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Program Notes

 

Spring 2014 — Immovable Objects, Irresistible Forces:
Songs of Human and Natural Wonders

 

Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 4 p.m.

 

Allegra Martin, director
Josh Lawton, piano

 

 

When creating a program of music, I usually select a few pieces, choose a theme that fits those pieces, and then build a program around that theme. My process for this program was a little backwards – although I had several pieces I wanted to do (Schubert’s Gott in der Natur and Barnett’s Song of Perfect Propriety) and I had found a title for the program, I didn’t realize until January that the programmatic theme could be summed up in one word: Power. It is ironic perhaps that it was difficult for me to identify a theme so personal to conductors everywhere! We have quite a lot of power and responsibility while conducting and rehearsing, but we are also completely dependent upon the musicians physically creating the sound. For a conductor, figuring out the balance between telling and persuading, commanding and listening, directing and allowing is a life-long journey. Every conductor must find his/her own balance, and shift it to match every ensemble.

 

The music in this program will reflect various forms of power. Power can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. It can come from small forces (raindrops or ants) or large ones (God or lightning or sledgehammers). Anger and determination can provide human power in the face of injustice (in the form of racism, sexism, prejudice, or war). We will also sing about the more ineffable forms of power which nevertheless can be equally influential forces that create movement and change, including spring, hope, joy, and beauty.

 

Our first piece is by the beloved Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828). Gott in der Natur was most likely written at the behest of Anna Fröhlich, one of four famous sisters. The Fröhlich sisters were talented musicians and well-known in the musical city of Vienna, and Schubert got to know them well. Schubert went to a musical evening hosted by Anna Fröhlich, and after hearing some of the treble trios from Mozart’s Die Zauberflote sung by her female singing pupils from the Vienna Conservatory, he was inspired to write two pieces for women’s vocal quartet and present them to Anna. Gott in der Natur (God in Nature) has a text by Christian Ewald von Kleist that describes God’s presence in the multitude of natural phenomena that we experience every day. Schubert’s setting is very descriptive – each phrase is carefully painted. During the phrase “thunder and lightning are his horses,” you can hear the lightning flashing in the vocal parts, while the thunder rolls in the piano part. When God looks down to earth from heaven, you can hear the soprano melody start high and resolve downwards, as if gazing down from a higher vantage point. When the rocks burst into flame, you can clearly hear the flames leaping high in all the voices. The second movement of the piece is a grand waltz of praise to God, and Schubert enjoys pairing the voices in different ways and setting them against each other rhythmically to have a little fun with counterpoint.

 

Scântei Solare (Solar Flares) was written by contemporary composer Jonathan Pieslak (b. 1974). The piece began as a piano etude, but was adapted for women’s chorus, with a text by Pieslak’s wife Sabina. The Romanian words are about springtime in the mountains and seas. The music has a driving rhythm, but the number of eighth notes varies from measure to measure, giving a feeling of continually changing syncopation.

 

Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), a Finnish composer who is most known for his operas and symphonies, also has some wonderful choral music. Anthem for Ants was written in 1933 for the Tapiola Choir, one of the most accomplished children’s choirs in the world. Though not a well-known piece – it is entirely possible that this is the American premiere of the work – its fresh-sounding harmonies and quirky text make it fascinating. Sallinen wrote the text, which is an exploration of money, possessions, the weight of family expectations, and greed. Listen for the scurrying of the ants (or is it the scurrying of you and me?) as they build their “mini-city.”

 

Falling Rain was commissioned by the Peninsula Women’s Chorus in California. Founded in 1966, the PWC is responsible for many wonderful additions to the women’s choral repertoire. In 1999, the PWC initiated an outreach project into local elementary schools. The “Poetry and Music Project” encouraged children in 17 classrooms and 5 schools to write poetry; then, three composers were presented with the poetry and chose various texts to set to music, which the PWC premiered in March 2000. Falling Rain by Brian Holmes (b. 1946) was one of those pieces. Holmes creates an extremely unique texture in his musical setting by dividing the choir into twelve groups of voices and having each voice only sing one note in the melody. Though you will hear a melody strung throughout the choir, every singer only has one pitch to sing throughout the entire piece, often singing only one syllable of a word before the melody passes on.

 

let’s touch the sky by Ron Jeffers is a setting of an E. E. Cummings poem. Like Pieslak’s work earlier in the program, Jeffers’ joyous and leaping setting also involves constantly changing rhythms; so much so that he does not even bother with a time signature. Every bar has a different number of eighth notes in it! Jeffers also plays with the idea of a whole tone scale, so the music is wandering into different tone centers and back out again. The text and music both combine to express the unquenchable vivacity that spring brings out in all aspects of nature, including our own spirits.

 

Our next three pieces are rooted in the struggle for power and freedom of African-Americans. The first piece, Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, was arranged by David Morrow (b. 1959). The song dates from before the mid-nineteenth century, but its specific origins are unknown. Due in part to the evangelical revivals that started at the end of the eighteenth century, large numbers of slaves turned to Christianity. The message, particularly in the Old Testament stories, of a persecuted group of people that God would protect and lead towards safety, freedom, and prosperity obviously resonated strongly for slaves and provided purpose, hope, and often sparked resistance during the horrors of the “peculiar institution.” The combination of sorrow, hope, and joy in the many African-American spirituals is one of the most powerful musical testaments we have to the strength of the human spirit in inhumane conditions.

 

And Ain’t I a Woman! is a setting of the words of Sojourner Truth, one of the more powerful figures in American history. An abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in her twenties. This text is an excerpt of her famous extemporaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Composer Susan Borwick (b. 1946) is known for her works that blend different musical styles. In this piece, Borwick’s bluesy setting emphasizes the aggressive boldness, as well as the flashes of sly humor, of Truth’s speech.

 

Our final piece in this set is our very own version of We Shall Not Be Moved. This song started out as a spiritual, going by the title “I Shall Not Be Moved.” It has been adopted by both the workers’ rights and the civil rights movements. Cantilena has adapted it further; during one of our rehearsals, every singer submitted a card with a topic that she would find personally important. We have distilled these suggestions into the verses you will hear.

 

Our second half leads off with Song of Perfect Propriety, featuring the poetry of the inimitable Dorothy Parker. Parker was a short-story writer, critic, poet, and satirist known for her sharp wit. She was a member of the famous group of writers and critics called the Algonquin Round Table, also known as the “Vicious Circle.” She wrote for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and later became a screenwriter for Hollywood. It is difficult to choose just one of her clever quotes, but she suggested her epitaph be “Excuse my dust.” The particular poem we will sing rails against sexism and societal expectations of women. Composer Carol Barnett (b. 1949) is an award-winning Minnesota-based composer. Her brash, humorous setting digs right into the delight and sarcasm of Parker’s poetry, and the occasional extra beat in a bar keeps the listener off-balance.

 

Our next piece, an arrangement of the Largo movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, has a very dramatic history. The two arrangers, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, were part of a group of women interned by the Japanese during WWII in Sumatra. Held in captivity for almost four years, the women formed a chorus in their camp that sang arrangements of classical pieces from symphonies, piano solos, and other instrumental works. Dryburgh and Chambers collaborated on the music, writing down these pieces from memory and arranging them for the voices on scraps of paper. The chorus lasted a year, singing concerts on a regular basis, but eventually death and disease made further singing impossible. By the end of the war more than a third of the women in the camp had died, including Margaret Dryburgh. But the presence of such beautiful music for a portion of their ordeal gave the women a renewed sense of beauty, dignity, and the courage to go on. More information about the women and their story is available through the documentary “Song of Survival,” the memoir “Song of Survival: Women Interned”, and the movie “Paradise Road.”

 

Though simple and direct, the beauty of the next piece illustrates the quiet power of spring. Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927) is an American composer best known for her organ and keyboard compositions in addition to her popular choral works. Prairie Spring is a love song to the heartland of America; Diemer grew up in Missouri, and the work is dedicated to the University of Northern Iowa Women’s Chorus. With its rocking piano accompaniment and its swelling harmonies this is one of our favorites.

 

Our final two pieces are short and sweet, and involve power struggles in the home, something everyone in the chorus can relate to! I feel that no program for women’s chorus is complete without the music of Roger Bourland (b. 1952). He has written six sets of madrigals for women’s voices, and all are treasures. A Small But Fateful Victory comes from his first book of Alarcón Madrigals, settings of the poetry of Mexican-American poet Francisco X. Alarcón (b. 1954). The poet fondly recalls an incident in his childhood where his sister rebelled against the sexist breakdown of chores in their household. Bourland’s music perfectly matches both the drama and humor of the text.

 

And we end with a favorite piece, “The Stove” from The Muse, the Stove, and the Willow Plate by Zae Munn. We sang it exactly five years ago, as the last piece during my first season with Cantilena in 2009-2010. Our Spring 2010 concert was called “Music About Mothers: From the Divine to the Deranged,” and we ended with this text about a mother smashing apart her stove with a hammer. Five years later, we are doing it again (with several performances in between as well). Like much of the other music on this program, this piece plays with a driving sense of rhythm that is nevertheless constantly changing. While parts of the piece sound conversational, the word “pounded” always creates a strong rhythmic accent!

 

Spring, hope, rivers, ants, social justice, housework, and let’s not forget music! Whether you identify as an immoveable object or an irresistible force, we hope that you enjoy our exploration of the different manifestations of power, both big and small, in our rich and varied world.

 

 

 

 

 



 
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