By Peter Rutenberg
JOY! JOY! JOY! On this 2000th Festival of the Nativity, we celebrate with fanfares and noels, lullabies and hymns, from humblest hovel to proudest palace, in the warm glow of a candle-laden hearth, a thousand flickering lights reflected in tinsel and ornaments, children's voices exuberant with glee, the gifts of everyday Magi solving myriad stories of need in the divine spirit of generosity, sweets and spices scenting the air, and rich, resonant music summoning our ear in recognition of the Miracle. This is Christmas with the Master Chorale!
It is most fitting to begin a celebration of the spirit of new life with a world premiere: the program will open with Argentine-born, Los Angeles-based composer Ariel Quintana's Hodie Christus Natus Est. Vibrant fanfares - based on triads, or chords of three notes (here redolent of the Trinity) - bookend a brief, modal melodic weaving, all in the playfulness of an asymmetric rhythmic scheme. Scored for double choir of six voices each, the alternation of high and low choirs symbolizes the dialogue between the angels and shepherds, while the echoes of the distant choir reflect the universal dissemination of the "good news." Mr. Quintana dedicates the work "to my friend and mentor, Paul Salamunovich, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale."
If he had written nothing other than the massive Syntagma Musicum (1614-20), Michael Praetorius would have been worth his weight in gold. This three-volume encyclopedia documents the instruments and performance practices of the time and is not only one of the best, but one of a precious few such treatises available to the contemporary musician. That he was a prolific composer of quality church music is icing on a happy cake. Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming- Praetorius's familiar staple of the holiday repertoire - receives a loving polychoral treatment at the hands of contemporary Swedish composer Jan Sandstr÷m. The original motet supplies the first chorus with its four parts. Each of the intact but separate phrases is introduced in turn by the pervading soundscape of the second chorus, using an octet of voices that the composer directs to sing at all times with bocca chiusa ("closed mouth"). Within the translucent density of this texture, there are slow-moving melodic patterns traded among the parts, and harmonies that drift in and out of synchronicity with the model. It is a musical parable of an ancient festival cloaked in modern reverence.
Following on last season's presentation of A Christmas Garland, music of San Francisco-based composer Conrad Susa returns, this time inspired by a book of Spanish carols introduced to the composer by a friend. About his Carols and Lullabies (Christmas in the Southwest) the composer wrote that around 1987, "Philip Brunelle (director of the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota) suggested I write him a companion to Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. To a composer, this tempting offer was another way of asking 'How's about writing us a hit?' After several years of me writhing in doubt, Gary Holt showed me a collection of traditional carols he had sung as a boy in Arizona. Excited, I juggled them around to form a narrative. I noted their many connections with Renaissance music along with their homey, artful simplicity. Finally, the overriding image of a Southwestern pi˝ata party for the new baby led me to add guitar and marimba to Britten' harp and to compose connective music and totally reconceive the carols." The work was premiered in Minneapolis on December 6th, 1992.
Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium hardly needs an introduction to the audience that first heard it on December 18th, 1994. Commissioned by founding LAMC board member Marshall Rutter in honor of his wife, Terry Knowles (who recently joined the Master Chorale as Executive Director), OMM has gone on to become one of the most popular, most-often performed and recorded works in the entire choral repertoire. The composer, recalling his selection of these simple words, has written: "For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O magnum mysterium text with its juxtaposition of the birth of the new-born King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy."
Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols was premiered in 1942 (the same year as his Hymn to St. Cecilia), instantly becoming a tradition. The work, scored for treble choir and harp, continues to enjoy wide respect today for its keen simplicity and forthrightness, merging its old English texts with Britten's distinctive style of twentieth-century tunefulness in a most organic way. The "old hand" will certainly wish to explore Britten's fine skill in form and thematic interplay that surfaces everywhere, but hardly more cunningly than in the harp interlude, with its masked incorporation of the opening chant.
Whistling-home melodies, toe-tapping rhythms, a brilliant palette of vocal and brass colors, and harmonies as pungently delicious as a holiday spice cake define the three motets that comprise Daniel Pinkham's Christmas Cantata, dating from 1958. The zesty outer movements - dynamically different fanfares each - caressing a tender, central lullaby (another setting of the "O great mystery" text) form this balanced and ebulliently festive triptych, which has graced many a holiday program of Maestro Salamunovich.
The grand finale offers Randol Alan Bass's Christmas Flourish from 1993. The set of four carols opens with early American composer William Billings' Shiloh (originally published in The Suffolk Harmony in 1786), Handel's setting of the Isaac Watts text Joy to the World, Franz Gruber's beloved Austrian carol Silent Night (first heard on Christmas Eve 1818), and the rousing traditional carol Angels We Have Heard On High.