Just over twenty years ago, the Saskatoon Chamber Singers decided to do a concert to remember those who had died in conflict as well as all those others who had gone before. This idea has become the opening concert for all but one of our seasons since 1996. As this is our fortieth anniversary year, we have been doing this for half of our existence. Also, this year, all the music on our programs has been selected from the music that was sung over those past forty years; hence the title of this concert has meaning for both occasions.
This year, of the fifteen choral selections, nine are by Canadians, and of the six readings, four are by Canadians. We also welcome trumpeters Dean McNeill and David Snell as well as organist Janet Wilson. The readers for this year are Deborah Buck (a former accompanist for Saskatoon Chamber Singers) and Mick Ellis.
The concert begins with In Remembrance, the centre piece of Eleanor Daley’s Requiemand the piece most often performed from it. The text (for a long time considered anonymous but now confirmed as the work of a Baltimore florist name Mary Elizabeth Frye) is both touching and uplifting and as always, Daley has set it to simple, yet profoundly moving music. This is followed by an arrangement of a very familiar hymn tune Eventide, which we have come to know as Abide With Me. Greg Jasperse’s arrangement keeps the beauty and simplicity of Monk’s original tune, but the harmonies he uses give a feeling of uncertainly that gradually turns to assurance and confidence.
The Norwegian born composer Ola Gjeilo is a most prolific one. Now living in the United States, he has composed music for many commissions and for all occasions and seasons. Contrition was originally written for Jeff Joudrey and the Halifax Camerata Singers. The focus of the piece is an extended solo for soprano (Louella Friesen). This solo soars above the chorus throughout the entire piece. The chorus, in eight parts, begins with a sustained drone before some of the voices enter with the words “Domine, exaudi orationem.” The key text of this piece is a line from George Herbert’s poem Perseverance: Thou art my rock, thou art my rest. As Gjeilo writes, “Whether you call it God, Soul, Nature, or something else, it feels like without it, I am nothing.” At three places in the piece the women, then the men, and then voices from each have four or six part voicing where they alternate between notes in each section which creates a bed of sound over which or under which the “I am the rock” text is sung. This is a challenging but most satisfying piece to sing.
Christina Rossetti’s poem Remember is the text used by Canadian composer Stephen Chatman. The sentiments of this poem reflect much of what we are asked to do when we remember: never should we let the pain of memory take away from the joy of living. Chatman’s piece is reminiscent of chant in that the character and movement of the piece are reliant on the ebb and flow of the text. In 1989 Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in the movie Henry V. The music for that movie was composed by Patrick Doyle. After one of the many battles, we see the soldiers collecting the dead and wounded from the fields of Agincourt. As this is being done a choir sings Non Nobis Domine (Not to us, O Lord, but to your name be the glory). It begins with a solo tenor voice (Derrick Lee) followed by the entire section. As the piece progresses it builds and builds in intensity with more and more complex harmonies until it ends with a burst of glory.
Canada’s senior composer, Healey Willan, has written a sublime piece to a text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, How They So Softly Rest. One of Willan’s early works, it hints of Russian church music with its rich chords for both male and female choirs and is typical of his soaring melodic lines. It brings to mind his equally beautiful The Three Kings which we will sing next concert. The first half of this concert ends with what might seem like a piece too joyous for the occasion, but the text God Is Our Refuge and Strength taken from Psalm 46, seems fitting. Even on solemn occasions there is need and want for a bit of rejoicing and the need not to fear. Allen Pote’s piece uses two trumpets to help create this mood. The piece is mostly homophonic throughout, quite rhythmic, and uses the sopranos as a descant at the end.
“I wrote Even When God is Silent for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Allied troops found the poem written on the walls of a basement in Cologne, Germany. It had been written there by someone hiding from the Gestapo. It is one of the most poignant poems I know; an extraordinary testimony of faith under horrible circumstances.” This is what composer Michael Horvit wrote about his piece. Beginning twice with the bass voices the melodic theme is passed on upward through the tenors, altos, and sopranos, each time ending with a dramatic choral cadence. The ecstasy of belief and faith overpowers the silence of God.
As usual there will be The Act of Remembrance which includes the tenors and basses singing, as they do every year, For the Fallen by Mike Sammes. This is followed by Last Post, The Silence, Reveille, and O Canada (arranged by Chor Leoni founder, Diane Loomer).
To recognize and celebrate forty years of singing, the Saskatoon Chamber Singers commissioned Yorkton native, David K. MacIntyre, to compose a piece for the choir. He chose for his text two verses of Robert Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem For the Fallen and entitled his piece Elegy for the Fallen. We are proud to give its inaugural performance at this concert. As MacIntyre himself says, “The sorrow of this story cannot be felt unless there is joy before it. That’s what the opening is – the joy the soldiers felt when they enlisted and the songs they sang as they headed off to war. They thought it was going to be a walk in the park, but it wasn’t.” The music starts of jauntily and with spirit but as the realization of the truth of war appears, the music slows to half speed with the words “They shall grow not old” and basically stays at that tempo until the end as we “reflect on their sacrifice, realizing what it is.” The words “we will remember them” are repeated in the soprano and alto voices as the tenors and basses, under them, have a very rhythmic line that works in rhythmic counterpoint against the women’s voices. The piece builds to a climax and then the sopranos, suddenly pianissimo, begin the last section that serves as an epilogue to the piece with all the voices repeating and intoning “remember them”.
There have been numerous iterations in music of John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields, many by Canadian composers. Over the years we have sung many of them, but for this concert we return once again to Eleanor Daley and her very simple (mostly homophonic) but moving a cappella version.
Ennio Morricone is one of the most brilliant composers of music for film. It was he who wrote the music for the 1986 movie The Mission with its iconic picture of a missionary tied to a cross and cascading over Iguazu Falls. One of the pieces from that score is entitled Gabriel’s Oboe. As one would expect it was written for the oboe, but for this concert it will be played on the trumpet by Dean McNeill. In the movie, Jesuit Father Gabriel sits down beside the waterfall and plays his oboe, hoping to befriend the native people so that he can carry on his mission in the New World. The chief of the Guarani tribesman is displeased and breaks the oboe which marks the beginning of Gabriel’s relationship with the Guarani people.
The great Canadian choral conductor Elmer Iseler, commissioned Srul Irving Glick to write a dramatic song-cycle for choir and orchestra for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The result was Triumph of the Spirit which Saskatoon Chamber Singers performed in its entirety in March, 2008. From that work one of the great Jewish hymns Glick incorporated is Avinu Malkeinu. The soaring choral lines of the hymn are interspersed with dancelike, but still with melancholy and longing, interludes for the piano.
Over the years we have often ended Remembrance Day concerts with Rupert Lang’s The Kontakion which uses a simple choral refrain as an interlude between the verses of this wonderful text from the Eastern Orthodox Memorial Liturgy: Give rest unto your servants with your saints O God. The piece begins with a tenor solo (Derrick Lee) while at the same time the choir accompanies it with rich chords on the syllable “ah.” The theme then passes to a bass soloist (Gabe Benesh) with the choir again accompanying on “ah.” It next appears as a solo for women in unison with the men accompanying with “ah” chords. The concluding “alleluias” grow more and more powerful and uplifting. If you listen carefully you can hear the soprano (Barb Milner) and tenor soloist incorporating a short section reminiscent of what the trumpet plays in Last Post. The piece ends quietly with a short coda for a cappella choir.
The concert closes with the sixth movement of Sid Robinovitch’s Talmud Suite called A Prayer Before Sleep. The whole work is based on text from the Babylonian Talmud. The music is often quite challenging and dissonant, but Robinovitch chose to end his work with a prayer that begins with the words “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam (Exalted art Thou O my Lord who art God and king of the world). This prayer opens with the bass voices who are then joined by the tenors. Finally the sopranos and altos join in and the prayer becomes more and more fervent before ending slowly and reverently on the words “Baruch atah Adonai/ Hame-ir la-olam kulo/ Bichvodo” (Exalted art Thou, O Lord, who illuminates all the world with His Glory).
Please join us on Saturday, November 11 for Retrospection and Reflection.