Yuletide: From the Pacific Northwest Program Notes

Welcome, Yule!

The holidays can mingle experiences in unexpected ways. Our concert does the same, bringing together music by composers from around the world and from right here in the “upper left corner,” with special contributions from our longtime collaborators, Cascadia Composers. With inspiring new arrangements of carols dating back centuries and meditations on winter, we invite you to share Yuletide in the Pacific Northwest.

We begin with a rousing song of rejoicing, arranged by Michael McGlynn (b. 1964). Best known as the founding director of the Irish choir Anúna, McGlynn has composed every sort of music, much of it with Irish-language lyrics. “Gaudete” originally appeared in Piae Cantiones (1582). Jacobus Finno, a clergyman at the cathedral school in Turku, Finland, compiled the collection of late medieval Latin songs for his students. Though popular in Scandinavia, the collection remained unknown in England until 1853, when Anglican priest John Mason Neale (1818-1866) translated or reworked the words of several songs, published as Carols for Christmas-tide; the new carols included “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “Good King Wenceslas.”

The mood turns quieter with “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Portlander Carolyn Quick (b. 1994). As both a solo singer and composer, she loves exploring the unique textural possibilities of the human voice, often writing her own lyrics. In addition, she advocates for historically excluded composers through her new music collective, Persisting Sound, and her music distribution collective, Raindrop New Music. Starting with the carol’s familiar text by Christina Rosetti and music by Gustav Holst, her setting begins and ends with “voices in the wind”—birds, animals, lost souls? —that emphasize our vulnerability in a harsh, wintry world. In Quick’s words, “Though most of the work is an extreme departure from the original carol melody, elements of this setting appear throughout, finally appearing fully realized during the final verse with traditional three-part harmonies”—a treasure for even the bleakest winter.

Continuing a family tradition, Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis (b. 1980) based her haunting Advent carol, “Behind the Clouds,” on a prose poem that her clergyman great-grandfather, Rev. Bates Burt (1878-1948), wrote in 1942, in the dark days of World War II. In 1922, he began composing words and music for new Christmas carols that he sent to his parishioners every year. Twenty years later, his son Alfred (Abbie’s great-uncle) joined in creating the annual Burt Family Carols, continuing until his death in 1954. The 1942 card thus held messages from both father and son. Betinis resumed the tradition in 2001. In this carol, she focused on what Advent contains: “darkness, waiting, preparing, staying awake, wondering, hoping, hearing that something good is coming.…Coincidentally, these were exactly the things I was thinking would suit a carol written in November-December 2008.” Its message remains just as relevant today.

We are especially proud to present “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as set by Patrick Rooney (b. 1992), because he has been singing with CAE for several years. A Colorado native, he got hooked on creating original music, especially for chorus, in high school. At our 2016 Christmas concert, CAE performed his “Winter Stars,” which had won the Ars Nova Singers Prize in the 2012 Colorado Composers Competition. Like Edmund Sears (1810-1876), the American Unitarian minister who wrote the carol’s words in 1849 in the wake of the Mexican-American War, Patrick sees this work as “a plea for peace and a reminder to keep in mind our shared humanity in order to achieve that peace.” More than many other carols, he feels its words transcend “any religion, time period, or national border. It’s a message that is still very pertinent in modern times.”

The Advent hymn “Veni, Emmanuel” originated in monastic communities in the 8th or 9th century. The monks usually sang it before and after chanting the Magnificat. Anglican priest John Mason Neale wrote the familiar English translation in 1851, publishing it in Hymns Ancient and Modern. The setting by Northwest composer James W. Knox (b. 1974) begins with deep sighs, emphasizing the longing for an impossible hope that is miraculously fulfilled. Knox is a professor of music at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, where he directs the Cascade Chorale, College Choir, and the vocal jazz ensemble, Central Singers. He has also performed widely as a baritone soloist in operas, musicals, and other major works, as well as composing choral music that has been performed throughout North and South America and many European countries.

The son of a Lutheran pastor, German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) initially studied divinity and philosophy before becoming a church organist in Frankfurt in 1587. By the time he published his first collection of motets around 1602, he had Romanized his family name (Schultze, meaning magistrate) to Praetorius; the new name probably reflected his interest in the Italian performance practices that were becoming popular. Although he prolifically composed both Lutheran church music and secular instrumental dances, his best-known work remains his beloved harmonization of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” from 1609; the poem, by an unknown author, first appeared in 1599.

Our youngest composer, Patrick Vu (b. 1998), received his Bachelor of Music degree only last year, but he has already had compositions performed by many choirs in the United States and internationally. In fact, he had his first international premiere when Chor Leoni of Vancouver, British Columbia, presented his “A Golden Day” as part of its Canadian Remembrance Day concert just last month. He composed this setting of “Silent Night” to honor his late grandmother. Though she spoke little English, she knew and loved the familiar carol. As she lay in a coma, her children and grandchildren sang her the music she loved, including Vietnamese folksongs and “Silent Night,” to ease her passing. What better way to celebrate the ways music connects us all across generations?

Our featured work is Mid-Winter Songs (1983) by Northwest native, Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943). Although he taught composition at the University of Southern California for over 30 years and served as composer in residence for the Los Angeles Master Chorale (1994-2001), Lauridsen was born in Washington and grew up in Portland. He still does much of his composing on an island in Puget Sound. Over the last 25 years, he has become the most widely performed American choral composer in the world. While not all his songs have sacred themes, one fellow musician has described him as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”

Lauridsen based Mid-Winter Songs, the first of his song cycles, on works by Robert Graves (1895-1985), the English poet and classicist perhaps best known for his novel I, Claudius. Lauridsen has said that “five diverse poems with a common ‘winter’ motif (a particular favorite of mine, rich in the paradoxical symbolism of dying/rejuvenation, light/darkness, sleeping/waking) suggested a cohesive musical cycle.” In other words, Lauridsen created a unified cycle out of poems not originally intended as a group. Together they form a meditation on winter, rather than a musical path leading from autumn to spring. The first and last movements depict the last golden moments of autumn, before the cold and darkness descend; they resemble each other musically, with similar phrases that beg for just a little more light. The three central movements envision winter moments and moods—the whirling dance of falling snow and the dazzlement that follows; the hushed intimacy of lovers in bed as Earth dreams new life into being; and the stirrings of that new life in unexpected glimpses of spring. The “she” in the poems simultaneously represents two specific women in Graves’ life (his headstrong mistress, Laura and his second wife, Beryl) and the being Graves called the White Goddess, who supposedly inspired all poetry in ancient cultures (in Greek mythology, Pasiphaë, mentioned in the first movement), was the Cretan moon goddess and the daughter of Helios, the sun.

We close with an exuberant arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by Manila-born tenor and composer Saunder Choi (b. 1988), who moved to the United States to study music at age 23. Many of his compositions focus on “conversations surrounding immigration, racial justice, LGBTQ+ advocacy, climate justice, and representations of his identity as a Filipino-Chinese.” He still listens to the Filipino and Chinese music he grew up singing and enjoys collaborating with Filipino artists. His setting of the old French carol shows his mastery of combining musical forms. From a Gregorian chant-like beginning, the music leaps several centuries ahead, first with the familiar words in 5/4 time, and then with a gospel-style solo over lush jazz chords. The angels’ joyful song transcends limits of time and place. With the sopranos soaring over the rest of the voices, the words “Gloria Deo” tumble out excitedly, as though even angels cannot possibly praise God enough.

Thank you for sharing our musical celebration of Yuletide and especially music from our beloved Northwest composers.  All of us in Choral Arts Ensemble wish you and your dear ones a wonderful holiday season and a healthy and peaceful new year.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan