Holidays a cappella 2001

December 2001

Program Notes

 Veni, veni, Emmanuel

arr. Jacek Sykulski

 London Waits

 arr. William Llewellyn


 Maríukvæ i

 Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson

 A spotless rose

Herbert Howells

 Glory to the Newborn King

spiritual, arr. Robert Leigh Morris


trad. Chanukah folkson, arr. Elliot Z. Levine


 The Huron Carol

French Renaissance tune, with words originally in Huron; arr. Steve Schuch

 Hemant (Winter) from Six Seasons

Vanraj Bhatia


 Three Pieces for Chanukah

Bob Applebaum

     1. Oh Chanukah/Y'mei Chanukah
     2. Maoz Tzur


     3. Funky Dreidl



 Noël Nouvelet

trad. French, arr. Ian Humphris


Carol Barnett

 Samba Noel

Jonathan Miller


 Yorkshire Wassail

trad. Yorkshire Carol, arr. Humphris

 Wexford Carol

trad., arr. Kate Howard

 Ding, dong

arr. Jacek Sykulski


 Mi y'malel

arr. Peter Saltzman

 Fayer, fayer!

Mark Zuckerman


 Nowell sing we (all and some)

 John Byrt

 Deck the hall

 arr. Gene Puerling


Ever since we started our tradition of “Holidays a cappella,” I have wondered why people flock to hear us in December. It’s starting to make more sense, especially in the aftermath of September 11th. When governments and bombs fall, when huge buildings simply vanish, the seemingly stable order of things gets turned on its ear.

All of a sudden, the seemingly minor tradition of singing holiday choral music takes on new meaning. Notes of music, waves of sound, will shortly be floating through space and time, from our lips to your ears. We don’t give you a whole lot to lookat, certainly by comparison with TV or evenopera. There’s a little bit to hang onto, visually:you can see our bodies and faces moving, you can read the texts we print in your program. But the music itself is something you can’t see. We don’t cut to new screen angles, we don’t edit or process your experience. All you get is just what your own eyes and ears take in. And yet, somehow, this most ephemeral of art forms still has the power to give us a sense that we are deeply rooted, grounded in the very stuff of life.

There’s one other new dimension after September 11th—the fact that we can actually do this concertfor you. By your being here, we reinforce the ideal that we can enjoy the blessings of freedom of speech, of assembly, of artistic expression. This concert would not be possible in several countries on this planet, as we have all learned recently. And though I am quite left of center politically, I have a renewed appreciation for those principles and rights which allow us to program and perform music from dozens of religious traditions and places.

I have come to view these concerts as unlike any others that we do. We always strive to connect with our audiences, and we do a pretty good job at it; but this is different, now, here. At the holidays, the experience of being with you and making our music becomes almost tribal, a communal creation of the experience of comfort and togetherness. Even if nobody else at the concert is anyone you’ve ever met before, I will bet that you will leave here feeling that your common humanity is affirmed. If you’re so inclined, please e-mail me and tell me what your experience was in this regard. It would help me, and help us, to know that.

A little about the musical excerpts themselves, in a general way: It’s important to me, at this time of year, to connect deeply to the past, to history. Everything in the commercial world is being hawked as “new,” “improved,” and the like; but sometimes the best things, the things that give us the most comfort, are the old things. So we usually include a very old tune right at the start of the concert—something like Veni, veni Emmanuel, or a piece of Gregorian chant— which allows us to tap into the rich tradition of human beings singing the same tune, together.

My job is to put together a sort of choral crazy quilt. A good concert should reflect the past and look forward; balance all the different elements from which the program is fashioned; and assemble it all in a new and original way. Therefore, African-American spirituals are balanced with an Icelandic hymn to the Virgin Mary. Slow, meditative Native American music gets sung next to zippy Hebrew music. Several pieces are drawn from a superb two-volume set called The Novello Book of Carols. (Already out of print, only fifteen years after its publication, this collection is first-rate, and I recommend it to any church choir conductors out there who are looking to infuse their holiday offerings with new blood.) And more “legit” classical pieces findbalance with jazz, samba, and funk.

A word about all the Chanukah music: I was on the faculty at the North American Jewish Choral Festival this summer. The number of Chanukah pieces tonight reflects my enthusiasm for the quality of recent activity in that field. It’s my great pleasure to share with you Bob Applebaum’s Chanukah suite, which, along with the works by Peter Saltzman, Mark Zuckerman, and Elliot Levine, represent some of the finest Jewish choral music of recent years.

Whatever community or communities you hail from, you are welcome here. May you find in our performance a link to our larger human family. May you find in our sounds comfort, solace, joy, ecstasy, depth of feeling, and refuge from the press of daily life. Thank you for coming to hear us; you could have been somewhere else tonight, and your presence here is a gift to us. Happy holidays to you and yours.

—Jonathan Miller


arr. Jacek Sykulski: Veni, veni emmanuel

A colleague who first found me on the Web, Jacek Sykulski is creator, conductor and artistic director of the Polish vocal ensemble Nova Gaudia. The group hails from Poznan, a university town in western Poland, not far from Berlin. Connected to singing since his childhood (and a graduate form Jerzy Kurczewski’s Choir School), Sykulski has completed a master’s degree in music from Poznan, having specialised in clarinet performance and composition. Thanks to a one-year exchange scholarship in Canada, he has also had the occasion to get acquainted with some of that country’s unconventional vocal techniques. Sykulski is widely known as an author of the anthem “Abba Father,” composed for the 6th World Youth Day with the Pope in Czestochowa and sung currently all over the world. For this work he was awarded the Young Art Medal, granted by the editors of Glos Wielkopolski. Jacek Sykulski is also the conductor of the University Choir in Poznan. He is an acclaimed composer; his works are gaining an increasing international audience, and have been championed by the Polish group Affabre Concinui.  This famous 13th-century chant tune is haunting, tuneful, majestic, and introspective all at once.  Sykulski’s sensitive arrangement moves the tune around the choir, setting it inside unusual chords and—speaking of unusual vocal techniques—giving it an improvisatory life of its own at the end.

arr. William Llewellyn: London Waits

This clever carol setting comes from the Novello Book of Carols, a splendid volume which is unfortunately out of print. Llewellyn, who served as the collection’s general editor, is a composer and arranger of unusual sensitivity and skill. This is one of his more extroverted efforts, combining a traditional refrain (“Past three o’clock…”) with several carols that you’ll probably recognize. His most deft rhythmic trick comes about halfway through, when he combines the basic triple-meter refrain with “Good King Wenceslas,” in duple meter, at the same time. If ears could blink, I’d tell you not to blink, or you might miss it.

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson: Maríukvædi

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson is one of the leading lights in Icelandic choral music, writing for a variety of performing forces and combinations of instruments with voices. He lives and composes music in Reykjavik now, having studied composition both there and near to us, at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. There are few composers for whose music I have personally found such a quick affinity; Thorkell taps into a rare depth of feeling and spirit, even in simple pieces like this one. As is often the case with the music of Arvo Pärt, there is always a quality of something unseen, below the surface, giving quiet power and pith to the mere notes on the page. It is as if he hears something that most of the rest of us do not, and gives us glimpses of it through his compositions.  I learned this piece from a CD of works solely by Thorkell, called Koma, released a few years ago in Reykjavik by the ensemble Hljomeyki. The texts are tender, and the music makes use of the strophic poetic structure to create three similar verses, yet each with its own life. Thorkell approaches the voices almost instrumentally at the opening: he treats the basses like bassoons, who lay down a woolly carpet of overtones, while an aethereal soprano line floats above as would a flute—or, since the tune is more plaintive, an oboe.

Herbert Howells: A spotless rose

Howells was born in 1892 and decided at an early age to be a composer. He studied with Stanford and Charles Wood at the Royal College of Music. He took very ill right after being appointed sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral; Howells expected an early death, but he started teaching at the RCM in 1920 and was still doing so at age 80. In 1950 he succeeded Holst at London University as King Edward VII Professor of Music.  While most of Howells’s church music was written in the 1940s and 1950s, A Spotless Rose is a very early work. It is the middle movement of his Three Carol-Anthems, composed in 1918-20.  The poem follows the same sentiment as “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”; however, this text, from an anonymous 14th-century English source, has a much different style—more flowery, gentler, a tad sweeter, while still profound. These qualities are mirrored in Howells’ setting, one of my favorite Christmas pieces of all time. The harmonies are aethereal, themselves blowing like the wind in the poem, yet somehow also fully grounded on the earth.

spiritual, arr. Robert Leigh Morris: Glory to the newborn king

Director of the Leigh Morris Chorale and professor at Macalester College in the Twin Cities, Morris is a terrific scholar of choral-music history as well as a skillful, adventurous arranger of spirituals. Take particular note of the way he gradually adds more and more voices to the naming of Mary’s baby: first comes the question, as a single line in the tenor and soprano; then a duet when she calls him Jesus; and finally a gospel-style trio when she calls him Emmanuel. There is nothing superfluous here, just superb part-writing in service of the tune and the text.

trad., arr. Elliot Z. Levine: Al Hanissim

Elliot Levine is one of the founders of The Western Wind, an internationally famous vocal sextet known for its summer workshops, varied repertoire, and Jewish-themed shows on public radio. I met him this summer and was happy to find in him a buoyant colleague, combined with a keen ear and sense of what works well in an a cappella arrangement. He has composed Jewish choral music as well as church music, film scores, solo songs, and more.  This Jewish folk song’s text comes from the traditional siddur (prayerbook), a prayer for the miracles that are commemorated at Chanukah. The melody has a classic “Jewish” feel because, in music theory terms, the rising scale begins A-Bb-C#, creating a half-step at the second scale degree which is followed by an augmented second. He sets up a nifty syncopated rhythm at the closing section, where the soprano and tenor toss the melody back and forth, and the altos and basses run the quick “Al ha-nis-sim” rhythm in staggered entries like a rhythmic round, before a big finish.

arr. Steve Schuch: The Huron Carol

Classically trained on violin, Steve Schuch is also an accomplished singer/songwriter, guitarist, author and storyteller. Honors include ASCAP composer awards, Artist Fellowship Awards, and five fiddling championships. His recordings with The Night Heron Consort are national bestsellers on the North Star label. Steve's latest book, A Symphony of Whales, has received a Parents' Choice Award and a New York Times "Best Illustrated Book of the Year" Award. In addition, Steve's latest CD, Trees of Life, has received a Parent's Choice Gold Award. Beyond his solo work, Steve also performs with symphony orchestras, his ensemble (The Night Heron Consort), and with Odds Bodkin, as the duo Wellspring. A former Peace Corps volunteer and Audubon naturalist, Steve lives on a farm with his wife and various creatures.

This piece is an arrangement of the first Christmas carol known to be written in the New World. It tells the nativity story in the imagery of the Huron Indians, for whom the original carol was written by a French missionary in 1642, using a traditional French Renaissance tune.

Vanraj Bhatia: Hemant

Vanraj Bhatia was born in Bombay, India, in 1927. After receiving his M.A. in 1949 from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, he pursued his compositional studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then spent five years (1954-59) as a student of Nadia Boulanger. He served on the faculty of the University of Delhi from 1960-65. Since that time, he has been working as a freelance composer in Bombay. Bhatia is a prolific composer of music for feature films, incidental music for plays, television specials, advertisements, commercial film, and documentaries. He has received several prestigious awards for his work.

The Six Seasons for a cappella choir is based on 11th-century Sanskrit texts. Each of the Six Seasons is based on a rãg traditionally associated with that particular season. Rãgs are the cornerstone of melodic organization in classical Indian music. They have specific ascending and descending patterns deriving from a parent scale, which provide the basis for improvisation. It is essential in improvising on a rãg that one sing the right pitches in the right order; other than that, one can slide, interpolate other pitches, and do all sorts of other things vocally, as long as you “play by the rules.” Bhatia has rather cleverly given each of the four voice parts its own improvisation: each indeed plays by the rules, hitting the pitches of the Winter rãg in order, both ascending and descending. His accomplishment in this piece is to have all four voice parts do it with some rhythmic coherence. You will notice that the music doesn’t give you anything like a strong V-I cadence anywhere; that’s not part of the traditional Indian musical language. Rather, the music has its contrasts from changes in texture, dynamics, and rhythmic speed, just as would be the case for a soloist singing with sitar and tabla. We premiered this piece in 1998, and it’s been good to return to it, with a faster tempo this time, which brings out the overall texture more fully. Enjoy!

Bob Applebaum: Three Pieces for Chanukah

Recently retired from a career teaching chemistry and physics at New Trier High School, Bob Applebaum has turned his fulltime energies to composition, and he’s creating some splendid music. Two years ago, he published this three-movement cycle on traditional Chanukah songs. I have never been particularly in love with any of these three tunes myself, but in Bob Applebaum’s hands they have taken on a beautiful new life. I met Bob at the North American Jewish Choral Festival this summer, and found an instant rapport with him; a generous and thoughtful colleague, he is also composer-in-residence at JRC, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston. Liturgically, Chanukah is a minor holiday, not nearly as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Simchat Torah. In commercialized, assimilated modern American Judaism, however, it has taken on a feel much closer to Christmas than it likely would have been celebrated in the

Warsaw ghetto or in other, more isolated, Jewish communities. As Bob Applebaum observes, Chanukah marks the successful revolt of Judah the Maccabee against the Hellenistic Syrian occupation forces around 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent rededication of the Temple. A story associated with this rededication is that there was only enough sacramental oil to burn for a day, but that miraculously, it lasted eight days. Some, however, would suggest that the Maccabean victory over the Syrians was miracle enough! (On the other hand, the calendar placement of Chanukah at the time of the long, dark nights near the winter solstice, and the burning of oil, strongly suggest a far more ancient basis for this holiday—antecedents related to seasonal issues of darkness and light.)

Oh Chanukah / Y’mei Chanukah
The composer writes: Many will be more famliar with the first line in English reading: “Oh Chanukah, O Chanukah, come light the menorah.” Technically, the menorah is different from the candelabrum used for Chanukah. The correct term for the Chanukah candelabrum is chanukiah, as reflected in the words in this setting. “Sevonim” refers to spinning tops, or dreidls. “Levivot” refers to traditional pancakes made during the Chanukah holiday.

Maoz Tzur
Jonathan Miller writes:
This middle movement, my favorite, is unusually sensitive. It features unexpected blues harmonies that really work, rhythmic and metrical changes that constantly enlighten, and a returning motif with a rocking 6/4 rhythm that takes you (or at least me) out of more familiar territory and into a sense of almost-suspended animation. After the events of September 11th, we might be given some pause by the militaristic tone of the text’s second half. History can be a guide for us as we consider the prayer’s source. Freedom of religion is an invention of the age of enlightenment. In Old Testament times, freedom of religion was not guaranteed by any political body, constitution, or nation. In an era when it was commonplace to be killed simply for being different, virtually every tribe saw every other tribes as “the other.” Deliverance was literally seen as physical protection from warring forces, and not only the modern sense of being delivered or redeemed spiritually. In the year 2001, we have been brutally surprised at how many people around the world do not value the freedom of religion—at least in the way we have come to embrace it in the West. I pray that there shall come a day when we all will be able to view one another as made of the same stuff, true members of a single human family. To accomplish that will take enormous spiritual work from every individual on the planet. I hope that we are up to the task.

Funky Dreidl (I Had A Little Dreidl)
Bob Applebaum writes:
The four faces of the dreidl are inscribed with the Hebrew letters “nun,” “gimel,” “heh,” and “shin.” In the game, each represents a particular gambling term related to Yiddish words. However, the letters have been reinterpreted in the context of the holiday as “Neis gadol hayah sham,” or “a great miracle happened there.”

arr. Ian Humphris: Noël Nouvelet

This traditional French carol has been delicately arranged by Ian Humphris, conductor of the National Westminster Choir in England. Humphris is a versatile composer and arranger. He became well known as the conductor of the famous singing group, the Linden Singers, appearing regularly on television and radio. As a member of the male quintet, the Baccholian Singers, he has given recitals in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Poland and many European and Scandinavian countries. Ian has written over 200 choral and orchestral arrangements, many published and recorded. For 20 years he presented television and radio programs for schools on BBC and ITV, introducing and writing music for “Music Time” on BBC TV and “Music Workshop” and “Music Makers” on radio.

Carol Barnett: Hodie

Composer and flutist Carol Barnett is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where she studied with Dominick Argento, Paul Fetler and Bernhard Weiser. She is a charter member of the American (formerly Minnesota) Composers Forum and has served on its board. The Women's Philharmonic, the Dale Warland Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Westminster Abbey Choir, the 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 in 1999 she was awarded a travel grant from the Inter-University Research Committee on Cyprus.  Composer in residence with the Dale Warland Singers from 1992 to 2001, she is currently a studio artist and adjunct lecturer at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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 Rachmaninoff and Poulenc, especially the final movement of Poulenc’s Four Motets (pour le temps de Noel).

Jonathan Miller: Samba Noel
The story behind this piece is very simple: I was looking for a samba piece for this program and didn’t have one. I did an internet search on “samba,” found the rhythm I needed, and wrote a song. “Samba” has a very specific definition—its rhythmic pattern is like this: DOOM (rest) (rest) DOOM DOOM (rest) (rest) DOOM etc. Once I got the groove going in my head, the piece just showed up. The tempo marking is “party dance groove.” There’s a little familiar quotation toward the end. Noel!


arr. Ian Humphris: Yorkshire Wassail

This catchy setting uses the rocking 6/8 meter found in so many similar “wassailing” songs. The basic melody may be more familiar to you in a major-mode arrangement; Ian Humphris uses the traditional ending refrain from Yorkshire, “For it’s Christmastime, when we travel far and near,” instead of “Love and joy come to you…” He sets up a trumpet-like fanfare for three parts, which is found first in the women as an over-layer for the men’s melody; for the second verse, the men and women swap roles. The fifth verse may be unfamiliar, so here it is: “Bring us out a table / And spread it with a cloth; / Bring us out a mouldy cheese / And some of your Christmas loaf.” Yum!

arr. Kate Howard: The Wexford Carol

My first contact with this tune came four years ago, when I bought a copy of the Night Heron Consort’s superb Christmas album, A Celtic Celebration (volume 2). Go buy it if you’re still shopping for presents. The arrangements there by Steve Schuch and his colleagues are unusually well-crafted, satisfying me emotionally as well as musically. The second-to-last track on that album is a Steeleye Span-like, hard-rock setting of “The Wexford Carol,” complete with Fender Stratocaster guitar—great music for cleaning up the kitchen. So what a surprise it was, when, in the summer of 1999, I went to hear the Village Harmony youth choir while in Vermont visiting my in-laws. That whole concert knocked me out, but this was the tune that went straight into my heart. It was a revelation to hear such a simple, effective setting of the tune I’d come to love in Steve’s instrumental version. Three of those high schoolers sang this achingly beautiful song and brought tears to my eyes. After the Village Harmony show I walked up to Kate Howard, their British director, and asked her if she could send me a copy of her arrangement. With a smile, she took her own copy right out of her music folder and handed it to me. Such are the blessings of true colleagues.

arr. Jacek Sykulski: Ding, dong

arr. Peter Saltzman: Mi y’malel

Since he began composing at age 10, Peter Saltzman has written in almost every major musical medium, including song, solo piano, chamber, orchestral, choral, opera, jazz combo, big band, film and dance. His music has been performed throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra has recorded his piece, Walls, for the A&R label. Critics have hailed his music for its originality and accessibility. The Dallas Morning News called Walls “powerful stuff,” and the Chicago Tribune called his third string quartet “imaginative and expressive”. The Chicago Sun-Times called his piano trios “distinctive” and “memorable” and his groundbreaking Kabbalah Blues/Quantum Funk “ambitious, richly layered, wonderfully accessible.” Saltzman has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the prestigious Artist Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council and an ASCAP Composers Prize. His commissions include those from two dance companies, the Oak Park-River Forest Children’s Chorus, and the West Suburban Symphony Orchestra. Saltzman studied jazz and composition at Indiana University, Bloomington, and composition and piano at Eastman School of Music. He is the founder and artistic director of The Revolution Ensemble, a Chicago-area group that is breaking new ground with its unique sound incorporating jazz, blues, rock, R&B and Latin-American music styles. His music is published by Oxford University Press.  Shortly after completing the cycle Birth of Soul for Chicago a cappella in 1997, Peter turned his attention to other Jewish choral compositions, including this setting of yet another familiar Chanukah tune. As with Bob Applebaum’s settings, the tonally stable tune finds here a new harmonic language. The harmonies depart from the “home” key of G major to the related tonal areas of B-flat minor, then D-flat (or C sharp) minor, then E minor, which returns easily back home. Always rhythmically versatile, Saltzman also plays with the rhythm of the opening three words (“Who can retell?”), transforming them into their own little triple-time riff, which blossoms and ushers in more jazz/blues chord changes.

arr. Mark Zuckerman: Fayer, fayer!

Mark Zuckerman was 11 when he had his first public performance. He studied at the University of Michigan, Bard College, and Princeton University. His teachers included David Epstein, George B. Wilson, Elie Yarden, Milton Babbitt and J. K. Randall. Zuckerman writes: “My training prepared me for academia, and my early career got off to a promising start: I earned a PhD from Princeton, won prizes for my music, had pieces recorded and published, held teaching positions at Princeton and Columbia, and published scholarly articles on music theory and computer music. Unfortunately, even though I loved to teach and was a popular teacher, I discovered I was not cut out for the life of an academic. . . . My musical compulsion finally won out, and I returned to composing with a vengeance, inventing and developing a new musical language that uses many sonorities from tonal music woven into structures found in atonal and twelve-tone music.” He is a prolific composer of a cappella choral music (including some 20 arrangements of Yiddish songs), music for solo instruments, chamber music and music for string orchestra. His choral music in particular has achieved an international reputation with choruses and at festivals in The Netherlands and Canada as well as in the United States Singers, the New Yiddish Chorale, The Workman’s Circle Chorus, and Di Goldene Keyt/The Yiddish Chorale, as well as Chicago a cappella. If you can imagine super-hot potato pancakes right off the griddle, you will understand this very short piece, even if you don’t speak a word of Yiddish.

arr. John Byrt: Nowell sing we (all and some)

arr. Gene Puerling: Deck the hall

Gene Puerling is a giant in the a cappella world, having been the driving musical force behind both the Hi-Lo’s (an all-male quartet), which began in 1953, and The Singers Unlimited, which got its start in 1967. Though no longer active, these two groups still reign in the hearts of a cappella fans as two of the most popular vocal ensembles of all time.

The Singers Unlimited (for whom Puerling created this arrangement) were pioneers in the technology of “stacking,” or multi-tracking, their sound. They would lay down one set of harmonies and then overdub themselves—either with the same pitches, for a richer effect, or with new notes to create more complex harmonies. Chicago a cappella uses this same technology for some of our demo recordings of Hinshaw Music’s new publications, to create the effect of 16 or 24 singers with only eight actually singing; however, it’s humbling to hear the jazz/pop masters do their work. I will never forget the thrill it was to sit in on a vocal-jazz session with some of the greats on the Chicago scene last summer. My friend Jerry Rubino and I were honored to just sit and listen, while Jennifer Shelton, Bob Bowker, Bonnie Herman (the legendary female singer of the Singers Unlimited), and others laid down a few tracks. It opened my ears to a new world of possibilities. Everyone active in the vocal-jazz and choral-music world owes a debt to Gene Puerling, so we’re helping to honor his legacy by closing with this popular chart, now a staple of the American holiday a cappella scene. Happy holidays!