Holidays a cappella 1999

December 1999

Program Notes

Roun' de glory manger spiritual, arr. W. L. James, 1937
Children, go where I send thee spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris, 1999
Immanuel oss i natt Thorkell Sigurbjornsson (b. 1938), Iceland, 1980
Glans over sjo och strand Ivar Wideen (1891-1951), Sweden
Kristallen den fina trad. Swedish, arr. Gunnar Eriksson, 1996
God now is born here Ukrainian carol, arr. James E. Clemens, 1998
In silent night Mitchell B. Southall (20th c. African-American), 1957
Hymn: In Nativitate Domini Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)
Joy to the world arr. Stephen Paulus, 1986
Coventry Carol traditional, arr. Jonathan Miller, 1999
Hodie Carol Barnett, 1998
Fayer, fayer! trad. Yiddish, arr. Mark Zuckerman, 1995
What sweeter music Wayland Rogers
Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl trad. Yiddish, arr. Mark Zuckerman, 1998
Angels and the Shepherds Zoltan Kodaly, 1937
Wassail song arr. Stephen Paulus, 1979
Glory to the newborn king spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris, 1989
Hodie Christus natus est William Mathias (1934-1992)
Gaudete from Piae Cantiones (1582), arr. Brian Kay, 1986
encore: Go Tell It on the Mountain arr. Joseph Brewer


When programming our holiday concerts, I tend to lean more toward meditation than toward glitz.  This is deliberate.  This is a time of year when we crave stillness.  Stillness and repose can seem almost out of reach between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not to mention actual time for reflection. 

And what do people seek out, balance?  Choral music.  December is the one month, out of the entire year, during which the average American will enthusiastically attend a live performance of choral music, this is, like a walk in the woods, an act of restoring balance.  Our common reaching for stillness quiets the overstimulated soul.  People might love choral music at other times, but they don’t crave it the way they do in December. 

Why is choral music one of the cosmic keys to the holidays?  Will the angels fail to come if we don’t sing about them?  Maybe.  In June, at the Chorus America convention, keynote speaker Garrison Keillor referred to choral music as “primal, communal music”; he said that its purpose is “to rip your heart out and make you weep.”  He was partly being funny, but he hit upon something completely true.  There is a redemptive quality to choral singing to which we intuitively bring ourselves.  A choir singing feeds us in a way that few other things do.  I am guessing that this is, in part, why you are here today. 

We are a professional choir, and that is part of our value and our appeal.  Our board and friends spent many hours last month refining our mission statement, including what makes us unique.  This is all worthwhile, for all sorts of internal and external reasons.  Yet it seems to me that in the end, sincerity, at least at this time of year, is the most important value in creating the experience of deep personal connection.  Children singing slightly off key will bring tears to our eyes at the holidays if they mean it, if they throw themselves into what they’re doing.  As professionals, we attempt to add two extra dimensions: truly superb singing and truly remarkable repertoire.  If that sets us apart from the others, so be it: if we are not so different that primal way which feeds us all, so be that.  Nobody needs to have a reason to put on a choral concert in December.  It’s just what our culture needs to do. 

I am deeply grateful that you have come to hear us today.  On this concert you will hear repertoire from a number of traditions.  A number of our selections are either ambitious or just exquisite, bringing us all—you as well as the singers—toward the highest pinnacles of out art form, a cappella singing.  This is how we do holiday music at Chicago a cappella. 

I invite you to use this concert to get connected to what you value most deeply.  The power of choral music is that we do it together; that means all of you and all of us.  With our singing, we send our warm wishes to you for a truly peaceful and blessed holiday season. 

--Jonathan Miller


Arr. W. L. James:  Roun’ de glory manger
Willis Laurence James taught at Spelman College in Atlanta from 1933 to 1966.  He started collecting black folksongs at age 22 while teaching in Louisiana.  During the 1940s he was affiliated with the Library of Congress as a Recording Fellow.  He gained wide attention for his theory that “the city” was the most distinctive feature of black American folksongs.  He appeared as a lecturer at the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and at Tanglewood, and his choral arrangements have been widely performed by college groups. 

Arr. Robert L. Morris:  Children go where I send thee
Robert Morris is the founder and artistic director of the Leigh Morris Chorale of Minnesota, a community-based choir featuring African-American repertoire and traditions, world music, and standard repertoire.  Dr. Morris arranged for Duke Ellington; he has conducted his own works at several of the nation’s best-known performance sites, including Carnegie Hall and in the Orchestra Halls of both Minneapolis and Chicago.  He is on the faculty of Macalester College, and shares with other musicians his expertise in African-American concert choral traditions.  In 1966, he was invited to present at Poland’s national choral festival (Legnica Cantat). 
This setting is “Children, go where I send thee” is a gem—inspired, downright funky.  Its blues harmonies are remarkable with only a four-voice texture:  the rhythm is a slow groove, never rushed even when it’s going at full throttle. 

Three from Scandinavia
Thorkell Sigurbjornsson (Iceland):  Immanuel oss I natt
Throkell Sigurbjornsson is one of the leading lights in recent Icelandic music.  After college in Reykjavik, he got his master’s degree at Champaign-Urbana.  He then returned to Reykjavik, where he has composed more than 200 works in all genres.  This piece sets three versus of an old Icelandic text, written in 1742 by the Rev.  Gudmundur Hognason.  The Icelandic words have a surprising tenderness, not what one would associate at first with a harsh land of ice and volcanoes.  Sometimes simplest is best: the spare, open sound is completely haunting.  When I first heard this piece, two years ago, I couldn't forget it.

Ivar Wideen:  Glans over sjo och strand
Ivar Wideen studied organ and counterpoint in Stockholm and was the organist of Skara Cathedral in Vastergotland for more than 50 years.  He is best known to the public through his secular choral pieces, which display genuine feeling and a national-romantic spirit.  Wideen also did a great deal to augment and improve the vocal repertoire for schools.  Our piece by Wideen is a sweet text and gentle setting, a loving address to the star of Bethlehem.  The poet, Viktor Rydberg, is best known for his children’s story, Tomten, about a farm sprite or fairy.

Arr. Gunnar Eriksson:  Kristallen den fina
Gunnar Eriksson has masterfully arranged three different melodies into a stunning yet relaxed tour de force.  “Kristallen den fina” is an old Swedish tune, medieval in the way it expresses love for the virgin Mary with sensate, quite passionate images.  While the sopranos sing “Kristallen” in a ricking 6/8 meter, the tenors join in with the old Lutheran chorale, “Varldens Fralsare kom har,” better known to the American choristers as “Nun komm der heiden Heiland.”  The second time we sing the piece, we add an old Gregorian chant melody know as “Christe, qui lux est et dies,” sung here in Swedish as “O Kriste, du som ljuset ar.”  The basses provide a lush two—or three—part harmonic underpinning to the whole thing, which blooms and swells like a lily opening, and closes gently like the same lily at the end of the day. 

Ukrainian carol, arr.  James E. Clemens: God Now is Born Here
This song comes from the western Ukraine, from the province of Galicia, courtesy of J. Michael Thompson, music director for the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle.  Michael both speaks and sings Ukrainian and leads many services in the original language at Sts. Volodymyr and Olha (“V&O”) church at Chicago and Oakley in Ukrainian Village.  The rector at V&O translated the carol from the Ukrainian, and Michael set it in poetic verse.  The music in Jim Clemens’s arrangement is so lively that we started instinctively singing it like a shape-note hymn!

Mitchell B. Southall: In silent night (A Christmas Vignette in Pastel)
Not much is known about Mitchell Southall except that he was an African-American composer, born in the South and later migrated to Cnada.  Robert Morris introduced me to this lovely, reflective piece, tinged from time to time with early blues harmonies. 

Palestrina: In Nativitate Domini (A solis ortus cardine)
One of renaissance Italy’s best-known composers, the Roman choirmaster Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) spent his entire career in and around Rome.  His employment included prestigious church posts such as the Cappelia Giulia, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. John Lateran.  Palestrina wrote a great deal of music.  Some 250 motets and 104 masses can be firmly ascribed to him, plus dozens of compositions in every conceivable genre of church music from the late sixteenth century.  The music of Palestrina in current use is only a minute sampling of his work. 

This piece is called an “office hymn,” because the basic “tune” shared among the voices in imitative polyphony comes from the chanted Office (the daily Hours) in the Roman liturgy.  Palestrina’s collection of hymns for the church year was published at Rome in 1689.  He uses this Gregorian melody to especially splendid effect in the final verse, “Gaudet chorus coelestrium,” a heavenly six-voice setting indeed.  I encourage you to become more and more familiar with the chant melody as we sing it in the even-numbered verses, and then to listen for it in the later sections of polyphony.

Arr. Stephen Paulus:  Joy to the World
Stephen Paulus is a prolific and successful composer based in the Twin Cities.  This and the Wassail Song later in our program come from a collection called A Stephen Paulus Christmas, which gathers together a number of arrangements Paulus has composed for choral groups around the country.  I met Steve this summer and found him to friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable about writing fo5r choirs.  He doesn’t shy away from the occasional surprise, as you’ll hear in this one; you may find yourself hearing the traditional harmony in your head as we sing this one, and it’s bound to be an unusual experience!

Arr. Jonathan Miller:  Coventry Carol
In keeping with our Scandinavian theme, we are singing this beloved familiar carol in choral improvisation, a technique pioneered by Gunnar Eriksson, and described in his clever textbook Choir ad lib.  I sand through a Bach chorale in similar fashion with Erik Westberg this summer, and I think you’ll see why I wanted to have us do it for you. 

Carol Barnett:  Hodie
Carol Barnett works in the Twin Cities as a free-lance composer and flutist.  She is a character member of the American (formerly Minnesota) Composers Forum, and has recently concluded a term on its board.  She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she studied with Dominick Argento, Paul Fetler and Bernhard Weiser.  The woman’s Philharmonic, the Dale Warland Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Westminister Abbey Choir, and Ankor Children’s Choir of Jerusalem, Israel, the Nebraska Children’s Chorus and the Gregg Smith Singers are among the ensembles which have performed her works.  In 1991 she was a fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and since 1992 she has been composer-in-residence with Dale Warland Singers, for whose 1998 Christmas concert this piece was commissioned. 

The well-known text is from the Magnificat antiphon at Second Vespers on Christmas Day, a chant used by Britten to open his familiar work, A Ceremony of Carols.  Barnett notes that her piece has been influenced by the music of Rachmanioff and Poulenc, especially the final movement of Ploulenc’s Four Motets (pour le temps de Noel). 


Arr. Mark Zuckerman:  Fayer, fayer!
Mark Zuckerman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1948, and began composing music in early childhood, with his first public performance at age 11.  He studies composition with Elie Yarden at Bard College, and did his graduate work with Milton Babbit and J.K. Randall at Princeton, where he earned a PhD in 1976, after which he joined the faculty.  He continued his academic career at Columbia University.  His music is published by Mobart and recorded on CRI.  In 1995, Zuckerman combined his attraction to a cappella to original settings of Yiddish culture and formed Di Goldene Keyt, The Yiddish Chorale.   In addition to original settings of Yiddish poetry, he has written a dozen a cappella arrangements of classic Yiddish songs, of which this is one.

Wayland Rogers:  What sweeter music
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.  Mr. Rogers, a singer, conductor and teacher as well as a composer was born December 26, 1941 in Kentucky and trained at University of Kentucky, Wichita State University, Northwestern University, The Salzburg Mozarteum, and in London.  As a singer he has sung with Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, Music of the Baroque, Grant Park Music Festival, Tangle wood Festival, Blossom Festival, Ravinia Festival and Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.  He received a 1986 Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music recording with Chicago Symphony Winds.  He trained as a conductor with Margaret Hillis and presently is Music Director of The University, DePaul University, Music Institute of Chicago, Western Kentucky University and is presently on the voice faculty of Loyola University/Chicago. 

Wayland Rogers brings a singer’s sensibilities to his choral composing, which makes this work especially lovely to sing.  This piece won the 1998 Roger Wagner Contemporary Choral-Composition Competition and the 1998 Chautauqua Chamber Singers Choral Competition. 

Arr. Mark Zuckerman:  Ikh bin a kleyner drydel

Zoltan Kodaly: Angles and the Shepherds (Angyalok es pasztorok)
Zoltan Kodaly was, along with Bela Bartok, one of the most prominent and tireless folksong collectors of the 20th century.  Kodaly himself was probably the single most prolific European composers of choral music in the past hundred years.  This electrifying setting repeatedly uses a traditional Hungarian melody in the “Shepherds” sections.  The piece is scored for high voices; since we only have four women singing this concert, the tenors and one bass are filling the lowest alto parts towards the end.  The infectious dialogue is touchingly sweet throughout: the final section, with ever-brighter harmonies reminiscent of Bulgarian female choral singing, is enough to stand your hair on end. 

Arr. Stephen Paulus:  Wassail Song

Spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris: Glory to the newborn king

William Mathias:  Hodie Christus natus est

William Mathias was born in Whitland, Dyfed in 1934 and died in 1992.  He began to compose at an early age, studying first at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and subsequently on an Opera Scholarship in composition at the Royal Academy of Music.  He was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1965, and gained the DMus of the University of Wales in 1966.  From 1970-1988 he was Professor and Head of the Music Department at the University College of North Wales, Bangor.  He has made a highly significant contribution to twentieth-century organ music, and his church music and carols are still regularly performed worldwide.  Lux Aeterna has been hailed as one of the finest British choral/orchestral works this century.  His anthem Let the people praise Thee, O God was especially composed for the wedding of The Prince of Wales in 1981.  In 1987 he was awarded an Honorary DMus by Westminister Choir College, Princeton.  He was made CBE in the 1985 New Year’s Honors. 

This piece is a brilliant, ringing anthem, with vocal writing more akin to what a brass quintet or reedy organ might play.  The recurring “Hodie, hodie” motif in the women’s voices is moved up again and again, as the piece becomes ever brighter.  The piece makes a deft turn to the home key of C major at the end, when the men finally get to participate in the opening motif.  Mathias’ love for the organ is everywhere evident; the finish here sounds as if all the bell stops are firing. 

Arr. Brian Kay:  Gaudete
Brian Kay was the original bass of the King’s Singers, an internationally renowned men’s sextet which was founded almost 30 years ago.  As a conductor he works regularly with the 200-voice Huddersfield Choral Society and the Cheltenham Bach Choir.  He guest-conducts regularly around the UK and is principal guest conductor of the Harrogate Choral Society.  He and his wide, soprano Gillian Fisher, provided the voices of Papagena for the Hollywood film Amadeus.  This piece is an upbeat choral setting of a famous Christmas hymn, published in the 1970s, when it hit the Cantiones (“Pious Songs”), published in Sweden in 1582.  The tune became well known in the 1970s, when it hit the British pop charts as sung by Steeleye Span, a folk-rock group which energized old songs with acoustic and electric instruments.  If their album Below the Salt is still in print, that’s where you’ll find it.  (When I dusted off the ancient vinyl LP a while back, my five-year-old daughter exclaimed, “Wow, Daddy, what a big CD!”)