaborate)--his music is increasingly popular with audiences (the MET recently produced and offered an HD broadcast of an acclaimed new production of Britten's seminal opera, Peter Grimes. Houston Grand Opera is in the middle of their own multi-season exploration of Britten's works. His songs are staples in the art song repertoire, especially for the tenor voice, as his lifelong partner & companion, Peter Pears, was also the leading English tenor of the day).

Like Bernstein & Barber, Britten is a composer more relevant than ever, and his "time" is probably still to come. All three of these great 20th century composers were rejected by the academy & the avant-garde for not being experimental or cutting-edge enough, or what-have-you-enough. All three remained grounded in traditional forms, tonality, and yet each carved a distinctive niche and retained a unique, and increasingly prescient, voice.

Bernstein's eclecticism, evident in his polymath personality AND his works that range from dance-inspired musicals to brooding Jewish symphonies, is now one of the singular virtues of masterpieces like the Mass. Barber's 19th-century-European-laden Romanticism was received as reactionary and irrelevant in the 20th century. The fact his music engages the emotions directly without manipulative affects is more appreciated now than ever. His Adagio for Strings has become the de facto national elegy of the US.

And Britten, popular & acclaimed for most of his career in post-war Britain, suffered some of the same criticisms as his US colleagues. Often dismissed as simply "too clever" Britten remained true to his own "blend" of traditional and modernist techniques in a style that is always attentive to form & architecture, and always dramatically engaging. This is evident from his earliest essays to his autumnal masterworks like his final opera, Death in Venice, the solo cantata, Pheadra, and his third (and final) String Quartet.

I think Britten remains in a curious "in-between" state here in the US for a few reasons. I believe the primary one is the simple fact his music is challenging enough to be difficult for many amateur groups. The cathedral choirs and singing societies in Britain (for whom many of his works were written) are simply cut from a different cloth than similar choirs in our system. After all, how many full-time Boy & Girl choir schools in the US can you name? In Britten's day they were thriving and many of the great British choral & vocal musicians--conductors, composers, performers alike--are products of that rich tradition. The result on this side of the pond is that many of the works he wrote for amateur choirs in England are now the purview of professional chamber choirs like the Chorale.

Britten was a gifted composer for the voice, and melded a keen poetic instinct to an innate grasp of musical structure. Though most of his works are vocal, from his earliest efforts onward, he was indebted and beholden to instrumental forms. Thus, the technical challenge of singing Britten is different from that of some of his colleagues (who may have hewn closer to the traditional cathedral tradition). In doing his homework and dutifully studying the old masters, he joined a line of composers from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms & beyond who wed instrumental textures to vocal writing. He learned from Debussy & Stravinsky the effect of orchestration on musical color and the composer's unique ability to create musical impressions. This instrumental and orchestral approach to composing vocal and choral music enlarges the palette of such music. It also increases the technical demands on the singers. Its not that the vocal music of Bach or Beethoven is un-singable, its just bloody difficult, and requires technique, facility, and disciplined practice. As James Levine often says when rehearsing technically challenging passages in a work, "if it was easy ANYBODY could do it!"

So, Britten's choral music is an enjoyable challenge for the professional singer, and his exceptional craft make his music popular and appreciated by audiences. I believe his music strikes the difficult balance of being both substantive in content (ie: meaningful) and immediate in its appeal. Because he wrote so much vocal music, and so much of it falls into the cracks between amateur and pro, many of these works remain underperformed, especially here. Over the next several seasons, culminating in a 2013 Centennial "St Cecilia's Day" concert of music inspired by her patron saint, we hope to whet the appetites of our audiences with the music of this most gifted & prodigious of 20th century vocal composers, whose 100th birthday IS on St Cecilia's Day itself (Nov 22).

Britten was drawn to and inspired by the Christmas story throughout his life. Though never an orthodox Christian (as a pacifist, conscientious objector & openly gay man, he felt himself doubly an outsider) he was certainly a follower of the story of Christ. Images & metaphors of innocence, purity, goodness, and the restoration of these virtues (via the incarnation and the resurrection) stoked his imagination. If parables were one of Christ's primary means of teaching his disciples through the use of metaphor, story, and image, then we might call much of Britten's music "parable" music.

His friend, colleague & frequent collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this to say about such art:

"There must always be two kinds of art, escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love..."

There is no question into which category Britten's music falls. It is apparent from his teenage Christmas suite, Christ's Nativity, written when he was just 17 & still in the middle of his studies of the Royal College of Music, but about to emerge as one of Britain's most gifted young composers. The elements of his distinct style are already apparent in this apprentice suite with the working title, The King's Birthday.

Britten had a knack for collating various texts from different sources and combining them into a cogent "libretto." The most striking & famous example of this is surely the War Requiem. In that monumental tribute to the victims of WWII, the Latin text for the burial of the dead is coupled with searing poems from the English soldier & martyr, Wilfred Owen.

The texts for Christ's Nativity come from two anthologies of old English carols and poems. What elevates Britten's gifts as a vocal composer are the means he uses to set them. From his study of 17th-18th century music he grasped a keen sense of contrapuntal form. The third and fourth movements of the suite display this knack for fugal writing that is indebted to Renaissance composers like Palestrina and the Baroque counterpoint of Bach.

Form and architecture defined by counterpoint is one way of organizing music. Such organization provides a structure which renders the music comprehensible. Another unifying device Britten uses are short, intervallic motives. The opening of the suite features colorful antiphonal chords on the word, "Awake!" Britten characterizes these utterances with the piquant interval of the 2nd: 2 voices singing adjacent tones simultaneously (the 1st & 2nd sopranos, followed by the 1st & 2nd tenors). This device recurs throughout the opening movement, giving it structural unity. It is also embedded within the texture, and as such generates much of the material that follows. This is another feature that separates the great composer from the merely above-average. Like Beethoven & Brahms & Stravinsky, Britten (who admired all 3), is able to generate a lot of musical material from a simple interval or motive. Studying his scores is a great way to observe a fertile young imagination at work.

Intervals of the 3rd & 5th make frequent appearances throughout the rest of the cycle. The second carol, "Sweet was the Song" (the most often excerpted from the suite, and the title of our Holiday program) is a beautiful lullaby. A solo contralto (alto) sings a simple melody accompanied by the women's voices who sing in gently lilting 3rd's. Britten's craft is evident in the subtle harmonic handling of the repetition. Where a lesser composer might have simply "stuck" to the neat formula of the opening phrases, Britten makes some small but significant changes to individual lines to "color" the harmony, and add just enough variety to lead the ear all the way to the final cadence.

The third movement starts with the open interval of the perfect fifth, one of THE defining intervals in western harmony. Its sturdiness is then challenged by an increasingly complex 8-part vocal texture (requiring instrumental-like independence) derived from the text. "Preparations" is a harried & dense canvas about literally getting one's house in order for an imminent royal visit! "Let no man idle stand!" is a recurring motive Britten sets as a cantus firmus. That term does mean what it sounds like, and refers to the "fixed" line of chant around which other voices would improvise in the earliest examples of polyphonic music nearly a millennium ago.

The preparations reach a fevered pitch, and it as if Britten as chief Butler for the estate calls everyone to attention mid-way through the movement: "Let each man give attendance in his place." Coming 49 measures into the movement, it is the first instance all 8 voices sing together. This is followed by a repetition of the opening motive, "Thus if a King were coming, would we do" which yields to the movement's--and the entire suite's--center. Britten cuts the rhythmic pace in half, replaces the 8-part contrapuntal texture with a double-chorus chorale-based hymn in music that is remarkably assured for one so young.

"Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in a manger."

The final image inspired in Britten music of astonishing breadth, harmonic & formal control, resulting in a moment of meaningful beauty. He closes the movement with a quiet, unison repetition of the phrase "as at first" which couples the principal intervals, the 5th, followed by a minor third.

It is that same third with which the solo soprano opens the 4th movement. It begins and remains in the quiet, contemplative calm only fleetingly reached in the preceding movement. Along with "Sweet was the Song" this carol, "New Prince, New Pomp" was the only one Britten approved for performance during his lifetime. The work's neglect is still surprising, considering how seminal the entire suite is (Britten's apprenticeship would soon end with the great Christmas works for voices, A Boy was Born, followed by the perennial favorite, A Ceremony of Carols). I am also surprised by the scant attention given it in Britten scholarship. Of the dozen books on Britten I have in my own library, many do not mention this work at all, and the definitive book on Britten's music by Peter Evans, gives just 2/3 of a page to it, and that in the postcript of the tome's near 600 pages!

If the 3rd movement shows Britten playing with Baroque counterpoint within a 20th century amalgam of Debussyian impressionism & Stravinskyian rhythmic propulsion, the 4th movement is his updating of Renaissance polyphony vis-a-vis Palestrina. A cantus firmus also appears throughout this movement. "He spar'd not his own son" grounds a chorale-like movement tinged with pathos and delicately crafted counterpoint. The longest movement of the suite is beautifully arced, punctuated by the soprano singing Southwell's lines above the Biblical texts shared by the choir.

The closing "Carol of King Cnut" is a spirited song closest to the traditional mode Britten was in the process of reinventing. This festive carol shows its composer's ability to write a great tune and set it in a colorfully individual context. Alternating refrains of "O Joy the day!" and "Sing Gloria!" (set to octave leaps in the soprano and tenor), form a decorative bow to tie off this original and engaging suite of carols from one of music's great prodigies. We hope you will share our enthusiasm and excitement for not only this installment of our Britten Project, but each of those to come.