Holidays a cappella

December 2017

Program Notes

Amen   Jester Hairston/arr. Take 6/Paul Langford
The Oxen   Jonathan Rathbone
Glory to the Newborn King   Negro spiritual/arr. Robert L. Morris
Gdy śliczna Panna   trad. Polish/ arr. Paweł Łukaszewski
  (U.S. Premiere)  
Star in the East   trad. American/arr. Paul Langford
Duermete Niño   Domingo Lobato Bañales
Lullay My Liking   Gustav Holst
Coventry Carol   trad. English/ arr. Paul Langford
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen   trad. English/arr. Paul Langford
Light One Candle   Peter Yarrow/arr. Paul Langford
Lo V'chayil   trad. Hebrew/arr. Elliot Levine
O Come, O Come Emmanuel   trad. English/arr. Paul Langford
The Huron Carol   trad. Canadian/Hurron/arr. Eleanor Daley
Convidando está la noche   trad. Mexican, arr. José Galván
Cicha noc (Silent Night)   arr. Henryk Jan Botor
Carol of the Bells   trad. Ukrainian/arr. Paul Langford
encore: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas   Hugh Martin & Ralph Blaine/arr. Paul Langford



Welcome. We’re so pleased that you’ve chosen to spend part of your day with us. Let this program be an oasis for you from the pace of this season.

As I write these introductory notes in November, daylight savings time is over, and the evenings are dark and cold indeed. Yesterday morning, following the first frost, the grass was crunchy underfoot. The dogs and I now have to go to the park earlier than before to get our evening walk in. Those long summer days seem far off, and even Halloween is starting to fade from memory. Our shorts and T-shirts are packed away until the spring; it’s sweaters and wool pants now. People are starting to get the sniffles; department stores and streets are decorated with candy-cane motifs and sparkly wrapping. The stage is already well set for our annual craving of the solstice and all its celebrations.

Why bother putting on a concert in December, let alone a half-dozen of them, when it’s so hectic already? Among the many answers to that question is this: “because I feel that we have something important to say to the world with our music.” Ever since Chicago a cappella’s first holiday concert in 1994, I’ve wanted to present programs that would create a combination of joy and wonder, contemplation and ecstatic release, expressive lyrics and the sheer beauty of accomplished ensemble singing. In this I suppose I’m just like every choral director who wants to put on a good show! However, there is a particular flavor or vibration that I’ve tried to cultivate in these holiday programs over all these years, something with its own clear and positive character (in contrast to just being “an antidote to mall music”). So here’s a little bit of the motivation behind what we do:

Music can truly create peace in the heart. It can cause us to pause in wonder. It can move us to tears, either gently or more overtly. One of the things that can be tremendously moving is the story of the birth of Jesus, one of the foundational stories of Western culture. Even for people who aren’t Christians, the story can be compelling on many levels. The characters are archetypes as well as individuals: Mary evokes the kindness and gentleness of motherhood; Joseph the steadfast caretaker watchful for his young family; and Jesus is, among other things, a symbol of newness, the carrier of our hopes for a fresh start, one of those people on whom we can cast our hopes that today, tomorrow, this week, this year, each of us can do a better job at living and help to repair this broken world. Chanukah also gives us another shot at redemption, recalling a miracle when the oil lasted for eight nights and that part of the world (ritual worship in the Temple in Jerusalem) could be set right again, a source of inspiration.

This concert is our way of wrapping you up with a huge hug and saying something like this:

Welcome, you world-weary traveler;
Welcome, all you whose year didn’t quite go the way you wanted;
Welcome, those of you with hearts overflowing with joy and blessings;
Welcome, all who feel some combination of these and many other feelings as well.

Rest your heart with us for a while.
Let us soothe your nerves, warm your spirit, energize your soul, and kindle all the flames that need rekindling in your life.

Let the glories of the human voice carry you to far-off lands and times, where human beings yearn for the same things you do, albeit in different languages and styles. Let our singing give your mind a reset, a warm and gentle rinsing of sorts, a whirlpool of sound to unwind your tensions and give you rest. Let our music then towel you off and send you on your way, refreshed and open-hearted for what lies ahead.

The extraordinary singers on our stage, directed by the superbly talented and truly humble Paul Langford, will create today the particular sort of magic that is Chicago a cappella.

—Jonathan Miller, Founder and Artistic Director


NOTES ON THE MUSIC (by Jonathan Miller unless noted otherwise)

Jester Hairston, arr. Take 6 / Paul Langford: Amen
Written by Jester Hairston (the father and face of the modern spiritual) for the 1963 film Lilies Of the Field, this song has become so familiar and ubiquitous that one could easily forget that it’s not "technically" a traditional or vintage spiritual. The movie itself is touching and powerful, with strong themes of racial reconciliation and the power of music to bring disparate peoples together. Hairston's composition became incredibly popular in the years following the movie's release, and is performed by all manner of groups and in a variety of musical settings every year. This arrangement is a transcription from the great, modern, a cappella and 11-time Grammy-winning Gospel/R&B group, Take 6. Their tradition, like countless African-American groups before them, is to create and perform arrangements without ever writing them down.  So, if one is to "capture" them on paper, great pains must be taken. Jester Hairston lived from 1901 to 2000, well known as a composer, arranger, choral conductor and actor. —Paul Langford

Jonathan Rathbone: The Oxen
This gentle, sweet, and haunting piece comes from a longtime arranger for the current incarnation of Swingle Singers, based in London. Rathbone takes the beautiful and somewhat surprising text by Thomas Hardy and sets it in an equally gentle harmonic language, with a delightful (still gentle) twist at the end.

arr. Robert L. Morris: Glory to the Newborn King
Robert Morris is a skilled and sensitive arranger with a delicious ear for both harmony and rhythm. He arranged for Duke Ellington and is a master at bringing new life into traditional African-American spirituals. This carol has been in Chicago a cappella’s repertoire for twenty years. The opening solo leads to a gently pulsing musical carpet of sorts in the lower voices, which seems to help carry us visitors to the manger to see what Mary will name her “pretty little baby.”

trad. Polish, arr. Paweł Łukaszewski: Gdy śliczna Panna
Despite his relatively young age, Paweł Łukaszewski is the leading composer of his generation in Poland and the teacher (at the Chopin Conservatory in Warsaw) of many in the current group of rising-star composers. He is a tremendously prolific and skilled musician who writes choral music of great emotional intensity and power. He has won several Fryderyk awards (the Polish equivalent of a Grammy, the highest honor in the recording industry in his country), primarily for his large-scale choral works with orchestra. Nevertheless, his mastery extends to smaller works, such as this one for a cappella chamber choir. Gdy śliczna Panna is the third carol in a recent set of four, which Chicago a cappella is honored to present in its U.S. premiere. After a more traditional opening, the texture expands toward the end and finishes with a glorious ten-part chord.

Early American, arr. Jonathan Miller: Star in the East
Jonathan Miller was music director at Unity Temple in Oak Park when he encountered the Boston Camerata’s recording of this early American tune from the shape-note tradition. Inspired by Joel Cohen’s setting, Miller decided to create his own. The traditional melody is angular without being jarring, always dignified and stately, while capturing the shepherds’ excitement and eagerness to arrive at the inn.

Domingo Lobato Bañales: Duermete Niño
This sweet lullaby was written by Domingo Lobato, who was born in Morelia, Michoacán in 1920 and died in 2012. One of the greats in Mexican church music, he was a pillar of the musical community in Guadalajara, where he was appointed chair in composition in 1946 at the School of Sacred Music, and he was honored during his lifetime by the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. He founded the School of Music at the University of Guadalajara and directed it from 1956 to 1973. He was known as a dedicated, tenacious teacher, determined to pass on high-quality teaching to his students. He wrote music in many styles and forms, includes a great deal of piano music.The flowing, tuneful melody of Duermete Niño likely borrows some of its gentle character from the Gregorian chant that Lobato studied intensively as a young man. The poem has a charming image of the baby Jesus as “sweet honeycomb,” sort of like calling a baby “cupcake” or “sweetie pie.”

Gustav Holst: Lullay My Liking
From the composer of The Planets comes this delightful setting of a medieval carol text. The “burden” or refrain is set in a slight uneven meter, which gives it life and propels it forward. Similarly, the verses are not standardized but spring forth individually, each with its own melody and character. The harmonic language is characteristic of the English folk revival of the early 20th century, championed by Holst and Vaughan Williams.

arr. Paul Langford: Coventry Carol
This iconic and haunting English carol dates from the 16th century. The composer is unknown, and the oldest text is credited to Robert Croo in 1534. The lyric depicts the Christmas story from Matthew Chapter 2, referring to Herod ordering all the male infants under the age of two to be killed, following the birth of Christ. Famous (and perhaps surprising) recordings include those by Sting, Anthony Newley, Annie Lennox, Joan Baez, John Denver, Dinah Shore, and the great a cappella groups Pentatonix and Chanticleer. This arrangement was commission as a studio recording project by the celebrated championship Barbershop quartet  MaxQ in 2011. —Paul Langford


Peter Yarrow, arr. Paul Langford: Light One Candle
Written by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), in 1982 this contemporary Chanukah song appeared on at least six albums by the famous folk trio.  Yarrow originally composed the song to express his strong feelings of opposition to the war in Lebanon, and, according to friends, the group wanted this song to create an impact in Israel similar to Bob Dylan's “Blowing in the Wind.”  This arrangement was commissioned by Voices of Liberty at Epcot/Disney World in 2014 to expand their Jewish and Chanukah holiday music offerings. —Paul Langford

Elliot Z. Levine: Lo V’chayil
This is one of the best Chanukah pieces for choir to emerge in recent years. The text is from the prophet Zechariah. As all prophets do, Zechariah aims to wake us up from our complacency and look at the world in a different way. The text is as fresh and relevant as it was thousands of years ago. Levine’s triple-time meter keeps the music propelling forward, much as the prophet keeps nudging at us, tugging at our sleeves to make sure we can hear the message amid the din of our everyday lives.

arr. Paul Langford: O Come O Come Emmanuel
This great and familiar Christian hymn for Advent and Christmas is an 1861 translation of the Latin hymn "Veni, Veni, Emmuanel," itself a paraphrase of "O Antiphons" from the Vespers for the Octave before Christmas (December 17-23). The words and music developed separately, with the Latin text traceable to 1710 in Germany and the tune to 15th-century France. Many other English texts and translations also exist. Notable arrangements and recordings of this great pairing of text and melody include those by Zoltan Kodaly, Enya, U2, Whitney Houston, the Punch Brothers, Twenty One Pilots and a punk rock version by Bad Religion! This arrangement was originally commissioned in 2013. —Paul Langford

arr. Eleanor Daley: The Huron Carol
The earliest Canadian carol on record, The Huron Carol is now known and sung all over Canada. Its original words were in the Huron language, with a tune borrowed from a 16th-century French Canadian melody. The carol in Huron was known from about 1643 as Jesus Ahatonhia. This choral setting comes from the renowned Toronto-based composer Eleanor Daley. She regularly composes music for her church choirs and also writes and arranges secular music. Her music is sung virtually around the globe, and she has been honored nationally in Canada.

Juan García de Zéspedes (1619-1678): Convidando está la noche
Born in Mexico, García was an accomplished musician. He studied in Puebla with Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and succeeded Gutiérrez in 1670 as maestro de capilla of Puebla Cathedral. This is probably García’s best-known piece, a joyous song that has contrasting slow and fast sections. The slow sections are more serious, with lyrics that evoke a traditional image of the newborn infant. The fast sections are marked “Duo guaracha,” indicating a zippy style of music that might typically have instruments playing along (the guaracha is a musical style now closely associated with Cuba). The overall effect is sort of like a situation where a hymn alternates with a jam session.

arr. Henryk Jan Botor: Cicha noc (Silent night)
Henryk Jan Botor (b. 1960) is another prominent choral-music composer currently active in Poland. Primarily a teacher of piano and organ in the Kraków area, he writes for those instruments and for symphony orchestra. His choral music is quite popular in Poland. This setting takes the familiar “Silent night” tune and presents it first with humming and then with a Polish text.

arr. Paul Langford: Carol Of the Bells
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych composed this melody in 1914, based on a traditional four-note folk motif, on a commission from conductor Alexander Koshetz. When Koshetz’s choir, the Ukrainian National Chorus, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1921, the song was a huge hit. The audience’s response to the piece prompted Peter J. Wilhousky to write a new lyric in English (unrelated to the original “Shchedryk,” meaning “bountiful”) and to arrange the music for four-part a cappella chorus. The Wilhousky version, now known as “Carol of the Bells,” has been arranged and recorded hundreds of times by every imaginable artist (most notably, perhaps, by the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Carpenters, Mannheim Steamroller, Wynton Marsalis, Pentatonix and the Piano Guys, to name only a few) and is among the most requested and performed songs every Christmas season, the world over. It even appears on a holiday-themed episode of The West Wing. The simple, four-note motif is instantly recognizable and iconic—the mark of a masterful composition. This current arrangement from Paul Langford was commissioned by Voices of Liberty at Epcot Center/Disney world in 2014, with a special request that it be "faster, higher, louder, more spectacular..." than the version they had been doing for some 30 years prior, and that it include phrases from "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." 
—Jonathan Miller and Paul Langford