LOS ANGELES MASTER CHORALE
EXPRESSIONS OF LOVE — MARCH 16, 2002
PROGRAM NOTES BY PETER RUTENBERG
Shakespeare wrote, “What is love, ’tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter. What’s to come is still unsure.” Among love’s ‘many splendors’ are its all-consuming distraction; its capacity to bring out the best and occasionally the worst in us; its sudden and wanton disregard for its own desirability — now favoring those who want no part of it, then ignoring others who crave it. It brings us as close as we’re likely to get to: happiness, misery, serenity, aggravation, fulfillment, deprivation, God. It is a master of disguise, for we rarely recognize it when it happens to us. It is a martyr, for we attribute all manner of false traits to its persona and punish it accordingly. It is wild, for our attempts to tame it fail resoundingly... Or so our traditions tell us. Perhaps it is none of these things, nor an arrowslung chubby cherub, nor something we comprehend at all. Perhaps it is a gift which, like fire, is capable of warming or singeing our hearts — depending only on our sensitivity to its heat to know the difference. Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale give just the right glow to a charming and evocative set of Romantic and 20th century choral songs, as we ponder these Expressions of Love.
Franz Schubert’s early training as a choirboy, innate talent as a melodist, and, growing circle of friends conspired unwittingly to produce a phenomenon: the Schubertiad — a salon gathering where Schubert’s latest creations and favorite chestnuts were performed. As the Austrian playwright Eduard von Bauernfeld recounted: “There were evenings when wine flowed generously, when the good Vogl sang all those lovely Lieder and poor Franz Schubert had to accompany him endlessly... Small wonder that he sometimes fled and some ‘Schubertiads’ had to take place without Schubert!” A ferocious composer, whose daily routine included mornings at work, afternoons in the coffee houses of his native city, and evenings at the keyboard, Schubert produced a staggering 1,515 works, including 734 songs. After such a life, his illness and death at 31, at the height of his powers and productivity, were especially wrenching for the throngs of family, friends and associates that surrounded him. Yet his spiritual integrity and effervescence live on in this music.
Schubert’s vocal chamber music is of a unique cast. It captures the mood of the age with crystal clarity. He championed local poets but sought out Schiller and Goethe as well, plying their words with his musical genius to create the perfect balance of emotional complexity with lyric simplicity. The three songs for men’s chorus that open the program demonstrate his range: Die Nachtigall, Op. 11, No. 2, for four voices and piano from 1821, depicts its text in two sections — the first with ever more charming ornaments in an easy duple time, the second a decidedly more animated movement with a tightly woven interplay of parts. Goethe’s Sehnsucht, from two years earlier, is richly scored for five voices a cappella. Its mood of anguish is portrayed quietly until the climax, while chromatic harmonies and a soaring first tenor heighten the tension. The shimmering chords of the piano establish the mood of Nachthelle, Op. posth. 134, for four-part chorus and tenor solo from 1826. Classically proportioned, each phrase of text is offered first by the soloist then echoed by the chorus, the repetitions overlapping with increasing urgency by the end of each section.
Judging solely on the basis of how many times her name appears after the words, “studied with...” in the curriculum vitae of the great names of classical music, Nadia Boulanger was the queen of Paris for most of the 20th century. She was of course an icon of the musical establishment and a prodigious teacher. Lili Boulanger, her younger sister, was in all probability every bit as gifted and knowledgeable — a true paradox of self-directed, survivalist strength in a healthless body, ravaged by pneumonia in infancy and debilitated by Crohn’s disease in young adulthood. Determined to support herself as a composer by winning the Prix de Rome, she entered the Paris Conservatory as a composition student in 1912. Illness interrupted the first competition, but a second try the next year yielded the top prize, the first ever won by a woman! Fame and a publishing contract followed, but within three years, her own demise was clearly imminent. Her last works were vocal and choral songs set to somber texts, and she died at 24, just as the German army reached Paris in 1918.
Les sirènes, written at Gargenville in 1911, takes as its inspiration the opening harp motif from one of Debussy’s orchestral Nocturnes, La sirène. Here, the sirens’ distant and vague allure is transformed into a clear and present danger: they are self-aware, cloaking their song in a seductively light, but focused, manner, in the irresistible key of F-sharp major. By sharp contrast, her Renouveau, written at the same time, beckons not to death but to life, with its engaging succession of arpeggios and coquettish melodies. This is Spring, arriving in a riot of color and demanding the world’s embrace. Between the lines, it is possible to hear the allegory of a composer’s lonely longings.
Esa-Pekka Salonen inaugurated his much-heralded sabbatical year off with a gift to Angeleno concert-goers — an exceptionally well-played and warmly-felt concert of his own works by his Los Angeles Philharmonic at Royce Hall. It augured well. His Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jäderlund, for unaccompanied chorus of at least eight parts, written in Los Angeles in November 2000, were composed for and dedicated to the renowned Swedish Radio Choir on the occasion of their 75th anniversary. The songs pay homage in texture and tonality to the contemporary Swedish school of choral music, while bearing the rhythmic propulsion and vitality evident in some of Salonen’s recent orchestral works.
“In many ways Robert Schumann represents the quintessential Romantic composer, with his emphasis on self-expression, his strong vein of lyricism, and his interest in extra-musical (particularly literary) associations. His contributions are of special importance in the fields of piano music and song,” writes biographer Gerald Abraham. Among the curiosities of the new-found ‘freedoms’ of the Romantic Era was that it also established a greater recognition of and place for women in music than was theretofore the case — even if true equality would be a century off. Schumann’s wife Clara, an important composer and pianist in her own right, and tireless champion of her husband’s music as well as that of his star pupil Johannes Brahms, is virtually inseparable from any meaningful discussion of Robert’s work. The mere fact that women’s choruses began to form and music featuring them began to be written around this time meant that the tide had at last turned. Within the emotional framework of the age, men began to consider their individual feelings for the first time — a phenomenon now known as “getting in touch with the feminine side” — and it was natural for their musical expressions to include the vehicle of women’s voices.
The three songs on this program are selected from two different opuses — the second volume Opus 91 of the aptly titled Romanzen of 1849, and the Three Songs, Op. 114 for three voices. The six-part a cappella setting of In Meeres Mitten, Op. 91, No. 6, is managed in dialogue fashion, the top pair of soprano voices leading the lower quartet by two beats. The mood brightens at the sudden change to the major key, with bounding arpeggios. A brief reduction to four voices lightens even further, before the lovely closing prayer. The darker tone of Der Wassermann, Op. 91, No. 3, is portrayed in a straight-forward chordal style and verse structure. By contrast, the Rückert text Spruch, Op. 114, No. 3, is borne on a long tune, spun by each voice in turn, and woven with measured deliberation to its heavenly conclusion.
James MacMillan’s So Deep is based on Robert Burns well-known song, My love is like a red, red rose, and was written as a wedding gift for friends in 1992. Scored for eight voices, the melody and counter-melody are given to the sopranos, with the remaining voices sustaining key-words over long-held notes, to suggest the surging and ebbing of waves in the deep, blue sea.
The charm and wit of France over the first half of the 20th century are embodied in the musical persona of Francis Poulenc and especially in his Huit chansons françaises from 1945 and 1946. Indeed, his style comprises a keen sense of melody — a common trait among composers on this program — with a simplicity and directness of expression that ranges from profound sensibility to acerbic incisiveness. Scored for various combinations of voices, these songs are patterned after the madrigals of the 16th century, such as those by Janequin and Sermisy. Their devotion to text and occasional whimsy reflect that less complicated time, giving no hint of the post-war landscape in which they were conceived.