Holidays a cappella 2000

December 2000

Program Notes

I. Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper

plainchant, Mode I

 Veni, veni, Emmanuel

arr. Jacek Sykulski

 Gaudete from Piae Cantiones

arr. Brian Kay

II. Immanúel oss í nátt

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson

 Boh sja razhdaje

Ukranian carol, arr. James E. Clemens

III. Children, go where I send thee

spiritual, arr. Robert Leigh Morris

 Lullay my liking

medieval English carol, arr. Gustav Holst

IV. Jubilate Deouniversa terra

G.P. da Palestrina

 Kristallen den fina

trad. Swedish, arr. Gunnar Eriksson

 Poor Little Jesus

spiritual, arr. Anne Heider

V. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis

Randall Giles

 Nowel

Richard Rodney Bennett

INTERMISSION

VI. Shehecheyanu

Jonathan Miller

VII. I saw three ships

arr. R. Vaughan Williams

 Kas tada gaisma

arr. Andrejs Jansons

 Ziemas svetki sabraukuši

arr. Andrejs Jansons

VIII. Hymn: O gloriosa virginum

plainchant

 Maríukvædi

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson

 The Wexford Carol

arr. Kate Howard

 S'vivon

trad. Hanukkah meoldy, arr. Steve Barnett

IX. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

arr. Robert Convery

INTRODUCTION

As the holidays arrive, I am always amused by one thing: it’s the one time in the year when EVERYONE wants to hear a choir sing. Do you yearn to hear choral music in July? Some of you do, and of course I do. But something magical happens in the month of December, drawing out the choral-music lover in us.

Last year, I wrote that a holiday choral concert is, “like a walk in the woods, an act of restoring balance. . . . People might love choral music at other times, but they don’t crave it the way they do in December.” While I still believe this, I’ve found another element, which I couldn’t grasp last year.

During the fall, we enjoy walks in the woods, the turning of the seasons, raking (or jumping in) leave. We begin to bake cookies more often, and so on. The change in season happens gradually, almost imperceptibly. But by the time December comes, the fact is undeniable:  it is cold, and we need each other.

So choral music in December is not merely a calming exercise for the individual soul. It is a reminder that we cannot survive, as individuals, families, communities, or as a species, without one another. You cannot sing ensemble music alone. This is the season of human beings singing in groups.

The daylight hours now are few and precious. We light up our streets and stores and homes with bulbs and menorahs, to keep alive what little natural light we have. In some ways, this is a completely crazy time to have people running around. We try to cram in twice the usual amount of busyness and socializing during the exact time when our bodies want to hibernate.

But traditions have a way of reminding us of the bigger picture. We do need each other. It’s worth it, evidently, to scurry around to do those symbolic things that show our love and concern. Otherwise we would have halted the practice long ago.

This concert is our holiday gift to you. Likewise we are sharing with you some musical gifts which have recently come to us: new compositions. During the past year I connected with two composers—one an old friend from my college days, and one who is an active choral conductor in Poland.

Sometimes it is very hard work to choose music for a program, as there are many pieces one has to discard in favor of the final “cut.” I always appreciate a piece that makes my job easy. Every year I have an experience both funny and profound. I can never predict when it will happen, thought it does a few times a year. The scene is this: while I am calmly browsing through scores, a piece of music will leap out off the page at me, its notes and whole essence calling out, “Put me on one of your programs, soon!”

When I received a packet new music from Randy Giles in the mail this summer, my eye fell upon his Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. Not only did Sancta Maria leap out at me, but it even ordered me to take it downstairs to my piano and play it through. (That’s an unusually persistent piece of music for you.) Right away, I was moved to tears by its poignant simplicity and beauty. I e-mailed Randy and told him so, and we shared breakfast in Oak Park this summer before he left for India. He is doing amazing things, as his bio below will tell you.

The second personal connection came unexpectedly, by e-mail. I  had answered an note from a fellow in Poland, saying that he wanted to have a cultural exchange with me, through scores and CDs. A few weeks later, a large parcel arrived from Jacek Sykulski. In it he included a Christmas CD by his octet Nova Gaudia, from the university town of Poznan, about 150 miles due east from Berlin. This time his Veni, veni Emmanuel jumped out at me. Jacek and I are now trading new e-mails, to see if we can get Chicago a cappella to Poznan for a music festival.

I want to tell you about another personal connection, not directly related to this concert but in keeping with the theme of our larger human family. In September, our agent received a communication from Lic. Oscar Solbes Decanini,  organizer of the Festival Internacionál Cultural Tamaulipas in Tampico, Mexico (on the Gulf Coast). He invited us to appear on their festival—exactly six weeks from the date of his phone call.

Mind you, we were all in the thick of high holidays, and we had already started learning the music for today’s concert. It was one of those opportunities that is so unusual that it demands pursuing (a bit like those renegade pieces of choral music, actually). Matt Greenberg and I both gulped and decided to go for it. Amazingly, we were able to assemble nine singers, two of whom learned the entire program faster than I ever thought possible. With the generosity of American Airlines, we arrived at O’Hare at 6:30am on Sunday, October 22nd and flew via Dallas to Monterrey, where a single-engine propeller plane zoomed us to Tampico Airport. Oscar whisked us to the venue for a sound check, then to our hotel for an hour of rest, and then back to the venue for the concert. We flew home the next day, tired and happy.

After the concert, Oscar’s mother, who is a cultural icon in Tampico and a singer of some renown herself, walked up on stage, gave me a hug, a kiss, and a plaque, and said to me, “You have taken us all to heaven.” We were all touched by her sweetness and generosity. I bought a doll for my daughter and named it Gilda, after the president of the Tampico festival’s board, who brought us fresh fruit and warm friendship as soon as we arrived.

In Tampico the minimum wage is about four dollars a day. Our performance fee cost the festival a lot more, in Mexican terms, than presenters are paying us here—and, still, Oscar and his colleagues went out of their way to be welcoming and generous. It seems to me somehow that there is a lesson to be learned here in the North, with our outmoded notions of scarcity and our insistence on our overconsumptive way of life. May our music, and the holiday season now upon us, remind us all that love and kindness are the most important things in the world, and cannot be bought at any price. May it be a season of joy and blessings for you and your loved ones.

—Jonathan Miller

 

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

The Gregorian-chant melodies you will hear today come from liturgies for our actual concert dates. We begin with one of the oldest melodies still associated with Christmas. This is the Introit at Mass for the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete in Domino semper (Rejoice in the Lord always). This year, December 10th is that third Sunday, so Evanston audiences will hear the true chant for that day. The solo chant in the second half, O gloriosa virginum,is the Hymn at Lauds for December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a high feast indeed.

We are pleased to present the U.S. premiere of Jacek Sykulski’s Veni, veni, Emmanuel,written for mixed voices. It too is based on a traditional chant melody, from the ninth century. Jacek’s setting moves the tune around to all the voice parts in turn, weaving unusual textures both high and low. Keeping in step up with singing styles emerging from northern Europe, he includes two improvisatory sections in the piece. Thus we will be combining the very familiar, centuries-old tune with melodic fragments which nobody may ever hear again.

The opening section of the concert concludes with Brian Kay’s jubilant setting of Gaudete, which he arranged for the King’s Singers several years ago. Kay, a tenor, was a King’s Singer himself. The tune comes from an important early printed collection, the Piae Cantiones (Pious Songs), published in Sweden in 1582. I first heard the tune in the mid-1970s, in the a cappella version recorded by the British folk-rock group Steeleye Span. That single was one of their first big hits, even making it onto the pop charts in England. My cousin Su turned me on to Steeleye Span when I was thirteen, giving me a taste for well-mixed recordings that I have never forgotten.

We now move to one of my favorite parts of the world for choral music: Scandinavia. Our first stop is Iceland, where Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson is one of the leading musical lights. After receiving his master’s degree at Champaign-Urbana, he returned to Reykjavik, where he has composed more than 200 works in all genres. His piece, Immanúel oss í nátt, sets three verses of an old Icelandic text, written in 1742 by the Rev. Gudmundur Högnason. The Icelandic words have a surprising tenderness, not what one would associate at first with a harsh land of ice and volcanoes. Icelandic turns out to be a superb language for the singer, as the vowels are very pure. (My Icelandic composer friend Hildigunnur Rúnarsdottír told me, “Oh, it’s not that hard—a lot like Italian, really,” but the Chicago a cappella singers didn’t believe me.)

Crossing the Baltic sea and turning southward, we find ourselves in Ukraine, home of the jubilant carol Boh sja razhdaje (God now is born here). We have done this carol before in English; this is our first time using the original Ukrainian. I have sung many a cappella liturgies at the Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha in Ukrainian Village, and it is quite something to have an entire large church packed with people in fur coats all singing “Tut zhe, tut zhe, tut zhe tut zhe tut.” I hope that you’ll get some of that flavor when we sing it.

Back across the Atlantic we go, for the superb Christmas spiritual setting, Children, go where I send thee.This arrangement is by Robert (Leigh) Morris, director of the Leigh Morris Chorale in the Twin Cities. Morris is one of three top-notch African-American choral conductors working in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. His voicings are absolutely true to style, and he keeps throwing in some of the unusual twists, shadings, blues chords, and quick volume changes common to some of the best black gospel quartets. (We’re singing it in Mississippi dialect this time.) According to Morris, Christmas spirituals are few in number; perhaps this is because Christmas traditionally was one of the days slaves ever really got a day off. The “counting” topic enabled the slaves to learn numbers, which was normally forbidden; in the guise of a religious song much like Green grow the rushes, ho!, the slaveholders  and plantation drivers seem to have let the slaves get away with it.

The third section ends with one of the first choral pieces I ever truly fell in love with. In keeping with my shameless tradition of borrowing from my childhood repertoire with the Chicago Children’s Choir, I offer to you here Holst’s tender Lullay my liking.  The final three alto notes in each refrain are three of the best alto notes anyone ever wrote; in my own compositions and arrangements I continually strive to redress the cosmic imbalance that has altos so often singing mediocre lines, even in the hands of famous composers!

Palestrina, on the other hand, hardly wrote a bad line of music. His Jubilate Deo universa terra (Shout unto God, all the earth) is an a cappella tour-de-force, spinning out imitative melodies in all five voices parts. The piece was written as the Offertory for the second Sunday after Epiphany, and thus loosely belongs in the holiday season.  It manages to remain jubilant despite being in Phrygian mode (or “E-mode”), which is often considered somber. The final “Alleluia” section should drive any lingering bitterness and cold away. If you like this piece, you can hear it, and more music like it, on our Palestrina Christmas CD.

Next we jump back to Scandinavia, where Gunnar Eriksson in Gothenburg is writing some of the finest choral arrangements that I have ever heard. (When you come to our Nordic program in March, you’ll hear a lot more of his work) Kristallen den finais one of those tunes which any Swede can sing along with you; the tender text in the soprano line is here combined with two other Swedish sacred melodies, perhaps better known to American audience as Christe, qui lux est et dies (Christ who art the light and the day) and Nun komm, der heiden Heiland, a famous Lutheran chorale tune. Eriksson spins these other tunes out in the same way that a cantus firmus line might appear in Renaissance masses.

We finish this section with another recent piece composed to pre-existing material: Anne Heider’s glorious setting of Poor Little Jesus.I first heard this arrangement when I had the privilege of being session producer for a Christmas album by His Majestie’s Clerkes, right around the time I was starting Chicago a cappella. It’s easy to tell that Anne Heider is a singer, for this work uses all the voice parts well. She maintains a steady rocking rhythm throughout. In keeping with the genre’s power, this spiritual has a magical effect of almost being ebullient and joyous, while proclaiming, “Wasn’t that a pity and a shame?”

The first half closes with Randall Giles’s haunting Sancta Maria,which he wrote last February in Massachusetts. Randy has moved for at least three years to Madras, India, where he is establishing an institute for the creating of a new set of Christian musical  traditions for worship. Sacred music in South India’s many Christian churches has been for some time an eclectic combination of disparate influences, including the ubiquitous and dominant aesthetic of film music, adapted for church use (really!). Randy, a composer himself, is overseeing an interdenominational missionary effort, charged with using Indian musical traditions to come up with something of lasting power and substance. We end the half with Nowel by Richard Rodney Bennett, a composer known more for popular Broadway-style music than for choral composition. The text is highly evocative, full of rich visual imagery. His textural layering effect further brings out the bustle of the city, ending with a final, high, ringing “Nowel!”

*    *    *    *    *   *    *

It’s nice being artistic director, in the same way that it’s nice being king: sometimes you really do get what you want. In this case, I have the luxury and privilege of programming my most recent original composition. The Hebrew prayer known as Shehecheyanu is said at major festivals in the Jewish year, and at occasions of special significance. During the high holidays I direct a professional a cappella octet in Hyde Park, at Congregation Rodfei Zedek (52nd Street and the lake). This year the congregation dedicated a new building. I told Rabbi Gertel that I would write a choral Shehecheyanu for the dedication. It was so popular that the rabbi managed to find a liturgical excuse to let us sing it again for the children on Yom Kippur afternoon, where it is not typically part of the service!

 

The great composer and arranger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, served in World War I. While on duty, he was stationed with a group of soldiers who were required to remain in the field over Christmas. Composer that he was, RVW wrote for his troops a collection of Nine Carols for Men’s Voices. These simple, effective pieces are generally only in three voice parts; for the lively “I saw three ships”he expands occasionally to four.

Andrejs Jansons of Latvia is mostly known in this country for two collections of Latvia carols published by earthsongs of Covallis, Oregon. We have chosen two contrasting settings, Kas tada gaismaand Ziemas svetki sabraukuši,for our final exerpts from Eastern Europe. My colleague J. Michael Thompson generously coached me in Latvian diction. The first carol notes with reverent awe the miracles of Christmas. The second is a boisterous winter song for men’s chorus with soprano solo.

Our final set begins with the chant mentioned at the start of these notes, the lovely O gloriosa virginum.Kathleen’s slow solo leads us into another slow piece, with Amy as soprano: the mysterious Maríukvædi by Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, our Icelandic musical friend. I learned this piece from a CD of works solely by Thorkell, called Koma, released a few years ago in Reykjavik by the ensemble Hljomeyki. We will do another piece by Thorkell on our Nordic program. He has an unusual, gentle touch to his music; I hope you’ll like it as much as I do.

The Wexford Carol is a classic Christmas tune, but I had never heard it until two or three years ago. My friend Steve Schuch recorded it on his Celtic Christmas album. I was struck by the beauty of the tune, as well as his energetic instrumental rendition, which included a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. So I was surprised and delighted when, this summer in Vermont, my wife and I heard the setting by Kate Howard of England, sung by the high-school singers of Village Harmony. Kate penned new words and composed a haunting three-voice setting. If you ever go to Vermont in the summer, and find a listing for Village Harmony in the newspaper, please drop all your plans and be there. These young singers spend four weeks of their summer in an amazing a cappella camp, rehearsing for a few days and then going on the road, to sing in small rural churches and community centers. After all that I have done to build a professional ensemble with singers who can switch from chant to gospel music instantly, it was heartwarming for me to see and hear teenagers who value the same thing. When I asked for a copy of the score, Kate tore hers out of her folder and handed it to me on the spot.

We draw near our concert’s close with a Hanukkah song, S’vivon (dreidel), arranged by our beloved colleague Steve Barnett. We have had the great privilege to work closely with Steve this summer and fall. He was the “man in the booth” (that’s vernacular for “session producer”) at our recording sessions for our new spirituals CD. Steve has an amazing ability to coach the very best results out of singers, so that when the sessions are over, you are naturally exhausted after four hours of work, yet totally exhilarated at what you’ve done. Now that I’ve experienced Steve in the studio, I understand why he won a Grammy award last year for his work with Chanticleer. I was with Steve in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, putting the finishing touches on our CD, and the results are splendid. He has shared with me several of his recent new arrangements and compositions, so watch for them on future concerts by Chicago a cappella.

We end with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, in a lovely, cool vocal-jazz arrangement by Robert Convery, a composer from the New York City area. Bob has had pieces commissioned nationwide and shared this piece with me a few years ago. Do have yourself a joyous season, and thank you for coming to hear us.