Holidays a cappella 2002

December 2002

Program Notes

 Roun' de Glory Manger

spiritual, arr. W. L. James
 O magnum mysterium

Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)

 Immanúel oss í nátt

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (b. 1938)

 Glory to the newborn King

spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris

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 Boh sja razhdaje (God now is born here)

trad. Ukrainian, arr. James L. Clemens

 Children, go where I send thee

spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris

 Wexford Lullaby

arr. John Renbourn/K. Howard

*  *  *  *  *

 Kristallen den fina

trad. Swedish, arr. Gunnar Eriksson
 Hemant (Winter) from Six Seasons

Vanraj Bhatia (b. 1927)

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 Jubilate Deo universa terra

G. P. da Palestrina (1525-94)

 Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis

Randall Douglas Giles (b. 1950)

 Funky Dreidl from Three Pieces for Chanukah

Robert Applebaum (b. 1941)


 Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl

Mikhl Gelbart (1889-1966),arr. Mark Zuckerman

 The Huron Carol

trad. French, arr. Steve Schuch


trad. Hebrew, arr. Steve Barnett

*  *  *  *  *

 Poor Little Jesus

spiritual, arr. Anne Heider
 Coventry Carol

arr. Jonathan Miller

*  *  *  *  *

 Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Martin/Blane, arr. Robert Convery

Piae Cantiones (Swedish, 1582), arr. Brian Kay


We’re now well into our tenth season of activity in the Chicago area. Holiday concerts have long been a staple of our annual offerings.  We gave our first concert in September 1993.  Our next self-produced concert was a holiday program, in December 1994.  A few pieces from that concert are on today’s program, joined by more than a dozen others which have become audience and ensemble favorites over the intervening years.

Late last season, we finally decided to answer the question “Oh, do you have this concert on CD?” with an emphatic “YES!”  This concert comes shortly after the release of Chicago a cappella’s latest CD, Holidays a cappella LIVE.  We’ve managed to create an album that replicates, in recorded form, the wide variety of music we usually sing in our live performances. 

I’ll get the shameless commercial over with right now:  if you like this concert, please buy many copies of the album for yourself and your loved ones, before you leave tonight, and then more from our website after you get home.

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Now a few words about the spirit of this program:

As with all of our shows, but particularly with our holiday concerts, I strive in the programming for a balance between the contemplative and the ecstatic. Human beings need both. At this season, the need is especially pressing, and perhaps the need for repose is the more urgent. All too often, the only true lull in the season comes at 1:00am on December 25th, after the exhausted parents have finally made sure that Santa has filled the stockings, or in the late afternoon or early evening, after all the wrappings have been torn off the presents and have covered the floor, and the days big meal is concluded, and a precious hour of holiday family time settles in, almost by accident. When can we rest? When is there a socially sanctioned time to stop working, especially in 21st-century America?  We hunger for repose, and we have to cultivate it deliberately.

The ecstatic impulse needs to be filled as well, and it’s doubtful that the outer “buying frenzy” really gets us anywhere toward that inner goal. I am guessing that one of the reasons you’re here is to fill your soul as well as your ears. Choral music is a sort of controlled ecstasy, a group striving for peak experience. It’s been my experience that you, who take the time and energy to come hear us, do often share in that experience of both ecstasy and contemplation. It seems to happen through some virtually inexplicable miracle of communcation, a happenstance beyond anything we can analyze. However it works, the ecstatic choral concert is a combination of poetry, sound waves, emotion and intention, that go from us to you and then loop back to us. In that regard, I suppose it’s a lot like love, which is another reason that we do this.  Or perhaps you start the ecstatic ball rolling by showing up.  I’m not sure I know any more who sets in motion, and all that really matters is that it happens. 

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While these talented singers might make our art form look easy, this concert is a product of a great deal of work behind the scenes.  Fortunately, that preparatory work has become more and more a permanent fixture in our individual lives. Over the years, Chicago a cappella has progressed from an ensemble of nine singers mostly squeezing in rehearsals and performance in and around day jobs, to a performing group with a generous roster of almost 20 regulars and alternates, for most of whom music is a primary vocation.  When we were in St. Louis a month ago on tour, an eager church musician asked me, “So, what is your day job?” I answered her, “This is my day job.” Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she replied, “Oh, that is so cool.” It was a sign, somehow, that we are on the right track, and I rejoice that Chicago is a city where such livelihoods are possible. It is a remarkable privilege to be able to do this work. 

We now mostly have daytime rehearsals and recording sessions, undertaken by a gathering of veteran ensemble singers at the top of their game. Most of them make their living primarily from singing professionally in Chicago Symphony Chorus and other like ensembles, from work as soloists in opera and oratorio, and from teaching music privately. The singers keep inspiring me to program ever-more interesting music, and they gently remind me to get out of the way so their talent can shine through. In this emerging ensemble model, I find myself serving less and less as Herr Conductor, and more as a Benevolent Guide with strong ideas and an Occasional Clue as to how to realize them.

A great deal of credit for the growth in our organization goes to our board, chaired for the second year by the amazing Sandy Siegel. The board has stepped up recently to an unprecedented level of involvement in, and personal dedication to, Chicago a cappella. In the nonprofit arts world, as you probably know, there is simply no other way to get the job done. A lion’s share of the credit also goes to Matt Greenberg, our tireless, thoughtful, and simply extraordinary executive director. One of the original nine singers, he still shares his lovely baritone with us. We should all be blessed with such a colleague.

*  *  *  *  *

This, then, is our holiday offering to you. We share with you our approach to the art of professional ensemble singing, in a program that we hope you will find varied and exciting. This is our attempt to bring some of our most cherished human qualities—faith, hope, love, patience, generosity, peace, ecstasy—into palpable being, for an hour and a half or so. Please come greet us after the performance. We’d love to see you, and we are so grateful that you are here.

—Jonathan Miller


spiritual, arr. Willis Laurence James (1900-1966): Roun’ de Glory Manger 

Willis Laurence James taught at Spelman College in Atlanta from 1933 until his death in 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 cry” (called the “moan” by others) was the most distinctive feature of black American folksong, a notion supported recently in Samuel Floyd's The Power of Black Music. Mr. James appeared as a lecturer at the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and at Tanglewood, as well as on college campuses and before professional societies.

Morten Johannes Lauridsen (b. 1943): O Magnum Mysterium

The name of Morten Lauridsen is virtually synonymous these days with haunting, high-quality choral music. He achieved some notice with his Six Fire-Madrigals and then rose to the forefront of American choral composing with his cycle on Rilke texts, Les chansons des roses, which was followed a year later by this remarkable piece and later by the award-winning Lux aeterna.  When Chicago a cappella gave O magnum mysterium its Chicago premiere of this piece in 1995, the work was hot off the press. How were we to know that it would become the best-selling choral work of the decade? It has always been a wonderful challenge to do justice to this magnificent polyphony while singing mostly one voice to a part. The work divides into a total of nine voice parts at the first “Alleluia” section, about two-thirds of the way through. A surprising number of vertical sonorities place the third of the chord in the bass, giving the harmony a spaciousness not found in your garden-variety root-position triad.

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (b. 1938): Immanúel oss í nátt

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson is one of the leading lights in recent Icelandic music. He was trained in Reykjavik, where he now lives, and at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Thorkell has composed more than 200 works in all genres. Icelandic is a very pure form of Old Norse, and Iceland a nation of sophisticated language-connoisseurs. This piece sets three verses of an old Icelandic text, written in 1742. These words have a surprising tenderness, not what one would first associate with a land of icy volcanoes.

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

Robert Morris is founder and artistic director of the Leigh Morris Chorale of Minnesota, a community-based choir featuring African-American traditions, world music, and standard repertoire. Dr. Morris arranged for Duke Ellington; he has conducted his own works at performance sites including Carnegie Hall and in the Orchestra Halls of both Minneapolis and Chicago. He has given presentations at Poland’s national choral festival (Legnica Cantat). He is on the faculty of Macalester College, and shares with other musicians his expertise in African-American concert choral traditions. This sensitively arranged spiritual builds slowly, each verse adding a voice part. Morris’s blues-flavored seventh chords get increasingly rich as the piece progresses. The high point comes at the words “I think I’ll say Emmanuel!”, leading then to a sense of repose and dignity.

*   *   *   *   *

trad. Ukrainian, arr. James E. Clemens: Boh sja razdaje

There are two Ukrainian Orthodox churches within three blocks of one another in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, on the Northwest Side. This setting of a joyous Ukrainian carol comes from Chicago-area composer James Clemens. The English translation was done by the bishop of Chicago’s Ukrainian community, and put into poetry by J. Michael Thompson, who is professor of ecclesiastical chant at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary, director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, and director of music/ cantor at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral, all in Pittsburgh.

spiritual, arr. Robert L. Morris: Children, go where I send thee

Robert Morris’s setting of Children, go where I send thee is a gem—inspired, downright funky. Morris is able to achieve remarkable blues harmonies with only a four-voice texture. He draws on the strong tradition of African-American quartet singing, with “special effects” that include surprising dynamic shifts, like the subito piano that occurs when we return to the words, “one for the little bitty baby.” The rhythm is a slow groove, never rushed even when it’s going at full throttle.

trad. Irish, arr. John Renbourn/Kate Howard: Wexford Lullaby

This traditional Irish tune has been given new words and a lovely arrangement by John Renbourn, the brilliant, eclectic British virtuoso guitarist whose tastes run from medieval polyphony to blues. Renbourn is perhaps best known for his work with the folk-rock group Pentangle. Kate Howard, one of the teachers with the remarkable Village Harmony organization, simplified Renbourn’s rendition of the piece from four voice parts to three. This tune has also been arranged brilliantly for instrumental ensemble by Steve Schuch, whose Huron Carol appears later in this program.

*   *   *   *   *

arr. Gunnar Eriksson:  Kristallen den fina

Gunnar Eriksson, the Swedish wizard of the unexpected in choral music, 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 rocking 6/8 meter, the tenors join in with the old Lutheran chorale, Världens Frälsare kom här, better known to American choristers as Nun komm der heiden Heiland. The second time we sing the piece, we add in the alto voice an old Gregorian melody known as Christe, qui lux est et dies, sung here in Swedish as O Kriste, du som ljüset är. 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.

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 theSix 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!

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594):  Jubilate Deo universa terra

This wonderful piece appears on our first CD recording, Palestrina: Music for the Christmas Season (Centaur Records, 1996).  It is a jubilant setting of an offertory text sung at the second Sunday after Epiphany. The piece is found in a collection of polyphonic offertories, published in 1593 and hailed by musicologist Lewis Lockwood as the greatest musical achievement of Palestrina’s career. The music is written in five parts, for low voices—here, an alto part, two tenor lines, a baritone part, and a low bass line.  There is a great deal of voice-crossing, and the texture is remarkably supple, given the imitative framework and the rather condensed ranges of the voice parts.  Such skillful handling of similar voices distinguishes Palestrina from the generation of composers before him.

Randall Giles (b. 1950): Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis

Randall Giles has written and sung church music for several decades. He studied composition at Northwestern University and with Peter Maxwell Davies in England. His output includes several settings of old English carol texts, some with wonderfully complex dissonances and all with a strong sense of musical form. Now the director of the Institute for Sacred Music with the Church of South India in Madras, he composed this astonishingly beautiful piece in 2000.

Robert Applebaum:  “Funky Dreidl” (from Three Pieces for Chanukah)

Robert Applebaum, a rising star in the choral-music world, has been composing prolifically in recent years. His gifts of harmony and texture are substantial, infusing new life into traditional Chanukah melodies.  Starting with a low riff that resembles a slap-bass funk line, this piece gradually builds over a few minutes to a full-blown groove, in which one can happen to hear the words “made it out of clay.”

Applebaum explains that dreidl’s four faces are inscribed with the Hebrew letters “nun,” “gimel,” “heh,” and “shin.” In the game, each represents a particular gambling term related to Yiddish words:

Hebrew   Yiddish                    English

nun          nischt                       nothing (i.e., take nothing)

gimel       gantz                        all (i.e., take all)

heh          halb                         half (i.e., take half)

shin         shtel                         put in (i.e., put two objects into the pot)

However, the letters have been reinterpreted in the context of the holiday as the first letters of the Hebrew words “Neis gadol hayah sham,” or “a great miracle happened there.”


Mikhl Gelbart (1889-1966), arr. Mark Zuckerman: Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl

traditional French, arr. Steve Schuch: The Huron Carol

This is an unusual arrangement of the first carol written in the New World. The text was written by French missionaries who were converting Native Americans in Canada. The poem was translated into English, and with its original tune was set for vocal ensemble by Steve Schuch, the award-winning violinist and composer well known for his Night Heron Consort and his book, A Symphony of Whales.

traditional, arr. Steve Barnett: S’vivon

A gifted composer and arranger, Steve Barnett is also an award-winning producer, having produced all of Chanticleer’s CDs (and having won a Grammy for their Colors of Love album) as well as recordings for Anonymous 4 and Chicago a cappella. With expertise in virtually every genre of vocal music, he writes well for the voice and has a superb grasp of style, whether it’s in a new spiritual setting or a synagogue anthem. This arrangement comes from a set of four Chanukah songs which Steve published with Transcontinental Music in New York. He infuses new life into a well-known tune, which usually has much tamer harmonies!

*   *   *   *   *

spiritual, arr. Anne Heider: Poor Little Jesus 

One of the lesser-known Christmas spirituals, this tune has been given a warm, powerful setting by Anne Heider, artistic director of Bella Voce in Chicago and professor at the Chicago School of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. She builds increasingly full harmonies at the refrain, “Wasn’t that a pity and a shame?”, and ends with a sensitive imitative treatment of the opening melodies. The black dialect used here comes from Mississippi, as with all the spirituals on this concert.

traditional, arr. Jonathan Miller: Coventry Carol

This improvised, one-of-a-kind performance alters the usual flow of the piece by having each voice sing more than one note in turn, then holding a pitch until all the other parts catch up. The basic technique comes from Gunnar Eriksson’s groundbreaking guide to choral imporivsation, Kör ad lib.  Every time we sing it, the result is different.

*   *   *   *   *

Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, arr. Robert Convery: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 

trad. Swedish, arr. Brian Kay: Gaudete

This centuries-old tune was published in Sweden in the 1582 collection Piae Cantiones (Pious Songs). The song was introduced to a broad modern audience by the British folk-rock group Steeleye Span, whose a cappella recording of this tune featured clear, spirited singing. That single made the pop charts in England and gave rise to Brian Kay’s six-voice version, made famous in turn by the King’s Singers.