Holidays a cappella

December 2011

Program Notes

Resonet in laudibus

medieval German carol, arr. Chester Alwes

Hymne à Saint Martin

Vaclovas Augustinas

People, Look East

trad. French carol, arr. Howard Helvey

In natali Domini

medieval carol, 14th c.

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

trad. German, arr. Wayland Rogers

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

spiritual, arr. Roland Carter

Jesus från Nasaret

trad. Swedish, arr. Gunnar Eriksson

Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabella

trad. Provençal, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Longfellow's Carol

Jonathan Miller

Haneirot Halalu

Robert Applebaum

O nata lux

Morten Lauridsen

Go Tell it on the Mountain

spiritual, arr. Brewer

From the Nutcracker Suite:

P.I. Tchaikosvky, arr. Jeff Funk

Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy


Waltz of the Flowers


Joy to the World

G.F. Handel, arr. Philip Lawson

We Three Kings

J.H. Hopkins, arr. Darmon Meader

Carol of the Bells

Mykola Leontovych, arr. Rich Manners


Matisyahu, arr. Patrick Sinozich

Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus

arr. Jonathan Miller
encore: When the Song of the Angels is Stilled Elizabeth Alexander


Welcome to the 2011 presentation of Holidays a cappella.  How blessed we are to be able to share these concerts with you!

There are few better times to hear a choir than the month of December.  It is rather amazing to me that we have done December concerts under the name “Holidays a cappella” for fifteen years now.

* * * * * * *

I like to connect music to other experiences:  in this case, I am thinking of food.  Like many of you, I enjoy cooking, and like all of you, I enjoy eating.  Sometimes I think of enjoying a musical program as being analogous to enjoying a meal. I firmly believe that a truly great concert needs to serve you, the person in the audience, by being as thoughtfully well-balanced and varied as a splendid meal.  The need is particularly acute at the holidays, when we are bombarded with overly orchestrated ditties day and night. Creating a good balance applies as much to the way the repertoire is chosen as it does to the way it is performed by our singers. Since my job as artistic director primarily involves choosing the repertoire, that is what I’m thinking about at the moment;  Patrick Sinozich, our brilliant music director, primarily tends to the singer/performance aspects of the experience.

While I was putting our current season together, more than one person on Chicago a cappella’s creative team suggested, with twinkles in their respective eyes, that “maybe for a change” we could have a holiday show in which the first half was mostly serious and the second half was just plain fun. We have a long history of holiday concerts featuring much intense, demanding repertoire throughout the program, with a few lighter pieces included for balance and vocal relief. Using our food metaphor, one might say that our typical holiday concerts have been like seven-course musical meals, rounded out with the appropriate palate cleansers.

In response to these urgings by my colleagues, I have happily consented.  Using our food analogy, the idea this year is that we present you with a show featuring tasty musical vegetables and meaty courses in the first half. We are pleased to bring you some extraordinary pieces on this program, including one of the prettiest pieces I have ever heard—the simply astounding Hymn to St. Martin from Lithuania—along with Wayland Rogers’s harmonically riveting Lo, How a Rose, and Morten Lauridsen’s O Nata Lux, one of the slow movements from his amazing cycle Lux Aeterna.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without spirituals, either, and so to our old standby Go Tell it on the Mountain we add a newcomer this year, Roland Carter’s terrific Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow. There is also an exotic, Oriental-flavored, layered piece from Sweden, which comes to us via my dear colleague Gunnar Eriksson, along with a few Renaissance pieces ranging from fanfare-like to contemplative, as well as a slow and haunting prayer in honor of the Chanukah lights.

After intermission, we present a long dessert course or some combination of lighter fare, maybe fruit and cheese and salad, with minstrels serenading the final courses (well, in this case, as you’ll see, it’s more like jugglers). The second half begins with two movements from the Nutcracker in new a cappella settings, followed by three terrific, upbeat carols needing little introduction. We then move into the high-energy closing section, including Miracle by the Chassidic hip-hop artist Matisyahu (arranged by our estimable music director, Patrick Sinozich) and a little holiday sleight-of-hand by yours truly. 

* * * * * * *

Of course, it takes phenomenally versatile and skilled musicians to make a Chicago a cappella concert what it is. “Holidays 2011” is an opportunity for us to showcase a wide variety of musical talent. We are pleased to introduce you to three new singers, all of whom are making their Chicago a cappella debut with this set of concerts. Sarah Ponder (mezzo), Garrett Johannsen (tenor), and Joseph Labozetta (bass) are all superb musicians, drawn from the city’s finest soloist-ensemble singers. They all excelled in our rigorous audition process, and each of them brings passion for excellence and a bright personality to our stages.  We know that you’ll enjoy hearing and seeing them, along with the entire ensemble. 

* * * * * * *

One of the wonderful gifts of the holiday season is that it brings universal themes back over and over, reliably, every year. If we can get quiet enough to hear it, there is indeed in the air at this time a renewed sense of hope, the yearning for peace and justice, the opportunity to make the world better this year.  Even when we fall short of the ideal, it is still good to be reminded of the promise of redemption, right here on this earth, right in this lifetime, right now.

When I was on the music staff at Unity Temple in Oak Park in the period from 1997-2006, I had a great privilege. I was permitted not only to provide an entire musical service on the Sunday before Christmas, but also to give the sermon, the readings, and the opening and closing prayers. Browsing through the new Unitarian hymnal one year, looking for a benediction, I came across these famous words from the African-American theologian Howard Thurman, words which are now etched permanently on my heart:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart

—“The Work of Christmas,” by Howard Thurman, from The Mood of Christmas (Friends United Press, 1985).
Reprinted with permission.

May it be so, today and always, until the world is completely healed.

--Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director



arr. Chester Alwes:  Resonet in laudibus

A beloved university professor, author, scholar, editor, and director of the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana (BACH), Chester Alwes is enjoying an active retirememt from academia after serving with distinction on the faculty at the University of Illinois-Urbana for 27 years.

A joyously rocking tune in a major mode gives the material for Alwes to create a splendid new setting of this medieval carol.  Clever shifts of meter keep the momentum driving forward. The opening and closing sections are like brass fanfares, between which the original tune makes itself known.

Vaclovas Augustinas:  Hymne à Saint Martin

This piece was composed on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Martin of Tours, the first leader of Western monasticism. His feast day, November 11, traditionally marks the start of the 40-day medieval fasting season, which is the precursor to the present-day season of Advent.  The composer is a leading choral musician in his native Lithuania, whose choirs have won competitions throughout Europe.  One of the loveliest compositions to come to these shores in recent years, this piece is a treasure of sensitive melodic writing with a delightful harmonic palette. The piece has been recorded beautifully on the recent 3-CD set by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble from the far north of Sweden.

arr. Howard Helvey:  People, Look East

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) was an English poet and author, who is best known today for her hymn Morning Has Broken, sung by congregations around the English-speaking world and famously recorded by Cat Stevens in the mid-1970s. Her second-most-famous poem is this one, People, Look East, a delightful distillation of the spirit of Advent.  The poem is typically associated with the French tune “Besançon,” as it is here;  the skillful yet simple arrangement is by Howard Helvey from Cincinnati. He wrote the setting for the church choir he directs there. The music alternates verses between men’s and women’s voices and the entire ensemble, with clear counterpoint and harmony to enhance the message of the poem.

* * * * * * *

Medieval carol (14th c.):  In natali Domini

Jonathan Miller writes: “When I was in my early 20s, a girlfriend played for me a German recording of In natali Domini, sung by a choir directed by Konrad Ruhland.  I had never heard music of such stirring simplicity, and the performance was heartfelt and spoke deeply to me.”  This is a version of the same carol, set for three voice parts in simple hymn style that one might find in the work of late-medieval or early Renaissance composers such as Guillaume Dufay. The many first-inversion chords (“6/3 chords” for you harmony geeks) give the piece an open sonority and clarity that keep everything flowing along.

arr. Wayland Rogers:  Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

The German carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen is a well-known and beloved traditional holiday offering, with a gently rising and falling melody that matches the tender poetry. The tune goes mostly in stepwise motion and is in a range that is easy to sing, rendering the whole package as much like a lullaby as a Christmas carol. The most famous harmonization of the tune is that of Michael Praetorius from the early 1600s.  We are pleased to present a recent re-harmonizing of the piece by Chicago’s own Wayland Rogers, a veteran of the local choral scene and a skilled baritone, conductor, composer, and arranger.  The tight chords have a remarkable way of preserving the character of the original, while making just enough changes to keep the musical language ever-fresh and exciting, even at a slow tempo—no mean feat.

spiritual, arr. Roland Carter:  Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

Roland Carter is Holmberg Professor of American Music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. A former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, he is the arranger of the most commonly-heard version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Prof. Carter has been honored to participate musically in every possible setting, from working in the smallest church to conducting at presidential inaugurations in Washington.  An outstanding musician, he has conducted opera as well as choral music nationwide and has been involved in radio and television broadcasts in his role as a preservationist of African-American music. 

This setting of “Rise Up, Shepherd” follows mostly traditional voicings and harmonies. The piece is effective in its straightforward simplicity. The final chorus takes off in an energetic ascent, speeding up as it sets up a call-and-response dialogue between men and women before rising to the highest soprano heights for a strong finish.

* * * * * * *

Swedish folk songs / hymns, arr. Gunnar Eriksson:  Jesus från Nasaret

The ever-inventive Gunnar Eriksson from Sweden is at it again, this time with a layered setting of several tunes.  The “main” tune here is the traditional Swedish hymn, “Jesus from Nazareth.” Eriksson writes that his setting is an “attempt to relocate our ‘Swedish Jesus’ to an oriental landscape.” The poetry from the sturdy Swedish hymns can be seen as both Christmas and Easter texts. 

arr. Stephen Hatfield:  Un flambeau, Jeanneatte, Isabella

This famous tune began life as a drinking song, written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier to be stage music for a play by Molière. The equally famous lyrics were published as early as 1836 in a collection of Christmas songs from Provence, in the south of France.  The arrangement is by Stephen Hatfield, a well-known Canadian musician who has set in choral form many folksongs sung in Canada. He explains: 

Torches are an important Christmas tradition in [Provence]. And while it’s a widespread custom to build a nativity scene . . . they go further, constructing an entire model of a village around the stable, complete with a vivid case of model villagers who were often caricatures of the local people. I like to think of the children in the carol running to see the newly finished Christmas village, but as their imaginations catch fire from the torchlight, they slip back in time to another dark evening filled with magical light.

Hatfield also has slowed down the tempo, “to bring out the lullaby in the song” and to reflect more of the feeling of a Renaissance viol consort than that of a boisterous scamper to the manger. 

Jonathan Miller:  Longfellow’s Carol

In the famous book titled 100 Carols for Choirs, published by the venerable Oxford University Press, there is a piece for unison voices and accompaniment, called simply “Longfellow’s Carol.” The text is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Boston-based poet, who was also an ardent pacifist and abolitionist during the Civil War.  He and his fellow abolitionist-pacifists lamented any loss of life on either side as they fought their own wars of public opinion on behalf of enslaved African-Americans. The poet begins joyously by hearing Christmas bells proclaiming peace on earth; however, his happiness is dashed by the “accursed” cannonballs thundering forth from cannons in the Southern states where the war is being waged.

The composer writes:  “Sometimes composing can go on for weeks or even months, and at other times it happens in a flash. When I was thumbing through the famous Oxford book, looking for carols for this concert, the Longfellow text jumped out at me and demanded of me, as poems sometimes do, a new musical setting. When the book stays open to a page like that, there is no resisting; in this case, before the evening was over, the piece was done. The fourth verse needs to be read with extreme sensitivity, to understand something important: Longfellow is not cursing anyone with black skin in his phrase ‘black accursed mouth,’ but rather the cannons made of black iron, from the mouths of which the terrible cannonballs are fired. It is both sobering and poignant for me to encounter a kindred spirit in a poet from more than 150 years ago:  a spirit likewise dejected by humanity’s inability to learn the lessons of war. Longfellow seems to have a way to shake us out of our complacency and awaken our compassion. He did that for me, which is why this music came to be.”

Robert Applebaum:  Haneirot Halalu

This melody and choral setting, both by Bob Applebaum, will probably be less familiar than "The Dreidel Song" or "Oy Chanukah," which is too bad—this whole piece has a lyrical, contemplative quality rarely found in Chanukah music. The text is an actual a prayer, sung right after the Chanukah candle blessings are chanted and the candles are kindled.  Longtime Chicago resident Bob Applebaum, now living in Northern California, wrote this song in 2005, and Chicago a cappella first performed it shortly thereafter.

Applebaum notes that the Hebrew prayer emphasizes—as he does in his own translation—that the candles are not to be used for any ordinary purposes, but only to be looked at.  In the composer’s translation, he renders the relevant part of the text as “And we just watch them burn”;  his music likewise lingers on these words and prolongs them, so that musically he enhances and stretches the effect of looking at the candles in awe. Applebaum’s harmonies are right on the money here as well;  his gently rocking rhythms move slowly through jazz-inflected chord progressions that not only soothe but themselves expand on the wonder of the occasion.

Morten Lauridsen:  O nata lux

One of the truly great large choral works of the past fifteen years is the cycle Lux Aeterna by Los Angeles-based composer Morten Lauridsen, composed for chorus and either orchestra or organ. This song, O nata lux, is an excerpt from that larger work. The cycle was premiered, like so many of his works, by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. While Lux Aeterna as a whole is, in a sense, an adaptation of the Requiem Mass, this movement has particular beauty on its own, and its emphasis on light makes it perfect for the Christmas season.

The text is taken from the Roman Catholic liturgy. Lauriden’s melodic and harmonic language in O nata lux closely resembles his work in O magnum mysterium and Les chansons des roses. Nevertheless, Lauridsen—much like Arvo Pärt—has a stunning way of keeping every phrase, every voice part, and even every bar of music fresh and new, as if there were really no other possible manner in which the text could have been set at that moment in the piece, apart from what Lauridsen himself did.  Such is the mark of a true master, who creates here a sense of breathless, suspended animation in the middle of a place of luminous radiance.

spiritual, arr. Brewer:  Go tell it on the mountain

There are several settings of this tune, but this short and intense version is one of the very best. Eschewing the more languid opening section found in many settings, the late Joseph Brewer—one of the directors of the Chicago Children’s Choir during the 1970s—here keeps the strong pulse going throughout, never letting the joy or momentum stop.

P. I. Tchaikovsky, arr. Jeff Funk:  from the Nutcracker Suite

Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy
Waltz of the Flowers

Just over ten years ago, the inventive composer Jeff Funk decided to create an a cappella version of the Nutcracker Suite.  With clever syllables (such as “plum” to indicate a pizzicato in the strings), he pulls off the desired effects beautifully. 

G. F. Handel, arr. Philip Lawson:  Joy to the World

Yes, the composer of the Messiah also wrote Joy to the World!  At least the melody has been attributed to Handel, and the tune receives an unusually skillful treatment here in the hands of former King’s Singer Philip Lawson. The rhythm leaps off the page with a Scotch snap, and the lush six-part harmonies propel the piece forward.

J. H. Hopkins, arr. Darmon Meader:  We Three Kings

Darmon Meader is the founder and one of the primary arrangers for New York Voices. Chicago a cappella first performed this infectiously appealing setting of We Three Kings a few years ago, and it quickly found a place in our file cabinet of music called “We Have To Do This Again.” The vocal percussion line and the extra syllables (which provide faint echoes of the film score The Lion King) create a truly magical effect. 

Mykola Leontovych, arr. Rich Manners:  Carol of the Bells

This is not your mother’s or grandmother’s Carol of the Bells!  Watch out, for in addition to the swing rhythm that kicks it off, Rich Manners throws in a terrific curveball about halfway through.  Prepare for a laugh or two.

Matisyahu, arr. Patrick Sinozich:  Miracle

In case you missed him on Letterman or other TV appearances, Matisyahu is that rare combination of observant Chassidic Jew and hip-hop artist. In addition to his media savvy, he has a remarkably ecumenical spirit. He wrote this piece for Chanukah and turned it into a YouTube video, and it was too good for us to pass up. Our Music Director, Patrick Sinozich, has once again turned a pop song with instruments into a superb a cappella arrangement for us to sing to you.

arr. Jonathan Miller:  Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus

Jonathan Miller writes: “The idea for this arrangement came while I was whizzing down the Eisenhower Expressway one day a few months ago.  I was thinking about Christmas music, and in a happy and open mood, and wanting to find something a little bit goofy for our holiday closer, and then it floated into my head:  ‘Could you actually switch the words to Jingle Bells and the Hallelujah Chorus and make it work?’ I went home and got out a pencil and my sketchbook, where I try to wrestle some of my musical ideas to the ground. First, I wrote down the words to both songs to see if the line breaks were at least in rough correspondence. It worked, fortunately. I threw in a brief modulation and transition to piece the two songs together, and there it was. (My wife and I giggled for hours at the way “Hallelujah” became “in a one-horse…”) Like Hoss Brock’s legendary arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody, this is a song better simply heard than described. Hang on, and—as we like to say in rehearsal—"see you at the double bar.”