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From the Director

ImageAs we approach our CAE Pops!: The Great American Songbook concerts this weekend, I find myself laughing a bit as I think back over the repertoire so far this season.  We started in October with a very diverse set of songs about the elements – including songs about shipwrecks, storms, volcanoes (who knew these existed), and trees, among other things.  Then we sang a more traditional December concert at the grotto, and then four amazing concerts of Handel’s Messiah with the Portland Chamber Orchestra.  And now, as I look over the repertoire for this weekend, I realize how far removed it is from anything we’ve done previously.  Diverse repertoire is our hallmark, though, so in some ways, this should not surprise me.

Last February we sang choruses from Broadway and Opera, and we had a blast doing so.  And from that was born the idea of CAE Pops!  We didn’t invent the pops concert of course, and generally it is the province of orchestras.  But last year, our audience made it very clear that it works for choirs as well.  So we’re back with another one that we hope will be equally as enjoyable for you – the Great American Songbook.

Researching this one was fun!  The traditional definition of the Great American Songbook usually centers on the years 1900-1950, and many scholars deem it ending as Rock and Roll begins.  We wanted to go a bit further, particularly historically.  So we went back to the Colonial era and forward to the early 1960s.  And while the Great American Songbook is also traditionally centered on Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and film, we included folksongs, hymns, spirituals, patriotic music, jazz standards and a few other odds and ends that have helped defined music in this country.  The composer names will be familiar – Foster, Cohan, Berlin, Gershwin(s), Mancini.  So will many of the titles (I won’t list them all) – Down to the River to Pray, Oh! Susanna, Dixie, Over There, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, I’ll Be Seeing You, Moon River…the list goes on and on.  Honestly, we could have made this a 5-day long concert with all of the great music we initially proposed!  And as with last year’s concert, we’ll feature many individual members of the choir- in solos and small groups.

Which brings us back to the opening paragraph – from Messiah in December…to imitating a banjo in March.  It’s certainly never boring around here, that’s for sure!

See you all at the concerts!

*For tickets and other important info, visit our website or email us at info@caeportland.com!

Ola-Gjeilo-Picture-1The Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland is excited to announce that composer/pianist Ola Gjeilo will be coming to Portland to perform two concerts with us on October 18 and 19, 2014.  Local trumpeter/composer Thomas Barber will also be joining us for the concerts. More details will be forthcoming!

Great American Songbook Front Reduced B

imagesIt’s hard to believe, but Messiah week is here! We are so excited to give 4 performances of Handel’s masterpiece with the Portland Chamber Orchestra and 4 fantastic local soloists at 3 different locations all over town, starting tomorrow night! If you don’t have your tickets yet, visit the Portland Chamber Orchestra’s website for all the dates, times, locations, and to secure your tickets.

Most of us in CAE have been singing in a variety of choirs for years, and therefore have many past experiences and memories involving this great work (especially with one of the most beloved and widely performed pieces in choral history, the Hallelujah chorus). We thought it would be fun to ask CAE members about some of their Messiah memories. So grab a mug of hot chocolate and enjoy!:-)

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I performed the Messiah in it’s entirety in England in (yikes) 1989.  I was a student at the University of Hull, and our choir sang it at Easter (which I think was the time the University Choir and Orchestra usually performed it at that time).  I remember finding it so odd to be singing the Hallelujah chorus in April!   -Jenny Stadler

Like many people, my first exposure to Messiah was through the Hallelujah Chorus.  This was the “alumni” piece at my high school’s Christmas concert.  It closed every Christmas concert, and all of the choir alumni in the audience were invited up to join the choir onstage and sing it.  I, however, was in the orchestra, playing trumpet.  This was my first real “orchestral” trumpet experience, having only played in wind symphonies and jazz bands until this point.  I’ll never forget the experience of sitting in the middle of all that well-intentioned sound (hey, we were high school musicians) – the choir behind me, the strings in front of me – and my first encounter with the dreaded 16th-note descending trumpet solo passage just before the sopranos start their long, held notes on “King of Kings.”  OK, I know it was only four notes, but I was 16 – these four notes terrified me!  Fortunately, they went pretty well.  A few years later, I had the opportunity to play it again on a piccolo trumpet, which, while not authentic, was at least closer to what a Baroque trumpet would have sounded like.  And, I might add, it was MUCH easier on a piccolo trumpet.  Some might call this cheating – I’m OK with this.  -David De Lyser

During my junior year in college, the choir performed various selections from the Messiah, and I was given the aria, “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion”. I was VERY nervous, as the aria lasts over 4 minutes before the choir comes in, has several fast vocal runs, and it was my very first time singing with any kind of orchestra. I knew that if I got “off” somehow, the orchestra couldn’t save me like a piano accompanist could. And I knew if that happened and it all train-wrecked, I would be ruined forever, have to change my major, and never sing again (I was 20 years old and over-dramatic; I’ve totally grown out of that now. Right.). However, when it came time to actually do it, I LOVED it. In fact, I’m sure I looked ridiculous, because it was really hard to wipe the grin off my face. But trust me–singing with an orchestra is an addicting adrenaline rush! I can’t wait to perform this entire great work with CAE! -Megan Elliott

I love the way that various pieces of music echo each other or transform what they mean when they show up in new contexts. I found one example when Choral Arts was preparing to sing The Messiah on Easter Sunday in the millennial year of 2000. That year our conductor Roger Doyle decided to use the orchestration prepared by Mozart in 1789 for the works premiere in Vienna. In researching the program notes, I discovered that Mozart added different instruments to Handel’s original mix, including flutes, trombones, tympani, and the clarinet, which hadn’t even been invented in Handel’s time. This year’s concert uses Handel’s original orchestration, but the experience definitely had an effect on Mozart: the opening notes of the “Kyrie” of his Requiem, which he composed about a year later, are a direct steal from “And with his stripes we are healed” in The Messiah. After I learned that, both Handel’s and Mozart’s two works sounded different to me, as if they were having a conversation, sometimes with their voices alternating and sometimes together. If only I knew what the conversation means.  -Susan Wladaver-Morgan

I sang for several seasons in a holiday caroling quartet at the Grotto in Portland.  My quartet fashioned an a cappella version of the Hallelujah Chorus.  It was almost true to the original, super fun to sing, and always a big hit with our audiences (people would automatically stand up when we started, just as if we were a full choir with orchestra).  One night after we finished a caroling set, a man approached; he was visibly agitated.  He stuttered, “It’s not right, what you did!!  That chorus is a sacred entity!! It was ruined!! RUINED!!”  I felt like laughing and crying at the same moment. It really brought home how very important this music is to so many people. :-) -Holly Schauer

I sang The Messiah with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony sometime around 1980 and the timing was particularly meaningful because the concert was at Christmas time, (reflecting the texts in part I) and then the performance was nationally broadcast just before Easter where parts II and III provided the appropriate relevance. One of my fondest memories of that performance is of a report I heard from my younger brother in Minnesota concerning his then 3 year-old son, Matt. Everyone was gathered around the television at Easter-time to watch the broadcast and see what I was doing with myself and my singing while living on the East Coast. Even though he was only 3 years old (and typically a very active kid), Matt sat quietly through the entire performance in rapt attention, exclaiming, “There’s Uncle Doug” every time the camera would find me as it panned across the chorus. As it turns out, Matt is the one of the nieces and nephews that has been most active in music and the arts and he showed that inclination very early in his life. – Doug Strickler

Christmas Day in my family meant opening presents by the fire while listening to the Messiah.  The musical tradition was started by my father, the atheist. -Anne Samuel

I first sang the Messiah my freshman year of college as an alto, and it definitely made an impression. The conductor was incredible and it was my first time performing a piece of that difficulty. I believe it was also my first time performing with an orchestra. A few years later I attended a Messiah sing-along and it was a nice bonding experience with my Dad. Since my college years I have transitioned voice types, so this will be my first time singing this wonderful piece as a soprano! – Becca Stuhlbarg

The other day while in my kitchen, I was quietly singing something from The Messiah that we will be performing next week.  One of my family members remarked:  “That sounds religious.”  I thought about this for a couple of seconds, and then replied that “It is from The Messiah, yes it’s about THAT Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Yes, that’s pretty religious.”  No response from my family member.  Just another night in my kitchen. -Elizabeth Madsen

Many years ago, when  I was singing with the Oregon Repertory Singers, we had the opportunity to perform Handel’s Dixit Dominus with John Eliot Gardiner (now Sir John Eliot Gardiner) as he made his American debut right here in Portland, Oregon.  That was in April of 1978 (actually before his “official” American debut with the Dallas Symphony in 1979).  He was just 34 at the time – a superb conductor and rising star in the musical world.  A year or so later he happened to be back in the United States and invited the Repertory Singers to join him in an informal read-through of Messiah. We were happily singing away until we came to a movement we didn’t know at all.  We completely fell apart.  Sir John was astonished  that we didn’t know choruses that are as familiar to the British as the Halleluiah Chorus is to us.  It was just unthinkable!  Things pretty much deteriorated from there, and we finally gave up and went home.  I’ll bet Choral Arts could have faked it with our usual excellent sight-reading!  -Rosemary Mitchell

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All of us at CAE would like to wish you a the happiest of holidays! We hope to see you all this week, as well!

From the Director

DeLyser.conducting2In an ordinary year, we would now be finishing up preparation for our December concert (performed twice).  This is not a bad thing, as a certain amount of ordinary is needed in order to judge what is then an extraordinary year.  This is definitely an extraordinary year.  For we are now in final preparations for not one, but five performances of two different December concerts, both of which involve new ventures and adventures for the Choral Arts Ensemble.

At 8:00 PM on December 1st, we will perform in the Chapel at the Portland Grotto as part of the Christmas Festival of Lights.  We are very excited to be singing in this amazing venue and to be a part of this wonderful holiday experience, and we hope you will come out and enjoy both the festival and our music as you wrap up the holiday weekend.  There is an admission charge to the festival itself, but once inside, all of the concerts are free.  We will be performing seasonal music taken from our last few December (and other) concerts, including O Nata Lux from Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, and Ola Gjeilo’s sublime arrangements of The First Nowell and the Holly and the Ivy.  Too often we work and work on music, perform it twice, and then put it away, and there is always a bit of sadness in that process after having spent so much time with it.  So we are very happy to be singing this amazing music again so soon!  Parts of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols will reappear, which is only fitting, as just days ago the classical music world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth.  The famous Christmas text, O Magnum Mysterium will be presented in arrangements by both Lauridsen and Renaissance composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria.  We’ll end a bit playfully with Vaughan Williams’ Wassail Song.

And this is just the beginning of our extraordinary December.  For in addition to preparing the Grotto set, we have also been preparing all of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah in anticipation of our four Messiah concerts with the Portland Chamber Orchestra.  In addition to preparing the music, we are also preparing ourselves for one of the most intensive “choral” weeks any of us has had – 2 rehearsals and 4 concerts of Messiah in 7 days.  These concerts will find us at churches in Gresham and Hillsboro, and at Lewis and Clark Chapel – all new venues for us.  The holiday season and Messiah have become intrinsically linked, and we are happy to be able to present this most glorious of works to audiences all across (literally) the metro area.  As always, concert details and ticket information are available on our web site.

So let’s recap – 5 performances of 2 complete and different sets of concert repertoire in 4 completely new venues, none of which we will even see the inside of until concert night (requiring of us some rather “on the fly” adjustments to new acoustics).  It will not be a boring December.  But, we are musicians.  This is what we do.  And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, this also brings up a rather salient question:  What in the world are we going to do NEXT December?

All of us here at CAE wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, and we hope to see you at the concerts!

-David De Lyser

From the director

De_Lyser_cropped3 more days until our opening concert! Tickets are still on sale at the advanced discounted price, so you won’t want to miss that opportunity. For today, we give you some additional thoughts about our October concerts from our director, David De Lyser. You can also hear David talk about our performances tonight, from 6-7pm, by tuning into All Classical 89.9FM, or streaming live on their website; just click “Listen” right on the home page. We hope to see you all this weekend, and we thank you for your continued support of CAE!!!

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OK, I’m not going to lie to you – this concert was a lot of fun to put together!  And as usual, I had a lot of help.  What I find interesting is the way in which composers have used the classical elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air throughout history – literally, figuratively, spiritually, and metaphorically.

Susan’s wonderful program notes have already been posted, as well as contributions from Elizabeth and Doug about John Donne and Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, so I wanted to share just a few thoughts with you about a few pieces and the rehearsal process.

We are very happy to be presenting more of Ola Gjeilo’s music, of which the choir has become big fans.  “Tundra,” sung by the women, is an amazingly visual piece that depicts parts of the landscape of Gjeilo’s native Norway.  As Copland was able to depict the space of the American West in his music, Gjeilo layers the sound to create a musical presentation of this barren landscape – fast moving strings underneath, lush, slower moving chords above, and a soaring soprano solo over the top of everything.  It is stunning.

The centerpiece of the concert is Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae.  The tragedy that inspired this piece is captured on so many levels.  It has taken us a while to get our heads around everything going on in this piece and what it means.  Mäntyjärvi’s use of drones, chant, whispered prayers, a haunting folk song, text from the original news reports, Psalm 107 and the Requiem Mass, and some of the most dramatic choral writing we’ve ever sung combine to produce and extremely powerful and emotional work for art.

We start the second half with one of the strangest works I’ve ever run into.  Weelkes begins the piece with the following: “Thule, the period of Cosmography.”  OK, who writes about Cosmography?  And in 1600 no less!  But in typical Renaissance fashion, he connects the dichotomy of a volcano amidst the snow and ice of the “land beyond the know borders” to his passion, which causes him to both freeze with fear and burn with love.  Masterful – well done Thomas.

Some of the pieces we chose presented a bit of a quandary.  Mendelssohn puts all four elements in “Behold, God the Lord.”  Gjeilo’s “Across the Vast Eternal Sky” hits air and fire.  And we may have stretched the boundaries a bit with Beethoven, as he wasn’t the one who named his sonata “Tempest.”  But I think you’ll agree that the music fits, especially with the following piece that talks of a wind blowing for good or ill.

We are very excited to present these opening concerts of our 2013-2014 season.  This is the start of my second season conducting the CAE.  One of the choir members made a good point about the ensemble compared to last year.  As it was my first year, the choir and I were “dating,” trying to learn about each other.  Now we’re an old married couple –as comfortable with each other as possible.  And we are having a lot of fun!  We hope you will come and share in it.

Program Notes

2013.10.image5 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!

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Elementary

Earth, water, fire, and air—elemental essences that together shape our world. In music spanning five centuries, we explore them all.

Earth

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.

Water

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.

Fire

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.

Air

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.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan

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