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Andy Vores’s new composition, Spencer the Rover, featured a British-style brass band that accompanied the chorus in the story of a man “much reduced, and in great confusion,” who wanders until loneliness and a revelation lead him back to his amazed family. Benjamin Britten’s popular Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard tells a much grimmer tale of adultery and murder, thrillingly sung by men’s chorus. In Abbie Betinis’s From Behind the Caravan: Tales of Hâfez (which CpM performed in part last November) the women’s chorus sings in Persian, with cello, oud and hand drums, of “traveling along love’s journey, from the borders of nothingness.” The chorus also performed Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis, Felix Mendelssohn’s Richte mich, Gott, op. 78, no. 2, Sydney Guillaume’s Haitian Creole parable Twa Tanbou, and James Taylor’s meditative That Lonesome Road.
The commission of Spencer the Rover was supported in part by an Alfred Nash Patterson Grant from Choral Arts New England.
Felix Mendelssohn: Richte mich, Gott, op. 78, no. 2
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, son of Abraham Mendelssohn, a successful banker, and grandson of the prominent Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife renounced the Jewish religion, and their children were brought up in the Reformed Christian Church. The family moved to Berlin when Felix was three, where their household formed the center of an active cultural circle that included prominent artists, musicians and scientists.
Felix (like his sister Fanny) was considered a musical prodigy, making his first public concert appearance at age nine and writing a dozen string symphonies between age 12 and 14. At age 10, he began the study of theory and composition at the Berlin Singakademie, where he encountered works of J.S. Bach—including a manuscript copy of the St. Matthew Passion, a work then widely considered unplayable. In 1829, Mendelssohn conducted the academy’s ensembles in a celebrated performance of the Passion that catalyzed a Bach revival.
n 1843, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV appointed Mendelssohn Director of the Royal Berlin Cathedral Choir. “Richte mich, Gott,” a setting of Psalm 43, is one of the compositions Mendelssohn wrote for that group. Scored for double choir (evoking the polychoral Venetian style which Mendelssohn heard in his travels in Italy), it has a programmatic directness of expression and lush romantic harmonies that are characteristic of the composer of the oratorios St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846).
Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimitis
According to the classical database Bachtrack, Arvo Pärt is the most performed living composer in the world, and has been for the past five years (next in popularity are the American composers John Adams and John Williams). Pärt is known for a minimalist style, influenced by Gregorian chant, which employs a compositional technique he has called “tintinnabuli” (“the ringing of bells”). His music is characterized by simple harmonies—often single unadorned notes—and triad chords, whose three notes he likens to bells. Like his contemporaries Henryk Górecki and John Tavener, Pärt’s music often has a spiritual or mystical focus
Pärt was born in 1935 in Estonia, which a few years later was annexed by the Soviet Union. His family had a piano, but its middle register was damaged, leading him to experiment with the top and bottom notes—developing a sensibility that can still be heard in his music. During his compulsory military service, he played oboe and percussion in the army band; later, at the Tallinn Conservatory, he wrote music for film and the stage, and worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio. In the 1970s, Pärt studied medieval and Renaissance music, and converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox faith.
Pärt did not get along well with the Soviet regime; his music was often restricted or banned. In 1980, he was allowed to emigrate with his family, moving first to Vienna and then, in 1981, to Berlin. He returned to Estonia about 10 years after it achieved independence, and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn.
The Nunc dimittis, or “Song of Simeon,” comes from a story in the gospel of Luke. Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. He was at the Temple in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph came with Jesus, and, upon taking Jesus into his arms, he declared that his waiting was over: “Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace” (Now let your servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to your word)
The singing of the Nunc dimittis (paired with the Magnificat, or “Song of Mary”) is an integral part of the Anglican Evensong ceremony. Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis was composed for the choir of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, and was performed at an Evensong service broadcast live on the BBC in 2001.
Benjamin Britten: The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Bernard
Britten dedicated The Ballad of Little Musgrave to “Richard Wood and the musicians of Oflag VIIb – Germany.” Behind that dedication is an interesting story of the surprisingly vibrant cultural life that existed in many German prisoner-of-war camps (a good description is found in The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies).
Oflag VIIb (short for “Offizierlager 7b”) was a German prisoner-of-war camp for officers located in Eichstätt, Bavaria. One of those P.O.W. officers was Lieutenant Richard Wood, captured at Dunkirk in 1940. Wood had been a choral scholar at Oxford and, before his military service, a professional singer. At the camps, he met both professional actors and musicians; when the YMCA sent a shipment of musical instruments to his camp, he began to imagine what he might achieve “with 1,600 men who had very few books to read and no other demands on their time.”
For Christmas 1940, Wood and his associates organized a carol service based on that at King’s College, Cambridge. They followed that up with a Gala all-Schubert concert to help pay for a grand piano that they’d bought in Salzburg. In April 1941 they performed J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
Probably Wood’s greatest accomplishment was a 33 day-long music festival at Oflag VIIb in February 1944 that included classical choral, chamber and symphonic music (with a 29-piece orchestra), dance band numbers, and an “international” program including Maori hakas, the Welsh Singers Choir, French-Canadian songs, and Spanish songs and dances. For this festival, inspired by the popularity at the camp of a record of Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Wood decided to ask the composer to provide a work for the choir.
Wood had a connection with Britten: Wood’s sister, Anne, was a mezzo-soprano who had performed with Peter Pears in the BBC Singers. Britten embraced the commission; by December 1943 he wrote that he was “quickly scribbling a short choral work for a prison camp in Germany where some friends of mine are, & where there is a choir & enthusiasm for my tunes!” The work was snuck into the camp on microfilm, arriving shortly before the festival was to start. A story in The Times of London in 1945 quoted Wood: “The choir (35 to 45 voices) started by cordially disliking the work, but finally they all thoroughly enjoyed it. It grew on us all the time and the audience took to it immediately, or were at least brought up short by it. It was performed four times.”
The ballad is a wild story of adultery and murder—pure escapism, which Britten might have thought would provide a welcome distraction for prisoners of war (though it’s hardly the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo). It is based on a Scotch-English legend dating from at least 1611, which is also the basis of the popular folk song “Matty Groves.” Britten’s setting is evocative and thrilling (and uncharacteristically straightforward), moving from the solemnity of church to the gallop of the hunt to the slow lament at the end as a terrible sense of tragedy sets in.
Abbie Betinis: From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hâfez
Chorus pro Musica performed three movements from Songs of Hâfez in November 2015; this evening, we perform the complete work.
Composer and choral singer Abbie Betinis has written nearly 60 commissioned works, including projects for the American Suzuki Foundation, Cantus, Dale Warland Singers, James Sewell Ballet, The Rose Ensemble, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and Zeitgeist. On June 5, 2011, she joined Chorus pro Musica at NEC’s Jordan Hall for the premiere of her composition Expectans expectavi, which was commissioned by CpM.
A language enthusiast with a penchant for research, Betinis enjoys exploring the world through music, leading her to incorporate into her projects elements from early American shape-note singing, Chinese compassion mantras, ancient Greek binding spells, Gaelic keening, Japanese origami, and—as heard in this evening’s performance—the mysticism of 14th century Sufism.
Born in 1980 in Wisconsin, Betinis entered St. Olaf College on a piano scholarship. After graduation, she won a position in the Dale Warland Singers and was simultaneously hired as an office assistant by composer Libby Larsen, experiences that inspired her to further studies in theory and composition. She currently lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she is Adjunct Professor of Composition at Concordia University, Composer-in-Residence for The Schubert Club, and the newest member of the doo-wop quartet The Fairlanes, where she sings high tenor. For more information on her activities, see www.abbiebetinis.com.
Composer’s note (2007):
Johann Wolfgang Goethe once wrote, “Only with you, Hâfez, do I wish to compete, for the older you get the younger you become. … And religion is no obstacle, for if the word ‘Islam’ means to submit to God, we all live and die in Islam.”
Khwajeh Hâfez-e Shirazi (ca. 1320–1390) was born in Shiraz, Persia (Iran). He wrote nearly 400 lyric poems, called ghazals, and his mastery of that form remains celebrated today. His writing is based on Sufism, a mystical tradition of Islam which focuses on the personal journey of becoming nearer the Beloved through love, beauty, and ridding one’s heart of material desires. Sufism is associated with many currents of Islam, including both the Sunni and Shi’a sects.
I was particularly drawn to these four poems because of the elegant way they depict longing—longing for Truth, longing for Reason, longing for Kindness, Love, and, always, longing for the Beloved. I also found that many of Hâfez’s poems seem to have in common beautiful metaphors of transience: fire, breath, breeze.
In fact, I was fascinated to learn that the symbols of fire and breath are connected. In the first (and fifth) text, Hâfez addresses himself, asking himself to throw off his kherqe (his woolen shawl), which is a symbol of outward piety, and to show his true faith by breathing out his despair with the sigh “Ah!” It is said that the “Ah!” is a sign of sincerity, and can burn a hypocrite with the genuine fire of the soul.
Above all, I have tried desperately to remain true to the intonation of the language, and to Hâfez’s poetic instinct. Each poem unfortunately had to be shortened for the purpose of creating a concert piece, but I encourage anyone interested to read the original poems in their entirety, or to seek out recordings of the spoken text. Special thanks to Behrooz Alavi for his insights into this poetry and its rich performance practice.
The music is entirely my own, and not at all authentically Persian. It is my interpretation of an assortment of influences, which include my recent study of Persian speech, scales and modes, listening to live Turkish music, and perhaps also from somewhere as far back in my memory as when I was four years old and danced—joyfully and tirelessly—with my Greek relatives in Athens.
The suite is dedicated, with great admiration, to The Rose Ensemble, who commissioned and premiered it in 2007.
Andy Vores: Spencer the Rover
Spencer the Rover was commissioned by Chorus pro Musica with the help of an Alfred Nash Patterson grant from Choral Arts New England.
Program note by Andy Vores
Spencer the Rover is a fantasia on an English folk song, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, but still known in the traditional folk world in its own right. My version is, in turn, based on the recording by John Martyn, which leaves out two of the verses from the “traditional” Copper Family version.
The piece tells the story in three interwoven ways. The opening, Prelusion, sets the stage with an agitated and complex textured brass introduction, gradually flattening out to lead into the first of the five Narrations. These Narrations are the song itself. Until the Final Narration, the entire song is given to the tenors, basses supporting, and the women only join with the most salient points of the text. The two interwoven Depictions tell the story again, but purely musically, with the brass ensemble—these are little tone-poem versions, verse by verse. The two Sensibilities are portrayals of what might be going on inside Spencer throughout the poem. They take key words and surround them with percussive effects and non-pitched, “environmental” sounds made by the performers; clicking, whistling, clapping, etc. The Final Narration is a harmonically simpler, slightly jauntier run-through of the entire song.
There is, however, a subtext to this piece: While I was starting to compose it, my 87-year-old father passed away after descending deeper into dementia. A happy, peaceful passing, though. As this happened, the words of Spencer took on a new resonance for me. I started to think about the actual story: How had he been “much reducèd”? What was the “great confusion”? Also, the events began to seem less likely; would his family (probably impoverished after his departure) be just waiting for his return and entirely happy to see him? I began to think of his being reduced, his rambling, and his roaming as parallel to my father’s gradual withdrawal from the everyday world. Spencer’s “return” to his family might instead be a vision of his own, not an actual event, and his return to his prittle-prattling children might be something akin to my father’s own confusion about the current age of my sister and me—he sometimes thought there were two of each of us: an old one and a young one.
So Spencer became, for me, about this journey, too: a ramble with a different kind of arrival and a different kind of return.
James Taylor and Don Grolnick (arr. Simon Carrington): That Lonesome Road
James Taylor was born on March 12, 1948 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where his father, Isaac, was a resident physician. Three years later, he moved with his family to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Isaac Taylor eventually became dean of the Medical School of the University of North Carolina.) Growing up in North Carolina, he learned to play cello and then guitar. Close Massachusetts ties remained, though: the family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard; James entered Milton Academy for high school; and, as a senior, he spent nine months at McLean Hospital in Belmont being treated for depression.
Taylor achieved his breakthrough in 1970 with the song “Fire and Rain” and had his first No. 1 hit the following year with “You’ve Got a Friend.” Today he is one of the best-selling popular artists of all time, having sold more than 100 million records worldwide. He and his family live in the Berkshires, and he seems to be mostly known around here as the guy whose shows regularly sell out at Tanglewood. Bostonians are looking forward to his performance at Fenway Park this coming August 3.
“That Lonesome Road” first appeared in 1981 in Taylor’s tenth studio album, Dad Loves His Work.
Pianist, songwriter and producer Don Grolnick was born in Brooklyn, where he started out playing the accordion. He graduated from Tufts University in 1968 with a major in philosophy, and then began an active career first in Boston (with the jazz-rock band Fire & Ice) and then nationally. He often worked with the trumpet and sax-playing brothers Randy and Michael Brecker. Grolnick started working with James Taylor in 1974; in 1995, he was the music director for the Rainforest Foundation concert at Carnegie Hall with Taylor, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Jessye Norman. Grolnick died on June 1, 1996, at age 48, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Concerning his arrangement of “That Lonesome Road,” Simon Carrington wrote,
In 1982, we paid one of our regular visits to Baylor University in Texas. Our promoter there, a staunch supporter of The King’s Singers, played me this marvelous song from James Taylor’s new album Dad Loves His Work and suggested we tackle it. A year later we returned and gave the first performance of what has since become a favorite final encore in our concerts. The arrangement is not much more than a transcription of the original without the piano part, although the middle section develops a little more fully, which should provide a powerful climax before the final soft repeat of the opening.
Sydney Guillaume: Twa Tanbou
Originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sydney Guillaume graduated from the University of Miami in 2004. His first choral composition, “Kalinda”, was the winner of the Cambridge Madrigal Singers annual international choral composition competition. He now resides in Los Angeles, working as a full-time composer and clinician. Since 2013 he has been the conductor of Imbroglio Sextet, a group of musicians from Haiti, Spain, Bolivia, and the United States, who met in Haiti at the École de Musique St. Trinité summer camp, where they all volunteer as music teachers. Guillaume’s upcoming engagements include a concert with the Imbroglio Sextet on March 25 at Carnegie Hall and an all-Guillaume concert on April 3 at Lincoln Center.
“Twa Tanbou” is a poem by Louis-Marie Célestin that is essentially a parable. It tells of an argument among three drums—Boula, the biggest; Tanbouren (Tambourine), who is smaller, but with a beautiful sound; and the little drum Kata. All the drums claim to be the best, but it is only when they all join together that the music takes off.
Louis-Marie Célestin has described the philosophy of his poem as follows: “In order for a team to reach the optimal result, each member must play his or her own part. There is no room for self-obsessed glory; this ultimately brings down the team. True leaders are those who put their team’s collective well-being before themselves.”
Program notes compiled by Peter Pulsifer
Boston Classical Review: “The choir sings with a bright vocal sound… with smooth blend and diction that was clean and precise.”