Spring 2015 — Still I Rise
Saturday, December 5, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.
Josh Lawton, piano and organ
Concert Notes for "Still I Rise"
Written by Jennifer Kane
I always find it challenging to plan repertoire for December performances while entrenched in the month of June. This year was exceptionally difficult, though, as I found myself contemplating a program after the horrific act of violence in Charleston, South Carolina. As I sit and write these program notes − just days after the attacks in Paris and Beirut − I cannot help but reflect on the seemingly endless list of violent acts that have occurred since I planned this program nearly six months ago.
How do we, as artists, respond to such violence? In 1963, in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, composer Leonard Bernstein stated, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, and more devotedly than ever before.”
I, too, believe that we have an obligation to put beauty into the world. Yet, we also serve as a mirror for humanity and, as such, we have the opportunity to educate and to inspire. It was this thought process that inspired our program for today − a program that celebrates diversity, strength, friendship, and peace. You will hear works from the classical canon, and you will hear works influenced by non-Western musical traditions. You will hear texts that provide a living history of horrors past, texts that ponder the world after a war, and texts that dream of equality for all mankind.
But most importantly, you will hear us singing. Singing together − a wonderfully diverse group of women − using our voices to triumph over violence. Using our voices to wish you joy, good health, friendship,
Our program opens with Veni Domine, the first in a set of three motets written for women’s voices by German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847). The motet boasts a three-part structure clearly delineated by key structure, time signatures, and texture. Mendelssohn uses the contrast between major and minor keys to express the tension between a plea for help and confidence in God’s faithfulness. The return of the opening material in the final section of the motet marks the height of this tension, after which Mendelssohn transitions away from supplication before resolving into hopeful anticipation.
American composer Daniel J. Hall composed Reflections from Yad Vashem after a visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem - the world center for documentation, research, education, and commemoration of the Holocaust. Hall writes of his work, “Reflections from Yad Vashem is
my musical and poetical response to the poignant and lingering impressions evoked by the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial – a gentle, ethereal, cosmic facet of an otherwise austere experience.” To compose this work, Hall combined texts from a variety of sources: scripture from the book of Genesis; selected children’s names from the Yad Vashem database of people killed in concentration camps; Psalm 23; a liberal treatment of the Hebrew lullaby Numi, Numi, Yaldati (Sleep, Sleep, My Little Girl); and his own verses. Hall weaves these elements into a fabric that depicts the spiritual, philosophical, and emotional experience generated by visiting the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial. His use of sectional form – the persistent minor second interval over a pedal point, the floating and ethereal use of compound meter, and the gentle, yet my musical and poetical response to the poignant and lingering impressions evoked by the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial – a gentle, ethereal, cosmic facet of an otherwise austere experience.” To compose this work, Hall combined texts from a variety of sources: scripture from the book of Genesis; selected children’s names from the Yad Vashem database of people killed in concentration camps; Psalm 23; a liberal treatment of the Hebrew lullaby Numi, Numi, Yaldati (Sleep, Sleep, My Little Girl); and his own verses. Hall weaves these elements into a fabric that depicts the spiritual, philosophical, and emotional experience generated by visiting the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial. His use of sectional form – the persistent minor second interval over a pedal point, the floating and ethereal use of compound meter, and the gentle, yet mournful account of the children’s names – lends the sensation of passing from room to room. It is as though the listener were experiencing Yad Vashem along with Hall. The voice that connects all of these rooms belongs to the viola, which despite being a textless voice, simultaneously guides the listener, tells the story, and expresses the emotion of the living history of Yad Vashem.
There Will Come Soft Rains is one of three settings of the poetry of Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) written by composer, Kevin Memley (b. 1971). Of this particular setting Memley states, “I wanted to explore Sara’s depiction of the absence of humanity, specifically through what she describes as ‘the war.’ This may have been a reference to her own time period, although I find it more haunting to imagine that she could be describing the things of today.” Memley captures the musical language of Teasdale’s poetry beautifully: luscious chords depict the smell of nature and the dawn of spring, and bubbling rhythms depict frogs in the pools and birds in flight. Yet, it is Memley’s haunting, mournful melody, passed between the voices and the oboe, which underscores the absence of humanity among nature. The closing raindrops of There Will Come Soft Rains sound the teardrops of mankind, now fallen.
Messe Basse, written by French composer and organist Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), underwent many changes before reaching its present form. The first composition was the result of a collaborative effort with fellow composer André Messager. Written for a high mass service in 1881, this mass was scored for 3-part women’s chorus and soloist, solo violin and harmonium. Fauré composed the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei and Messager composed the Kyrie and O Salutaris. The second version of the work existed as Messager’s rescored accompaniment of the 1881 mass for full orchestra during the following year. The final version came to fruition in 1907. Fauré composed his own Kyrie and a separate Benedictus, omitted the Gloria, and rescored the new work for soprano solo, two-part female chorus and harmonium. The resulting work is peaceful and soothing. Without the lengthy and dramatic Gloria and Credo texts, the existing movements provide an ideal context for Fauré’s graceful style: beautiful melodies, elegant lyricism, and subtle shifts between tonal and modal harmonies. The title translates to ‘Low Mass,’ which is an abbreviated form of the Mass Ordinary. The title is also fitting in that the vocal melodies lie largely in the middle and lower registers of a woman’s voice, thereby enhancing Fauré’s work with a darker and richer color.
Hot Tea, Mint and Olives, by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom
(b. 1971), was commissioned by the Boston Children’s Chorus in 2007. Hot Tea, Mint and Olives sets the poetry of acclaimed Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat (b. 1963), and uses elements of classical and folk traditions within Arabic music. The result is a 3-movement, secular work that reinforces peace, friendship, and mutual understanding. Movement 1, Tea Invitation, is based on a 6/8 metric cycle called Yūruk Samā’ī, one of the iqa’, or rhythmic modes of Arabic music. Roustom uses voices to mimic the sounds of hand drums such as the darbouka or riqq, which often sound the wazn (rhythmic patterns) in Arabic music. In Movement 2, Alphabets of my Life, Roustom pairs letters from the Arabic and English alphabet with Barakat’s text to underscore their similarities, their differences, and to demonstrate how they can work together. Movement 3, The Song of the Zaytoon Trees, is based on a Lebanese and Palestinian folk dance called dabke’, a form of both circle and line dancing that is widely performed at weddings and other joyous occasions. A Zaytoon tree is an olive tree, and Roustom cleverly uses the text “O live!” as a play on the word “olive.” In preparing this work for performance, we have learned much by dabbling in the Arabic language, exploring new rhythms, viewing music through a cultural lens, and delving into Barakat’s thoughtful texts.
The Organ Sonata (Trio) by German composer and organist Hugo Distler (1908-1942). Distler was deeply influenced by the 16th and 17th century music sung by the Thomanercor in Leipzig, where he studied at the conservatory. Additionally, Distler was exposed to the Berneucher Kreis, the liturgical reform movement in the Lutheran Church, and to the Orgelbewegung, a movement in organ building that sought to return to construction designs and tonal characteristics of Baroque instruments. Distler’s assimilation of the influences in Leipzig, together with his deep religious beliefs, strongly influenced his unique compositional style: old forms and genres coupled with new rhythmic and harmonic freedom.
Unfortunately, Distler’s story is quite tragic. Though he held many prominent positions throughout his career, Distler joined the NSDAP in 1933 under the notion that Protestant church music in Germany would be given more prominence once the National Socialists came to power. Instead, he found that the rise of the Nazi party brought intolerable pressures and opposition to his music. Though he had been called for duty on two previous occasions and successfully had both calls withdrawn, the third call of duty proved to be too much for Distler to bear. Feeling depressed and demoralized over the state of political circumstances in Germany, physically fatigued from work responsibilities, and certain that he would not be excused from duty a third time, Distler took his own life at the age of thirty-four.
I Dream a World is perhaps the most famous poem of Langston Hughes (1902-1967), one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his poetry and other writings, Hughes promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated the unique culture and spirituality of African Americans at a time when it was not popular to do so. Joan Szymko (b. 1957) sets this beloved poem in a manner that is lyrical and elegant. The homophonic setting ensures clarity of the text, but Szymko’s beautiful, soaring melodies, satisfying harmonies, and occasional use of text painting add a layer of poignancy, thereby enhancing the message of Hughes’ poem.
Our program closes with Still I Rise, composed by Alabama native Rose- phanye Powell (b. 1962). When Vox Femina, the Los-Angeles based women’s chorus, commissioned Still I Rise, they requested a text that spoke of the strength and gifts that women bring to life. The result was a secular, gospel-infused women’s anthem inspired by a poem of the same name by Maya Angelou. It salutes the strength of women to persevere through life’s difficulties: though a women’s life or past may be filled with heartaches, with each day she finds herself still living, growing stronger, and rising a little higher because her circumstances have not overcome her. Every new day can be one of hope and joy.