By Request

May 2001

Program Notes

 Been Down Into the Sea spiritual,
arr. Wayland Rogers
 A Quiet Place Ralph Carmichael,
arr. Jerry Rubino
 The Blue Bird Charles Villiers Stanford
(1852-1924)

*   *   *   *   *

 Kristallen den Fina Traditional Swedish,
arr. Gunnar Eriksson
 Credofrom Missa Baises moy Mathurin Forestier
(flourished c. 1500)

*   *   *   *   *

 Quant j'ay ouy la tabourin Claude Debussy
(1862-1918)
 Don't Look (from Birth of Soul) Peter Saltzman
(b. 1961)

*   *   *   *   *

 Fragments from his Dish

Bob Chilcott

     1.  Grace / The Clean Platter

 

     2.  The Pie

 

     3.  Harvest in my Croft

 

     4. Christmas Day (1666)

 

     5. Whines from the Wood

 

     6. Grace

 

INTERMISSION

 Hold on! spiritual,
arr. Jester Hairston

 Contre qui, rose

Morten Lauridsen

 Calling my children home

arr. Emmylou Harris/J. Miller

 Shenandoah

arr. James Erb

 Medley: Where the Sun Will Never Go Down

spirituals, arr. Joseph Jennings

 

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to "By Request: Singers’ Choice." This concert varies a bit from our usual setup. The singers performing this concert have been in the group for a while now. The most recent newcomer (Kathleen) is finishing her third season. Four of us (Susan, Cary, Matt, and I) were in the original lineup, the Founding Nine, back in 1993. It’s a great blessing to have such gifted singers to work with, especially when they return year after year, as I have become intimately familiar with each singer’s strengths and personality.

As you can imagine, we’ve performed quite a bit of music together over the years. A big part of my job as artistic director is to choose cool themes for our programs, and then pick all the music and put it in an effective concert order.

About a year ago, I decided to throw this program open to the singers themselves, and let them tell me what songs they wanted to sing. I still got to put the program order together, but the suggestions came from them. I really needed the break from programming, but I also was interested to see what they’d ask to sing, if it were left up to them.

So, for you statisticians in the audience, here’s a snapshot of what the singers picked (or at least what I chose as the final grouping from what they suggested):

  • Spirituals: 4 (including a long medley of six tunes)

  • New music, jazz/blues, folk tunes, early 20th-century classical pieces: 2 each

  • Renaissance music: 1

  • Encore: surprise (hee hee)

What did everyone vote for? Bob Chilcott’s Fragments from his dish was the hands-down winner. We first sang this fabulous cycle about food three years ago, on our concert called Tastes of Paradise: Music for the Pleasures of the Palate. Because it’s a "big" work (six movements, about 14 minutes long), I put it at the end of the first half where "big" works often go.

* * * * * * *

Over the years, I’ve noticed a few things about choral repertoire. One is a phenomenon that you might call the "magic factor." It works like this:

There are songs which take a long time to rehearse and are completely rewarding of the effort, for both singers and for you who come to hear us. Music of this sort requires virtuoso singers and attention to blend. "A quiet place" and "Don’t look" are like this. The latter piece starts in 7/4 and asks the singers to create effects like those of a blues rhythm section and horns. These feats are not easily accomplished by classically-trained singers; but it’s way cool, and Susan asked for it.

Then there’s music I try to avoid: it takes a long time to rehearse and, despite all the hard work, the piece never sounds that great. Sometimes these are like pieces by composers whom you otherwise love, but who just wrote the occasional dud, or one that simply doesn’t fit our vocal forces. I try to keep these off our concert programs altogether; while I have made a few mistakes in eight years, the singers have graciously avoided asking for any music like this. (Thank you, thank you.)

As you can imagine, most of the a cappella music in the world which is worth performing at all requires a moderate amount of rehearsal time and gives a nice result. Most pieces on today’s concert fall into that category.

Then there’s the "magic factor." What’s that, you ask? Sometimes, songs appear that don’t take long to get to concert quality—and yet they still yield an awe-inspiring experience, even from the first run-through. Skip Lauridsen’s "Contre, qui, rose" is like that, as is Gunnar Eriksson’s "Kristallen den fina" (the only Christmas piece on today’s program), and even the Credo from Forestier’s Missa Baises moy. There’s a reason they have lingered in our repertoire; they’re magical.

I will never forget the exhilaration after we laid down the opening section of the Forestier Credo in the recording session at St. Clement’s Church in Lincoln Park. I went into the control room, put on the headphones, and was blown away. It seemed to me at that very moment that somehow the ensemble came of age, matured into a new life stage that it simply had not previously attained, and moved us into new territory. That recording got us the "world-class" tribute from Fanfare, and I’m continually looking for new magical pieces and for interesting takes on more familiar works.

* * * * * * *

Let us know what are your favorites among these singers’ favorites. I am envisioning a future program where our audiences go onto our website and vote for their favorites, which we will then turn into a concert called something like "By YOUR Request." If you have any suggestions for nifty ways to make that work, we’re all ears. Contact us and let us know. Enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller

 

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

arr. Wayland Rogers: Been down into the sea

We sang this work on our very first concert of spirituals, Ain’t That Good News, in May 1996. The compositions of Wayland Rogers are being performed widely throughout America as well as abroad in concert halls, schools, churches, and synagogues. Recent premieres have been given in Japan, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Spain and France. He has written more than 90 works, many of which have been especially commissioned. He has won several composition competitions, including The Roger Wagner Center Choral Competition, The Chautauqua Chamber Singers Award, and The Illinois ACDA Choral Composition Competition.

This arrangement does a splendid job of showcasing the classic a cappella voicings of black spirituals, while making a new work that is truly Rogers’s own. The text is about being baptized in the water. An unusual key change explodes into the bright key of A major, with a high soprano bell peal. The music deftly returns to the home key of F major. The music itself has been on a journey, like the person whose soul has "been down into the sea." From this point onward, the women and sometimes the soloist have the tune, but it’s slow and meditative now. The men’s chorus continues a syncopated accompaniment, which moves into low, dense chord changes—never fully predictable—like the incessant rumblings of the sea.

R. Carmichael, arr. Jerry Rubino: A quiet place

This masterful setting of Ralph Carmichael’s gospel tune may be familiar if you own the first recording by Take 6. The arrangement was made by Jerry Rubino, a truly gifted and versatile musician who for more than twenty years has been the associate conductor of the Dale Warland Singers in the Twin Cities. Now a clinician much in demand, Jerry has brought to the Warland Singers (and to his own group, Jerry Rubino Plus) a deft jazz sensibility, which is clearly evident here in the dense, driving harmonies which don’t really ever settle down until the very end. The voice-leading is as good as the harmonies: aspiring arrangers, take heed!

Charles Villiers Stanford: The blue bird

As John Cleese might say, "and now for something completely different." Reared in upper-crust Dublin and given an impressive immersion in matters musical and intellectual, Stanford was composing by the age of four. In 1870 he entered Queen’s College, Cambridge as a choral scholar and by 1873 had already achieved the post of organist at Trinity College and conductor of two choral societies.

Stanford possessed boundless energy and promoted the highest ideals in music, which drew to him offers for top musical posts in England. He was elected professor of music at Cambridge in 1887, when he was only 35. As Grove’s Dictionary (Frederick Hudson) notes, "he exercised more influence in the teaching of composition than any other musician in Britain throughout his tenure." His students included Holst, Charles Wood, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Bridge, Coleridge-Taylor, Howells, Moeran, Charles Wood, and others. Hudson also notes that Stanford’s partsongs "reached near perfection both in melodic invention and in capturing the mood of the poem." The blue bird is such a partsong, on a poem by Mary Coleridge (1861-1907). The high soprano solos are not exactly "blue" notes in the sense of American blues. Rather, they convey a sense of mind detached somehow from the everyday—a dreamlike state where, as said in King Lear, "ripeness is all," like a newly-bloomed peony.

* * * * * * *

arr. Gunnar Eriksson: Kristallen den fina

If you’ve been to our holiday concerts in the past two seasons, this tune will be familiar to you. Gunnar Eriksson is an internationally acclaimed choral conductor who studied under the legendary Eric Ericsson. Gunnar is professor of choral conducting at the School of Music and Musicology, University of Gothenburg, in Sweden. He is in great demand as a clinician and workshop leader, partly because of his great technical command and skill, but also because of his sense of playfulness, which he uses to teach the art of choral improvisation (as in his book Kör ad lib). Our Nordic Wolf concert in March 2001 featured many of his settings.

This work takes three classic Swedish tunes and weaves them together in unexpected ways. The first tune, "Kristallen den fina," has a rocking 6/8 meter and a text that is part love song, part devotional, and sung all over Sweden at Christmas. The other two tunes are sturdy Lutheran chorale tunes. The first, "Världens frälsare kom här" ("The savior of the world is come"), which the tenors sing both times through, is more familiar to American audiences as the German version, "Nun komm der heiden Heiland." The second tune, "O Kriste, du som ljuset är," was originally a chant melody, "Christe qui lux est et dies," translatable as "Christ who art the light and the day."

Forestier: Credo from Missa Baises moy

I’m thrilled that this piece got nominated for this program (thanks, Trevor!), because it’s one of the most finely wrought pieces of Renaissance polyphony I’ve ever encountered. In case you haven’t bought our Forestier CD yet (we’ve got ‘em here tonight), he was a French composer, active, it seems, at the royal court. He was lauded in a motet which also includes the names of other esteemed composers of his generation, and his music is certainly worthy of such esteem. His surviving works are few: three masses and a few motets and chansons. Still, his music bears a strong personal stamp. He was clearly indebted to Josquin des Pres, since all three of his masses are modeled somehow on music by Josquin.

The "Baises moy" Mass is so called because its melodic and harmonic material come from a cute little chanson by Josquin called "Baises moy" ("Kiss me"). The tenor and bass lines in that short chanson "chase" one another in imitative canon all through the piece. Forestier picks up on this idea, building a five-voice musical texture by taking that same canonic voice and spinning it out in two and sometimes more voices, running it backwards at times (as in the "Et resurrexit" section of this Credo), and generally playing around with the melody as much as he can. Around these lines he spins florid, gorgeous soprano, bass, and additional tenor or alto lines. The result is simply astounding vocal music, which lingers in the memory.

* * * * * * *

Debussy: Quant j’ay ouy la tabourin (from Trois chansons)

Debussy was inspired by the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, seeking in music a concentration of feeling which is evoked at times by silence more than anything. Debussy was not a slave to the Wagner-worship of his day. He worked out instead his own musical truth in fluid orchestral works, such as Prelude to the afternoon of a faun and Jeux, in solo songs, in his pathbreaking opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and also in a few lovely choral works.

The other two of these Trois chansons (Three songs) were done in 1898, but this one wasn’t written until ten years later. All are on texts by Charles d’Orléans. The Spanish influence seems to stem from the single word "tabourin"; around the same time, Debussy was working on the three orchestral movements he called "Ibéria" ("Spain") that went into the larger work, Images. Here, the choir’s largely staccato lower voices act as a Mediterranean backup band for Michelle’s lush, legato solo. Make no mistake; the narrative voice of the poem is being well pleased indeed.

Peter Saltzman: Don’t look (from Birth of Soul, Part 1)

Since he began composing at age 10, Peter Saltzman has written in almost every major musical medium, including song, solo piano, chamber, orchestral, choral, opera, jazz combo, big band, film scores and dance. His music has been performed throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. Critics have hailed his music for its originality and accessibility. The Dallas Morning News called Walls "powerful stuff," and the Chicago Tribune called his third string quartet "imaginative and expressive". His recent major work, Kabbalah Blues/Quantum Funk, was hailed by the Sun-Times as "ambitious, richly layered, wonderfully accessible." Saltzman has been the recipient of a City of Chicago Grant, as well as commissions from two dance companies, the Oak Park-River Forest Children’s Choir, and the West Suburban Symphony Orchestra, as well as an ASCAP Composers Prize. Saltzman studied jazz and composition at Indiana University, Bloomington, and composition and piano at Eastman School of Music. He is the founder and artistic director of The Revolution Ensemble, a Chicago-area group that is breaking new ground with its unique sound incorporating jazz, blues, rock, R&B and Latin-American music styles. His music is published by Oxford University Press.

Peter and I found one another early in the life of Chicago a cappella. He composed a "Jewish spirituals-blues suite" in six movements, called Birth of Soul, for us in early 1996. We premiered it in May of that year. The second movement, "Go Down, Moses," is a virtuoso work which we have recorded on our spirituals album of the same name.

Don’t look is the fourth and the most uptempo, funky movement of the cycle. Like much of Peter’s other music, this piece is quite pianistic in its chord voicing, to which we have had to work hard to fit into our ears and voices. But once that happened, we were free to dig into the instrumental effects in the score, such as the tenor-baritone horn sections (no pun intended).

The text deals with a story from the book of Exodus. The idea is that if a human looks into the face of the Lord, s/he will die. "Presumably," Peter wrote in 1996, "looking directly at God is simply too much for mortals to handle."

* * * * * * *

Bob Chilcott: Fragments from his dish

Bob Chilcott has been involved in choral music all his life, first as a chorister in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and then as a Choral Scholar under the leadership of Sir David Willcocks and Philip Ledger. He sang over a period of twelve years with The King’s Singers, for whom he wrote many a cappella and accompanied pieces and arrangements; this experience led him to full-time composition. He wished to extend his commitment to young and amateur choirs through his own brand of accessible music, and to share his deep belief in the communicative and social aspects of music through his work as a pro-active composer, and through workshops. In the past several years he has given workshops and conducted in the UK, USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, France, and South Africa. His works are published by Oxford University Press.

Fragments from his dish is a cycle of six pieces on the theme of food. It was first performed in England in 1995 and has a vocal texture primarily in six parts.

* * * * * * *

arr. Hairston: Hold On!

Our audiences love this piece almost as much as our singers do. The text exhorts the listener to "keep your hand on the plow." This winter, Trevor explained to the 7th-grade kids at Irving School on the West Side how spirituals like this would be used: they functioned at the end of the day to motivate slaves to finish their heavy daily burden of picking cotton. The rhythm is as much a driving force as the text and is punctuated in this particular setting by the constant syncopated bass line in the verses, while the upper voices spin chords of inspiration. Hairston uses a chord with a raised sixth at the end, evoking a railroad-horn sound.

Lauridsen: Contre qui, rose (from Les chansons des roses)

This piece made almost all of us cry the first time we sang it, very early in our history. Lauridsen is now best known for his "smash hit" O magnum mysterium, but I like these French pieces even better, as they are more delicate—and also since they came first, premiered in 1993! The harmonies used to such good effect in O magnum really got worked out here two years earlier, in the key of D-flat instead of O magnum’s D major. The text, by Rilke, is a delicate meditation on the fragility of a rose.

arr. Emmylou Harris / J. Miller: Calling my children home

arr. James Erb: Shenandoah

arr. Joseph Jennings: Medley:

Where the sun will never go down

Turning now to the folkier side of our repertoire, we offer a number of pieces that speak mostly for themselves. The Emmylou Harris chart I learned from her live album, recorded at the Ryman Theater in Nashville with the Nash Ramblers around 1990; my wife and I were lucky to hear that band in Indiana shortly after we moved there.

James Erb’s setting of Shenandoah is one of the classic arrangements sung by high school and college choirs across the country. Erb is on the choral faculty at the University of Richmond and has published a number of popular arrangements. This one has a few special features. First is an imitative treatment of the tune in the women’s voices (remember how Forestier did the same thing?), while the basses drone away on a low E-major chord and the tenors fill in the harmonies. Next is Erb’s willingness to use a very low C# in the bass to set the overtone harmonics for the rest of the choir at several key points. And it’s hard to over-praise the ending, one of the most nicely tapered soft endings that we’ve ever sung in the group.

We close with a blockbuster medley of spirituals arranged by Joseph Jennings, the incredibly talented music director of Chanticleer, an ensemble that inspired me when I was founding Chicago a cappella. Jennings has held his post for almost fifteen years, and in that capacity has played a large part in that ensemble’s attaining world-class stature as a touring and recording ensemble. One of the first things Joe did when taking over as their music director in 1987 was to record an album of spirituals, which he taught mostly by ear to the other eleven guys (all white, all classically trained). That album, released in 1990, bears the same name as this medley, When the sun will never go down. It also contains the spirituals "Ain’t that good news," "Swing low, sweet chariot," "I got a brother over yonder," and "I got shoes." Jennings is a master of the slow groove. He writes arrangements that allow very slow tempi to stay musical and forward-moving, a rare skill indeed. He is also a composer, singer, and conductor, and maintains a busy schedule of commissions for new compositions.