THE BIRDS AND THE BEES:
opening thoughts from Betsy Grizzell and Jonathan Miller,
with notes on how two people created this concert
This program marks a “first” in the 17-year history of Chicago a cappella: it’s a true programming collaboration from concept to stage. The main idea for “Birds & Bees” came from one of the group’s altos, Betsy Grizzell, and the program was designed from the ground up by Betsy and artistic director Jonathan Miller. We are thrilled with the program you’ll hear today and know you’ll have a great time experiencing it.
Why make such a big deal of having two people come up with the program? It is a question of context or perspective. Ours is this: in years past, Jonathan has been the sole “brain-man” for our concerts. With a few notable exceptions, he has designed and fleshed out the theme of every program, picked virtually all the music, put it in order, and so on. While his single-minded focus has provided a clarity and unity of vision to our work since 1993, the enterprise has benefited from having two pairs of eyes on this program. More cooks than usual have made this an especially rich broth. Betsy’s initiative (with help from Kathryn Kamp) kick-started the idea of collaborative programming, and here we are.
Since this whole experience has been a joint venture thus far, we thought you might be interested in what it was like from the inside. Here are some notes for you on the creative gestation of “Birds & Bees.”
About a year ago, I pitched a program idea to Jonathan: The Birds and the Bees. It would include pieces about birds and pieces about bees. Not difficult in our a cappella world of nightingales, sweet Suffolk owls, and honey-sucking bees. The twist would be (wink, wink): “the birds and the bees.” Again, not difficult for a-cappellists: “Let’s Do It,” “You Give Me Fever,” etc.
Over the course of the year, the repertoire list for the program grew. Turns out the “bird” part was pretty easy, and quickly grew into a long list. The “bee” part needed a little help from another “b”: Bugs. And the wink-wink portion struggled with a lack of, well, sex! You see, it couldn’t just be about Love. This had to be of the “Let’s Do It” variety. “Embraceable You”? Too sweet. “Hodge Told Sue”? Too bawdy, “Fair Phyllis”? Not again!
And what about those other B’s: Byrd, The Byrds, “Bird’s the Word,” Bach, Brahms, Beethoven??
Wow, a singer wants to create a concert? Cool. (Good luck. Are you sure you know what you’re getting into here?) Betsy had come up with enough good repertoire suggestions that I figured she could get in the plane as co-pilot. I could always grab the controls if we got too far off-brand while she was flying solo, though I had a high trust level here. Three main sections, then: (1) birds, (2) bees, and (3) “baby do you wanna get down”? I was cool with that.
I soon discovered the most difficult part of programming. What to cut! Do you make it a sampling of everything? Do you stick with a literal interpretation of the theme? Do you include the wacky and the absurd? Many drafts came and went.
It soon became time to present The Program to The Man. I met Jonathan, armed with The Program, texts and translations, timings, mp3 and YouTube links, and alternate pieces. In my head was the rationale for each piece: Why is it programmed? Why is it in a certain place in the program? Why is it coupled with another piece? Jonathan came armed with, well, a red pen!
It was poignant to see Betsy struggling with exactly the same issues I deal with when putting a program together. The “big idea” needs to allow for fun and playfulness while also having enough heft, pith and meatiness to provide for a truly meaningful experience for the audience, full of contrast and mood changes. In other words, the program title can’t just be a headline—it has to contain a whole experience. While it was a solid idea, Betsy was bumping up against exactly this dilemma as she tried to wrestle the program to the ground.
Thank goodness for meeting in person. As the red pen hovered over my document, I was able to explain my feelings, hold tight to some pieces, let others trickle away… Jonathan grabbed the opportunity to compose a new piece on the spot. I tried to hide my anxiety: what if this new piece didn’t fit my vision?? Jonathan sang a few bars of what he was envisioning. Phew. Sounded fantastic!
Next came what in Yiddish we call “hondling”—the negotiation. I was so happy that Betsy was asking all the right questions. I knew I might have some quibbles with her solutions, and that is where the difference in temperament makes for a friendly butting of heads. This is a process I usually have to do internally, where my inner 6-year-old who just wants to have fun meets my inner skeptic who needs to make sure the program meets all the criteria I mentioned above. Another source of tension comes from the conversation between my internal Musicology Nerd, who would be thrilled with a purist’s program of all-Renaissance music. He has to be tempered by my Practical Salesman part, who asks “Yes, but who would come to that concert? We’d go broke!”
With Betsy as a programming partner, we could pursue this same process face-to-face, which results in a product that benefits from two brain’s worth of ideas. Now we had to hash it all out. This is it.
The red pen danced and spun, crossing things out, adding arrows and lines. My poor little #2 pencil parried bravely, sometimes with success, sometimes giving in to a better idea. As I left our meeting, I felt that we had accomplished quite a lot, not the least of which was a truce between the pen and the pencil, and an excitement in being partners in programming.
We “got into it” a few times, with both of us sticking to our guns where needed. Good thing she liked my Funky Bee idea. Not sure what I would have done if she hated it. Betsy was more committed to individual pieces than I was for the most part; I got to play more big-picture skeptic. “No! You can’t put that there! We’ll blow the whole mood. Gotta keep this piece here.” And so on.
OK, the gloves came off. I sent my “Second Final Version” to Jonathan. He replied, reordering things, rethinking things, etc. I prepared my list of comments (there were only two pages of them!), and asked to meet in person. One cannot have a knock-down/drag-out via e-mail! It’s way too hard to passively-aggressively try to get one’s way about a particular programming detail!
But first, better sleep on it. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to decide what’s really worth fighting for, and what’s truly best for the audience.
Tread carefully here, admit stubbornness there. “I know you really want another piece in that spot, but this is the one inspired the whole program!” Does that in itself make a piece program-worthy?
The final touches are often the most intense, because often a truly delicious piece has to be discarded in the interest of balance. That will be the final test. I was skeptical that the four “heavily classical” pieces in the “birds” section would work, but she persuaded me to keep it. Now it’s clear that those pieces give the right weight to the first half. We can really let go at the end of the first half with funk and pop, and go a little wilder in the 2nd half because of that set of Weelkes/Hindemith/Mendelssohn/Monteverdi. I just tried a similar thing on our spirituals program and that seems to be working too.
By January we were very close. Be careful what you ask for. One or two final pieces seemed so tantalizing, but they hinged on getting a score, and the deadline to get scores to the singers was fast approaching. What was the fallback plan? There was rumor of a killer setting of “Lady Marmalade” and we had to find it quickly. Jon Pilat from the Stanford Harmonics sent me his chart (whew!)—what a godsend, and what great energy! Betsy pulled it into Finale, a music-editing software package that we both use, arranging it for our configuration of singers. I moved some things around. (Check that off the list.) Also, I hastily arranged the original Elizabethan “Where the Bee Sucks” for four voices so all of our women could have a voice part. Gotta make sure the counterpoint is really good. And at the 11th hour we did find the Swingle “Bumblebee” and “Afternoon Delight.” Yahoo!
The programming was completed in January, at which point Music Director Patrick Sinozich assigned the vocal lines and small ensembles to the singers. Then the singers received the music four weeks before the first rehearsal. Here we are now—and as we write these notes, we’re in rehearsals.
Now that it’s concert time, we invite you to revel in the fruits of our labors and to see and hear a program that has been created in a way that for us is new and exciting. We are so happy that you are here. Enjoy.
—Jonathan Miller and Betsy Grizzell
(Special thanks to Brian Streem for his work on his arrangement of the encore and to Benjamin Rivera for his assistance to Brian. We can’t tell you what it is, since that would spoil the surprise. This means that you have to applaud enough that we actually get to perform it. Thank you in advance for your enthusiasm.)
NOTES ON THE MUSIC with texts and translations
arr. Morgan Ames: Straighten Up and Fly Right
Betsy: This Morgan Ames arrangement of a Nat Cole and Irving Mills tune has been a CAC favorite since our fist vocal jazz concert back in 2002. It has always seemed to need some percussion, so we turned Brian loose.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, arr. Ward Swingle:Flight of the Bumblebee
Betsy: As a loyal Ed Sullivan viewer, I’d known Flight of the Bumblebee as a piece for violin, accordion, whistle, tuba…you name it. This Ward Swingle arrangement is Sullivan-worthy.
Thomas Weelkes:The Nightingale, the organ of delight
Weelkes was one of the most prolific and esteemed madrigalists in the court around Queen Elizabeth I. He became organist of Chichester Cathedral in 1602.
Jonathan: When I was a young bass in the Chicago Children’s Choir, my older sister was a first alto and my younger brother was, like I had been, a second alto. I never sang this piece because my voice had already changed, though I heard it for years and love the flowing lines.
Betsy: Treble choirs everywhere know that this madrigal is a hoot! Nearly everyone who suggested pieces for this program suggested this one. That made it a “must-have.”
Paul Hindemith: “Un cygne” from Six Chansons
A German-born composer of first rank who came of age along with Nazism and whose personal history is necessarily complicated by that tension (for starters, his wife was Jewish), Hindemith spent several years reorganizing the Turkish music-education system, hailed today as a remarkable accomplishment. He lived in the United States from 1940-1953, where he taught at Yale and mentored some of the most important postwar figures in composition, such as Lukas Foss, Emma Lou Diemer, Samuel Adler, and Chicago’s own Easley Blackwood. As a composer Hindemith is best known for a neoclassical style that technically owes much to Bach-style counterpoint. Hindemith wrote 11 operas or musical-theatre pieces but fairly little chamber-style vocal or choral music. His Six Chansons on poetry by Rilke are masterpieces of contrapuntal color, with shimmering dynamics and superbly crafted vocal lines, which have earned a place of enduring esteem in the classical choral repertory.
Felix Mendelssohn: Die Nachtigall (Op. 59, No. 4)
Mendelssohn wrote several cycles of secular a cappella songs on poems by Goethe. They are charming settings, evocative in this case of bird-song in both text and musical gesture.
Betsy: from Mendelssohn’s Sechs Lieder. Ben Rivera suggested this one.
Claudio Monteverdi: Quel augellin
Monteverdi was one of the first composers to achieve anything that today we would call “word-painting.” Writing at the turn of the 17th century, he created a musical language that speaks more forcefully and meaningfully to modern ears than that of any of his Italian madrigalist colleagues.
Jonathan: I think some of the effect has to do with the poetry, which is immediate, full of visual imagery, and talks about love without too much hidden symbolism or unfamiliar double entendre.
Betsy: I love how the vocal lines fly about. Who but Monteverdi could make the vocal lines fly as gracefully as a bird? This comes from Monteverdi’s fourth book.
Maschwitz/Sherwin/Strachey, arr. Gene Puerling: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
This song was written by a trio of British men who were in the French fishing village of Le Lavandou, which was a favorite destination for British people around World War II. Its underwhelming premiere in a local bar was followed by worldwide success, which may have been due in part to Eric Maschwitz’s career as a screenwriter and broadcast executive.
Jonathan: I was in London a year ago and walked through Berkeley Square, which is a posh (though understated, as British money tends to be) residential section of the West End. I can well imagine that, as is often the case, the location of Berkeley Square is more romantic when remembered nostalgically than it is in “real life.” It certainly makes for good lyrics.
Daniel Pinkham: Bugs
Betsy: The duets are brilliant in their simplicity, wit, humor, and brevity. We’ve always done them with two treble voices, but Patrick wanted to hear bugs of many colors.
Jonathan: I first programmed this cycle on a program about musical texture; this was the part “for two voices.” Pinkham wrote his own texts and set them in his typical angular, whimsical style. There are five movements in all.
Clément Janequin: Le chant des oiseaux (The Birds’ Song)
Betsy: One of the masters of onomatopoetic compositions, Janequin is also responsible for La Guerre (featuring battle sounds) and Le Cris de Paris (market vendors). I thought it might be a nice switch to have our group in double-choir formation.
Jonathan: Janequin reminds me of Berlioz in his ability to conjure up pretty wild sounds. Be sure to follow the text as closely as you can!
trad. English folksong, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Turtle Dove
Betsy: Early in my music purchasing career (yes, LPs played on a hi-fi!), I belonged to the Musical Heritage Society. They released very generic-looking recordings, always black print on a white jacket. I was never disappointed. I wore the grooves off their Springtime of the Year LP, which contained 16 gorgeous Ralph Vaughan Williams folksong arrangements. This was a must-have for this program, and Trevor’s voice was the one in my ear from the beginning.
trad. English folksong, arr. Paul Crabtree: Fly Up, My Cock from Five Bird Songs
Betsy: We first performed Crabtree’s Five Bird Songs in 2005. “Fly Up, My Cock” is one of those folksongs that carries numerous double entendres. Crabtree’s setting allows for a folksy approach, but one that reflects the angst of the maiden. I thought it would be the perfect foil to the longing expressed in Turtle Dove.
Jonathan: The first singer to make this song famous was Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior, the British folk-rock legend. Her piercing voice got right into my soul when I was fourteen and my cousin Su gave me the All Around My Hat album on LP. I love how these folk tunes take on new life when a great arranger gets hold of them. Ever the man for word-play, Paul Crabtree takes what could be a simple one-trick joke and brings it some real pathos. Despite the yuk-yuk title, Crabtree finds the poignancy in the lovers’ plight where they have to depart too soon in the morning. The modal, unusually twisting melody finds a home with striking chords that rarely let go of their tension; even at the end you’re left wondering if this love is going to last.
Robert Johnson: Where the Bee Sucks
Jonathan: The poem comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s a song by Ariel, the spirit who is held captive by the witch Sycorax. When freed by his master Prospero, Ariel sings these words in great delight. The poem is Ariel’s way of saying, “I’m free! I can go where all the birds and bees and bats go, with no limits. What joy!”
Betsy: We all thought there was an existing setting of this tune. We were even convinced of the composer (“definitely Thomas Arne”; “no, it’s Dowland.”). Unable to locate the elusive arrangement that we thought existed for four voices, Jonathan whipped one up from Robert Johnson’s lute song. He even penned a poem as a follow-up.
Jonathan Miller: Where the Bee Sucks (Funk Version)
Betsy: At our first programming meeting, JM mentioned an idea: a funk arrangement of a Shakespeare text, inspired by Average White Band. He wrote it that week on the plane. My favorite tempo marking: “Funk-o primo.”
Jonathan: This was one of those crazy moments in the life a composer where a text from one part of your life gets combined with a musical riff from another. One day I started hearing the text to “Where the bee sucks” in a voice that was an awful lot like something out of “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” It had nothing to do with Shakespeare, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I have a little sketch pad that I take with me when I travel, and I remember the energy surging through me when I found the right groove and quickly threw it down onto paper in a form I knew I would be able to recall later. In late December I actually turned it into a piece of music, with a monster funk slap-bass line.
For the record: Jonathan Miller’s The Fall appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Eclectric. His Shehecheyanu and his improvisatory arrangement of Coventry Carol both appear on Holidays a cappella Live.
Paul McCartney, arr. Paul Hart: Honey Pie
Betsy: We’ve done a number of Kings Singers arrangements of Beatles tunes. At some point I bought one of their CDs, and immediately fell in love with Honey Pie. Thank goodness there’s a bee tie-in…
Cole Porter, arr. David Blackwell:Let’s Do It
Jonathan: David Blackwell is an editor at Oxford and helped put together the jazz book that includes this chart of his own. It’s become a favorite, and I can’t help laughing at Cary Lovett’s solo about shellfish.
Josquin des Prez: Allegez moy
Betsy: I’ve sung this in a mixed group, and marked it as a must-have for the “sexy” portion of our program. Jonathan suggested the all-male setting, which is not only more historically correct, but a better theatrical choice. His suggestion for low-bass was perfect, and led to an extra voice on several of our pieces. It also gave me the idea of having an emcee helping to link pieces together with relevant quotations.
Jonathan: My main exposure to this piece was on the fabulous, ground-breaking album called The Art of the Netherlands by the Early Music Consort of London, recorded right before David Munrow’s death in 1976. I have rarely heard early music sung so convincingly; the piece left a deep impression on me even more in how it was sung than in the exquisite counterpoint.
For the record: Josquin’s chanson Baises moy appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD recording of Mathurin Forestier masses.
Jonathan Miller: “Thy two breasts…” from Kisses of Myrrh
Betsy: Jonathan’s settings from the Song of Solomon could have provided several tunes for our second half. But the immediacy and demanding nature of Thy Two Breasts made it the perfect follow-up to the all-male Josquin.
Jonathan: Of all my compositions, this is one of my personal treasures. It comes from a five-movement cycle called Kisses of Myrrh, all on texts from the Song of Songs. I wrote it the summer just before 9/11 and it has felt a little frozen in time because of that, so it’s nice to air it out again. The energy in the text simply took me over when I was writing the song—once I had the rhythms down, which is usually what I do first, the music virtually wrote itself. I remember being pleasantly stunned at how it all came together. I think I wrote the whole thing in about an hour. I was so happy with the cascading harmonies at the text “Thy lips, O my bride, drop honey”: there is a breathlessness there that I wanted to capture in the music. Finally, I wanted the big chord on the word “smell” toward the end to just jump out of the texture and set up the ending.
For the record: Jonathan Miller’s The Fall appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Eclectric. His Shehecheyanu and his improvisatory arrangement of Coventry Carol both appear on Holidays a cappella Live.
Davenport/Cooley, arr. Deke Sharon: Fever
Jonathan: As with many of Deke Sharon’s charts, he does a skillful job here of having voices imitate instruments, especially horn parts (sax, trumpets, and trombones). Listen carefully for a few surprises!
Betsy: Slow, sexy, and sweaty. Enough said.
György Orbán: O mistress mine!
Betsy: Madrigalists have long exploited the image of a maiden roaming up and down. We recorded Orbán’s piece on our Shakespeare CD. Its playful lines reflect the immediacy of a lover wanting satisfaction now.
Jonathan: The song is quick and the text a little archaic, so here are the words for you:
For the record: György Orbán’s “O mistress mine!” appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Shall I Compare Thee: Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts.
Carmichael/Washington, arr. Jennifer Shelton Barnes: The Nearness of You
Jonathan: It’s the intense close harmony of this arrangement that really sets it apart. The “crunchy” jazz chords help to express the tension of longing. When the texture clears out at the end, it is as if the clouds are parting and all that remains is “you.”
For the record: Jennifer Barnes’s arrangement of The Nearness of You appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Eclectric.
Bill Danoff, arr. Chris Rishel: Afternoon Delight
Betsy: No sensual poetry, no sweet longing love. Just sky rockets in flight. The Starland Vocal Band won two Grammy awards in 1977, for Best Arrangement (voices) and Best New Act. But I have to admit that it took me some time to know just what they were singing about, especially those sticks and stones.
Jonathan: I was a freshman in high school in 1977 when this song came out –at the time, I thought it was one of the cheesiest things I’d ever heard. Kids at school would roll their eyes when they made fun of the song. However, it’s recently been voted as #20 on the list of “sexiest pop tunes of all time,” and when Betsy suggested it for the program it seemed like just the right thing, partly for a nod to that crazy musical decade and partly as a lighter lead-in to the final powerhouse chart. The songwriter has been quoted as saying the song was intended to be only indirectly sexually suggestive; it seems like he underestimated the power of other people’s imaginations!
Crewe/Nolan, arr. Jon Pilat: Lady Marmalade
Betsy: When Jonathan suggested that we include this number, I was a bit frightened. Could we do it? Should we do it? He was so positive about it that it was full steam ahead. We found a Stanford Harmonics arrangement by Jon Pilat which was not only true to the original La Belle version, but also referenced the more recent version from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
Jonathan: Betsy took on one of the many sorts of labors of love that go into our concerts—a version of a chart that we needed because the one we got from the arranger didn’t quite fit our needs. In this case Betsy broke it up into many different musical staves, and I dropped the lyrics into her new version to make it all fit. Jon Pilat was a wonderful colleague and said that all we needed to give him was an arranging credit.
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