Winter a cappella

December 1998

Program Notes

Facta est cum Angelo plainchant (Mode 5), arr. Jonathan Miller
En stjerne er sat Per Norgard
God Now is Born Here Ukrainian carol, arr. James E. Clemens
Yuletide Carols (Chicago premiere of complete cycle) Jerry J. Troxell
    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel  
    He came all so still  
    New Year's Carol  
Chorale Motet from The Christmas Story, op. 10: Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming Hugo Distler
Hemant (Winter) Vanraj Bhatia
O Come, O Come Emmanuel Daron Hagen
A Spotless Rose Herbert Howells


from Arise and Be Free: trad. Hanukkah melodies, arr. Steve Barnett
    Mi Zeh Hidlik ("Who will light?")
And The Trees Do Moan Southern folksong, arr. James Fritschel
O, Poor Little Jesus trad. spiritual, arr. Bruce Saylor
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Martin/Blane, arr. Robert Convery
Christmas Spiritual Medley arr. Joseph H. Jennings

Today’s concert highlights many versions of favorite stories, in languages familiar and new.  While most of our music and text celebrates in English the advent and birth of a Galilean carpenter’s son, I also wanted to cut deliberately across religious and cultural lines.  If you’ve heard us before, you know that I like to use our programs’ themes to mix things together which might not otherwise have so clear a relationship.  So too with holiday music. 

As a large piece of meat tastes better when adorned with a variety of contrasting dishes and flavors, I believe that our more conventional experience of American Christmas and Chanukah is richer for taking  in strong doses of other musical flavors and languages.  Therefore, in addition to the usual English, Latin and Hebrew, you’ll get some Danish and Hindi on the first half.

You may be a bit weary already from the holiday hubbub.  I hope to rest your ears a bit.  Classically-based holiday music provides a break from popular fare in one particular way:  it has its own kind of musical texture.  Most of the composers on this program have woven the voices together in rich, thoughtful, lush textures which are not found every day.  This is especially true of Per Norgard’s En stjerne er sat (A star is set).  The Danish master sets off the angel’s solo voice from a dense chorus of shepherds, whom she then joins to proclaim the new birth.  Likewise, in  Howell’s A Spotless Rose, the baritone solo soars above an achingly beautiful a cappella accompaniment, only to fall back into place for the last verse.  Distler, too, is a master of texture; he surrounds the familiar Lo, How a Rose tune with a masterful panoply of textures, ranging from four to nine voices. 

Every program takes its inspiration from something, and imitation is the highest form of flattery.  I pride myself on several original twists in tonight’s program, but I wish to explicitly acknowledge here my debt to Chanticleer and its conductor, Frank Albinder.  Last December, a tough month for me, Frank and his guys sang a program of such deep repose that all my cares were whisked away and I was left with a stunned, peaceful silence—no mean feat in a Stanford University chapel with 1200 other people, to whom the same thing happened.  I came home with a wish to give a similar gift of peace and joy to my friends in our Chicago audiences; from that wish this program was born.  Enjoy.

--Jonathan Miller


Processional: Facta est cum Angelo (plainchart)
In the chanted celebration of Christmas morning, the service of Lauds marks the gradual brightening of the sky at dawn.  Five spoken selections from scripture are each joined with a sung antiphon.  This is the fourth antiphon at Lauds for Christmas Day.  Our version uses the practice of Sweden’s Gunnar Eriksson and the Rilke Ensemble. 

Per Norgrad: En stjerne er sat (A star is set)
Among Danish composers of the late twentieth century, Per Nogard is one of the very best.  He studied composition with the late Vagn Holmboe at Copenhagen Conservatory, and returning there to teach in 1960.  However, Norgard resigned in 1965 in a dispute over educational policy and entrance requirements.  He moved to Aarhus (my favorite Danish city, much like Madison, Wisconsin in character) and established an important center for experimental composition at the University there, bringing many promising young composers to study with him. 

Musically, too, Norgard has always had a mind of his own; he has an idiosyncratic style with strong personality.  Norgard is particularly sensitive to text, as this shepherd story shows.  The music is from his 1992 Korbogen (choir book), a new a cappella scoring (1992) of a section from an earlier Christmas oratorio.  Even in a rather modern tonal language, Norgard preserves a sense of joy and wonder at the angel’s message.  The steady ¾ meter lends a sense of steady walking toward Bethlehem, leading up to the wise man’s unexpected outburst.  Danish is a beautiful language to sing, though pronouncing it isn’t learned in a day; kudos to the singers for their new phonemes!

Ukrainian carol, arr. James E. Clemens: God Now is Born Here
Chicago is touted as a melting pot of nationalities and traditions.  Sometimes, however, the different cultures don’t really interact or intersect that much.  In such a climate, little is generally made of the true sincere efforts to cross boundaries of religion and culture.  I know of no other church musician here who has so earnestly worked to bring together Eastern and Western Catholic liturgical and musical traditions than J. Michael Thompson, music director for the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter’s in the Loop.  Michael both speaks and sings Ukrainian.  A gifted liturgist, he is a true ecumenist in the very best sense.  I have sung many 6:00am services in the Ukrainian Village with Michael and the Schola, only to be treated with kind hospitality afterward by the parishioners at Sts. Volodymyr and Olha (“V&O”) church.  Michael directs several sets of recording sessions each year for church music publishers: I learned this piece last summer in a particularly fun session.  It comes from the western set it in poetic verse.  The music in Jim Clemen’s arrangement is so lively that we started instinctively singing it like a shape-note hymn!

Jerry Troxell:  YULETIDE CAROLS (composed 1981-88)
The late Jerry Troxell was a well-rounded, accomplished performer, teacher and composer.  Early in his career he was a professor of music at Sangamon State University for fourteen years.  He also lived for three years in Chicago, but later moved to St. Louis, where he made his strongest mark and set down his deepest roots.  He played and taught saxophone privately at all ages and levels, and composed and recorded actively.  He was active in New Music Circle and a longstanding member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.  Toward the end of his life, Troxell was a professor of music at St. Louis University and music director of First Unitarian Church in St. Louis. 

Troxell’s music has strong rhythmic life and a slightly spare yet always effective harmonic language.  His best works include Prayers of Steel, a choral work on a text by Carl Sandburg, which Chicago a cappella premiered in 1997, and Floating Vines, a jazz suite for two saxophones and table.  His frequent collaborations with visual artists included a whimsical performance-art piece called “Lives of An Artichoke.”  He also wrote the musical scores for two public-television documentaries, “Inland Voyages” (about the poet John Knoepfle), which was a Telly Award finalist, and “Articulate Space” (about St. Louis architecture).  Chicago a cappella sang the middle movement of Yuletide Carols four years ago and is pleased now to present the entire cycle. 

Hugo Distler: Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (chorale motet from “The Christmas Story,” op. 10)
Hugo Distler began his studies as a pianist and conductor.  He was steered toward organ and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory.  His mentors there were the two scholars most responsible for the Orgelbewegung, a revival of a Baroque and pre-Baroque organ sound.  Though he had a few of his better students works performed, Distler became quite prolific once he landed the organist position at the Jakobikirche in Lubeck.  Most of his organ, vocal, and choral works date from this period, roughly 1929-1935. 

Unfortunately, Distler was a rising star in the church of eastern Germany at the same time the Third Reich was coming to power.  His creative and sensitive life was cut short prematurely by the Nazi persecution of devout Christians.  He was barley spared from having his music publically declared “degenerate art” at the Stuttgart in 1938.  Despite an appointment in 1940 to the Struttgart music faculty, which freed him from military service, Distler plunged into a spiritual depression from professional wartime stress, and dies two years later. 

Distler was steeped in the music of Heinrich Schutz, the early-Baroque master, and adapted Schutz’s deft word-painting in his own choral writing.  This seven-section motet has been extracted from the longer work known as The Christmas Story (Die Weihnachtgeschichte, 1933).  Each of these sections uses the famous chorale tune, “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen.”  I usually prefer to perform works in their original languages, but this is an unusually good translation, one which preserves the integrity of Distler’s rhythmic suppleness.

Vanraji Bhatia: Hemant (Winter)
Vanraji 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.  Vanraji 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 rag traditionally associated with that particular season.  Rags 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 rag 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.” Vanraji 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 rag 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 textures, dynamics, and rhythmic speed, just as would be the case for a soloist singing with sitar and tabla. 

Dargon Hagen: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Dargon Hagen is best known as the composer for the opera, Shining Brow, about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.  He also happens to be a choral composer of great sensitivity.  This piece crossed my desk last spring in a packet of new releases from E.C. Schirmer, the publisher.  I usually recycle 95% of what comes in those packets, but this one humped out at me and wouldn’t go away until I played it through.  From that point, I was captivated, as I think you will be. 

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 o0f Music.  He took very ill right after being appointed sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral; Howells expected an early death, by the started teaching at the RCM in 1920 and was still doing so at the age of 80.  In 1950 he succeeded Holst at London University as Kind Edward VII Professor of Music. 

While most of Howell’s church music was written in the 1940’2 and 1950’s, A Spotless Rose is a very early work.  It is the middle movement of his Three Carol anthems, composed in 1918-1920.  The poem is essentially the same as in Distler’s “Lo, How A Rose” motet; however, this text, from an anonymous 14th-century English source, has a Howell’s setting, one of my favorite Christmas pieces of all time.  The harmonies are aethereal, themselves blowing like the wind in the poem. 


Steve Barnett: Mi Zeh Hidlik and S’vivon (from “Arise and Be Free”)
Steve Barnett studied theory and composition at the University of Minnesota and is a character member of the American Composers Forum.  He also attended the Eastman School of Music, studying advance jazz composition and arranging.  Before coming to Minnesota Public Radio, where he was for years a producer for National Programming, Mr. Barnett was assistant director at Sound 80 Recording Studios where he composed, arranged, and produced music for both national and local television and radio commercials.  He is now a freelance producer, working with such notable ensembles as Chanticleer, Anonymous 4, and the Dale Warland Singers on all aspects of their CD production.  For more than 20 years, he has served as a choral director of B’nai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  These two Chanukah songs are traditional melodies, which Barnett has “zipped” up with jazz harmonies and rhythms. 

arr. James Fritschel: And The Trees Do Moan
I first heard this haunting song at that magical concert in Palo Alto last year.  The plaintive melody is set in a number of contrasting backgrounds, culminating the basses’ final lament. 

spiritual, arr. Bruce Saylor: O Poor Little Jesus
Bruce Saylor is an acclaimed New York-based composer, successful in many genres.  In 1995-96 he was a composer in residence at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This traditional spiritual, set for soprano solo and a cappella choir, was composed for Jessye Norman, who premiered it at Notre-Dame in Paris on December 20,1990, with the Choeur Regional Vittoria Ile de France.  Chicago a cappella gave this piece its Chicago premiere in 1995, and we are happy to present it once again.  Two sections are of special note: the first is the slow, meditative repetition of the word “Jesus,” just before the soprano solo begins; the second comes at the text “Come down, all you holy angels,” when the basses hold a pedal point and the higher voices soar heavenward. 

arr. Robert Convery: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Robert Convery studies at the Curtis Institute, Westminister Choir College, and Julliard, where he received his doctorate.  His teachings were Rorem, Persichetti, and David Diamond.  Convery has written four one-act operas, twenty cantatas, more than 40 choral works and cycles, string quartets and other chamber works, as well as Variations and Fugue for large orchestra and over 150 songs for voice and piano.  He writes with unusual effectiveness for the voice.  His music is expressed in a distinctly personal voice which combines lyrical melody with rhythmic vitality, a keen harmonic sense, and transparent textures.  Based in New York, Convery has had his works performed by many of the East Coast’s most prestigious ensembles.  Musica Sacra, led by Richard Westernburg, premiered two major works on a Bitten-Convery concert at Alice Tully Hall on March 3, 1993.  Convery’s cantata, Songs of Children, using children’s poems from Terezin Concebtration Camp, received its Washington, D.C. premiere on April 13, 1993 at the celebration of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the performance was filmed by ABC Television for inclusion in a documentary on that museum.  

While one might expect a more classically-oriented setting of a Christmas song, given his pedigree, Convery shows here a superb vocal-jazz feel, as well as a sense of humor.  Through an old friend, I met him in person last spring, and we developed an instant rapport; in thanks for the dinner I cooked him, he sent me this piece.

arr. Joseph Jennings: Christmas Spiritual Meledy
Joseph Jennings, my good friend, is a music director of Chanticleer, a group he joined as a countertenor in 1987.  He hails from Augusta, Georgia, where his first musical heroes were the great female gospel groups: The Ward Singers, The Davis Sisters, the Gospel Harmonettes and the Caravans.  He carries the spirit of those ensembles in his gospel-music arrangements and his own singing.  This holiday melody includes traditional gospel-music voicing’s in many styles, and it’s great fun to sing; in particular, the stratospheric setting of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” is right on the money.  Notice also how he sets the transition into “Go Tell It On The Mountain” ; the sound he gets is the closets things to a railroad whistle that I have never heard.