CAE Pops Turns 10!

Welcome to our celebration of ten years of pops concerts. When we started them, we didn’t know exactly what “pops” would entail but felt we needed something fun to get us all through the last dark days of winter. Besides, the concept has let us explore everything from opera to jazz, folksongs to film scores, goofiness to gospel. We hope you enjoy this chronological review of ten years of pops concerts.

We begin with opera at its grandest—the Triumphal March from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The scene presents the festivities that greet Radamès as he returns to Egypt after a military victory. The celebration features an enormous throng marching before Egyptian royalty—soldiers, prisoners, priests, scantily clad male and female dancers, on-stage trumpeters, and sometimes even an elephant. Aida premiered in Cairo in 1871, in honor of the opening of the Suez Canal, and the lavish production reflected Egypt’s new strategic importance. Aida also became a Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) dominated 20th-century American musical culture as a conductor, composer, and the person who introduced Americans to every kind of music through more than 50 televised Young People’s Concerts. As a composer, he wrote everything from symphonies, ballets, operas, and a mass to hit Broadway shows. He based his musical Candide on Voltaire’s 18th-century novel while simultaneously working on West Side StoryCandide satirizes the naively optimistic belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Reflecting the title character’s painfully earned wisdom, Candide closes with the characters pledging to do the hard work to “Make Our Garden Grow.” 

Most Americans first became aware of African American spirituals after the Civil War when the songs were collected and published by Northerners who had participated in the War. Like many spirituals, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” refers to God’s power to deliver people from seemingly impossible situations, including slavery. The first verse mentions stories from the Old Testament books of Daniel and Jonah, but later verses refer to Judgment Day and the future return of Jesus to Earth to set things right. Renowned American spiritual composer and arranger, Moses Hogan(1957-2003), who wrote this arrangement, personally conducted CAE in two concerts of his music, including this piece, in 2000.

“Home on the Range” has long served as the unofficial anthem of the American West and has officially been the state song of Kansas since 1947. Though it sounds like a folksong (and has virtually become one), Dr. Brewster M. Higley(1823–1911) actually wrote the words in a poem titled “My Western Home” in the early 1870s, and his friend Daniel E. Kelley (1843-1905), a carpenter and fiddler by trade, set it to music soon after. The best-known version was collected by pioneering American musicologist John Lomax in 1910.

Since 2013, almost everyone with small children in their lives has encountered the animated Disney film Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Snow Queen. While Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez wrote the film’s eight songs, including “Let It Go,” Queen Elsa’s prize-winning show-stopper, Canadian Christophe Beck (b. 1972) composed the rest of the score, much of it based on traditional music from the Sápmi region that stretches across northern Norway, Finland and Sweden. The first song in our medley, “Heimr Arnadir” (Home Valley of Eagles), accompanies Queen Elsa’s coronation; the second, “Eatnemen Vuelie” (Earth Song), opens the movie and returns during the Great Thaw at the movie’s climax.

The score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) by the prolific John Williams (b. 1932) won an Academy Award, a Grammy, and numerous other honors. Our medley combines songs in two different languages. The first, in Yiddish, is an arrangement of a folksong that Spielberg’s grandmother had sung to him. The second, “Jerusalem of Gold,” sung in Hebrew, alternates with it; though it sounds as traditional as a folksong, it was written in 1967 by Israeli composer Naomi Shemer (1930-2004). By combining the two songs with a moving violin solo, Williams subtly affirmed Jewish survival in the Holocaust.

Before Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II on their popular musicals, he collaborated with lyricist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943), beginning while they were undergrads at Columbia University. They had their first Broadway show in 1925, followed by hits including The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey. Thanks to Hart’s witty wordplay, Rodgers’ music with him often displayed less sentimentality than his work with Hammerstein. Originally sung by a teenage girl to a boy named Val in Babes in Arms (1937), “My Funny Valentine” has a wry and rueful sweetness all its own. Starting with the iconic recording by Chet Baker, it has become a jazz standard.

We have sung many works by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) over the years. His works range from the hypnotically gorgeous “Sleep” to the intense drama of “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.” Yet nothing prepared us for the profundity of his settings of poetry by American master, Ogden Nash (1902-1971). Whitacre has written of this project: “I’ve always dreamed of writing a substantial collection of choral works that might enter the standard choral repertoire, something with the depth and passion of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals and the charm and timelessness of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.” We are sure you’ll agree that he has succeeded with “Animal Crackers.”

The CAE tenors and basses open the second half with “Hello” from Tony Award winner The Book of Mormon (2011). The show’s first song portrays a class where young missionaries in training practice their approach to possible converts. A trio of innovative talents created the show: Trey Parker (b. 1969) and Matt Stone (b. 1971) are probably best known for their irreverent TV show South Park, while composer Robert Lopez (b. 1975) won both a Tony for Avenue Q and an Oscar and a Grammy for his songs for Disney’s Frozen. “Hello” starts off calmly enough, becomes increasingly manic as the missionaries get into the spirit, and ends with a not-too-shabby imitation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!

The Magic Flute (1791) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) celebrates the triumph of beauty, wisdom, and rationality over many trials and dangers. Both Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder had a fascination with Freemasonry, which plays out in this opera in recurring patterns of threes (like the triangles in Masonic imagery) and in its Egyptian ambiance (note the mention of the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris in this chorus). Although the work as a whole combines idealistic themes with all-too-human silliness, this final chorus of Mozart’s final opera hails the return of light, beauty, and truth to the world. 

“Let the River Run” from Working Girl (1988) immediately captures the film’s energy as it plays under the opening credits. From the vantage of the Statue of Liberty, the audience sees the Staten Island Ferry heading to Manhattan, carrying hundreds of workers eager to make their mark in the shining city. Carly Simon (b. 1943) has cited Walt Whitman’s poetry and the movie’s script as inspirations for the lyrics, while her music incorporates the driving beat of drums to evoke the nervous energy of Simon’s native city. Simon had been writing songs for films since the 1970s, including “Nobody Does It Better” for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), but “Let the River Run” won her an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy, making her the first artist ever to win this trio of awards for a song composed, written, and performed by a single artist.

Two English sisters created the first version of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) wrote the familiar words in 1841, and her sister, Eliza, composed the first setting, but American Lowell Mason (1792-1872), music educator and composer of hundreds of hymns, wrote the music for our version. The hymn thus illustrates the blended Anglo-American Victorian culture of urban America in the nineteenth century. This striking arrangement sets the original text against a chant in Latin about God raising us even in the moment of death. It comes to us via BYU Vocal Point, the nine-member male a cappella group at Brigham Young University.

The three hymns in Heavenly Home, arranged by Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970), sound almost like folksongs, but in fact they all had composers and lyricists. The focus on Heaven as our true home, where we will reunite with lost or distant family, reflects a longing born of the frequent isolation and loneliness of rural and frontier life. Rev. J.K. Alwood (1828-1909), a circuit-riding United Brethren pastor, wrote both the words and music for “Unclouded Day” in 1879. A solo performer of original songs that range from jazz to bluegrass to gospel, arranger Shawn Kirchner has long worked with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which premiered Heavenly Home (described admiringly by the Los AngelesTimes as a “bluegrass triptych”) in 2010.

Many Scottish songs romanticize Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, but “Loch Lomond” probably comes closer to the grim reality in this reworking of an early 18th-century Scottish love song. The victorious royal government saw the prince’s captured followers as traitors and executed many of them, some after show trials in England. While the lyrics may refer to a literal road where common folk traveled on foot, one Celtic legend holds that if someone dies in a foreign land, their spirit returns to their homeland by the low road of death. In this interpretation, the singer is a condemned soldier about to die, bidding his comrades goodbye, recalling sweet times with his love, but envisioning his spirit at last at peace in Scotland.

As with most folksongs, the origins of “Londonderry Air” remain mysterious. One story ascribes the tune to a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan who lived sometime between 1560 and 1660. One night after drinking too much, he fell asleep and woke to find fairies playing this haunting melody on his harp. Another version centers on a woman named Jane Ross. In 1851, while walking in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, she heard the tune played on a harp (or possibly a fiddle), tracked down the musician, and transcribed it, calling it after the place she first heard it. Wherever the tune came from, scores of poets have set words to it, including more than a dozen hymns. Probably the best known is “Danny Boy,” written in 1910 by an English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). His first attempts at setting his words to music went nowhere, but, after his Irish sister-in-law introduced him to this tune, the song found great success.

We close with a song popularized by Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), a Texas gospel blues singer, guitarist, and evangelist. Mostly a street performer and preacher, Johnson recorded thirty gospel songs in the late 1920s, but they attracted little attention until the 1960s. “John the Revelator” sets up an intense if imaginary dialogue between the singers and the author of the book of Revelation, who vividly depicted the end of this world as well as the world to come. Though not in strictly chronological order, we can’t think of a more exciting way to end the celebrate our ten years of pops concerts. We hope you agree.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan