5 more days until we open our season with an excited variety of music in our October concerts! We always like to give you a “sneak peek” into what we’ll be singing by posting our program notes here a few days before the concert. They were written, as always, by our own Susan Wladaver-Morgan. Remember that you save 10% by purchasing your tickets in advance, so be sure to visit our website for more details on how to secure tickets for either this concert or our whole season, including “Messiah”! You won’t want to miss it!
Earth, water, fire, and air—elemental essences that together shape our world. In music spanning five centuries, we explore them all.
We begin with “Trees,” a setting of the famous poem by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) composed by our conductor, David De Lyser. His original compositions range from settings of poetry for solo voice and choir, through chamber music, orchestral works, and even “A Symphonic Mystery in the Key of D-E-A-D.” His use of instruments in vocal pieces enriches the musical texture. In “Trees,” the lively oboe and piano parts at the beginning and end evoke the graceful movement of leaves and branches, contrasting with the purely choral middle section that ponders trees as links between nature and God, the earthly and the transcendent. Kilmer’s poetry celebrates both nature and his strong religious faith, and David’s setting captures that reverent joy.
“Earth Song” (2007), with words and music by Frank Ticheli (b. 1958), reflects a similar reverence, except that hope, in the form of music, emerges only after the painful dissonances of the beginning, when Earth herself cries out against the destructiveness of war that scars her face. Ticheli, a professor of composition at USC since 1991, is best known for his many instrumental works, but this brief intense piece shows him as a natural composer of choral music as well.
“Tundra” depicts a very specific place—the Hardangervidda region of Norway, a mountain plateau between Oslo and Bergen where composer Ola Gjello’s father grew up. Gjello (b. 1978) moved to the United States from Norway in 2001 to study composition at Juilliard and film music at USC. Both an improvisational pianist and a composer, Gjello paints visual images in his music, as do the film scores he admires. “Tundra” grew out of a collaboration with Charles Anthony Silvestri (b. 1965), who has written texts for some of Eric Whitacre’s most striking works. The repetitive piano part and the sustained downward lines of the women’s chorus induce a sense of being held in place in an unyielding landscape that knows its own strength; at the same time, a solo soprano voice soars above it like fast- moving clouds.
The earth that Williametta Spencer (b. 1932) presents in her setting of Holy Sonnet VII by John Donne (1572-1631) appears first from a cosmic perspective— earth as home and resting place for all humanity, living and dead, who will be raised on Judgment Day. Fittingly, the opening mimics a trumpet fanfare. But the prospect of judgment inspires the poet’s quiet introspection, awareness of his sinfulness, penitence, and, finally, in a triumphant conclusion, a firm conviction of God’s forgiveness for true repentance. Please see our previous blog post for more information about Donne.
The sea plays a central role in Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781). This opera focuses mostly on survivors of the Trojan War: Idomeneo, King of Crete; his son Idamante who loves a captured Trojan princess; Electra, daughter of King Agamemnon of Argos, who loves Idamante; plus the god Neptune (offstage). Returning from war, Idomeneo has survived a shipwreck by promising Neptune to sacrifice the first person he sees on land, who turns out to be his son. He tries to evade his promise by sending Idamante to Argos with Electra. That does not fool Neptune, who sends a sea monster to destroy Crete, but, after much travail, the story ends happily. The gently lilting “Placido è il mar” is sung as Idamante prepares to depart; Electra, hoping to win his love, also praises the calm seas.
By contrast, Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae (1997) by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) vividly portrays one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. On September 28, 1994, the Estonia, a car ferry between Sweden and Estonia, was swamped in heavy seas and sank quickly, with 852 lives lost to drowning and hypothermia. Mäntyjärvi dedicated Canticum to their memory, quoting portions of the Requiem mass, Psalm 107 (“They that go down to the sea in ships”), and a Finnish news broadcast—all in Latin. In addition, he evokes sounds of the disaster: cold surging waves, the hiss of radio static, Morse Code distress calls, shearing metal. Above it all floats a folk-like soprano lament and an impassive male voice chanting the news. A previous blog post has more on the musical effects and also about Nuntii Latini, Finland’s Latin news program.
Craig Hella Johnson, director of the award-winning Texas choral group Conspirare, arranged “The Water Is Wide” (2011) with a warm, flowing cello accompaniment. This English folksong may date from as early as the 1600s and, like most folk songs, has many variants, including the Scottish “O Waly Waly.” The lyrics speak to water’s ability both to separate and connect us with those we love.
“Wade in the Water,” arranged by Moses Hogan (1957-2003), is a traditional spiritual that tells of the Jewish people’s escape from Egypt. Through God’s power, Moses parted the Red Sea, allowing the Jews to cross safely before the waters returned and swallowed their captors. For enslaved African Americans, both song and story carried a message of courage and faith that their suffering too would soon end. This song is especially meaningful to our chorus because we had the privilege of singing under Moses Hogan’s direction and even premiering one of his original compositions.
English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) wrote both words and music for the madrigal “Thule.” As was common in that period, this poem revels in paradox and, like the complex vocal strands in the music, requires some serious untangling. It marvels that even in Thule, a place beyond the northernmost limits of the known world (in actuality, Iceland), a volcano (Hecla) exists, rivaling Mt. Etna, the biggest volcano in Europe. How can so much fire keep burning amid cold and snow? But the greater wonder is that passion makes the poet himself simultaneously freeze with fear and burn with love.
“Behold! God the Lord” from the oratorio Elijah by German-English composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) contains it all—wind, earth, water, and fire. At this point in the oratorio, the prophet Elijah is hiding, disheartened about saving the Jewish people from their false idols and corrupt rulers. The Lord orders him outside and shows him a whirlwind, an earthquake that shakes land and sea, a fire—all illustrated in dramatic fashion. Yet God is in none of these but comes instead as a “still small voice” that quietly brings God’s spirit to his discouraged prophet. Since fire plays such a large role in Elijah’s story (his contest with the priests of Baal and his spectacular exit from the world in a fiery chariot), we include him with our fire music.
Stephen Paulus (b. 1949) and librettist Michael Dennis Browne (b. 1940) wrote “Hymn to the Eternal Flame” as part of To Be Certain of the Dawn (2005), an oratorio commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The oratorio’s title comes from a quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “This is the task: in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into song.” Originally scored with a children’s chorus, the hymn affirms the eternal spark of humanity—of life itself—in us all.
The men sing of actual fire in the traditional sea shanty “Fire Down Below.” Shanties evolved as a way to relieve shipboard tedium and maintain the rhythm of specific tasks. This song began on British vessels in the 19th century to accompany the hard work of pumping out bilge water; when iron ships replaced leaky wooden ones, the song became a capstan shanty to make raising the anchor easier. Sailors often competed to come up with new verses, the more ridiculous the better—as heard here.
Beethoven never actually referred to his seventeenth piano sonata (c. 1801) as the Tempest Sonata; instead, an associate of his claimed that Shakespeare’s play of the same name had inspired the music. But the name caught on and has stuck ever since because of the turbulent passions overwhelming any feeling of peace, the sense of imminent danger, and the constant movement, like rapidly shifting gusts of wind, until the final chords.
Sweeping in like a warm south wind, goodness blows through “Angel Breathing Out” (2007), even as it shares the sonata’s restless energy. Alisa Bair, a church musician, began her serious composing after the loss of her eight-year-old daughter to cancer and the healing she experienced, painful but real, through a Stephen Sondheim song. Dina Soraya Gregory, an English playwright who also writes lyrics for her sister Rosabella Gregory’s indie pop songs, has written several other works with Bair. In fact, in 2010 the two collaborated on an opera about Georgia O’Keeffe.
If “Across the Vast Eternal Sky” sounds slightly familiar, it should, for Gjello and Silvestri wrote it at the same time as “Tundra” and the two works share the same last line. Silvestri was drawn to the image of the phoenix, the firebird that immolates itself in order to live again—an image of rebirth. But, as the title indicates, the song is also about the sky where the bird continues to soar—the rising key changes could almost represent thermal currents that effortlessly lift the phoenix ever higher in the air.
We close with “The Heavens Are Telling,” a triumphant chorus from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (c. 1798). This chorus concludes the fourth day of Creation, when God made the sky, the sun, moon, and stars. A religious man but also a son of the Enlightenment, Haydn had a strong interest in science, including astronomy, so this chorus about how the heavens reveal God’s majesty may have been especially close to his heart. What better way to end a concert about all the elemental forces than with a contemplation of the totality of Creation.