Everlasting Voices Program Notes
What better way to begin our 50th anniversary season than by sampling favorites, old and new, from every decade of our existence! At the end of last season, current singers got the chance to nominate songs that had especially moved us, though the list of possibilities did not include some of the major works that we have performed, like Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which are so vast as to leave no time for anything else. But the nominating process did reveal something we should have known all along: Over the years, we have sung an amazing variety of music, from spirituals to motets, cantatas to folk songs, masses to love songs, and new pieces by young composers whose works will soon become favorites in the wider choral world. We are so grateful to enjoy these musical riches and to share them with you.
We begin with the Gloria from the Mass in G by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), which we first performed as the Civic Choraliers in the 1970s. We also sang it a few years ago in one of our many thematic programs. Titled “Vienna 1815,” that concert recreated music that diplomats at the Congress of Vienna would have heard as they worked to undo the vast changes created by the Napoleonic Wars. Schubert was born poor in a Viennese suburb and worked as a schoolteacher to support his family. From an early age, he composed prolifically—he produced 2 symphonies, 2 operas, another mass, and over 160 songs before he turned 18! Yet few contemporaries knew of his work, and many of his compositions were not performed in his lifetime, except among small groups of friends at convivial evenings known as Schubertiads. He composed this graceful mass for his parish church in the first week of March 1815. It recalls the classical style of Mozart (one of his idols) rather than full-blown romanticism, and it demonstrates one of Schubert’s greatest strengths—using utter simplicity of line to achieve dramatic effects.
Joshua Shank (b. 1980), who recently relocated to the Northwest to teach at Gonzaga University, has said he thinks of himself as a collaborator with all who bring a piece of music to life. In “Sleeping Out: Full Moon,” he certainly collaborated brilliantly with English poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Best known for his poems about World War I, Brooke actually wrote this striking text several years earlier (1908) when barely out of his teens. Both poem and song begin in normal life, on solid ground, but quickly yield to an out-of-body experience that draws the poet into the embrace of the full moon. Entranced, he calls the moon a flameless ecstasy that surrounds him with feminine tenderness and love. He does not need to do anything to experience such overwhelming beauty—only open himself to cascades of dazzling images and sounds that fill the night. We first sang this piece in a concert titled “Night, Too, Shall Be Beautiful” in April 2016.
The next work also deals with the night. Liechtenstein-born organist and composer Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) and Johannes Brahms knew each other personally and shared a devotion to the music of Bach. Like Bach, Rheinberger focused mostly on keyboard and sacred choral music, but Brahms’s influence shows in his lyricism and harmonies. We have sung this lovely motet many times, including at the final concert conducted by our long-time musical director Roger Doyle. Rheinberger based “Abendlied” on the Biblical passage that describes the risen Christ meeting followers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). They do not recognize him right away, but they still urge this apparent stranger to stay with them because night is falling. In the motet, however, the words take on a new meaning, almost like a prayer before sleep, asking God to stay with us through the night.
One of Rheinberger’s main influences, J.S. Bach (1685-1750) came from the Lutheran musical tradition in which motets were generally written for particular occasions, often burial services. As in all Lutheran services, worshipers used their native language, rather than Latin. “Komm, Jesu, komm” begins with a longing for death as a release from earthly suffering; the double choirs answer each other like a depressed mind talking to itself. Yet faith in Jesus gives meaning to human pain; the almost dance-like conclusion affirms the text that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). This section makes up almost half the motet and, as one critic has written, “The listener is cradled in a seemingly endless string of gorgeous suspensions…one doesn’t want it to end.” At last the double choirs join into one, and the final chorale closes with a serene acceptance of God’s will.
The American folksong “Shenandoah” is such a chestnut that Garrison Keillor even parodied it on A Prairie Home Companion with exaggerations of every choral trick in the book. But the song deserves its popularity—the haunting words and tune have a universal appeal, and we sang it in one of our very earliest outreach efforts. The song apparently began in the early 19th century among American fur traders traveling downstream by canoe or flatboat on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers; later it became a sea shanty, too. At the end of this arrangement, the chorus repeats the word “Shenandoah” in an overlapping pattern that recalls ripples on the water. CAE has sung it in almost every decade of our 50 years.
The CAE men next turn from this quiet scene to offer the lively “Dúlamán” by Michael McGlynn (b. 1964 in Dublin). Best known as founder and director of the Irish choir Anúna (established in 1987), McGlynn has composed everything from folk song arrangements to classical orchestral works. We first sang this piece after Roger Doyle returned from his sabbatical in Ireland in the 1990s, bringing home with him numerous works by contemporary Irish composers. This folk song setting tells of a young woman anticipating the young men who will soon come wooing; the song also refers to some rare and remarkable properties of Irish seaweed. Perhaps we should inquire no further.
We close the first half with 2 choruses that hold special meaning for us, because they come from one of the first works that we performed with our own David De Lyser in his audition concert back in 2012. The Peaceable Kingdom (1936), by composer and educator Randall Thompson (1899-1984), surprises many listeners. Inspired by a well-known painting by Quaker Edward Hicks (1780-1849) that depicts the biblical passage in which the lion and lamb co-exist in peace, Thompson set several verses from the book of Isaiah that vividly describe God’s wrath—indeed, the apocalypse in which the wicked meet their doom before the coming of God’s kingdom. The work closes with a glorious chorus of thanksgiving, but what precedes it is anything but peaceful. The contrast makes the intense joy of the conclusion even more powerful.
We began the second half with a work by Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977), one of the exciting younger composers whose work we have been performing recently. He had studied at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Riga before deciding to devote himself full-time to composing. A choral singer himself, Ešenvalds has composed primarily for vocal ensembles, often drawing on religious texts and the folk tales and songs of his native country. “Only in Sleep,” which we first sang in the spring of 2016, sets a haunting poem by American Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). The music begins with a single soprano re-discovering childhood friends when she enters the land of sleep, where night has erased the intervening years. In simple phrases, she and the choir find the beloved faces of people long vanished—maybe even her own lost child self. After tenderly examining the past, a solo soprano takes up the theme again, only now with folk-like embellishments that seem to float free in the secret world of sleep.
We sang our newest favorite for the first time just last spring when we had the privilege of performing this work with the composer himself conducting us. Jake Runestad (b. 1986) is one of the most widely performed and youngest full-time composers in the world and was even dubbed a “choral rockstar” by American Public Media; he has also composed operas and instrumental works. In collaboration with the Chamber Choir of Linn-Benton Community College, we performed an entire program of this brilliant young composer’s work. His setting of journal entries by Scottish naturalist John Muir, “Come to the Woods,” especially moved us, as it evoked the natural beauty and the sometimes dramatic weather that surround us here in the Pacific Northwest.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) has long been a favorite of choirs everywhere, partly for his uncanny knack of giving every voice something luscious to sing. Born to a poor family in Hamburg, Germany, he eventually made his home in Vienna. After the success of his German Requiem, he became among the first musicians to support himself by his compositions alone. CAE has performed the Requiem twice, most recently last fall, and various of his Liebeslieder Waltzes (1869) innumerable times The waltzes surprised Brahms’s friends and critics alike with their lightheartedness and aura of young love. He chose for his text Polydora, a collection of folk-inspired poems by Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875). The poems draw on Russian, Polish, and Hungarian folk traditions and inspired a new musical palette for Brahms. In their delicate brevity, they recall some of Schubert’s song cycles.
Our spring concert in 2017 included 4 settings of the “Ave Verum Corpus,” a text attributed to Pope Innocent VI that proclaims the transformation of the bread and wine of Communion into the true body and blood of Christ. Musical settings date to at least the 16th century. The most recent of them was by English composer Colin Mawby (b. 1936), an organist and former choral director for the Irish radio service. He has focused almost exclusively on works for the English Catholic liturgy, including masses, motets, and hymns; for these contributions, the Pope honored him with a Knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory in 2006. Most of Mawby’s “Ave Verum” is more extroverted and passionate than the familiar setting by Mozart, but it ends with an almost otherworldly meditation on Jesus that recalls the harmonies of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), like Mawby a devout Catholic.
In the 50 years of CAE’s existence, we have probably sung “A Red, Red Rose” by James Q. Mulholland (b. 1935) more often than any other piece, not just in concerts but also as part of at least 2 wedding celebrations for our singers. So it seems fitting to invite any audience members who have sung with us in the past to join us in singing it now. The song comes from a set of 4 “ballads” based on the poetry of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) that Mulholland composed in the late 1960s and published in 1980. A life-long devotee of British, Irish, and American poetry, Mulholland has said that he spends much of his time seeking poems that move him. He then recites them over and over until they almost hypnotize him and he senses their internal rhythms; he begins singing to himself and only then starts to put notes to the words on paper.
We close with another work that we had the great pleasure of performing under the composer’s direction—“The Battle of Jericho,” by Moses Hogan (1957-2002). A wonderful friend to CAE, Hogan was born in New Orleans and studied music at Oberlin Conservatory, Juilliard, and Louisiana State University. In 1980, at age 23, he founded the New World Ensemble (which later became the acclaimed Moses Hogan Chorale) in New Orleans to explore the choral idiom. But his first love, as a composer, arranger, and conductor, was always the heritage of African American spirituals, and he shared his passion in the Oxford Book of Spirituals, which he edited. After he and Roger Doyle met on a plane, he agreed to come to Portland to conduct joint concerts with us and the choir of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. An inspiring conductor, he told us, “I want your hearts on God, but your eyes on me!” He made the joy, sorrow, and steadfast defiance of spirituals come alive for singers and audiences alike. Sadly, he died soon after of a brain tumor, but his music will surely continue to inspire us all as CAE embarks on our musical future.