With Strings Attached

The special connection between stringed instruments and the human voice

November 7, 2015, 8:00 pm
First Church Cambridge

11 Garden Street
Cambridge Ma 02138


A beautiful Bach motet matches double chorus with 
violins, cellos and continuo and Abbie Betinis’s modern 
setting of 14th century Iranian poetry features
 women’s chorus singing in Persian, with cello, hand
 drums and oud. A lyrical cello accompanies the
 Russian orthodox funeral song “Svyati,” harp lifts
 the transcendent hymn “The Earthly Rose,” solo
 violin sets the stage for John McDonald’s vivid rendering of poems by William Stafford, and the violin leads Dan Forrest’s beautiful setting of the colonial folk song “The Nightingale.”


J.S. Bach: Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229
Max Bruch: Op. 71, No.3. An die Musik
Abbie Betinis: From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hâfez
J. McDonald: Stafford Diptych
Eriks Ešenvalds: The Earthly Rose
John Tavener: Svyati
Dan Forrest: The Nightingale
Ted Koehler/ Harold Arlen: I’ve Got the World on a String

J.S. Bach: Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229

Komm, Jesu, komm is a motet for double chorus, written by Bach sometime before 1732 in Leipzig, where he had been music director at the Thomaskirche since 1723. The words are by the Leipzig poet Paul Thymich, and had been set to music for a notable funeral nearly 50 years before by Johann Shelle, a predecessor to Bach at the Thomaskirche. Bach’s own setting of two verses from this illustrious text was most likely for a funeral service or memorial, but the occasion has been lost.

The motet is written in the form of a chorale, but it begins dramatically, with waves of choral sound pleading, “Come, come.” The two choirs, alternating, sing, “My strength wanes more and more; I long for your peace.” The tone grows harsher as the text speaks of the “sour way” that has become “too hard,” and the basses introduce a groaning, almost bluesy musical line of a half step followed by a plummeting diminished seventh.

Then comes the spiritual heart of the piece, the biblical reference to John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (the “true way” of Christ contrasting with the “sour way” that has led towards death). That quotation fills the largest portion by far of the motet. Michael Beattie describes the effect well: “The listener is cradled in a seemingly endless string of gorgeous suspensions underpinned by lilting eighth notes in six-eight time. The effect is hypnotic, all the more surprising given the brevity with which the earlier text is dispatched—one doesn’t want it to end.”

The second verse of the motet is a more traditional chorale, where Bach uses a simple minuet-like melody to portray the soul’s surrender to God, concluding with confidence in a simple affirmation: “Jesus is and remains the true way to life.”


Max Bruch: An Die Music, Op. 71, No. 3

Max Bruch (1838–1920) was a composer and conductor from Cologne. He was a life-long Romantic traditionalist, meaning that he sided with Brahms in the late 19th century controversies about the “new music” of Wagner and Liszt, and his later compositions resisted the innovations of modernists like Schoenberg or Stravinsky. During his lifetime Bruch was primarily known as a choral composer (in 1883, he visited the United States to conduct concerts of his own choral compositions), but today he is mostly famous for three orchestral works featuring string soloists: his iconic first violin concerto; the “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra; and the Kol Nidrei (“Adagio on Hebrew Melodies”) for cello and orchestra.

“An die Musik” is an a cappella song in praise of music, written in 1897 as part of a collection of seven. It is dedicated to Maria Zanders, the owner of a paper mill who became one of Bruch’s principal patrons. A philanthropist widowed at an early age, Frau Zanders founded a prominent choral society now known as KonzertChor Bergisch Gladbach. Bruch contributed several works to their repertoire.


Abbie Betinis: From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hâfez 

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. She is a 2015 McKnight Artist Fellow. Last summer, she was in residence at the Zodiac Music Festival in the French Alps, working on a new piece with the Zodiac Trio. For more information on her compositions and 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.

Eriks Ešenvalds: The Earthly Rose

Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds has emerged as one of the most soughtafter composers of the present day. Boston audiences recently took special note of Ešenvalds when the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered his choral composition, Lakes Awake at Dawn, which was jointly commissioned by the Boston and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras in honor of incoming BSO Music Director (and fellow Latvian) Andris Nelsons.

Ešenvalds has written for choirs all over the world. Recent works include a new opera at the Latvian National Opera and a multimedia symphony, Nordic Light, co-commissioned by orchestras and choirs in Latvia, Canada, the U.S., Germany, and the U.K., and premiered in Latvia in April 2015.

“The Earthly Rose” is part 6 of the cycle City Songs, an hour-long sequence of short movements that was premiered by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2013. It can be found on Trinity’s recent Hyperion CD, Northern Lights. The words are by the Australian poet Emma Jones.

Note from poet Emma Jones

The lyrics to the song are about memory, time and regret—if the words feel mysterious, it’s because the “speaker” of the poem has nothing specific to regret, beyond absence from home and the passing of time. The character of the traveller is coming home to the city of her birth after many years away, after receiving a message from her parents, who are old and ill. The song is a glimpse into her interior life, which is still the symbol-life of childhood, in which the mother and father are like the king and queen on a pack of cards, and the house she grew up in a house of cards (and a house of cards, the image implies, might always fall to pieces). The rose she remembers in her childhood garden is invested in her memory with the magnitude that roses and other common things can assume in the lives of children—it seems imperishable and frail all at the same time, in her memory. I wanted it to tap into the symbolism of the rose, too, as a symbol of eternity. But because this rose is specifically “earthly,” and bound to the garden, it’s therefore bound to time, and emphasizes all that has been lost by the traveller (childhood, and the years away, and the previous self left in that place). But the lyrics are meant to be a bit mysterious and dreamlike, and to make emotional sense, more than rational sense.

John McDonald: Stafford Diptych, Op. 417

Recently described as “the New England master of the short piece” in a recording review, John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. He is Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he has served both as Music Department Chair and Director of Graduate Music Studies. He teaches composition, theory, and performance at Tufts. His output concentrates on vocal, chamber, and solo instrumental works, and includes interdisciplinary experiments.

McDonald is the pianist of The Mockingbird Trio (with contralto Elizabeth Anker and violist Scott Woolweaver) and The Turina Trio (with flutist Marco Granados and saxophonist Ken Radnofsky); he has collaborated with many other singers and instrumentalists, most notably soprano Karol Bennett.

He has recorded widely as both composer and pianist, on the Albany, BMOP Sound, Bridge, Hungarton, and New World labels, to name a few, and has recently completed a number of commissions, including a suite for A Far Cry, Boston’s conductorless string orchestra. He will serve as the Joseph E. and Grace W. Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Amherst College in 2016–2017.

Composer’s note

Since first setting a poem by William Stafford in 1991, I have returned many times to this late poet’s direct and thought-provoking informal verses. When Adam Grossman invited me to compose something for The Master Singers, I quickly unearthed this pair of contrasting “Staffords,” attractive as much for playfulness as for their startlingly serious flashes.

I took it as a challenge to write for the choir with a sole violin as a performing partner; as a pianist, it is always hard for me to remove the keyboard from a conception. Here, the violin soloist is entrusted with many “stage settings,” creating, sustaining, and changing attitudes and directions according to the poems’ varying terrains.

I thank composer/conductor Adam Grossman, violinist Frank Powdermaker, and The Master Singers of Lexington for bringing this poetic pairing to initial musical life in 2004, and conductor Jamie Kirsch, violinist Sharan Leventhal, and Chorus pro Musica for performing the work anew in 2015.

William Edgar Stafford (1914–1993) was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, and received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937. While in graduate school, he was drafted into the Army, but declared himself a conscientious objector and performed alternate service from 1942 to 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps, doing forestry and soil conservation work for $2.50 per month. Stafford was 46 years old when his first major collection of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark, was published. It won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry.

Stafford had a quiet daily ritual of writing, and his work focuses on the ordinary, with a gentle quotidian style that has been compared to Robert Frost. His poems are typically short, focusing on the earthy, accessible details of a particular place.


John Tavener: Svyati

Sir John Tavener (1944–2013) was a well-known figure in popular culture (he was a good friend of Prince Charles) and a unique voice in modern music, noted for his intense mysticism. An English composer, he converted in 1977 to the Russian Orthodox Church, and many of his later works were strongly influenced by Orthodox theology and liturgical traditions. John Rutter once described him as having the “very rare gift” of being able to “bring an audience to a deep silence.”

Tavener was born in London into a family who ran a construction business (and with a father who was also a Presbyterian church organist). He won a music scholarship to Highgate School—where John Rutter was a fellow student—and at age 12 had profound encounters with two musical works: Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, which he later described as “the piece that woke me up and made me want to be a composer.” Later influences included Pierre Boulez, John Cage, György Ligeti, and Olivier Messiaen.

Tavener’s first major work was the cantata The Whale (1968), based on the biblical story of Jonah. Thanks to a chance connection (Tavener’s brother was doing renovations on Ringo Starr’s house), the Beatles’ Apple Records released first that cantata and then Tavener’s Celtic Requiem, which caught the ear of Benjamin Britten. Widespread fame, however, did not come until many years later, with Tavener’s simple choral setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb” in 1982; The Protecting Veil, for cello and string orchestra, in 1989; and Song for Athene (1993), which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana.

Svyati, written in 1995, is based on the ancient Orthodox style of singing called znamenny chant—the basis of many of Tavener’s choral works. The text is one of the oldest and most frequently used prayers in the Orthodox tradition: “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.” The work is structured as a series of choral statements of this prayer, each increasing in intensity and grandeur; the constant dialog between choir and solo cello is like that between priest and choir in a liturgical service.

Composer’s note

I began to write Svyati in early 1995: while sketching it, I learned that John Williams, father of Jane, my dear friend and publisher, was dying. I could not refrain from dedicating it to Jane and to the memory of her father.

The text is in Church Slavonic, and it is used at almost every Russian Orthodox service, perhaps most poignantly after the congregation have kissed the body in an open coffin at an Orthodox funeral. The choir sings as the coffin is closed and borne out of the church, followed by the mourners with lighted candles. The cello represents the Priest or Ikon of Christ, and should play at a distance from the choir, perhaps at the opposite end of the building. As in Greek drama, choir and priest are in dialogue with each other. Since the cello represents the Ikon of Christ, it must be played without any sentiment of a Western character, but should derive from the chanting of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

A linguistic note on Svyati

Old Church Slavonic (OCS) is a “dead language” which survives today as a liturgical language of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Like Church Latin, which has different regional pronunciations (e.g., French, German, Italian), OCS is pronounced differently in different countries. Just as Americans tend to use the Italianate pronunciation while singing in Latin, it is typical to use Russian pronunciation while singing in OCS. For today’s performance, however, we employ a western pronunciation more typical of the Czech Republic.


Dan Forrest: The Nightingale

Since its first publication in 2001, Dan Forrest’s music has sold more than a million copies. His works have received numerous awards, including the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Award and the ACDA Raymond Brock Award. His Requiem for the Living, premiered in 2013, has quickly become his best-known work (it will have at least three performances this season by New England choruses). Forrest holds a doctoral degree in composition from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in piano performance. More information can be found at www.danforrest.com.

“The Nightingale” is an American version of the English folk song, “The Bold Grenadier.” The arrangement is part of Forrest’s Two Colonial Folksongs, commissioned by the Williamsburg (VA) Choral Guild, which is meant to be the first part of a choral cycle of commissions of folk song arrangements from various states or regions of America.


Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler: I’ve Got the World on a String

Harold Arlen composed the song with lyricist Ted Koehler for the 1932 Cotton Club Parade, an annual revue of music from that Harlem nightclub, where it was first played by Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Arlen, one of the greatest popular composers of the twentieth century, wrote more than 500 songs. He wrote the music (with lyricist Yip Harburg) for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, including the song “Over the Rainbow.”

Arlen was born Hyman Arluck, son of a Jewish cantor, in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1905. By age 14 he was playing piano in Buffalo taverns with his band, the Snappy Trio. He moved to New York in 1925 as a rehearsal pianist and singer. Ted Koehler (who was born in 1894 in Washington, D.C.) was the lyricist on Arlen’s first hit song, “Get Happy” (1929). For the next several years Arlen and Koehler wrote shows for the Cotton Club, scoring numerous hits, including “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Stormy Weather.” Arlen moved to Hollywood in the mid-1930s but regularly contributed beautiful songs to both stage and screen right up to his death in 1986.

Program notes compiled by Peter Pulsifer

Boston Classical Review: “The result was… certainly ear-catching in its exotic vocalizing and dancing syncopations. The lively choral sections were crisply executed to the driving beat.”