For the second concert of our 40th anniversary season, I decided not to do a Christmas concert per se, but have included some pieces that celebrate that season of the year. When I asked people to submit music that they thought was “worth a repeat”, very few of those suggestions were suitable for a Christmas concert. As a result the concert allows us to sing more of those suggestions that were made, while at the same time including selections that are suitable for a Christmas concert.
The main work on the program is Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, subtitled a Festival Cantata. It was commissioned in 1943 by a staunch supporter of new music for the Anglican Church, as well as to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church of St. Matthew in Southampton. Britten chose as his text a portion of Christopher Smart’s mid-eighteenth century poem Jubilate Agno, which Smart wrote from his “eyrie in a lunatic asylum.” The main theme of the poem, and that of Britten’s cantata, is the worship of God, by all created beings and things, each in its own way. The following description is a paraphrase of what Walter Hussey wrote at the beginning of the edition that we are using. The Cantata is made up of ten short sections. The first sets the theme and is chant-like in nature. The second gives a few examples of one person after another being summoned from the pages of the Old Testament to join with some creature in praising and rejoicing God. This is the most lively and energetic section of the piece with multiple meter changes. The third is a quiet and ecstatic Hallelujah. In the fourth section Smart takes his beloved cat Jeoffrey as an example of nature praising God by being simply what the Creator intended it to be. The same thought is carried into the fifth section with the illustration of the mouse. The sixth section speaks of the flowers – the poetry of Christ. In the seventh section Smart refers to his troubles and suffering, but even these are an occasion for praising God, for it is through Christ that he will find his deliverance. Here the music is very declamatory at first but then switches to a short fugue like section. The eighth section gives four letters from the alphabet, leading to a full chorus in section nine which speaks of musical instruments and music’s praise of God. Here the melodic line switches back and forth between voices and shows Britten’s brilliant use of music to emphasis the written text. The final section repeats the Hallelujah.
Britten wrote this piece for four soloists -- treble (Julie Watt), alto (Elaine Thaller), tenor (Tim Yoder), and bass (Gabe Benesh) with SATB choir, accompanied by organ (Janet Wilson). One critic wrote of Christopher Smart that “his contemporaries may have dismissed him as insane, but there is a fundamental truth and sanity which we can all access through our childlike selves.”
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need was arranged by our accompanist, Rod Epp. He has taken the traditional American folk hymn from Southern Harmony (1835) associated with this text (Isaac Watt’s paraphrase of Psalm 23) and created a wonderfully tender and melodic piece.
Bless the Lord, O My Soulis by English composer Jonathan Dove. He chose as his text words from Psalm 104. Dove wanted his piece to be a celebration of song and he said that he felt that this text provide a wonderful sequence of expansive imagery. The organ part is extremely virtuosic and begins with a flourishing fanfare which provokes the choir into “a wordless cry of wonder.” In contrast, the first actual sung words are hushed, almost awe-struck. Throughout the piece the organ provides a wonderful backdrop for the text from that of a starry night to a calm sea. Dove said, “the hushed ‘bless the Lord’ returns, but now fast and loud, ushering in the most dramatic imagery, the clouds, the wings of the wind, and finally the depiction of God’s ministers as a ‘flaming fire.’” Janet Wilson makes dramatic use of two hands and two feet while playing this piece.
Ave Maria is a selection that can be sung at any time of the year, but is often heard at Christmas concerts. Canadian composer Allan Bevan has written a truly beautiful arrangement for two soprano soloists (Louella Friesen and Barb Milner), women’s voices and piano. This piece won first prize in the equal voice category at the 1999-2000 Choral Canada Choral Composition Competition. The beautiful melody and harmonies unite to create a piece that soars majestically to its conclusion. Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter has inspired numerous composers to set it to music. One of the most performed versions is that of Harold Darke. He sets the first and third verses for solo voice or section accompanied by the organ and then alternates those verses with ones for a cappella choir.
Healey Willan is often considered the doyen of Canadian choral music. His many compositions for the choirs of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto have become staples in the repertoires of many choirs. Last concert the choir sang How They So Softly Rest. His The Three Kings is, in many ways, musically reminiscent of that. It begins with a dialogue between tenors and basses asking who is knocking at the door. The sopranos and altos reply that it is the three kings. They are told that there is no suitable place for them to spend the night. Instead they go to the stable where the infant Jesus has been born. From a very quiet beginning the piece increases in intensity and ends very dramatically with all voices asking the kings to enter. There is short pause after which the choir resumes quietly and reverently with the words “to kiss the feet of God.”
American composer Morten Lauridsen’s music is instantly recognizable – multiple voices, chords with many notes close together to create dissonances, step by step movement of voices from one note to the next often followed by large leaps.. Sure on This Shining Night is one of three Nocturnes that Lauridsen wrote, but here the music is simpler than we have come to expect. Set to a text by James Agee, the music evokes the beauty and wonder of the evening filled with stars. The poet calls on us to show kindness to one another as we strive to understand the beauty that we see. Throughout there is simplicity and tenderness in the music. Musicologist Nick Strimple wrote of Lauridsen that he is “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered.”
Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël (Four Motets for Christmas) were composed in 1951-52. The music expresses the warmth and joy of the nativity season. Each of the motets is dedicated to a different friend or colleague. O Magnum Mysterium is the most popular of the four and utilizes Poulenc’s gift of lyric melody and his penchant for poignant harmonic turns to shine light on the hushed awe of humble observers at the birth of Christ. The text is a responsory for the second Nocturn of Matins on Christmas day. Quem vidistis, pastores is a responsory for the first Nocturn of Matins for Christmas day. It is an imagined conversation between the shepherds hurrying to the manger and the peasants of the village. The music is at first almost playful but increases in determination as the shepherds repeatedly demand “Tell us then! Sat what you saw there!’ Videntes stellam brings the Three Kings into the picture. The words are the antiphon of the Magnificat for Vespers on the second day of the Christmas season. The music is reserved and simple and homophonic throughout. Hodie Christus natus est is the antiphon for Christmas day. It joyfully proclaims the birth of Christ and the music is chordal in nature with many repetitions of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and “Alleluia.” The music is declamatory and bursts with enthusiasm as the birth of Christ is celebrated loudly as “just men cry out.” Singing Poulenc is always a rewarding experience although at first sight the music often appears threatening and overly difficult, but once the sound is in the head the end result is always so musically rewarding.
The selection that ends the concert is called Evening Prayer and was written in 2010 by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. This piece begins simply but grows in intensity and emotional impact throughout. The work calls for tenor saxophone and a player (Nathan Degenhart) who is capable of extensive solo improvisatory sections. The text is by St. Augustine (354-430).
James Hawn, Director