Monday, February 15, 2010

EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women In Music

Notes on the upcoming Chorale program
EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music
with Bellissima! Women's choral ensemble and the Young Singers Project
(March 5-7;

It is a privilege and honor for the Chorale to participate in MINDS WIDE OPEN: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts 2010 with this exciting program. EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music features a millennium’s worth of music by great composers who happen to be women. Appropriately, we begin with the early 12th century composer and poet, Hildegard. Like many visionary women throughout history, Hildegard’s creative gifts were deemed unorthodox (read: too threatening to the status quo) and remained buried for centuries. The chant In principio omnes is full of life-affirming, world-embracing imagery, and is a succinct introduction to this pioneering artist. Another primary “first name” of women in music is Fanny Mendelssohn. Though overshadowed by her younger brother Felix, Fanny is to women composers what Jane Austen is to women authors. Arguably more gifted than her brother, Fanny was every bit the craftsman Felix was, and an equally accomplished performer. And like many gifted women, she was a victim of the mores of 19th century culture. Abendlich stands with the German choral songs of Schubert, Brahms, and the composer’s brother (whose debt to his sister continues to be underappreciated). At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners is an a cappella choral part-song that can be traced through the 19th century romantic models back to the Renaissance Madrigal. Spencer’s award-winning composition from 1968 weds John Donne’s Holy Sonnet from the 16th century with music firmly anchored in the 20th century American style of Copland and among others, Barber and Bernstein.

While Spencer’s work has become a staple of the modern chamber chorus, a quick glance at the dates of the remaining works on the program speaks to the abundance of women’s voices just entering the choral music canon. Faith York is a composer, conductor and singer from Peaks Island, Maine, whose music reflects her diverse interests. Traditional choral textures, jazz-like harmonies and improvisational solo lines all weave into a compelling choral tapestry. York’s setting of Dickinson’s Snow is aptly hazy, blurred, and ghostly. Along with Dickinson, the American poet who turned that adjective into a national style is Walt Whitman. When Deborah Mason and I first began to discuss a possible Chorale commission in late 2008, Whitman was the first poet I suggested, and her imaginative setting of A Noiseless Patient Spider is the fruit of that idea. Whitman Interlude springs from the spider’s explorations, the launching “forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.” What a great image that is for the creative spirit and the creative act itself: “to explore the vacant, vast surrounding.” while “ceaselessly musing, venturing, seeking the spheres, to connect them.” In this miniature masterpiece of a poem can be summed the credo of many an artist. Mason’s challenging setting enacts that creative process with music that is rhythmically propelling, harmonically shifting, “ceaselessly musing, seeking out the spheres.” Indeed.

Judith Shatin is a distinguished composer and professor at the University of Virginia. Like many artists labeled by subcategory (Women-, African-, Native-, LGBTQ-,) Shatin responds creatively to the political and social realities of the world she inhabits. In her own words, this haunting setting of Psalm 23, Adonai Roi “flowed from my response to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin on November 4, 1995, and is dedicated to his memory.” The Scottish composer, Cecilia McDowall, belongs to a generation of post-WWII composers writing luminous news works, indebted to the English choral tradition yet sounding strikingly original. Regina Caeli pairs radiant settings of a recurring “Alleluia” motto with dancing duets on the Latin Eastertide text.

Our next two works explore corners of the world less familiar to our audiences. The Chinese-American composer Chen Yi is among a handful of Asian composers garnering international recognition for the cross-cultural scope of a musical language that combines traditional Asian techniques with the “classical” European tradition. Yo-Yo Ma may be the ambassador for this welcome trend among instrumentalists: Ms Chen gets my vote for being a leader in the choral field where Asian and American musics [sic] meet. Sakura, Sakura is a traditional Japanese folk song here set with impressionist harmonies reflecting the haiku-like image of the poem: “Cherry blossoms in the March sky…Are they mist, are the clouds wafting through the air?/Let’s go and see.”

This entire program is an example of “let’s go and see”—or “hear” rather, and Hope There Is is the next stop on this journey. The New Zealand born composer Clare Maclean has set the words of the first aboriginal poet published in Australia, Oodgeroo Nunuccal. The subject of the poem is the struggle between competing cultures or peoples. The line “we the foreigners in this our land” need not apply to Australia alone, and therein lies one of art’s many gifts of transcendence. Though written for a specific time and place (Nunuccal’s efforts were instrumental in the recognition of Aborigines as Australian citizens), this poem moves beyond its specificity to speak across history and geography. Maclean’s setting, using minimalist techniques, brilliantly carves up the poem into fragments. Each individual voice part depends on the others to complete not only the musical phrase, but the poetic idea. It is an engaging example of interdependence. The conductor Daniel Barenboim writes about the importance of the ability to listen to multiple voices at once. He applies this auditory process as much to politics as he does to music.

Come, come, whoever you are is another text in perfect harmony with the Chorale’s 26th Season, Lift Every Voice, where old and the new are juxtaposed in the hopes of hearing the freshness in both. Previously attributed to the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, the 800-year-old poem is just as relevant today. I first encountered the world of Rumi 15 years ago at a poetry festival. Rumi’s translator, Coleman Barks, read aphoristic quatrains while the Paul Winter consort improvised chamber music around the poems. I attended that event with my friend and poetry-loving colleague, Giselle Wyers. This inviting and lilting work is both a fitting introduction to the second half of our program and the engaging, affirming style of its composer.

Eleanor Daley’s a cappella Requiem joins a line of settings that is distinguished as it is varied (we will perform two other examples from this genre in our next program, Perpetual Light). From the 14th century Requiem mass of Johannes Ockeghem to the 20th century offerings of composers like Herbert Howells, the text has inspired composers from every period. Howells is Daley’s model in this beautiful and reflective work of consolation. Like Howells, Daley juxtaposes the Latin Requiem text with English poems, Psalm settings, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The work unfolds in eight brief movements. Daley frames the work with a rocking chorale on the Requiem aeternam text which serves as the accompaniment for a plaintive soprano solo on a poem by Carolyn Smart. The second movement is built on a chant-like melody indebted to the modally inflected harmonic language of Howells and the English cathedral tradition. From “the deep” of Psalm 130 the work’s color lightens as a treble quartet sings a serene chorale. The verses from the book of Revelation are juxtaposed with the Latin text Lux aeterna (eternal light). This juxtaposition then becomes a bridge to the closing affirmation from the Anglican Burial Service. The centerpiece of Daley’s gentle work is another chorale, a radiant and tender setting of the Anonymous poem, In Remembrance (“Do not stand at my grave and weep”). Two more brief settings from the Anglican Burial Service follow, affirming the work’s moving balance between the soulfulness of mourning and the affirmation of hope. The Requiem heard at the opening returns to frame the entire work. The solo soprano sings another verse of Carolyn Smart, before floating the serene descant line Dona eis sempiternam requiem (“grant them rest forevermore”). That descant is also the transition into the closing movement, a dialogue between the chant-like In Paradisum (from the Requiem proper), and the rich-hued chorale prayer of the Russian Benediction (“Go forth upon thy journey”).

As mentioned above, I have been friends with the conductor and composer Giselle Wyers since we attended graduate school at Westminster Choir College. Knowing of my abiding love of poetry and my amateur efforts at it, she asked for some original poems to consider for this Chorale commission. The poem she chose was one I wrote in response to the untimely death of one of my cousins. It was also a response to James Wright’s poem that opens “Once,/I was afraid of dying.” Her choice of this very personal poem of mine, and the timing of this premiere entitled Goodbye—a work of mourning and of letting go—are too serendipitous to say. About her choice, Wyers writes:

“When I read his poem, "(Un)afraid of dying", it reminded me of fragments of a Louise Bogan poem I had begun setting to music last summer. Williamson's poem begins with a description of a mourner standing at the grave of a friend, seeking to find meaning. I was especially struck by the words "and Earth's stories fill old shells" and "entombed secrets resurface." It got me thinking of how the Bogan poem, which begins, "Goodbye! There was so much to love, I could not love it all" becomes the statement of the person who has passed into the afterlife…”

The newest entry into the Chorale’s ongoing American Legacy Series could not appear at a more fitting time for us. The hauntingly beautiful, impressionist setting of these poems affirms our commitment to the creation of new American music by some of the most gifted composers we have. We are grateful for the opportunities that result from so significant a trust.

Our program closes with works from two of the first names of American women in music since the second half of the 20th century. Emma Lou Diemer’s affirming setting of Dickinson’s beloved poem will be followed by a rousing finale (featuring all of the ensembles together). Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal should open wide the ears with its infectious rhythmic vitality and exuberance, closing what we hope has been a program of engaging, rewarding, and new music.

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