Composer Andy Vores weaves together poetry by local writer Frederick Choi with diverse nursery rhymes that feature odd situations, curious occurrences, and bad behavior, to explore how the puzzlements of childhood can lead to finding a place and identity in the world. The music creates a unique sonic world by means of an electronic and environmental soundtrack and the use of looping pedals to create webs of sound by superimposing the singing of the chorus upon itself.
In 2016, Chorus pro Musica premiered Vores’s Spencer the Rover, for chorus and brass band, which was also commissioned by the chorus.
The program will also include:
Johannes Brahms, Op. 112
No. 3 Himmel strahlt so helle, Allegro non troppo (D major)
No. 4 Rote Rosenknospen, Allegretto grazioso (F major)
Saunder Choi, Leron, Leron Sinta
Ysaye Barnwell, Wanting Memories
Stephen Sondheim, Children Will Listen, from his popular musical, “Into the Woods”
The concert is sponsored in part by Tufts University and is included in the Tufts Sunday Concert Series.
This concert is free with general admission; first come, first serve.
The concert will also be live streamed on Sunday. Tune in at least 5 minutes before concert time: http://as.tufts.edu/
Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, Op. 112
No. 3, “Himmel strahlt so helle”
No. 4, “Rote Rosenknospen”
Brahms wrote two sets of Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy songs)—settings of Hungarian folk songs with text adapted and translated into German by Hugo Conrat, a good friend of Brahms’s in Vienna (the Hungarian nurse of the Conrat family reportedly made the initial translation). The first set of eleven songs, Op. 103, was composed in 1887–1888; its success helped spur the composition in 1891 of the four additional songs that were included in Op. 112. The songs were originally composed for vocal quartet, but are often performed by larger groups.
Folk music, particularly that from eastern Europe, was increasingly popular in the late 19th century, inspired in part by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846–1853) and by Brahms’s own Hungarian Dances (1869). The Zigeunerlieder can be seen as an extension of the Dances, as well as a spicier version of Brahms’s contemporaneous Liebeslieder Waltzes. The two songs performed today are exuberant celebrations of young love—sunlit, rosy hued, and full of nature’s beauty.
Saunder Choi: Leron, Leron Sinta
Leron, Leron Sinta, or “Leron, my dear,” is a universally known Filipino folk song from the Tagalog region. Like many folk songs (and nursery rhymes), it has different possible meanings—a work song, and, maybe, a courtship song. A boy and a girl go harvesting fruits: He climbs a papaya tree, but when he gets to the top, the branch breaks and he goes tumbling down. He calls her to help pick tamarinds, but when she climbs up, the branches sway and he fears she might fall. Finally, as they sit down to eat, the girl praises her love’s bravery in tackling a plate of noodles.
There are many versions of the song; today’s arrangement is by Saunder Choi, a young Filipino composer and choral singer (tenor) with degrees from De La Salle University-Manila, Berklee College of Music, and U.S.C. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Andy Vores: In Childhood’s Thicket
Andy Vores was born in Wales and raised in England. He studied at Lancaster University with Edward Cowie and worked as Composer-in-Residence at The City University, London. In 1986 he was a Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood. He has lived in Boston since 1990. Here, he has been Composer-in-Residence for the BankBoston Celebrity Series (1999–2001) and Composer-in-Residence for the New England Philharmonic (2002–2005). He taught at The Boston Conservatory from 2001 to 2016, where he was Chair of Composition, Theory, and Music History.
Chorus pro Musica commissioned and performed Vores’s Spencer the Rover in 2015. Other recent performances of his work include No Exit by Florida Grand Opera, Fabrication 15: Amplification at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, Drive by the New England Philharmonic, and Grand Monadnock Measures at the Monadnock Music Festival.
In Childhood’s Thicket has three sections: “Events,” “Oddities,” and “Mishaps,” each of which sets a handful of nursery rhymes and a poem by Frederick Choi. Choosing the nursery rhymes was a fairly straightforward task: I wanted to include only those rhymes that I clearly remembered from my childhood and only those that had some strangeness or darkness or puzzlement attached to them—for me, at least. One thing I enjoy about nursery rhymes is their habitual absence of explanation; these aren’t arguments, they don’t seek to persuade; they simply present situations.
The overall arc of this work is an exploration of identity: something that we start to construct for ourselves, it seems to me, in childhood. We tell ourselves things about ourselves that may or may not be true, and these gradually coalesce into a narrative about our likes, dislikes, fears, attributes, etc., that we then present to the world. The three poems of Frederick Choi that I chose to set here also explore constructed personas and also play with truth and expectation.
In addition to the chorus, In Childhood’s Thicket has an electronic soundtrack, largely constructed of treated sounds that amplify the texts: bounces, quacks, snips, doors slamming, wind howling, water bubbling, rain, bells, etc. It also utilizes “loops,” snippets of singing recorded during the performance that are played back immediately and superimposed over each other. These mostly provide a fuzzy and complicated but rather featureless “bed” for the chorus or soloists to sing over, so that, as with the texts, simple things lead to complex ones through accretion and juxtaposition.
Ysaye Barnwell: Wanting Memories
Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, a native of New York City now living in Washington, D.C., is the only child and perfect blend of her mother, a registered nurse, and her father, a classical violinist. Dr. Barnwell studied violin for 15 years beginning at age 2½ and majored in music through high school. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Speech Pathology and M.S. in Public Health, and was a professor at the Howard University College of Dentistry when, in 1979, she joined the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, with which she performed for 34 years.
“Wanting Memories” is part of a suite of songs commissioned for a dance theater piece called Crossings. It is dedicated to Barnwell’s father, though when it was written both her parents were still alive. Today, in discussing it, she recalls lessons that he taught her, particularly one based on jiu-jitsu: “If you want to win against your opponent, you must use your opponent’s resistance against himself.” The song is about how a parent’s lessons, spoken and unspoken, become part of us, and how they help us learn to stand on our own and to find strength and beauty (in a “cold and bitter place”) even after the parent is gone.
Four axioms have proven significant in Barnwell’s life: “To whom much is given, much is required”; “as one door closes, another door opens”; “everything matters”; “say yes!”
Stephen Sondheim: Children Will Listen
Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930 in New York City; he graduated from Williams College in 1950 with a major in music. His big break came in 1957, when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story (working with composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins).
Sondheim’s musical play Into the Woods (1987) is probably the ultimate musical exploration of fairy tales and their relationship to identity and meaning. Many of those ideas were explored in Bruno Bettelheim’s well-known book The Uses of Enchantment (1976), which pointed out that “adult themes,” including casual cruelty, death, and abandonment, are an integral part of that “children’s literature”—just as Andy Vores finds “strangeness, darkness and puzzlement” integral to many nursery rhymes. “Children Will Listen” is an epilogue to Sondheim’s play, sung in the finale, that warns us to take that dark side seriously. Too often, the “happy ending” is only one part of the story.