Holidays a cappella 2003

December 2003

Program Notes

 Now is the time of Christmas

Peter Ré

 Maoz Tzur

arr. Bob Applebaum

 Luo spiritual:  Nyathi onyuol

Enrico Oweggi (Kenya)

*   *   *   *   *

 Twelfth Night      

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

 In the bleak midwinter

Randolph Currie (b. 1943)

*   *   *   *   *


Jonathan Miller

 Brightest and best

Appalachian carol, arr. Wayland Rogers

*   *   *   *   *

 Den signade dag

trad. Swedish, arr. Nils Lindberg
 O magnum mysterium

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

 I believe this is Jesus

spiritual, arr. Undine Smith Moore  (1904-1989)

 Jingle a cappella

arr. James L. Clemens


 Al Ha-nissim

arr. Elliott Z. Levine

 The Christ-Child’s lullaby

Gwyneth Walker

 Ave maris stella

Javier Busto

*   *   *   *   *

 Christmas Spiritual Medley

arr. Joseph Jennings

      Rise up, shepherd, and follow


      Behold that star!


      Sweet little Jesus Boy


      Poor Little Jesus


      What month was my Jesus born in?


      Children go where I send thee


      Go tell it on the mountain




Peter Ré:  Now is the time of Christmas

This rousing song is the first movement of A Christmas Triptych, composed by Peter Ré, professor emeritus of composition at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  He received his musical training at Juilliard, the Yale University School of Music where he studied with Paul Hindemith and received a Bachelor of Music degree in 1984, and at Columbia University for a  Master of Arts degree in 1950. He has composed commissioned works for the Portland and Bangor Symphony Orchestras; the Colby Trio; Keppa Gamma Phi, a national music fraternity, and the Portland String Quartet.  Among awards received is the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities for his work as Conductor and Music Director of the Bangor Symphony.  Ré's compositions have been performed at Juilliard, New York’s Town Hall, the Berkshire Music Center, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Maine Center for the Arts and at a number of colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.  His string quartets have been performed by, among others, the Juilliard, Hungarian, Bay Chamber, Vaghy and Portland string quartets.  In recent years Ré has appeared as a guest conductor of chamber orchestras in Switzerland and Italy.

The text is adapted from medieval English poems and expresses a robust welcome.

Bob Applebaum: Maoz Tzur

Fans of our recorded Funky Dreidl may recognize this piece by the same composer, the second of Bob Applebaum’s Three Pieces for Chanukah (1999), which we first performed in 2001. 

Bob Applebaum observes the following:

“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. 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.)”

Bob Applebaum’s is an unusually sensitive treatment of the traditional four-square tune. 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 us out of more familiar territory and into a sense of almost-suspended animation.

Enrico Oweggi: Nyathi Onyuol

This is a spiritual, composed by Enrico Oweggi, in the Luo language from the Nyanza province in western Kenya.  The Luo are the second-largest and second-wealthiest tribe in Kenya, after the Kikuyu. The Luo people traditionally live on the shores of Lake Victoria, which they believe to be sacred.  Many of Kenya’s scientists and doctors come from the Luo tribe, as they place a high value on education.

This piece has been made famous by Muungano, the national choir of Kenya, founded by Boniface Mganga to be an ecumenical, pan-Christian, multi-ethnic choir with singers from all the tribes and linguistic traditions of his country.  ”Muungano” means ”unity” in Kiswahili. Kodi Barth, a young Kenyan journalist who trained at Columbia University and is a tenor in Muungano, writes from Nairobi that ”Muungano's musical style is a cappella. However, true to its African roots, the choir employs the most abundant of musical instruments: the voice, with drum, kayamba, (reed rattle) and an occasional triangle accompaniment. The songs, like a lot of Africa's contemporary arts, have sprung from a fusion of the rich and varied rhythmic and melodic traditional and neo-traditional African tunes with exuberant and intense quasi-Western harmonic style. The ease with which the multi-dialect choir shifts from one language to the other is hard to copy. They will effortlessly shift from Taita’s Kaung’a Yachee to Lugya’s Mang’ondo Dora, to Kisii’s Ekebwe Ngiakura, to Kikuyu’s Wakariru, to Luo’s Isaya ne Okoro.”  Staying true to our own traditions, Chicago a cappella is singing this piece with our versatile vocal percussionist covering the drum part.

Samuel Barber:  Twelfth Night

Samuel Barber wrote most of his choral music before 1943, much of it for the choir that he conducted at Curtis Institute. This is a late piece—the penultimate choral work from his pen—published in 1969. Barber’s choral music is on the conservative side, but always  deeply expressive;  he was ruthless with himself as a critic and discarded many choral pieces he deemed to be of poor quality. 

The haunting poem here is by Laurie Lee (1914-1997), a man who published four collections of poems, several travelogues, and the bestselling Cider with Rosie (1959), which has sold more than six million copies worldwide. In its obituary of Lee the Guardian wrote, ”He had a nightingale inside him, a capacity for sensuous, lyrical precision.”

It is ironic that great religious music can be composed by people with little belief in conventional dogma, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, the famous British agnostic who was a titan of 20th-century church music and whose tunes and arrangements fill the hymnals of many denominations.  Similarly, we learn from music critic Steve Schwartz that Barber had no formal religious belief, being an agnostic at best, but that he was drawn to religious imagery and intelligent explorations of religious ideas. Twelfth Night is a modern mid-century piece, in much the same way that T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is modern. They are full of yearning, but as there is no longer an absolute center, they can count on no certainty at the far end of the journey;  they are drawn to yearn nevertheless.

Randolph Currie:  In the bleak midwinter

Randolph Currie is a church organist, choir director, and composer in Sylvania, Ohio, where he serves St. Joseph Catholic Church and teaches organ and music theory at Lourdes College.  He has been publishing church music for thirty years. Currie brings to his music making an extensive interest in the history of chant, polyphony, and American folk tunes. He also cultivates a fascination with architectural concepts in which limitations of material and space are important. He writes, ”When I write, I try to produce music which is serviceable and well crafted like good antique furniture. I also consider it a challenge to write music which is not difficult to perform, but is interesting enough to bear repeated performances.”  Currie’s setting of the familiar poem by Christina Rossetti is more somber and less sentimental than many others;  only at the end are the heart-strings truly tugged by the music, and then to excellent effect.

Jonathan Miller:  Vibrations (from Journey to Bethlehem)

This work was written a year ago, as part of the holiday cantata Journey to Bethlehem,  for the choir at Unity Temple in Oak Park.  This large work is in lessons-and-carols format, alternating songs with spoken readings.  The poetry is by Peter Watson Jenkins, a gifted poet who grew up in Britain, was educated at Cambridge University, and now makes his home in the Chicago area. The poetic work as a whole adopts a questioning, almost-skeptical view of the Christmas story, but its power is in the way it alternates between asking hard questions and expressing true wonder. 

Vibrations is the fourth musical movement of the cycle, expressing in clear, open textures the simple, sturdy, tactile world of the shepherds. Musically, the style is eclectic: whole-tone scales set up the opening vibrational shimmer; a minor/modal melody gives the shepherds a reciting tone; and at the end, when the sounds finally come to full force, inverted chords aim to capture the power and wonder of a miracle beyond our usual comprehension.

arr. Wayland Rogers:  Brightest and best

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. In Chicago, where he lives, recent performances have been given by Bella Voce (formerly His Majestie's Clerkes), Chicago a cappella, Chicago Choral Ensemble, Chicago Choral Artists, Camerata Singers, Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus, Solel Congregation, Lake Shore Choral Festival, and Lake Forest High School. Of his more than 90 works, many have been especially commissioned. He is winner of several composition competitions including The Roger Wagner Center Choral Competition and The Chautauqua Chamber Singers Award. His publishers include Boosey and Hawkes and Alliance Music Publications.

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, Tanglewood Festival, Blossom Festival, Ravinia Festival and Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. He received a 1986 Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music recording with the Chicago Symphony Winds. He trained as a conductor with Margaret Hillis and presently is Music Director of The Camerata Singers of Lake Forest, and The North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL. He is Director of Choruses at Loyola University/Chicago.

Brightest and best sets a traditional Appalachian carol, a tune which is perhaps best known from the popular recording by Jean Ritchie. Wayland Rogers’s choral treatment of the  same tune is notable for two things: the thoughtful adding of an extra beat to most of the two-bar phrases (resulting in a 5/4 time signature almost every other bar), and a spare, open harmonic language. The harmonies strongly recall the three- and four-part shape-note hymnals from the mid-19th century, such as Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony. Only at the very end does the arranger let the texture blossom regularly into four-part chords, which sound almost decadent by contrast with what came before. 

trad. Swedish, arr. Nils Lindberg:  Den signade dag

Nils Lindberg is one of Sweden’s most talented and versatile musicians.  A composer, arranger, pianist and orchestral director, Lindberg studied music history at Uppsala and counterpoint and composition at the Royal University College of Music in Stockholm. He often draws on folk melodies from the province of Dalecarlia.  This haunting melody, Den signade dag, comes from Äppelbo and finds a fetching harmonic home in Lindberg’s jazz-inflected chorale treatment. 

Francis Poulenc:  O magnum mysterium

This is probably the best-known piece of classically-composed French Christmas music from the last century. In 1952 Francis Poulenc published his Quatre motets pour le temps du Noël, of which O magnum mysterium is the first movement. The Latin text comes from the Divine Office, chanted every day in monastic orders; this is the fifth responsory at matins on Christmas Day. Poulenc’s setting is spare, clean, almost cool at times, yet still full of drama and of the fundamental awe and mystery of Jesus’s birth.

arr. Undine Smith Moore:  I believe this is Jesus

Christmas spirituals form a rather small portion of the overall spiritual repertoire. They range from contemplative to energetic, usually with a little extra rhythmic zip to express joy in the midst of slavery. This tune is not particularly well known, but the arranger is one of the more important figures in black American music. Undine Smith Moore received her undergraduate degree from Fisk University; she later attended the Julliard School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia University Teachers College where she received an M.A. and professional diploma. She taught in the public schools in Goldsboro, North Carolina and was appointed to the faculty of Virginia State College in 1927, where she taught until her retirement in 1972. Dr. Moore co-founded the Black Music Center at Virginia State and co-directed it from 1969-72. The Center was responsible for bringing to the campus leading Black composers, performers, and lecturers. As a direct result of her innovative and influential teaching, many of her students, including Billy Taylor, have become celebrated musicians and composers. She received an honorary doctor of music degree from both Virginia State College (1972) and Indiana University (1976), where an archive in her name holds valuable manuscripts and scores of black American composers.

Dr. Moore wrote in many musical genres, including compositions for solo voice, chamber ensemble, various solo instruments, and a large number of choral works. Her best-known compositions include Afro-American Suite for flute, cello, and piano (recorded by Trio Pro Viva); The Lamb (recorded by the Virginia State College Choir and the St. Stephens Church Choir); Lord, we give thanks to Thee (commissioned by Fisk University); and Daniel, Daniel, servant of the Lord (recorded by the Virginia State College Choir, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the Oberlin College Choir, among others). This arrangement was written for the Virginia Union University Choir in Richmond.

James S. Pierpont, arr. James Clemens:  Jingle a cappella

A perhaps too-familiar tune takes a splendid new guise in the hands of Chicago-area composer James Clemens. This arrangement was written for Chicago a cappella, specifically for this set of concerts.  In addition to giving Pierpont’s tune a jazz-inflected harmonic setting, Clemens takes an innovative turn in the ”legit” direction:  the middle section is a wild fugue in 7/8 time, based on Bach’s Fuga 23, BWV 868, from The Well-Tempered Klavier, volume 1! 


arr. Elliott 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. He is a buoyant colleague with a keen ear and a strong 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. Levine 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.

Gwyneth Walker:  The Christ-Child’s Lullaby

Gwyneth Walker is a graduate of Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. She holds B.A., M.M. and D.M.A. Degrees in Music Composition. A former faculty member of the Oberlin College Conservatory, she resigned from academic employment in 1982 in order to pursue a career as a full-time composer. She is a proud resident of Vermont, where she lives on a dairy farm in Braintree. She is the recipient of the Year 2000 "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Vermont Arts Council.  Walker's catalog includes over 130 commissioned works for orchestra, band, chorus and chamber ensembles. Her choral music is published by ECS Publishing of Boston.

The Christ-Child’s Lullaby is a work of unusual beauty, reflecting the composer’s desire to incorporate dramatic elements into choral music. The basic tune, a Hebridean folksong, is a haunting Mixolydian melody (with the flatted 7th scale degree). Walker keeps the harmonies grounded in this Celtic-sounding space for the first part of the piece, but takes a stunning turn toward Lydian (C-major with an F#) during an extended “Alleluia” section.  The texture later includes soft tapping by the choir, several solo lines, and an ingenious, semi-free tapering off toward the end, leaving only the initial soloist to close the piece alone, just as a parent will be singing into silence when the baby is finally asleep.

Javier Busto:  Ave maris stella

Javier Busto was born in 1949 in Hondarribia, in the Basque Country, and holds a medicine degree from the University of Valladolid.  As a musician he is primarily self-taught. He studied choral conducting with Erwin List and directed Coro Erdeki in Valladolid between 1971 and 1976. He founded and directed Coro Eskifaia, in Hondarribia, from 1978 until 1994.  In 1995 he founded the Cantemus Koroa ladies’ choir in San Sebastián.  Together with Coro Eskifaia he has won competitions across Europe. With his compositions he has won prizes in Bilbao, Tolosa and Lgualada. Javier Busto has taught choral conducting on several occasions and has served on the juries of competitions for choirs and composers, including the international jury for the 1995 Arezzo competition. 

Ave maris stella is one of the most popular Marian hymns of the Catholic liturgy. Its composer and poet are unknown; the tune probably originated in the 8th century. Javier Busto retains the traditional text but creates a new melody, which he cloaks in a fetching and unexpected harmonic dress, including small echoes, hums, and open vowels.  The entire piece expresses both the heart of the prayer to the Virgin Mary and its grandeur. 

The poem packs a great deal of symbolism into its short lines. The second stanza in particular is a play on words in Latin.  By noting that ”AVE” (”Hail”) is the same as ”EVA” (”Eve”) in reverse, the poet suggests that the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who brought Mary the message that she was to bear a child, transformed the name of the original (and fallen) woman into a greeting of unprecedented grace through the Annunciation.

arr. Joseph Jennings:  Christmas Spiritual Medley

One of the world’s most acclaimed and decorated vocal-ensemble directors, Joseph Jennings joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983, and shortly thereafter assumed his current title of Music Director. Under his direction, Chanticleer has released 25 critically acclaimed recordings (works ranging from Gregorian chant to Renaissance masterworks to jazz), including the Grammy Award-winning Colors of Love and Lamentations and Praises, and has performed at many of the world’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls. Originally from Augusta, Georgia, Mr. Jennings earned his Master’s degree in Conducting from Colorado State University at Fort Collins, and his Bachelor’s degrees in Music Education and Piano from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. A prolific composer and arranger, Mr. Jennings has provided Chanticleer with some of its most popular repertoire, most notably spirituals, gospel music, and jazz standards. He has also composed for such ensembles as The San Francisco Girls Chorus, Phillip Brunelle's Plymouth Music Series, The GALA V Festival Chorus, The New York City Gay Men's Chorus, The Dale Warland Singers, The Phoenix Bach Choir, and the Los Angeles Vocal and Instrumental Ensemble. His compositions and arrangements are published by Oxford University Press, Hinshaw Music of Chapel Hill, NC, and Yelton Rhodes Music of Los Angeles. Mr. Jennings’s versatility has earned him many types of positions: lead singer/pianist with jazz ensembles; music director and pianist for churches, theater, children’s theater and opera productions; guest conductor; professor; and director of clinics, demonstrations and workshops. Most recently, he served as guest conductor for performances of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. In addition to being Music Director of Chanticleer, Mr. Jennings also leads the Golden Gate Men's Chorus.

One of Jennings’s greatest strengths is his stylistic versatility.  This medley of traditional Christmas spirituals runs the gamut from being contained and reverent (”Rise up, shepherd, and follow”) to downright campy (”Sweet little Jesus boy”);  the latter reflects Jennings’s early influences by the great small gospel groups such as the Ward Sisters.  Jennings also gives the tempo marking of ”Bloozy” for his setting of ”Poor little Jesus,” leaving no doubt that loosening up is a good idea.