choral concert

“Now as I was young…” : Reflections on 'Fern Hill'

by Deborah Grose

An older man reminisces about his charmed youth. He speaks in the straightforward vocabulary of a child immersed in the natural world. The colors (blue, white, green and gold) are basic; the emotions (happy, easy, carefree) are uncomplicated. His boyhood is populated by plants, animals, and the recurring rhythms of heavenly bodies, as he runs, climbs, walks, sleeps, plays, sings, races, and flies. No other humans come into view. Rather, his antagonist is time, whose name he utters on six occasions. Nostalgia turns bittersweet as he acknowledges the inevitability of change and loss and death. In so doing he conjures our awareness that past and present - youth and maturity - innocence and worldliness are opposite poles, but are inextricably linked, even while neither end can fully apprehend the other.

The Hope of Loving

by Benjamin Perry

Poets write of love as that which gives us purpose, that human capacity of deep connection and genuine compassion that makes our lives meaningful. In the fourth movement of Jake Runestad’s The Hope of Loving, the words of Meister Eckhart communicate our need for love. The language is plain and simple, yet penetrating and evocative:

“What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?

It is the hope of loving, of being loved.

We weep when light does not reach our hearts.

We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us.

My soul has a purpose, it is to love.” - Meister Eckhart

So, according to Eckhart, love literally “keeps us alive.” It is both our purpose and an absolute necessity in life. Just as flowers require sunlight to thrive, so do we as humans require the warmth and connection of other beings to flourish. Just as plants need water to survive, we too need kindness to “rain down upon us.”

Eckhart describes another aspect of love: love’s ability to pull humans through the toughest of times; It allows us to endure even the most difficult circumstances. A beautiful example of love’s capacity to shine through amidst dark times is found in the writings of Nelson Mandela. Even while enduring the harsh conditions of prison during the apartheid, he had the capacity to love. He explained that the most painful part of that experience was living with the fear that he might lose his love for his captors. The guards had to be changed out a number of times because they ‘cracked,’ meaning Mandela’s love for them was so present that they could no longer be the ones to keep him locked up. For someone in such extreme circumstances to unflinchingly generate love, goodwill, and compassion for their oppressors is inspiring evidence of our innate goodness as humans and a testament to our deepest sense of love.

The words of St. John of the Cross, in the third movement of the Runestad, add another dimension. He says: “Tenderly, I now touch all things knowing one day we will part.” The word ‘tenderly,’ used in this context, is evocative because it shows a recognition of our impermanence as beings in this world - the beauty that comes from living life to the fullest because of how fleeting and precious life is. In this sense, love proves to be an act of gentle presence. For if we live our lives residing in the fullness of the present moment we truly appreciate the relationships and the beauty that surround us. In the end, it is clear that love is at the same time a necessity for our survival and an element of self actualization. It permeates our entire spectrum of needs.

This poetry is evocative, and Runestad’s music beautifully captures the sense of the words. He carefully sets the text by using creative harmony, exciting rhythmic figures, and the idiosyncratically delicate and soulful sounds of a string quartet accompaniment. Indeed, he brings these sentiments to life in a fresh and exciting way that allows us to reflect on our most primal needs while bathing in a beautiful sound space.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

Radiant Dawn

by Benjamin Perry

The Boston Cecilia’s next concert, Radiant Dawn, will feature the theme of light. As we near the solstice, we will perform music about light in winter, the season of darkness. In December, the sun sets early, our stores of Vitamin D run low, and the cold weather pushes us indoors. We overcome the darkness by focusing on the qualities of light in the human sense: the warm-heartedness, the kindness, and the generosity. The darkest and coldest time of the year is a time to bring warmth with celebration - Christmas, Hanukkah, Mawlid el-Nabi, and Rohatsu (Bodhi Day). It is in this spirit of joy, hope, and reflection that we present the music of Radiant Dawn.

One of the pieces on the program will be Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Few composers have captured the essence of radiance so fully as Lauridsen. He is the most frequently performed American composer of choral music, and light is one of his central themes, particularly in Lux Aeterna. But what is it about his music that makes us experience this aural vision of light so readily? To quote his website: “His music has an overall lyricism and is tightly constructed around melodic and harmonic motives.” Lauridsen’s choral music has an overall lushness and cinematic exquisiteness to it. It contains dense and bright harmonies and clever voicings that bring the “light” out of the sound. All of these elements combine to create music that simply wants to be sung with enthusiasm and heart.

Cecilia will also perform Serenity, Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the beloved Christmas text “O Magnum Mysterium.” Gjeilo’s piece with its overlapping layers of sonorous chords and its beautifully simple melodies paints an image of light; it creates a sound-world that resembles light passing through the prism of colorful stained-glass windows. This aural image is paired with the text, with its emphasis on mystery and blessedness, and is emphatically communicated through Gjeilo’s compositional techniques.

The holiday concert will also feature Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, as well as a cappella pieces of Eric Whitacre, James Macmillan, and Gabriel Guillaume. Organist Kevin Neel, cellist Shay Rudolph, and baritone John Bitsas will join the Cecilia chorus to celebrate light in this holiday season with Radiant Dawn.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

Armistice: The Journey for Peace

by Benjamin Perry

Boston Cecilia’s first concert this season is entitled Armistice: The Journey for Peace. The concert includes music and poetry that explore war and sorrow, death, and the response of hopefulness even in difficult times. Humans have been known to wage ruthless wars and harden their hearts, but it is also in human nature to seek peace and understanding. Throughout history there are countless stories of soldiers putting their weapons down, even for a moment, to honor love and peace even in the midst of war. Our music is a celebration of those moments, where our more evolved and compassionate consciousness shines through.

Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars, will take place on Sunday November 11, 2018, the centennial of the 1918 Armistice. In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice, or temporary cessation of World War I hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany. World War I was known as the “war to end all wars.” Both sides suffered an immeasurable loss of life, but at least the fighting was over. When news of the Armistice broke out in London, the streets were full of people exclaiming the end of war and, not surprisingly, singing - something we have done for millennia to celebrate peaceful times. One year later after the armistice, in 1919, November 11 was declared “Armistice Day" in America.

On November 11, 1921, an unknown soldier, who had already been laid to rest at a cemetery in Europe, was placed aboard a ship to Washington D.C. It was to fill the new "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier". News of the event was broadcast far and wide causing thousands of people to flock to see the body and pay their respects. There was a funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue and each state sent in floral arrangements to adorn the tomb. Taps was played and the casket was placed into the tomb at 11:00 am. The President requested that all flags be flown at half-mast. That single unknown soldier not only symbolized America’s losses, but the losses of the world at large and the blood shed on Earth’s soil. The music played at the occasion symbolized the rest and peace of the nation after war, music that was fought for by those who died.

It seems fitting that we make music 100 years later that responds to this moment, fully acknowledging war's inevitable existence and working to learn something from it. The music we make wields a power that, if we let it, can work to conquer fear in our world. Music inspires peace, and the immediacy of our need for music is ever present. Armistice Day serves as a reminder that war and violence can end. And the music in this program is a reminder that, amidst the pain and suffering of the world, there is hope. Among the pieces performed in this concert is Howell’s Requiem, a work which beats its heart in direct acknowledgement of the mortality of our world. Another piece on the program, Jeffrey Van’s A Procession Winding Around Me, sets the Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman to music for choir and classical guitar. These works, along with the others on the program, serve to awaken our hearts and minds in times of deep despair and look for peace; indeed, they promote an almost “armistice-like” spirit. We hope you will join us in this meditative experience as we explore through music a Journey for Peace.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

Composing 'Canticle'

by Kile Smith

KileSmith.jpg

Saints bless the world, even when the world doesn’t know it. Saints who write, though, let the world know it, and if we pay attention, their words can go all the way in, regardless of our tradition. St. John of the Cross, one of those blessings, created some of the deepest and finest mystical literature the world has ever known. “Deepest” speaks to the spiritual in his writing, and “finest,” to the literary, for St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul and The Spiritual Canticle are recognized as writings of the highest order.

His writing is clear, and it is sensual. He draws images and words directly from the biblical Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs). The bride and bridegroom, flowers, the stag on the hill, and foxes in the garden all populate and animate The Spiritual Canticle.

Although the words are clear, they are not always easily understood. The language of the Bible and the language of the troubadours may be foreign to some of us, and mystical meaning is, by its nature, often hidden. But anyone who has ever been in love will not miss the frustration or even anger here:

         Alas! who can heal me?
         Give yourself at once to me,
         do not send me
         any more messengers today
         who cannot tell me what I want.

Or will not know the pull of this feeling:

         The bride has entered
         the sweet garden of her desire;
         she rests in delight,
         resting her neck
         on the sweet arms of the Beloved.

St. John of the Cross uses experiences we know in this world to show us a world deeper still. It is a world we may have guessed at or may have even hoped for, but it is a world we do not yet know.

The challenge I felt in setting this text was the layer upon layer of meaning inhabiting each stanza, even surrounding every word. The way I dealt with it was to center in on, and to try to convey, one emotion.

Music cannot explicate text, after all. I love creating music for words, I always have, but music does not teach. What it does is open a window into the soul. I look into mine and attempt to create, in sound, what I feel. If I have done it well, someone else will feel it, too.

I cannot take full credit for the interesting combination of instruments in Canticle. Craig Hella Johnson is the music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati that commissioned this piece. Craig and I were discussing what the commission would be, and when he liked my idea of this text, we agreed it should be accompanied by something unusual. He mentioned a choral work he liked, Dominick Argento’s 25-minute Walden Pond, which uses three cellos and harp.

I fell for the cellos immediately, and wondered about making them a quartet. Canticle, though, needed enough variety in the sound to carry it for over an hour. We both wanted to avoid piano, if only to aid the otherworldliness of the text. Harp has a percussive quality in its plucked sound, but is still another string instrument. No, I should just go right to percussion, I thought. Marimba is lovely, but that would be a lot of dark wood sounding with the cellos. It should be something brighter, but not so bright as glockenspiel. It should have the flexibility of playing chords, and it should be able to carry over the choir and cellos.

Vibraphone quickly became the obvious choice. To that I added a bass drum, which I fell in love with when I wrote The Consolation of Apollo for choir, bass drum, and crotales. You may not have spent too much time thinking about it, but the bass drum is capable of a great range of personality. At a soft volume it carries very well. The only “special” technique I call for is crumpled paper to be placed on it at one point (the drum is mounted horizontally). The percussionist slaps the paper with one hand, making a nice “chiff” sound. This is in No. 10, “My Beloved Is the Mountains.”

Finally, the tambourine appears here and there throughout the work. I heard it right away, though, for the beginning “Where have you hidden yourself,” in which I imagined music of the 16th-century Spanish Renaissance and a troubadour playing guitar (provided by the cellos, pizzicato).

There are a few composerly techniques in Canticle, such as voices moving in opposite directions in “O crystal spring! If only on your mirrored surface…” and, in “The little white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch,” a simple round that keeps mutating into something fairly elaborate. But mostly, Canticle is composed, as is all my music on texts, with text-painting. That is, I keep the words ever before me, and the feelings they enkindle. I write the music to that.

Anyone who follows the words, and who grows to love them as I have, will grow into the music. My hope is that the music and the words will go all the way in.

Impoverished, Called, Discalced, Canonized, Revered

John de Yepes y Alvarez was born in Castile in 1542 to a family on the verge of poverty. After his father’s death, he was enrolled in a religious school for indigent children. Authorities recognized something about him which led them to advance him to acolyte, then hospital orderly, then theological student in his “college years.” At 23, he became a Carmelite and entered the prestigious University of Salamanca.  

These were turbulent times in Europe. In her History of God, Karen Armstrong calls the 16th century a time of transition characterized by anxiety: “The laity were especially dissatisfied with the medieval forms of religion that no longer answered their needs….Great reformers…discovered new ways of considering God and salvation….[and] urged the faithful to rid themselves of peripheral devotion to saints and angels and to concentrate on God alone.”

The Boston Cecilia premieres 'Christ's Nativity'.

In its 142-year history, The Boston Cecilia has performed much of the choral canon of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps we have a special connection to Britten, given that he was born on Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day, November 22nd, in 1913. It is thought that Britten’s close friend and collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this in mind when he wrote the text for his and Britten’s final collaboration, Hymn to Saint Cecilia—a piece which Cecilia has performed multiple times. Cecilia also had the privilege of giving the American premiere of Phaedra, Britten’s last vocal work, composed in 1975. Now, in its upcoming Christmas concerts, Cecilia has the opportunity to share a work that is infrequently encountered: Christ’s Nativity, a Christmas suite for chorus. To the best of our knowledge, the complete suite has never been performed in its entirety in Boston.

AND IT WAS GOOD: Reflections on 20th Century American Choral Music in a 21st Century World

There is little doubt that the advance of technology, international communications, and access to educational opportunity has changed the complexion of musical composition during the 21st Century. There is much beautiful music being written these days. Maybe too much. And boundaries, styles and trends have been blurred more than ever before. None of this is surprising, given our 21st Century world, and it will be interesting to see what the world's 22nd Century population surmises as they reflect on the current musical landscape. As an Englishman, born in the late 1960s, my first exposure to American Choral Music was, predictably enough, hearing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1973. For the decade or so after that, I was basically unaware of American Choral Music, as I became steeped in the Anglican Choral Tradition.

"This Little Babe"

My parents, immigrants fleeing the onset of World War II, came to the United States with their young family as refugees in 1940 -the year I was born. They were grateful and proud to be welcomed in America. As assimilated German Jews, their religion was German art and culture, mainly music. Christmas was celebrated in the German style, with candles (lit !) on the tree, and much music. Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent and daily in the week before Christmas, we gathered around the piano with my father atthe keyboard to sing traditional carols from the book by Henri Van Loon and Grace Castagnetti.

WHERE DOES DOUBLE-CHOIR MUSIC COME FROM?

Choruses and audiences LOVE double-choir music, most famously the Bach motets Komm, Jesu, KommFurchte dich Nicht, and Singet dem Herrn. But most of us have only the most general idea where this kind of choral composition originated.

The standard one-line answer is that the balconies in the magnificent St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice allowed for two separated musical forces, and that choirmaster Giovanni Gabrieli fully developed the impressive effect of alternating or echoing choirs.