What can a chorus and orchestra do to match the excitement, drive, and “over the top” climactic movement of the youthful Berlioz Messe solennelle heard here in November? Go in the totally opposite direction: forward to two contemporary masterpieces which, in their minimalist and “new age” harmonic language, are squarely in our time, but in compositional technique look far back into western music’s roots in medieval plainchant and Renaissance counterpoint. Far from the extreme extroversion of Berlioz, both of the works we present today speak in a smaller, more intimate voice, using only string orchestra (Gjeilo) or chamber orchestra (Lauridsen), allowing the chorus to convey the message through text and texture. The two works also draw upon traditional texts, extending their universal appeal both forward and backward in time, as well as broadly, encompassing many faith traditions. Interestingly, both works find their tonal center in D-major.
Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
It was at an ACDA (American Choral Director’s Association) convention several years ago that I first heard a work by the then impossibly young Norwegian composer, Oja Gjeilo. One is immediately struck by the sheer beauty of sound, created by an understanding of the choral instrument—voice timbre, breath, vowel—employed in layers, creating harmonies that are dissonant yet strangely shimmering and otherworldly in their effect. This is immediately apparent in the opening movement of Sunrise Mass, appropriately titled “The Spheres,” where the double choruses overlap, not just in time, one following the other, but harmonically, where the new chord/cluster overlays the existing one. The layering applies to the text as well, with one chorus completing the word or phrase begun by the other chorus. This all occurs in a very slow tempo, blurring any sense of gravity-driven beat or pulse, truly creating an aura of “the spheres.” The melodic motif embedded in this nebulous opening coalesces and gathers form as the movement assumes more traditional shape. But the “music of the spheres” returns at the opening of the fourth movement, and is probably the signature sound of the entire work.
Gjeilo says of his initial idea in Sunrise Mass, “I wanted the musical development of the Mass to go from the most transparent and spacey, to something completely earthy and grounded; from nebulous and pristine to more emotional and dramatic, and eventually warm and solid, as a metaphor for human development from child to adult, or as a spiritual journey. I always want there to be a positive evolution in artistic expressions; to move everything forward to transcend conflict and dissonance, by going through it, not avoiding it. Ideally, it has the capacity to help bring us deeper into ourselves rather than the other way….”
“Sunrise” allows the strings to set the scene, using variants of the “Kyrie” motif, which the sopranos echo. Daylight appears. The music gathers energy and direction, culminating in a broad, grand, and glorious statement of “Domine Deus, Rex caelestis” (Our God, King of the heavens”), before a recap of the wake-up motif. The movement ends with a quiet, grateful “amen.”
As the title implies, “The City” features an active, at times truly agitated string accompaniment which suggests the busy, restless nature of human activity. Layered over this, the traditional “Credo” text unfolds. Altos freely chant the “et incarnatus est,” interrupted by the full chorus cry of “crucifixus,” using the melodic material from the opening movement, truly linking the celestial to the human at its most cruel. The “Et resurrexit,” usually a jubilant moment in the mass, here is set very quietly for a cappella chorus with solo cello, a truly stunningly beautiful moment of grateful reflection. The bustle of the city resumes and the movement culminates with a strong, affirmative “amen.”
The final movement has two sections—“Identity,” which is an exact reprise of the music of the spheres that opened the work, then “The Ground,” where the chorus swells with the familiar strains of a hymn, one of the most musically ’grounded’ and recognizable of styles. The work closes gently with the chorus’s traditional plea for peace (“dona nobis pacem”), the final “amens” accompanied by an ethereal solo violin.
–Barbara Jones, March 2017
Morten Lauridsen (born 1943)
For most of our 38 seasons, I have avoided repeating a piece, as we choral singers are blessed with a vast repertoire of fascinating, worthwhile compositions from which to choose; life is short, why repeat a work we have already “done?” Short answer: because it is such a rewarding work that it deserves revisiting; it changes and deepens when you return to it at a different stage in your life; for some of our newer singers, the “revisit” may be their first exposure to the work. What a treat for them, in this case!
Since we first experienced Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna in 2003, many singers have expressed a desire to sing it again. While the music sounds simple and soothing to the listener, it is full of challenges for the singers, yet is such a beautifully crafted and emotionally satisfying work, that no one minds engaging in – and growing from — its technical demands.
The work is often compared, in subject, tone, treatment and even compositional motivation, to both Fauré’s Requiem and Brahms’ A German Requiem. In each case the composer’s mother’s death added poignancy to the subject. Each of these works expresses warmth and consolation. In Lauridsen’s words, Lux Aeterna is an “intimate work of quiet serenity” that expresses “hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations.”
Scored for chamber orchestra and lacking vocal soloists, Lauriden’s focus is on the collective human experience, as expressed by the chorus. As is fitting for a piece that explores the eternal, the timeless, his compositional techniques look both back and forward. Frequent use of imitative, contrapuntal and even strictly canonic passage recall Renaissance motets; long, vocal lines suggest medieval chant. The harmonic language, with its frequent use of dissonance and “cluster” effects, works seamlessly to create music that is rooted in the old, but looks forward to the new, thereby suggesting the eternal. As in chant, the entire work is text-centered, where the melodic lines always fit the natural stress of the words. “My passion second to music is poetry….Consequently, it has been a natural development for me as a composer to wed these two passions and to set texts to music….I constantly sing each line as I am composing to make sure each vocal part is lyrical and gracious for the singer.” The choral passages move freely from homophonic to contrapuntal textures, determined by the text.
The work consists of five movements, each a setting of a sacred Latin text containing references to light. In bookend fashion, the first and last movements draw upon words from the beginning and ending of the Missa pro defunctis, concluding with the universal prayer for peace. Each of the five movements, performed without separation, reflects a different musical response to the text. The first movement, “Introitus,” introduces many of the themes that will be used throughout. The music ebbs and flows, following the natural tensions and stresses of the text.
The stark second movement, “In te, Domine Speravi,” opens with a 1677 hymn tune, “Herlibster Jesu” employed like a cantus firmus in the orchestra. The choral parts are often in pairs (sopranos/altos; tenors/basses) while creating a strict mirror canon in the middle of the movement. Here the formal compositional technique can be seen as representing both self-reflection and a dialogue between Man and Creator.
The central movement, “O Nata Lux” (O Light born from Light), is unaccompanied, pure vocal sound. This lovely and moving piece is frequently performed apart from the rest of the work; it stands like the gem in the middle of a beautiful setting.
The exuberant “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” builds and soars before dimming gradually into the gentle Agnus Dei. Much of the music from the first movement is heard again, culminating with a powerful overflow of “alleluias.” The work concludes with the traditional prayer for peace.
Perhaps singers so love this work because of its ability to communicate clearly what Wordsworth once identified as “thoughts too deep for tears.”
–Barbara Jones, March 2017
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola
by Tim Arnold, 1st Violin
Mozart was an accomplished violinist, but in chamber music, he preferred to play viola, so he was intimately familiar with the resources of both instruments showcased in this sparkling work. Composed in 1779 in Salzburg, it calls for an orchestra of two oboes, two horns and strings. Symphonie concertantes are generally lighthearted works, almost always in a major key, that emphasize virtuosic display over expressive profundity.
Joe and I are delighted and honored that Barbara asked us to perform this for you today. It has been a joy getting to know this music, and playing with such a wonderful and accomplished orchestra and music director. My first thought in approaching this concertante was that it needs to sound like two cheerful angels dancing on a cloud—and that is harder than it sounds. Have you ever played the game Operation, with the tweezers and the buzzers? It looks easy, but it’s not. Mozart is like that, his music is so wonderfully woven together, so perfectly crafted, so exposed, it’s easy to forget the sensitivity and complexity involved. At any point when playing Mozart, a string player can ‘get buzzed’ if the bow is too slow or fast, or at the wrong angle, or at the wrong speed, or not synchronized perfectly with the fingers.
I recall my first solo performance of a Mozart concerto. As a young teen it seemed easy, I assumed it was the same as Bach, the notes, the tempo, the phrasing. But I missed the mark, as an observer told me afterwards: I was missing the purpose, the soul, of the music. Not to take away from Bach, but for a string player Bach is like a hearty winter soup of meat and potatoes, fabulous of course, comforting and fulfilling, whereas Mozart is a light spring soup full of herbs and spices and sensitive hints of unknowable flavors: the delightful back and forth between the soloists, and the orchestra…the interplay with the strings and the horns, and the oboes…the simple melodies that repeat, and grow, and mature over time. It’s so delicate and high (on the finger board), and precise and fast (except when it’s slow) and so exposed, but we love it. We are so grateful for this opportunity, and hope you enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed attempting to bring life to what Mozart put on the page in 1779.