Holidays a cappella

Holidays 2015

Program Notes

Holidays a cappella  (Dec. 2015)

I Wonder as I Wander   John Jacob Niles,
arr. Steve Pilkington
Blessed be that Maid Marie   Seán Doherty
The Angel Gabriel   Basque carol, arr. Alan Smith
Ave Maria   Javier Busto
And The Glory of the Lord   G. F. Handel, arr. J. Miller
Magnificat   Arvo Pärt
Today the Virgin   John Tavener
De Tierra Lejana Venimos   Puerto Rican carol, arr. Ruben Federizón
We Three Kings   John Henry Hopkins, Jr.,
arr. Darmon Meader
Christmas Spiritual Medley   arr. Joseph Jennings
The 12 Days of Everything   arr. J. Miller
Who is the baby?   Rosephanye Powell
Mary, Did You Know?   M. Lowry & B. Greene, arr. Pentatonix/Paul Langford
S’vivon   Hebrew folk melody,
arr. J. Miller
S’vivon   arr. Steve Barnett
Ain’t Dat A-Rockin’ All Night?   spiritual, arr. Paul Carey
Amuworo ayi otu nwa   Christian Onyeji
Lo V’chayil   Elliot Z. Levin
Si no me dan de beber lloro   Puerto Rican carol,
arr. J. Miller
encore:  Il Est Ne le Divin Enfant   arr. David Willcocks


Welcome to “Holidays a cappella.” We’re glad that you’re here. This show marks the first concert music-directed by Benjamin Rivera, who also celebrates his tenth anniversary as a singer with Chicago a cappella this month. Benjamin is a thoughtful, multitalented colleague. He suggested much of the repertoire on this program, including the Tavener and Pärt pieces. He also brought ideas for the Puerto Rican selections, reflecting part of his own heritage and adding a new dimension to our programming; his own introduction appears below.

* * * * * * *

I am writing these “Holidays” introductory notes in mid-October. It’s not winter yet, but we’re headed there. The sun is pouring in my kitchen window. The red, yellow, and orange leaf colors kicked in a few days ago. After a long, sunny, dry, glorious early autumn, it finally turned chilly last night, with frost advisories. While taking the dogs outside this morning, I met an in-breath of bracing, crisp fall air. Daylight, recently so lavishly prolific that we could fool ourselves into taking it for granted, is now of increasing scarcity.

Choral conductors have to do a sort of seasonal time-travel when it comes to picking music. We often program our December concerts in the summer and our spring concerts sometime when it’s cold. In addition to the sense of “Christmas in July,” I had a new experience recently: “Chanukah in October.” On October 5th, Matt Greenberg and I, along with my mom, spent a morning with producer Cydne Gillard at WFMT Studios, where we taped the narrative portion of our first-ever Chanukah radio special. Steve Robinson joined us for some of the time, and together we created something wonderful. For some reason, taping this Chanukah show helped me first make the transition into the colder, drier, darker season. We kept talking about lighting candles and just looking at them, about miracles that happened long ago and still inspire us. All that may have had something to do with my sense of moving into the holidays. Of course, the story of the birth of Jesus is also awe-inspiring, and the stories and lyrics about Christmas give rise to most of the songs on today’s concert.

When in the calendar do you typically have that shift into feeling that the holiday season is now here? Is it the weather, perhaps some critical mass of customs, traditions, or rituals? Is there one thing that you do every year that provides the transition point? There are also people who never really feel something like that, mostly feeling out of sync with all the bustle around of them; if you’re one of those people, then I hope that our concert at least gives you beauty and joy, if not the feeling that the season is finally here.

* * * * * * *

2015 was a rough year in my family. Between May and September we lost Sandy’s mom, my dad, my stepmother, and our cat. I imagine that many of you likewise are dealing with various sorts of life transitions or situations now, be they joyous or sad, transcendent or difficult, brief or chronic. I hope that taking some time to connect with the wonderful lyrics and music on today’s program, and of sharing in the generous gifts of our musicians’ talents and hearts, will add brightness and depth to whatever is happening in your life.

We deeply appreciate your being here. We wish you a wonderful remainder to your holiday season and a happy and healthy 2016.


Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director



They say good things come to those who wait. I doubt this is always the case, but it has certainly been true for me. While it is common knowledge that I gave my singing debut with Chicago a cappella in 2005 for their Holidays program, how this came about is a rather long story. The short version is that Jonathan came to hear His Majestie’s Clerkes (now Bella Voce) in concert in 2000, in which I was a soloist. We met for the first time after the concert, and he asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for Chicago a cappella. I said yes, but time passed and we didn’t connect. In 2003, he asked me again, and I obliged. I passed the audition and was placed on the alternate roster, meaning that I would be considered when a substitute was needed in the bass section. This didn’t happen until 2005, when Jonathan decided to test the new concept of directing the rehearsal process as a non-singing member. It went well enough, and I was offered a position in the ensemble for the entire 2006-07 season, while he and Patrick Sinozich took on the role of (non-singing) Music Director. Upon Patrick’s retirement as Music Director, Jonathan was tasked with finding music directors for various programs over the next few years. After another wait, the circumstances and timing have worked out so that I am able to take on the role of Guest Music Director for this program. I am thrilled, just as I was when I finally landed that first “Holidays a cappella” show ten years ago.

In forming and shaping the program with Jonathan, I wanted to include a few components that show a little of my background and musical journey:

The first component is a sort of through-line from the beginning of the program to intermission, proceeding from prophecy, and the reasons for Christ’s incarnation, to stories of Mary and the birth of Jesus, to songs about the star, angels, shepherds, and the three wise men. It’s not a straight line as much as it is a spiral, with certain aspects of the story overlapped with others; but the progression to the star is clear, and the spirituals medley rounds out the first half in style. For me, this narrative—the Christmas story—is a source of great inspiration; it has been with me since before I can remember, and it remains embedded in my soul. The remainder of the program allows you to enjoy some lighter moments, some Chanukah pieces, and some more music in the tradition of the spiritual.

The second is the inclusion of music in which I have developed a specialization. I have included a work by Tavener—about whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation—spirituals, and even one of the choruses from Messiah to represent my work in the choral/orchestral field. While these might seem disparate, I suppose that is who I am as a musician. I enjoy all sorts of music, and I like to keep my musical life from being too homogeneous.

The final element is a small taste of my ethnic heritage. My father is Puerto Rican, the first member of his family born in the States. While there is a large Spanish-speaking community in Chicago, Puerto Ricans are a relatively small percentage. (In the year I was born, the numbers of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago were nearly identical. Now, there are four or five times as many Mexicans as Puerto Ricans.) As a result, much of what surfaces in Chicago by way of Latino culture these days—food, music, art, etc.—is not from my tradition. So I thought I would include a couple of songs that are very well known to Puerto Ricans, but not typically sung or heard outside of those circles.

I hope you enjoy the story. I hope you enjoy the variety. And I hope you enjoy hearing music that may be your favorite or may be new to you. This is me, and this is Chicago a cappella.

—Benjamin Rivera



J. J. Niles, arr. Steve Pilkington: I Wonder as I Wander
This much-loved tune is partly traditional and partly composed. The “original” melody for this carol was pieced together by John Jacob Niles from three lines which he cajoled out of a young girl in 1933, in Murphy, North Carolina (the mountainous far west of the state, in the Appalachians). Niles paid Annie Morgan twenty-five cents per performance; after eight tries, he notes, “I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea.” He fleshed out the melody and wrote additional verses, first recording the song in 1938 on a 78-rpm disc for RCA Red Seal. The melody has found an exquisite home in this a cappella choral setting by Steve Pilkington, who teaches at the acclaimed Westminster Choir College (Rider University) in Princeton, New Jersey.

Seán Doherty: Blessed be that Maid Marie
Seán Doherty is a rising star in the current generation of young composers from Ireland. For this piece, while contemplating the refrain of the medieval carol, which reads “Eya! Ihesus hodie natus est” (something like “Hey! Christ is born today”), Doherty was reminded of the hip-hop song Hey Ya!, performed by the group Outkast as well as the plainchant Hodie Christus natus est from the vespers service on Christmas Day. The rhythmic drive of hip-hop makes its way into this piece, a delightful stylistic mashup that retains great integrity and fidelity to the text.

Basque carol, arr. Alan Smith: The Angel Gabriel
The translation of this text is at least as famous as the Basque-country tune with which it has been paired. This much-loved English version is by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who was not only a county vicar but also a prolific folk-song collector, and his scholarly treatment of werewolves is one of the most frequently cited studies on the topic. Alan Smith’s classy a cappella setting borrows some of its spirit from the classic version in the Oxford Book of Carols.

Javier Busto: Ave Maria
There are many musical settings of Gabriel’s message to Mary. This one has a particularly well-defined sense of repose and peacefulness. Javier Busto also is from the Basque country and directed his first choir in the city of Hondarribia. Busto is a remarkable musician, a physician by training who is self-taught as a composer and one of the most respected figures in the choral community worldwide. The upper voices seem to have a way of floating, almost like angels, while the whole piece remains grounded and calm.

G. F. Handel, arr. Jonathan Miller: And The Glory of the Lord
One of the beloved choruses from early in Handel’s Messiah, this jubilant movement sets the well-known words from the prophet Isaiah. We perform the music here in a new a cappella arrangement, created for these performances.

Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
After experimenting with the various postwar musical trends such as serialism, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt had his life changed through an encounter with Gregorian chant in the 1970s. He created an intense, personal style of composition (which he calls tintinnabulum, after the sounds of bells) that is almost completely derived from the number of syllables in each word. In this austere style, the structure of each word dictates, in large part, the melodic contour and rhythmic stress of each word, and these in turn give shape to each phrase. His works are astounding in their combination of simplicity and power. The Magnificat is one of Pärt’s best-known compositions, a stunning exposition of Mary’s heartfelt prayer after she is visited by the angel. 

John Tavener: Today the Virgin
The late John Tavener, an Englishman, became a member of the Orthodox Church in 1977, when he was in his early thirties. Much of his output was inspired by Russian and/or Byzantine chant traditions. His music typically has an ethereal quality to it, similar in some ways to that of Arvo Pärt, whom you’ll hear later. However, in this piece, Tavener takes a more direct, angular approach, drawing on the tradition of the medieval English carol in his setting of a Christmas text by Mother Thekla (1918-2011), who was an important force in his life. A remarkable woman, she was born Marina Scharf in the northern Caucasus and escaped to England with her family during the Russian Revolution; eventually she took orders, later becoming Abbess of the small Orthodox community in the south of England, which relocated to the Yorkshire Moors in 1974. She played many influential roles in Tavener’s life, including spiritual (and commercial) advisor, librettist, and counselor; Tavener later said that he could not have worked so well with another librettist, writing that she “helped me put my music and my life together.”

Puerto Rican carol, arr. Ruben Federizón: De Tierra Lejana Venimos
This traditional carol comes to us in a lovely setting by Ruben Federizón, a musician who studied in the Philippines and in Canada and currently lives in Vancouver, BC. He was the resident arranger for the Philippine Madrigal Singers and has arranged folk songs from around the world.

The carol De tierra lejana focuses on the journey of the wise men to worship Jesus at the manger. As with the Puerto Rican carol that closes our show, this song emphasizes the importance of Epiphany, January 6th (el día de los Reyes) over Christmas as the dominant occasion in the holiday celebration. Instead of putting out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve, puertorriqueño children go outside on January 5th with scissors to cut grass, which they put into shoe boxes that then go under the beds of parents, grandparents, and other elders. The grass is intended for the camels to eat while los tres Reyes (the three kings) leave presents for the children.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., arr. Darmon Meader: We Three Kings
Darmon Meader is the creative force behind and lead arranger for New York Voices. Lately, in a nice turn of events, he has been making more and more of his a cappella arrangements available to the rest of the world. This setting allows our vocal percussionist to take wing and seems to evoke the spirit of The Lion King toward the end.

arr. Joseph Jennings: Christmas Spiritual Medley
A great medley can be a masterpiece, as this one is. Joseph Jennings, who is Chanticleer’s Music Director Emeritus and one of the world’s great choral leaders, created this medley early in his tenure at Chanticleer. It incorporates “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” “Behold That Star,” “What Month was My Jesus Born In?,” and several others (we won’t give away the surprise at the end). A countertenor, Jennings was influenced early in his career by gospel groups such as the Ward Sisters; the high, tight gospel-style harmonies found here are a tribute to that influence. In addition to a sense of reverence, Jennings has a sense of humor, as you’ll hear.


arr. J. Miller: The 12 Days of Everything
Starting with his mini-smash Jingle Bells Hallelujah Chorus, Jonathan Miller has embarked on a series that he calls “Wacky Christmas Carols.” He writes: “These mashups stem partly from my love of language, partly from my experience singing hymn tunes with different sets of lyrics, and partly from my enjoyment of putting things together that usually don’t get connected. The 12 Days of Everything switches things up at a brisker clip than Jingle Hallelujah. Even the refrain doesn’t use the ‘right’ melody. It’s fun to try to figure out what tune is being used before it changes again. Don’t worry if you don’t get them all. At some point the brain may just give up, in which case you can simply laugh your way to the end.”

Rosephanye Powell: Who is the Baby?
A classical vocalist by training and professor of voice at Auburn University, Rosephanye Powell has truly found her own compositional voice with her works for choirs. Her first song to gain wide attention was the quasi-spiritual In the Beginning Was The Word. Even when writing original works such as Who is the Baby?, her style is strongly influenced by the African-American spiritual and by gospel music. Watch for the “vamp” break toward the end.

Lowry/Greene, arr. Pentatonix/Paul Langford: Mary, Did You Know?
Pentatonix (also known as “PTX”) is the hottest a cappella group on the planet right now, and this is their #1 hit from last year’s PTX Christmas album. The transcription is by Paul Langford, familiar to many of you as the music director for last year’s Chicago a cappella show called Beatlemania.

Hebrew folk melody, arr. J Miller: S’vivon
arr. Steve Barnett: S’vivon

S’vivon is a traditional Hebrew folk song celebrating the holiday of Chanukah. The s’vivon is the traditional spinning top used in Chanukah games, also called dreidl in Yiddish. It has four sides, each with a different Hebrew letter. The letters (corresponding in English to the sounds N, G, H, and SH) each stand for a word in the Hebrew phrase, “Neis gadol hayah sham,” translated as “A great miracle happened there.”

We present two choral versions of the folk tune. The first is a simple setting with typical rhythms and harmonies, arranged by Jonathan Miller.  The second, which follows immediately, is an up-tempo, jazzy setting by Twin Cities-based composer Steve Barnett, with harmony and rhythm that quickly bring the tune into our own times.

spiritual, arr. Paul Carey: Ain’t Dat A-Rockin’ All Night?
This spiritual was so well received last year that we decided to bring it you again. Paul Carey, whose settings of spirituals have become some of our favorites, found this tune on one of Odetta’s Christmas album from the 1960s. The title might fool you into thinking that this is a raucous, driving song, but it’s just the opposite. Carey manages to enhance the folk melody with just enough harmonic dress to provide comfort and beauty, while keeping the setting elegantly simple, allowing the melody itself to blossom toward the end.

Christian Onyeji: Amuworo ayi otu nwa
This song is an expression of pure joy. Its Nigerian composer, Christian Onyeji, is also a pianist, choreographer, and conductor. He is Professor of Music and Associate Dean of the Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in Enugu State, where he researches African music and composes Nigerian art music. He has provided a lovely personal statement as part of his profile on LinkedIn, as follows: “I am a very determined, dedicated and hardworking person, willing to serve and assist others grow and achieve their goals in life. I very much want to serve humanity. I also would love to lay a foundation for change at any point I find myself. I believe it pays greatly to be humble, honest and compassionate.” He walks the walk, and talks the talk.

This piece, in the Igbo language, was designed to fit the needs of modern Nigerian church worship. The text, when sung in English, is likely familiar from Handel’s Messiah. With elements of dance, polyrhythm, and texture typical of the Igbo sub-area, the piece has a driving and jubilant quality. The music is called a “Native Air,” a genre popular among Nigerian art-music lovers. After several refrains and short verses, the texture adds solo voices, with which it builds to a glorious, multi-layered ending.

Elliot Z. Levine: Lo V’chayil
A founding member of the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Elliot Levine has been active as an ensemble singer and composer/arranger for more than forty years. His compositional output includes church anthems and settings of secular poetry as well as Jewish music. This lovely song takes a famous Jewish saying (which has also been set in a more raucous style by Debbie Friedman of blessed memory) and casts it in a meditative, triple-time setting, with phrases that rise and fall beautifully, growing out of the opening ostinato to fullness before releasing back into stillness.

Puerto Rican carol, arr. J. Miller: Si no me dan de beber lloro
The song draws on the Puerto Rican tradition of parranda, which involves going door-to-door, surprising people and grabbing them to join in the caroling, and staying up singing into the wee hours of the night. As with De tierra lejana, the primary holiday celebration of the birth of Jesus is not on December 25th but on January 6th, the festival of the three wise men or los tres Reyes (Epiphany). The sentiment of Si no me dan de beber lloro is basically as follows: “Come on out with us and sing, and let’s have a drink while we sing!” In fact, the last verse is a traditional Puerto Rican toast. When Benjamin Rivera told Jonathan Miller that he really wanted to include this as one of the Puerto Rican songs on our program, Jonathan looked around and found no choral version, so he made one. Benjamin vetted it and made a few suggestions. This song has amazing energy, and since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, you shouldn’t really be all that surprised to find a reference to Santa Claus in one of the verses.