“for most this amazing day” - The Season Finale
On the threshold of its 50th anniversary celebration – and after completing an impressive European tour with the LA Philharmonic – what finer way could there be for the Master Chorale to round out the current season than to present a bouquet of American choral music? The ravishing varieties of style, technique, and – above all – expressive impact represented on this program mirror the untrammeled American spirit itself. From the defiant jubilation of spirituals, rooted in the most tragic chapter of our nation’s history, to the fresh creativity of today’s composers, the Master Chorale salutes a heritage worth singing about.
The brand of American Romanticism cultivated by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) may have generated cognitive dissonance for his modernist contemporaries, but since then the pendulum has swung back in favor of the warm, directly communicative lyricism for which this composer is treasured. Sure on This Shining Night adapts a solo song (originally from 1938) for mixed chorus and piano. Barber culled the text from an untitled poem in James Agee’s debut poetry collection, Permit Me Voyage (1934) – the same text set by former Master Chorale composer-in-residence Morten Lauridsen to create one of his most popular compositions. Barber’s quintessential lyricism, gorgeously spun and shaped by the artful use of overlapping canons, subtly contrasted dynamics, and altered tempo, underscores nature’s healing “wonder” experienced by the solitary poet.
Agnus Dei represents another choral adaptation of pre-existing music: in this case, of what ranks among the best-loved pieces by an American composer, the Adagio for Strings (originally the slow movement of Barber’s only string quartet, written in 1936). The Adagio’s most familiar guise is the one for string orchestra, which the composer prepared at Arturo Toscanini’s request. Its immense success prompted numerous additional arrangements by others. In 1967 Barber himself made a new, slightly modified arrangement for a cappella choir (with optional piano or organ), taking his text from the Latin prayer that normally concludes musical settings of the Mass Ordinary.
Much as the Adagio was extracted from the original String Quartet, Barber intended this choral version to be heard as an independent piece rather than as part of a complete Mass setting. Deeply ingrained as this music is for most of us, it’s astonishing how closely the plea for mercy and for peace seems to accord with the emotional shape of Barber’s phrases. Heard in this choral context, his sustained musical architecture recalls aspects of Renaissance polyphony in a kind of slow motion.
Few composers have waved the banner of American individualism more boldly than Charles Ives (1874-1954), who came of age when the choral traditions imported from Europe tended to reinforce conformity. General William Booth Enters into Heaven contains an amalgam of the most striking features that make Ives Ives: a bracing montage of avant-garde and popular material, experiments with harmony and rhythm that are far ahead of their time, and a heady celebration of American Transcendentalism.
Binding all these together is Ives’s effectiveness as a dramatist, which comes fully into play in his large catalogue of art songs. Here the drama comes from Vachel Lindsay’s characterful poetic apotheosis of the recently deceased William Booth, the British preacher and founder of the The Salvation Army. In 1914 Ives set an abridged version of this epic poem, which had been published the year before in Harriet Monroe’s new Poetry magazine. Lindsay embedded several musical cues amid the apocalyptic imagery of his ode to William Booth. In this ultimate “rags-to-riches” scenario, General Booth leads his army of outcasts – “bull-necked convicts” and “vermin-eaten saints” – straight into the “new, sweet world” of the promised hereafter.
Ives’s setting, originally for solo baritone and piano, enhances the impression of a surreal march with “limping” rhythmic accents and chordal clusters, while the hymning refrain punctuates the poem’s stern, visionary declamations. An almost utopian strain suddenly enters with the appearance of Jesus “from out the courthouse door.” With the frenzy of a revivalist camp meeting, the song reaches its climax and then stealthily returns to the opening hobbled march.
The capacity of choral sonorities to enrich our experience of poetry is one recurring theme of tonight’s program. In Songs of Smaller Creatures, the fabulously talented composer Abbie Betinis (born in 1980 and based in Saint Paul, Minnesota) reveals her resourceful and chorally idiomatic approach to the age-old tradition of word-painting.
The three poets Betinis chose to set in Songs of Smaller Creatures, which was premiered in full in 2006, vary widely, but each of her treatments for mixed a cappella chorus convincingly immerses us in the respective natural settings of bees, spiders, and butterflies. For example, she intensifies the delightfully childlike onomatopoeia of the bees’ song by English poet (and famous ghost story writer) Walter de la Mare with glissandi and trills. The swarming vocal lines dart about in search of, as the composer puts it, “a nice cadence on which to land.”
The tempo slows for a noiseless patient spider, a brief poem excerpted from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This “heaviest” of the three poems in its metaphorical reach benefits from Betinis’s graceful touch, with pauses to hint at “the vacant, vast surrounding.” At the word “filament,” the chorus fans out, arachnid-style, into eight parts as “the voices begin the process of weaving a web of their own.” Betinis concludes with her charming rendition of Charles Swinburne’s envoi: collections of repeated “nonsense syllables,” set to a rocking meter, create an illusion of “the subtle flapping of tiny wings, as if the singers are suddenly there in the thick of the migration.”
Shawn Kirchner (born in 1970 and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa) is familiar as a longtime tenor with the Master Chorale as well as for his enthusiastically received arrangement of American gospel hymns for chorus titled Heavenly Home. In Plath Songs, his new choral song cycle, Kirchner took on one of the most ambitious and creatively rewarding challenges of his composing career to date. Currently the Master Chorale’s Swan Family Composer in Residence, Kirchner devotes much of his attention to sacred music but became fascinated by the untapped musical potential he found in American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). The catalyst was a project from a composers’ forum in which he decided to set Poppies in October.
“This poem,” recalls Kirchner, “almost seems to express Plath’s own sense of awe at the process of inspiration. She’s as much in awe at the beauty and power of her poems as the rest of us are and doesn’t know where they’re coming from.” Returning to Poppies, a poem he had admired and puzzled over since he was in college, Kirchner found the experience of putting it to music so deeply satisfying that he decided to design an entire cycle based on poems carefully selected to trace a kind of interior journey of the poet. “I chose poems I thought had a luminosity that balances the darker, disturbing streak of her work.”
The seven poems comprising Plath Songs form a choral cantata that explores various facets of Plath as an artist and as a woman in the final years of her tragically foreshortened life. Kirchner refers to “the tension between the intense love for her children, her dream for a family life, and the devastating reality of her husband Ted Hughes’ unfaithfulness.” Alongside the new life promised by the birth of her children, Plath experienced a sudden creative flowering in her poetry. “For me, above all, Plath is a remarkably brave writer,” says Kirchner. “There was no area of her life or mind that she was not willing to let become a part of her poetry.”
Beginning with Morning Song, a reflection on the birth of her daughter Frieda, Kirchner then eases the audience into the complexity of Plath’s inner world in Mirrors, which addresses the prospect of aging and mortality. A dramatic contrast in tempo and intensity follows in Lady Lazarus. The composer likens this to a tarantella, describing the text as “a swirl of emotions that gives a clear picture of both her anger and her brilliance.” Tulips, written while Plath was recuperating from physical illness, poses an even more powerful contrast: conveying “the depression after the mania,” it supplants anger with a serenity that, for Kirchner, evoked “a sad folk-song feeling, much to my surprise.” Another strand to Plath Songs as a whole, he adds, “involves my subjective response to Plath and her poetry, my own yearning for her to know peace and health.”
The use of a constraint to shape the musical language for the epiphany depicted in Poppies in October is one of Kirchner’s compositional strategies for the cycle (see sidebar below). Child, he remarks, written two weeks before Plath’s suicide, “acknowledges what she could not give to her children – it’s the saddest moment in the set.” He chose Blackberrying to close it because “I wanted to address her end in a different way, even though the fact of her suicide 50 years ago is so well known. This is a nature poem, with the sea as an image of eternity. What Plath sees isn’t stereotypical beauty but something metallic and intractable.”
Instrumental music predominates in the vast output of Elliott Carter (1908-2012). He stopped composing choral music after 1947, but in his early years – after he’d returned to the United States in 1935, following study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris – Carter’s writing was in fact primarily for chorus; Tarantella is his first published work.
A former member of the Harvard Glee Club, Carter composed Tarantella to serve as the finale for that ensemble’s performance in a 1937 production of Mostellaria by the Roman comic playwright Plautus. The Latin text is not from Plautus, though, but from the later Roman poet Ovid’s Fasti, a celebration of the origins of feasts and the deities associated with various months – in this case, May and its scene of spring awakening, as Bacchus encourages the general revelry. Deeply influenced by Stravinsky in his student years, Carter here wrote his own “rite of spring,” notes musicologist David Schiff.
Carter prepared alternate versions (one for two pianos, the other with orchestral accompaniment) for the four-part male ensemble. One influence on the sound world here, apparent from the music’s sophisticated layering and variations in texture, is Carter’s research into choral polyphony before the Baroque. But as a source of melodic material, Schiff explains, he used an anthology of tarantellas (the up tempo folk dance associated in southern Italy with the “cure” for – or the aftereffects of – the poisonous bite of a tarantula, in which the dancer is whipped up into a kind of Dionysian abandon). Thus the original comic context, according to Schiff, entailed “the chorus of virile Roman youths [singing] tunes associated with Calabrian peasant women, the kind of music Harvard students would hear in a North End spaghetti joint.”
Eric Whitacre, born in 1970 in Reno, Nevada, didn’t discover classical music until college but then made a meteoric ascent as one of the most appealing voices among American choral composers of our time. His savvy use of up-to-date social media – including a series of highly visible “virtual choirs” on YouTube – has secured global fame, but what drives his artistry is in fact an old-fashioned credo: Whitacre believes his music should strive to be “relevant, and honest, and pure.”
It’s an aesthetic shared by composers like Samuel Barber, though Whitacre has fashioned his own signature sound of ethereal harmonies and color-rich textures. In 1999, while still living in Los Angeles (he has since relocated to London), Whitacre penned a three-song cycle setting his favorite poems by e.e. cummings for a cappella chorus. Three Songs of Faith was commissioned to mark the centenary of Northern Arizona University’s Music School. The joyful sensuality of i will wade out, writes Whitacre, “seemed to cry out with lush, neo-Romantic harmonies” (notice especially the effective use of echo phrases) and served as “the perfect opening to a cycle of pieces about my own personal faith.”
hope, faith, life, love… radically compresses cummings’s original poem into just eight words – but what resonant words, with Whitacre’s eight-part harmonies (quoting from his own choral pieces) an invitation to meditate on their related connotations. For the third (and longest) song, i thank You God for most this amazing day, Whitacre reverted to his original version, “more simple and humble,” after crafting a revision he realized was too academically contrived. “The settings of the words painting the indescribable,” writes the composer, “are intentionally designed to shimmer, in meticulously balanced and tuned clusters.”
“The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts.” From the time of its origins among enslaved African-Americans, the spiritual possessed a subversive dimension. Communal chants may have memorialized religious rituals brought over from Africa; but even when Christianized, they served as allegories for oppression and voiced an irrepressible longing for freedom. (Matthew Lopez’s recent, much-produced play The Whipping Man dramatizes the uncanny coincidence that Passover in 1865 began just after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.)
Over the past century and a half, the spiritual has proved to be a powerful vehicle calling for social justice, as well as a timeless source of inspiration for composers and performers. To close this concert and the Master Chorale’s 49th season, Grant Gershon has chosen examples of this rich legacy as arranged for chorus by three legendary figures who worked extensively with the genre.
Composer William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) collaborated for years with the Tuskegee Institute Choir and through his research prepared what are widely regarded as among the most authentic versions of spirituals. The flowing harmonies and call-and-response patterns of Aint’a That Good News underscore the spiritual’s lineage in gospel music. Keep Your Lamps! (which features an optional hand-drum accompaniment) is an example of a group of spirituals that were likely associated with secret messages to encourage escaped slaves fleeing via the Underground Railroad. The arrangement is by composer André Thomas (born 1952), one of today’s leading scholars on performance traditions of spirituals.
Another song in this tradition is Hold On!, whose message can be simultaneously spiritual and political. The version we hear was arranged by Jester Hairston (1901-2000), who also became known as an actor (he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). Moses Hogan (1957-2003), a native of New Orleans, is admired for his rousing and rapturously virtuosic arrangements of this material – qualities that dramatically animate his setting of The Battle of Jericho.
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
The Music of Plath Songs
As a vehicle for Plath’s poetic voice, Kirchner didn’t want to limit himself to the women’s chorus alone, although the women’s voices often lead, since “the scope and power of her poems call for the full choral ensemble, with all its colors and textures and range.” His score for Plath Songs additionally calls for piano and percussion ensemble (vibraphone, tubular bells, triangle, snare drum, and bass drum).
Kirchner used specific devices that seemed suited to particular poems as well, such as the constraint of an octatonic scale for Poppies: an eight-note scale whose alternating whole and half-steps often suggest an “exotic” tinge. (Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballets are steeped in octatonic sonorities.) Lady Lazarus mixes this scale with polytonality, while in Mirror the men’s and women’s voices sing in “mirroring” inverse patterns. One advantage of these constraining devices, Kirchner explains, is that they allow for readily recognizable “foreign” elements – notes or harmonies outside the system – that suggest the musical equivalent of a “Plath color,” by which he means the unusual sensibility of the poet’s unique vision of the world around her. In Blackberrying, for example, intervals of the fourth are stacked together to create a special signature.
While each poem suggested a unique sound world, Kirchner also introduces unifying devices and cross-references across the cycle. He points to the prominence of imagery related to color, metals, and the sea. The percussion ensemble can evoke this in different ways and also contribute subtexts of its own, as in the slowly building bass drum crescendo that underlies Child. Another unifying device is the pattern of beginning a passage with antiphonal or contrapuntal vocal lines but ending homophonically, says Kirchner, so as “to structure the dynamism within a phrase.”
On April 26, the Los Angeles Master Chorale hosted its 24th annual High School Choir Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nearly 900 students participated in the day-long festival which included a concert by the LAMC Chamber Singers, a Disney Hall Pipe Organ demonstration, and a Festival concert showcasing the High School Choir Festival Honor Choir (comprised of exceptional students from many of the schools), and the combined voices of all the student singers conducted by Music Director Grant Gershon.
LA Opus’ Douglas Neslund described the Festival as, “an event that everyone should attend at least once in life. If you haven’t, you might begin to believe the daily drumroll of tragedy and atrocity that crowds out of the headlines the positive in life. Nothing could be more life-affirming and give hope for the future than to hear these high schoolers sing and yes, shout their joy.” This festival is free and open to the public and is made possible with support of LAMC’s individual and institutional donors.
Next season is the 25th Anniversary of the High School Choir Festival, which takes place on May 2, 2014. To commemorate this milestone, LAMC is commissioning a new work for the Festival by composer Francisco Núñez. Núñez is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and is Artistic Director of the NYC’s Young People’s Chorus, a group which he founded 25 years ago to provide children of all ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds a safe haven for personal and artistic growth through singing music. Please join us in 2014!