By Thomas May
There was a time when the mere phrase “modern music” could, Pavlov style, instantly trigger a reaction of fear and foreboding. It seemed that for composers to be suitably au courant, they had to descend deep into the angst-filled abyss. Yet in a program consisting entirely of pieces written in the 20th and 21st centuries — all except for three of them by living composers — the Master Chorale reaffirms music’s unique capacity to travel in “the other direction.” Hardly limited to the dark side of the human condition, music can just as potently voice our aspirations to rise up to something higher, to be borne aloft by feelings of joy and awe.
A suspicion still lingers in many of the other arts that depictions of happiness must inevitably pale beside the sexier stuff of tragedy, that Paradise Lost will always trump Paradise Regained. Music, however, by virtue of its immediacy, has never been limited to one part of the emotional spectrum: what’s more, composers and performers can refine expressions of elation into countless shades, from jubilation and praise of a transcendent power to serene contemplation and even whimsical mystery.
These are among the way stations in this evening’s concert of celestial ascent, which combines the warmth of the human voice with the majestic strains and many-hued palette of Disney Hall’s celebrated pipe organ. Could there be a finer way for the Master Chorale to rise to the occasion of opening a thrilling new season?
Ascension is in fact the explicit theme of the program’s first piece. Written in 1951 by British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) for a London church to celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day, God Is Gone Up is an anthem setting of a poem by the Puritan emigrant Edward Taylor (1642-1729). Taylor ranks among the most significant figures in the emerging literature of colonial America. The text represents his characteristically original, metaphysically oriented slant on biblical sources: here, passages from the Psalms and from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians that became associated with the Christian belief in the ascension of Jesus into heaven forty days after his resurrection.
In musical terms, “ascension” can be staged through myriad devices, by manipulating melodic direction, speeding up rhythmic figures, and shifting of keys, for example. Finzi does all of these, adding an effective interplay between the organ’s introductory fanfares and the echoing choral harmonies of the first and last sections, repeating the first stanza for balance and symmetry. In the contrasting middle section, which introduces the poet’s personal point of view, Finzi deftly illustrates Taylor’s poetic imagery of the feedback between instruments and voices as the chorus plays the role of the angelic “sparkling courtiers” who “enravish” with their singing.
Fanfares also figure prominently in the freshly inventive organ part of the opening Kyrie in Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass with Canons. Thanks to Music Director Grant Gershon’s thoughtfully interlaced programming of contemporary composers with choral classics, Muhly — born in Vermont in 1981 and the youngest of the composers we hear this evening — is a familiar voice to Master Chorale audiences. Premiered in 2005, Bright Mass pays tribute to Muhly’s memories of singing in an Episcopalian boys’ choir and to the many epiphanies he gathered while absorbing the great Anglican choral tradition that “brightened my childhood music-making.”
The composer sets the Mass in four concise movements, leaving out the lengthy Credo, and makes liberal use of modal, chant-like vocal lines and the imitative technique known as “canon” writing. Sustained harmonies in the Kyrie, accentuated by the organ’s brassy interjections, contrast with the rhythmic pulse and choral division of the Gloria. Muhly describes the third and fourth movements as “more abstract and spatial,” with “insectlike twitching from the upper voices” for the Sanctus and yet another musical gesture of ascent to end the introspective Agnus Dei.
Arvo Pärt’s musical interpretation of The Beatitudes (1990; revised 1991) — taken from the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew — brings us a relatively unusual example of the Estonianborn and highly religious composer setting an English text. The subtleties disguised beneath the pared-down surface simplicity of Pärt’s style here mirror the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching. Echoing the radical oppositions found in the Magnificat (Mary’s canticle), The Beatitudes promise fulfillment to the powerless and the have-nots. Pärt likewise works with a system of striking musical oppositions: between linear chant and sustained, bell-like harmonies, motion and stasis, sound and silence, and, finally, between unaccompanied voices and organ.
Much of Pärt’s method of fostering spiritual contemplation involves masking the carefully designed processes of his music. In his treatment, the sequence of Beatitudes in fact traces a gradual harmonic ascent as each statement is separated by a lengthy pause. The organ discreetly lays a pedal foundation (starting with a low D-flat) and working up by half-steps to G-sharp. Glints of dissonance in the homophonic choral writing animate the texture, until the organ harmonizes along with the singers’ “Amen” and then proceeds with a separate concluding fantasia. Pärt’s dramaturgy vividly underscores the contrast between the unassuming inheritors of the kingdom of heaven and the promise of their eventual reward, with the “king of instruments” regally resounding in the final measures.
Another contemporary rediscovery of the hidden power of ancient chantlike textures is exemplified by Paul Mealor’s Ubi caritas. As a result of its inclusion as part of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 (and later on the hit Decca CD of the ceremony’s playlist), Mealor, born in North Wales in 1975, enjoyed a significant chunk of the planet’s population as his audience. The buzz has lingered on, not surprisingly, since this gifted young composer’s piece appealingly marries traditional elements with a fresh sensibility. The original antiphon hymn dates back quite early in the Christian church and in its liturgical setting is sung during the washing of the feet during the Holy Thursday service commemorating the Last Supper.
Mealor writes that he thought of the words as “firstly, a prayer about love and, secondly, about service.” Ubi caritas affords a contemplative oasis of pure, homophonic, a cappella singing, unadorned but subtly inflected by dynamics and harmonic touches. The composer points out that his aim was to blend the ancient chant “with 21st century harmony to create a work that, I hope, is both new and reflective of the past.”
Featured elsewhere in the royal wedding (during the bridal procession) was the contrastingly extroverted and festive anthem I Was Glad, composed in the latter part of Sir Hubert Parry’s (1848-1918) career. This music holds a firmly established place in the English choral tradition, since it was introduced during King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 to replace Henry Purcell’s long-standing coronation anthem and has been used as such ever since.
As with several selections on the second half of our program, the text is taken from the Psalms: Psalm 122, to be exact, traditionally sung during the monarch’s entrance as part of the coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Parry’s full-voiced organ writing, with its dignified dotted rhythms, is orchestral in its sweep (in fact a version exists for chorus and orchestra).
The Master Chorale’s recording of music by Nico Muhly (released in 2010) took its title from A Good Understanding — itself a phrase from Psalm 111, one of the two Psalm texts incorporated into this piece for mixed adult chorus, children’s chorus, organ, and percussion (bongo, tenor and bass drums, and glockenspiel). Written in 2005, like Bright Mass with Canons, and receiving its West Coast premiere this evening, A Good Understanding brings out another related theme which is threaded through our program: how composers tap into childhood memories and what Grant Gershon describes as “the innocence and clear-eyed vision that entails.”
In fact Muhly designed A Good Understanding to work as part of a double bill with John Rutter’s Mass of the Children. An almost rambunctious sense of invention percolates in his colorful use of organ and percussion alongside the “typical psaltry praise-making,” as the composer describes his approach to the chorus in the first part, which involves “outlining agreements, explaining the rules” and correspondingly “severe but practical” music. In the second part, fear leads not to existential dread but joy-filled enlightenment, with the children’s chorus joining in over the adult singers. “I find the idea of ‘a good understanding’ to be an especially exciting reward for following the rules,” writes Muhly.
The sounds of children singing comes to the fore in the buoyant praise and jaunty rhythms of Psalm 150 — one of a trilogy of Psalm settings by the renowned composer, organist, and choral director Sir David Willcocks. Born in 1919 in Cornwall and still active, Willcocks, whose students include John Rutter, embodies English choral tradition and himself once sang as a choirboy in Westminster Abbey for the likes of Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The young generation’s revitalization of this tradition is apparent in the pair of Dorchester Canticles by London native Tarik O’Regan (born in 1978), which received their U.S. premiere in January 2006 by the Master Chorale. Also drawing from the Psalms — here, nos. 98 and 67 in the King James Bible numbering — O’Regan wrote the two movements comprising this work in 2004 for either liturgical or concert usage. In the former case, the canticles can be sung during Anglican Evensong as substitutes for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, while in terms of secular performance he imagined them as complements to the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein and thus provided optional percussion and harp scoring along with organ and choir.
Each canticle was conceived independently and has a distinctive character — featuring highly varied textures and passages of unbridled exuberance in the first and meditative mystery in the second — but musical motifs from the first recur in the second, which is capped with a rapid-fire toccata for the organ and a jubilant choral setting of the Gloria. Like the Pärt on the first half, the selection by Kurt Weill (1900-1950) provides a contrast to the English choral tradition that predominates on this program. Kiddush dates from the latter, American part of Weill’s life — he fled to New York in 1935, a refugee from the Nazis — and was commissioned in 1946 for the Park Avenue Synagogue. The Hebrew text is a prayer central to the Jewish faith: the prayer of sanctification and blessing to be recited by the head of the household before the meal at the beginning of Shabbat and also (in the version Weill sets) as part of synagogue services during Shabbat.
Poignantly, Weill bridges the extreme contrasts of a life that had taken him from the Old World to the brazen new promise of America. On one level, Kiddush looks back to the composer’s memories of discovering music in his youth in Dessau, where his father — to whom the piece is dedicated — was a cantor. Weill expertly highlights the role of the solo tenor while providing contrasting relief in his scoring for mixed choir and organ. At the same time, the ancient, flowing lines of the prayer effortlessly incorporate earthy hints of American blues, reminding us of Weill’s genius in adapting popular idioms for new aims — and locating the music in his adopted second home.
To conclude our program, Grant Gershon has chosen a remarkable musical evocation of celestial hopes by Judith Weir, a composer of Scottish ancestry born in 1954 and a former student of John Tavener. Ascending into Heaven dates from 1983 and was commissioned by the St. Albans International Organ Festival. Even the text is unusual: its source is Hildebert of Lavardin (c. 1055-1133), a writer and cleric whose long life overlapped with the early years of Hildegard of Bingen. With the openeyed, utopian wonder that looks far ahead to the likes of William Blake, Hildebert’s poem envisions a Sion (i.e., Zion, or a heavenly Jerusalem) that is radiant with joy and beauty, aromatic, pervaded by gorgeous music.
Weir’s effective musical strategy is to tease out the sense of alluring strangeness and awe of the sacred while at the same time suggesting an almost painful longing for this distant Sion — all mixed with a dash of whim and wit. The organ prelude spirals upward — the concrete musical figure for this longing — as the voices alight on piquantly unstable harmonies, with glissandi to intensify the aspiration toward this celestial homecoming. The melodic contour is “flowing but unhurried,” each phrase taking us a bit closer to the goal. But the tantalizing harmonies continue, so that all sense of convention has been erased by the time the chorus finally attains C major at the end, sliding upward on angelically giddy triads.
—Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale