Spirit/Breath/Voice

Winter 2013

Program Notes

 

When I Rise Up

 

J. David Moore (b. 1962)

Gentle Words

Shaker tune, arr. Kevin Siegfried (b. 1969)

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Kyrie from Missa "O Magnum Mysterium"

Tomás Luís de Victoria (1548-1611)

Half alseep in prayer

Jonathan Miller (b. 1962)
* * * * * *

Gloria from Missa "O Magnum Mysterium"

Tomás LuÍs de Victoria
* * * * * *

Wanting Memories

Ysaye M. Barnwell (b. 1946)
* * * * * *

Credo from Missa "O Magnum Mysterium"

Tomás LuÍs de Victoria
* * * * * *

Songs of Ecstasy

Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947)

Song: "When Rain Sings Light"

 

Psalm: "The Spirit Sings"

 

Stranger: "Thou Inward Stranger Whom I Have Never Seen"

Midwest premiere

 

INTERMISSION

Sanctus / Benedictus from Missa "O Magnum Mysterium"

Tomás Luís de Victoria
* * * * * *

From The Valley of Delight:

Paul Crabtree (b. 1960)

Death and Resurrection

 
* * * * * *

Agnus Dei from Missa "O Magnum Mysterium"

Tomás LuÍs de Victoria
* * * * * *

When I Rise Up (reprise)

J. David Moore (b. 1962)

Elijah Rock

spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
encore: My Spirit Sang All Day Gerald Finzi

 

FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR


What the dew is to the flower,
Gentle words are to the soul,
And a blessing to the giver,
And so dear to the receiver,
We should never withhold…
—from “Gentle Words” (Sister Polly Rupe, arr. Kevin Siegfried)


Chicago a cappella has a long history of elevating and showcasing the world’s cultural treasures. This time, I wanted to have us sing about a mostly unsung treasure—the treasure of kindness. This program, therefore, is about peace, peacemaking, compassion, generosity, lovingkindness, and joy.

Our everyday news is dominated by cultural rifts among and within nations. In own country, headlines appear all too often about the slaughter or mistreatment of our fellow human beings. It seemed like it was time for us to put together a concert that would shine a light on a different side of human experience: simply being good to one another.

* * * * * * *

How does this sense of generosity and compassion work musically? About a year ago, I started looking around for repertoire that would help us try to capture these qualities.

Sacred choral music leapt to mind. Choral music tends to be focused on what we call lyric poetry: poetry that highlights a moment, an emotion, a snapshot of time by focusing and intensifying our attention on it, to give us a glimpse of eternity right then and there. Sacred choral music usually takes a sacred text, whether liturgical or not, and does the same thing, by adding the dimensions of melody, harmony, texture, dynamics, and so on.

Poets and composers usually want to prolong and extend a particular feeling, and therefore we have many songs in the world about happiness as a sort of static state. It’s a little trickier to find texts, set to choral music, which talk about getting up out of your chair to do something. It’s what happens when you realize that you are no longer willing to have the world’s nastiness keep you down, and it’s up to you—nobody else—to do what in Jewish tradition is called tikkun olam, or healing the world, in your own way. I like the sense in Judaism that we are commanded to perform tikkun olam. There is something about its not being optional that is bracing, in a good way. It’s like being reminded where true north is, and then being gently shoved in the back to start walking toward it.

* * * * * * *

Have you ever heard a sermon or a speech that got you up out of your chair and inspired you to actually do something that you had never done before? You might think of this program as a sermon on loving-kindness. I have given sermons before, and although I am not sure if I have ever produced this feeling in others, I know firsthand the feeling that a great sermon can produce.

This concert is our form of oration, through our art. If the lyrics to the songs on our program do not directly speak of springing into inspired action, it is my hope that your overall experience of this program will increase whatever quality it is in you that inspires you to share your joy and kindness and compassion with the world—that your heart overflows in some way that brings you to do something you have not done before. The word inspiration springs from the verb “to breathe”; our singing is offered to you in this spirit. I hope you enjoy the music, and even more so, I hope you’ll let me know if anything that we sing, or all of it, touches you in the way I am describing.

* * * * * * *

Here are a few notes on the music by way of an overview to our concert. More details on the composers and texts can be found later in the printed program.

One of the reasons I am a professional singer is that I have wanted to continue to experience the incredible joy that singing a great Renaissance Mass can produce—an experience I had hundreds of times as a young man. Early on in the planning process for this program, it seemed to me that the peacefulness of Renaissance sacred music would point us in the right direction. It’s been more than ten years since we did a complete Renaissance Mass in a Chicago a cappella concert, and it seemed like it was time to do it again. I decided to use a Mass setting from one of the great composers as the scaffolding on which the program would be built. The Spanish composer, Victoria, got the nod.

J. David Moore is a wonderful person, and his round “When I rise up” is a little gem. Its energy is infectious. It’s full of heart. I hope you’ll join us when we sing it again on the second half of the program.

When I am having my own dark night of the composer’s soul, I often turn to my colleague and close friend Paul Crabtree, who lives in Oakland, California, for a sympathetic ear. Paul pointed me first to his friend Kevin Siegfried’s masterful collection of arrangements of Shaker songs, from which the haunting “Gentle Words” is drawn. Paul himself later set a cycle of Shaker texts for the Orkney Festival in Scotland, and our program’s second half features his stirring “Death and Resurrection.”

It was several years ago, when driving through Nashville to take my daughter to summer camp in the Smoky Mountains, that I stayed overnight with my cousin Amy Jarman, whose husband Mark is an acclaimed poet. Mark’s book Questions for Ecclesiastes contains the beautiful sonnet that begins, “Half asleep in prayer I said the right thing.” I took a few years to let that poem resonate inside before writing a setting for a cappella voices. I recommend Mark’s poetry to you, not only the Questions book but also his later one, Epistles; he writes very much as one in the world, observing its frailties and failings and triumphs, trying to both be good and do good.

Ysaye Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories” is a beautiful anthem to the power of inspiration, to reaching out to a role model in the hope that the example of another person will allow the singer “to see the beauty of the world in my own eyes.”

The New England-based composer Gwyneth Walker visited us here in Chicago in 2010, when we did two of her pieces on our program called “The Red Carpet of Sound.” She told me at that point that she was just starting to work on a three-section cycle on texts of Thomas Merton, and I was very happy to hear the news. As soon as I knew I wanted to do this “Spirit” program, I had a place in the program reserved for this cycle. The music is more than worth the wait—she has outdone herself with this composition. There is a power in the spiritual that Chicago a cappella has celebrated since our very first concert 20 years go. Moses Hogan was one of the greatest interpreters of the genre, and it was Bill Chin’s idea to put it on this program—to put the “spirit” of the spiritual front and center.

* * * * * * *

Speaking of Bill Chin, I want to thank him for his leadership of the ensemble as our Guest Music Director during the preparation of this program. I have known Bill for thirty years and have tremendous respect for him. In addition to being a great musician, Bill has a wonderful temperament, a calmness that makes working with him a true pleasure. He knows most of our singers well from other ensembles, and he slid right into the leader’s chair. He has assisted Chicago a cappella during our last few years of auditions, and I appreciate what he notices about people both as musicians and as human beings. Thank you, Bill, for your contributions to making this music a true delight.

* * * * * * *

I turned 50 last summer. I seem to be learning these days that, wonderful and necessary as it is, inner peace is not enough; we have to go outside ourselves and make manifest that inner peace. It’s not enough to keep that feeling of a full heart to oneself, though it’s not always easy to act on it.

Believe me, I don’t make myself out to be some kind of saint. (I used to want to be one, but I seem to have grown out of it.) Like all of us, I have plenty of moments when I am petty and insular, arrogant and thoughtless, insensitive and insecure—hopefully not all at the same time. Still, there do come times in life when we have to pull ourselves out of our inertia, our apathy, and our resignation, and just do something to help people, no matter how small.

Of course, when faced with the immensity of human suffering, the natural question arises: “What on earth can I do?” Sometimes we are lucky, and we are able to see something that we can actually do. In my own little corner of the world, my wife Sandy and I have had the privilege of serving with DuPage County PADS for the past three summers, cooking dinner at the homeless shelter in downtown Hinsdale as part of a loving volunteer group. After several hours on our feet, we always leave with overflowing hearts and deep joy. I have not ever really found anything that compares to that specific post-PADS feeling of a full heart.

I was deeply touched when, during an all-staff meeting in early January, my Chicago a cappella colleagues pointed out that we had an opportunity with this concert to do some healing in the wake of the Newtown shootings. We decided to extend ourselves to mental-health agencies that serve the communities in which we perform. As part of that reaching out, a representative from a local agency will speak with you briefly at intermission to let you know about its work and how you can be of assistance.

The agencies we are partnering with are these:

In Chicago: National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Chicago
In Oak Park: Thresholds
In Evanston: Turning Point
In Naperville: 360 Youth Services

Thank you for being here. Thank you for whatever good you have ever done in the world. May our time here together today focus our hearts on all that is good, on all that we can do to heal the world, and let us go and do it. Be it so.

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director

FROM THE MUSIC DIRECTOR

I picked up my binder of music for this program the other day; the music in it is a stack of pages not even half an inch thick. Yet out of this slim volume of sheets blossoms the full concert you’ll hear today. Unpacking these scores—these instructions left to us by composers,sometimes hundreds of years in the past, others just a few months ago—is what we musicians do. And what a marvelous time I’ve spent with the artists of Chicago a cappella doing just that. This past month has been a real artistic collaboration. As music director, I haven’t told them what to do. It’s not a top-down process; if necessary, these fine musicians could have put this whole thing together on their own. Rather, I’ve guided them toward an interpretation of the music and the program as a whole, and to a performance that I hope is something much more than simply a reading of the scores.

There is also the flip side of this unpacking process: the act of writing music, where a composer’s thoughts are put down on a page. And what a marvelous combination of poetry, musical inventiveness, and real compassion are in these works. They range from the simplicity of J. David Moore’s When I Rise Up to the beautiful complexity of Gwyneth Walker’s settings of Thomas Merton’s poetry, Songs of Ecstasy. There is elegiac calmness, as in Wanting Memories, and the ecstatic energy of Elijah Rock. Binding it all together is the balanced perfection of Victoria’s Renaissance mass. It is stuff, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, by which the better angels of our nature touch us. I’ve so much enjoyed working on this music and with this group, and I hope you enjoy it as well.

—William Chin
Guest Music Director

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

J. David Moore: When I Rise Up

David Moore has written over two hundred arrangements of vocal jazz, spirituals, barbershop quartet, Celtic mouth music, Civil Rights marching songs, early American hymn tunes, sixteenth-century madrigals, and folk music in Ukrainian, Gaelic, Austrian, Brazilian Portuguese, French, and Latin. His own compositions are shaped by his voracious appetite for music of every era and style. He has written art song, oratorios, music for percussion ensemble, string quartet, wind ensemble, baroque orchestra, and tuned wine glasses. He has written music for worship, dance, and the stage, including the outdoor spectacle Solstice River, created by choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh, which has been performed on the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis every summer since 1997. His recent projects explore music for lute quartet, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, raucous British drinking songs, and the singing meditations of the Taizé Community. He has had a long and productive relationship with The Rose Ensemble, a group specializing in pre-eighteenth century vocal music. This connection has resulted in pieces modeled after medieval and Renaissance music from the courts and cathedrals of Spain, Sweden, and Mexico. David has founded and directed two professional a cappella ensembles since graduate school: Cincinnati-based The Village Waytes and St. Paul’s Dare To Breathe.

This song comes from the Little Book of Rounds that Moore put together a few years ago. The text, by Kentucky-based farmer-poet Wendell Berry, leaps off the page with joy and vigor, matched well by Moore’s angular and energetic melody.

Arr. Kevin Siegfried: Gentle Words

Kevin Siegfried’s music has been performed and recorded by leading ensembles including The Dale Warland Singers, The Tudor Choir, and Conspirare. The Tudor Choir’s Gentle Words CD, the premiere recording of Siegfried’s Shaker song arrangements, received wide acclaim and was praised as “a stunning addition to the repertoire” by Fanfare Magazine. Siegfried graduated from The New England Conservatory with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Composition. He studied additionally in Paris, through the European American Musical Alliance, and in India, with South Indian classical musician Sriram Parasuram. Since 2004, he has been a faculty member at The Boston Conservatory.

Siegfried’s gentle touch here reflects the care with which his entire Shaker song cycle is crafted. He took original texts and melodies from Shaker communities and set them to straightforward, deeply expressive choral music that is almost shattering in its simplicity and directness of heart. While all of the settings are very good, this one is truly inspired, and it’s easy to tell why the Tudor Choir used this song as the title for its recording. The original text and tune were composed around the year 1867 by Sister Polly Rupe from the Shaker community in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Victoria:  Kyrie from Missa “O magnum mysterium”

Tomás Luís de Victoria is ranked among the top tier of all great Renaissance composers, usually mentioned in the same breath as Palestrina, Lasso, Byrd, and Josquin. Victoria worked in Rome early in his career and seems to have been friends with Palestrina; even after Victoria’s return to work in Spain in 1587, he went to Rome for Palestrina’s funeral in 1594. Victoria’s music is more passionate than Palestrina’s, and one might say that the Spaniard’s music has more personality; despite Victoria’s technical control, he never seems to have forgotten that music needs to speak to the heart.

The Renaissance was a period when large musical forms such as the sonata or symphony did not yet exist, and it was always a challenge to find a structure on which to create an extended work. It became common practice for composers to find a model – an existing sacred or folk melody, or sometimes, as here, an existing piece of polyphonic choral music – on which to base the music for a much longer piece. In some “imitation masses” the composer mimics the original model quite closely, whereas in others, like this one, the composer takes a freer hand with the preexisting material.

Victoria’s Christmas motet O magnum mysterium will be familiar to many choral singers. His use of the motet in this Mass setting is more evocative than literal; the familiar opening motif appears in only two of the five movements. Victoria seems to have found a way to use the motet as a general kind of inspiration, and that was good enough for his imagination to take flight.

Jonathan Miller: Half Asleep in Prayer

Also known as Chicago a cappella’s founder and artistic director, Jonathan Miller has been composing choral music for fifteen years. He has composed more than sixty works, for ensembles ranging from middle-school choirs to professional vocal ensembles. His music tends to the liturgical, reflecting his thirty years of experience in church and synagogue choirs as a singer and conductor. His music has been performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Kennedy Center, and around the world; Chicago a cappella’s video of his song Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus received more than 30,000 YouTube hits in December 2011.

The composer writes:

When I first encountered Mark Jarman’s book Questions for Ecclesiastes, I devoured it as I usually do with poetry—reading not only to let the poems resonate in me but also to see if anything strikes the heart-strings, in the manner that lets me know there might be a musical composition in those words.

Mark’s Ecclesiastes book contains a section called “Unholy Sonnets,” a response of sorts to the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and to Hopkins’s Terrible Sonnets. The Jarman poems are wry, funny, deadly serious, and sometimes ecstatic, reaching for the sky while remaining rooted in the earth.

This particular poem, “Half asleep in prayer,” spoke to me immediately. This song is in a sort of A-B-A form. The opening and closing sections are more meditative, evoking how I thought I might express in music what it is like to be, indeed, half asleep in prayer. There is for me a physical component to prayer, and the poem captures it so beautifully. Jarman realizes that something special indeed happened in the magic moment, a moment now gone and lost, and whatever it was will only remain a memory no matter how hard one may try. Perhaps that combined frustration and yearning is motivation enough to keep praying, to turning one’s attention to the holy.

For the record: Works by Jonathan Miller appear on the Chicago a cappella CDs Eclectric, Days of Awe and Rejoicing, and Holidays a cappella Live.

Victoria: Gloria from Missa “O magnum mysterium”

Ysaye M. Barnwell: Wanting Memories

Ysaye Barnwell, born in New York State, is a composer, singer, actress, scholar, author, and publisher. She is perhaps best known as a member of the ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, devoted to original a cappella music that springs from African-American idioms. She has sung with that ensemble since 1979. Her original music and settings of spirituals have been heard on three continents, and she is a prolific creative force. Her website notes that “Three axioms have proven significant in Barnwell’s life: To whom much is given, much is required. As one door closes, another door opens. Everything matters.”

The composer notes:

WANTING MEMORIES was part of a suite of songs commissioned for a dance theater piece called CROSSINGS. Other songs included were NO MIRRORS IN MY NANA’S HOUSE [which Chicago a cappella sang as the encore to its production of All About the Women] and WHEN I DIE, which have been recorded by Sweet Honey and LOST IN BLUE and THE OVERTURE, which have not been recorded.

I did dedicate the WANTING to my father when we recorded it but it was written while both my parents were still alive.

What was special though was that I am an only child and when my father died and then my mother, and I prepared to sell the house I grew up in, I found bags of photos, letters and other memorabilia - the kind of things especially an only child hopes for ...

So in a sense, the song was an unconscious wish or prayer that actually came true.

Victoria: Credo from Missa “O magnum mysterium”

Gwyneth Walker: Songs of Ecstasy (Midwest premiere)

1. Song: When Rain Sings Light
2. Psalm: The Spirit Sings
3. Stranger: Thou Inward Stranger Whom I Have Never Seen

Following academic training and a position at Oberlin as a music professor, Gwyneth Walker left academia in 1982 to become a full-time composer. By all accounts, she has succeeded. Her choral music is lively, wonderful to perform, deeply expressive of text, unusually visually stimulating in its sound, and well-crafted. She has been commissioned to write more than 200 works in all major classical forms. Recently, she has traveled the country to have her works recorded, including a voice-and-piano cycle recorded by soprano Michelle Areyzaga, formerly of Chicago a cappella. A special collaboration has been formed with “Musica Harmonia,” an ensemble based at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. Starting in the Spring of 2013, the players will prepare a recording of Gwyneth Walker’s chamber works. The CD will feature a new work, The Peacemakers, inspired by the life and writings of Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee (an EMU alumna).

The composer writes:

Songs of Ecstasy are musical settings of three poems by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk who lived for many years in solitude at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton’s writings express an imagination sparked by divine revelation, and a soul filled with ecstatic spiritual awareness.

The poems selected for Songs of Ecstasy are all celebratory in their message. They describe God’s presence in nature, in all creatures and creation, within the human spirit and in the mysterious depths of the soul.

The musical settings, while endeavoring to capture the total expression of each poem, focus upon several key words and images. For example, in the first movement, “Song: When Rain Sings Light,” the word “light” recurs many times, often prefaced by the syllable “la” leading into “light” - “la la la light” These are intended to represent specks of light. They open and close the song. Another special image is that of solitude (“with pure and solitary songs”). Thus, the very powerful words, “And speak to God, my God,” are sung by a solo Tenor, marked “ecstatic.”

The second song, “Psalm,” opens with a splendid phrase, “When psalms surprise me with their music, and antiphons turn to rum, the Spirit sings.” A mixed-meter rhythmic background of tapping creates a Caribbean atmosphere often associated with “rum.” Later in the song, a steadily-swaying 7/8 meter is introduced with the African imagery of zebras and antelopes.

“Stranger” has many phrases of special interest. “One bird sits still watching the work of God” is the culmination of the previous three stanzas of poetry. And thus, the musical expression is a point of arrival in the ascent of the phrases. The music then recedes into peaceful expression until the introduction of flowing patterns which provide a background for “one cloud upon the hillside...”

The most significant contrast in this song is the change of modality, from C Mixolydian (with Bb) to C Lydian (with F#). This change occurs with the very central stanza, “Closer and clearer than any wordy master, Thou inward Stranger whom I have never seen.” These words describe the Spirit of God within, perhaps mysterious and almost unknown to each of us. The use of the Lydian mode creates the “closeness” and friction of the F# against the G, presented first in the men’s voices, and at the end, in the Sopranos. This “stranger” within creates a powerful and urgent closeness, a voice seeking to emerge. And although the music returns to the Mixolydian mode for most of the remainder of the song, the final chord (to end “Our cleanest Light is One!”) expands upward to the F#/G dissonance—essential and ecstatic.

For the record: Gwyneth Walker's The Christ-child's Lullaby appears on Chicago a cappella's CD Christmas a cappella.

INTERMISSION

Victoria: Sanctus and Benedictus from Missa “O magnum mysterium”

Paul Crabtree: “Death and Resurrection” from The Valley of Delight

Paul Crabtree’s innovative music explores the worlds of popular culture and highbrow art to find what is eternal in the everyday. Born in England and educated there and in Germany, he emigrated to California and became an American citizen in his early 20s. His music defies easy categorization and usually crosses boundaries in appealing ways, which is why his works have appeared on so many programs by Chicago a cappella. From liturgical settings to spirituals to Beatles arrangements to Five Romantic Miniatures from “The Simpsons®”, his works are deep, appealing, serious, and oftenvery funny.

The Valley of Delight finds Crabtree in a serious, even devotional vein. The cycle was premiered atthe St. Magnus International Music Festival in the Orkney Islands of Scotland in 2012. This third movement, “Death and Resurrection,” is a poignant setting of Shaker poetry by Lynn Emmanuel and Ann Lee. The mostly block-chord treatment keeps the momentum moving forward, while the open harmony and texture provide echoes of Shaker values of simplicity.

Victoria: Agnus Dei from Missa “O magnum mysterium”

J. David Moore: When I Rise Up (reprise)

spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan: Elijah Rock

This is one of the great arrangements of spirituals from the late 20th century. Moses George Hogan was a virtuoso pianist, arranger, conductor, and ambassador for the spiritual, taking his Moses Hogan Chorale around the world.

Evidently, this song was collected by the late Jester Hairston. He was on his travels around the country to notate as many songs as possible that the “old folks” still remembered, and a quiet old man sitting in the corner, who was a former slave, turned to Hairston and said, “Here’s a GOOD song.”

Despite this song’s popularity, there has been a lively conversation on the Choralnet online community about exactly what the words to this spiritual mean. Our colleague Steve Barnett has summed it up nicely: “The author is expressing the wish … to be able to do the same thing that both Moses and Elijah did in their lifetimes: stand on the mountain where God gave down the 10 Commandments … and at the place where God spoke to each of them personally.” The arrangement has superb rhythmic drive, overlapping lines, and a phenomenal “vamp” at the end where all of the voice parts pile in, one on top of the other. The lyrics’ power is used to complete effect here, culminating in almost indescribably high notes for the sopranos.

For the record: Moses Hogan's Elijah Rock appears on Chicago a cappella's CD Go Down, Moses.