MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Pro Musica: love came down

Immense gratitude to Karen P. Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica for an inspired performance last night at Seattle First Baptist Church. These holiday concerts mark their return to live singing for the first time in about two years.

The beautifully curated program featured a thoughtful menu of new choral pieces in a wide range of styles, interspersed with gems by Josquin des Prez in honor of the 500th anniversary of his death. Even singing with special masks, the chorus — performing in its various subgroups and in the larger, full-strength ensemble — filled the space with Seattle Pro Musica’s signature clarity, fullness of color, and meaningful expression.

Personal highlights of this program: Welsh composer Paul Mealor’s moving setting of the e.e. cummings poem i carry your heart, which carried the audience away with its sublime, vulnerable honesty and directness; Afro-Brazilian composer José Mauricio Nunes Garcia’s elegantly voiced setting of Domine Jesu; and First Nations composer Andrew Balfour’s Qilak, an a cappella ode to nature that uses harmony and the resources of the singing voice with great imagination to depict the awe-filling vastness of the Northern landscape.

The program contains many other epiphanies. Seattle Pro Musica will perform a live broadcast this evening at 7.30pm PST (available online thereafter until 31 December). We all need such uplifting experiences more than ever.

love came down

by Christina Rosetti

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Stars and angels gave the sign.
Alleluia. Gloria in excelsis Deo.*

Worship we the Godhead,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Alleluia. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and love to all,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Alleluia.

*Hallelujah. Glory to God in the highest.

Filed under: choral music, recommended listening, Seattle Pro Musica

Some Concert Recommendations

Here are two high-quality programs coming up in the Seattle area, which I highly recommend:

Seattle Pro Musica is returning to live performance at last, and they’re doing so with a characteristically fascinating and thoughtful program curated by SPM artistic director and conductor Karen P. Thomas called love came down. The choices feature mostly new music by BIPOC composers from the US and Canada, as well as works by Josquin des Prez to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death.

love came down takes place at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm on December 11 at the Chapel at Bastyr University, and at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm on December 18 at Seattle First Baptist
Tickets available at https://www.seattlepromusica.org  or by at 206-781-2766.  
The performance will also be available by streaming on December 19.

Complete list of the repertoire with comments from SPM below.*

Pacific MusicWorks presents Fiesta de Navidad, a diverse program of festive holiday music from the Missions and Cathedrals of Latin America. Artistic leaders Stephen Stubbs, Tekla Cunningham, Henry Lebedinsky, and Maxine Eilander will be joined by vocalists Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Tess Altiveros, Laura Pudwell, and Pablo Bustos as well as Antonio Gomez on percussion and and Alexandra Opsahl on cornetto/recorder. December 11 at 7.30pm at Benaroya Hall; December 12 at 2pm at Epiphany Church in Seattle. Starting December 22, you can also purchase access to virtual on demand here. Mask and proof of vaccination required.

Program for love came down with Seattle Pro Musica:

Qilak by Andrew Balfour (Canada, b. 1967)
First Nations composer Andrew Balfour expresses his
wonder at the vast expanse of sky and the shimmering of
sun on snow as seen during a visit to Baffin Island in
northern Canada. Sung in Iniktitut and English.

Love came down at Christmas by Eleanor Daley (Canada, b. 1955)
This beautiful setting for tenors and basses of the beloved
poem by Christina Rosetti provides the title for our concert.
Sung in English.

Domine Jesu by José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (Brazil, 1767–1830)
This Afro-Brazilian composer wrote the first Brazilian opera,
as well as hundreds of choral and orchestral works.
Sung in Latin.

I carry your heart by Paul Mealor (Wales, b. 1975)
One of the most-performed of living composers today, Paul
Mealor explores the extremes of vocal range in this tender
setting of a poem by E. E. Cummings. Sung in English.

O magnum mysterium by Brittney Boykin (US, b. 1989)
A contemporary setting of this traditional Christmas text by
the Atlanta-based composer, conductor, and pianist B.E.
Boykin. Sung in Latin.

Ave verum, Gaude virgo mater Christi, and Ave Maria by Josquin des Prez (France, 1450–1521)
Three exquisite motets by the acclaimed Renaissance
composer who influenced generations of composers after
him. Josquin’s fame led Martin Luther to exclaim: “He is the
master of the notes.” Sung in Latin.

Star has come by Roderick Williams (UK, b. 1965)
An exciting piece that uses swooping choral glissandos
(glides from one pitch to another), written by the celebrated
Welsh-Jamaican composer and baritone. Sung in English.

When the earth stands still by Don Macdonald (Canada, b. 1966)
“Come listen in the silence of the moment before rain comes
down. There’s a deep sigh in the quiet of the forest and the
tall tree’s crown. Now hold me. Will you take the time to
hold me and embrace the chill?” Sung in English.

Epiphany Carol by Alexander L’Estrange (UK, b. 1974)
The lyrics by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange implore us to protect
the earth by giving not gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but “a
present for the future.” Sung in English.

Ave Maria by Nathaniel Dett (US, 1882-1943)
A richly chromatic setting by the famed Canadian-American
Black composer, pianist, conductor, poet, and music
professor. Sung in Latin.

In silent night by Mitchell Southall (US, b. 1922)
A gentle, reflective piece by this little-known AfricanAmerican composer, who was born in the South and
later migrated to Canada. Sung in English.

Filed under: choral music, Pacific MusicWorks, Seattle Pro Musica

Stringing and Singing

Attention choral music fans: on Saturday evening 20 February at 5pm PST Seattle Pro Musica, led by Karen Thomas, will inaugurate the series Choral Tapas: Bite-Size Concerts online at youtube.com/seattlepromusica. Broadcasts available for free, donations welcome. No registration required.
Each episode features two choral works (one old, one new), an appetizer demo by Erica Weisman (both a very fine SPM alto and the chef and co-owner of Seattle Cucina Cooking School), and a cocktail recipe by SPM Executive Director and cocktail aficionado Katie Skovholt. Recipes are available here so you can “play along”: Patas Bravas snackRestless Amadeus cocktail
The inaugural event on February 20th features music by Marques Garrett and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

And the Orchestra Now, directed by James Bagwell, will offer a free livestreamed concert on Sunday, 21 Feb. (2pm EST). This program of works for strings includes the world premiere of Falling Together by composer Sarah Hennies, who was recently profiled in The New York Times; and the 2005 piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, which was used in the film There Will Be Blood. The program also includes Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams.

Access: RSVP at theorchestranow.org starting on January 27 to receive a direct link to the livestream on the day of the concert. This concert will be available for delayed streaming on STAY TŌNED starting on February 25.

AND

On Sunday February 21 at 7pm PST, Byron Schenkman & Friends presents Piano Songs and Fantasies: music by Mozart, Teresa Carreño, Florence Price, Johannes Brahms, Margaret Bonds, Water Hale Smith, and Franz Schubert. William Chapman Nyaho, Joseph Williams, and Byron Schenkman will perform.

Filed under: Byron Schenkman, music news, Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica Offers Comfort and Joy

Fire up Seattle Pro Musica’s YouTube page and be treated to some Comfort and Joy on 12 and 13 December at 7:30pm and 4:00pm PST, respectively. Each concert will include an accompanying live chat.

This virtual-concert format is a first for Seattle Pro Musica. Comfort and Joy features over 60 singers who were recorded individually in their homes, the results being blended together by SPM’s expert musicians.

Seattle Pro Musica is one of my very favorite choral organizations, and artistic director, composer, and conductor Karen P. Thomas has put together a characteristically thoughtful, artful program combining traditional carols with some lesser-known pieces and a new work by the American composer Marques L. A. Garrett: My Heart Be Brave, a 2018 composition setting poetry by James Weldon Johnson that is intended as an ode to social justice.

Also on the program: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Fantasia on Greensleeves; Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter in an arrangement by Karen Thomas; 16th-century Spanish composer Matheo Flecha’s Ríu, ríu, chíu; Star of Wonder by Terre Roche of the Roche Sisters; Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo (from All-Night Vigil ); Ding! dong! Merrily on High by Thoinot Arbeau (born Jehan Tabourot; France, 1520–1595); Gloucestershire Wassail; and Franz Xaver Grüber’s Silent Night.

Comfort and Joy will close with a holiday carol sing-along led by conductor Karen P. Thomas and featuring Seattle Pro Musica singers, with Dwight Beckmeyer at the keyboard.

Also note: Seattle Pro Musica is one of the 17 Seattle-based performing arts organizations participating in the virtual This Is Beethoven Festival (16-19 December) and can be heard on the program of Thursday night, 17 December (8-10pm PST). It’s a neat program juxtaposing three composers who, like Beethoven, were overtaken by deafness in their later years: including Ethel Smyth. She is represented by her March of the Women (1911), which became an anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.

Filed under: choral music, Christmas, Seattle Pro Musica

Stirring Season Finale from Seattle Pro Musica

seattlepromusica-fullchoirIn literature, it may be true that happy families are all alike, but Tolstoy’s principle doesn’t really apply to music.

Composers know no limits when it comes to expressing conditions we aspire to — whether happiness, love, or peace and reconciliation. Far from being bland and samey, every harmony — metaphorical and literal — is, to tweak Tolstoy, harmonious in its own way.

That was one of the many strong impressions left by last night’s performance at St. James Cathedral by Seattle Pro Musica (SPM). The program, titled dona nobis pacem, brings SPM’s highly rewarding season to its close with a characteristically bold and stirring send-off (repeat performance tonight, May 20). Its themes of war and peace — timed just ahead of Memorial Day — feel as urgent as ever.

Artistic Director Karen P. Thomas structured the program around Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral-symphonic masterpiece of the same name, which filled out the second half. The first half comprised a fascinating variety of pieces also centered around the yearning for peace and solace, as well as the grief caused by war and violence. “It is when these themes are addressed that the unmistakable power of music is often mostly keenly felt,” writes Thomas “–to give voice to emotions which are beyond words … and to lift up the human spirit with visions of a better world and a nobler humanity.”

The concert additionally offered a deeply satisfying “status report” on the state of SPM itself — in glowing, radiant health — while displaying its unique strengths across the vocal spectrum. Thus Thomas launched the program with the subchoir Orpheon (the men’s voices) in a rarely heard choral work by Nikolai Golovanov from just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Setting a part of the Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom — and one of the last surviving compositions of a sacred music tradition that the Soviets sought to wipe out — Mercy of Peace established a mood of supernal calm with exquisitely tapered dynamics.

Next up was the all-women’s Chroma section in a piece SPM commissioned in 2007 from American composer John Muehleisen: Da Pacem, which subtly weaves in references to motets by J.S. Bach. Chroma followed their impassioned  account with the ancient plainchant melody Muehleisen used as a basis.

The next subchoir, Vox (mixed voices), turned to the English composer Herbert Howells, familiar in choral circles mostly for his Anglican sacred music. Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, setting a text by the 4th-century Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, is a profoundly poignant composition from 1964 dedicated to the memory of the slain J.F. Kennedy (programmed to mark the centenary of JFK’s birth this month). The sense of unforced flow and long-range breathing Thomas commanded from her singers was a textbook example of effective choral phrasing.

Another delight of SPM’s programs is the seamless “staging” of the program’s order. While Chroma sang the mesmerizing canonical repetitions of another Da Pacem chant setting (by the German Renaissance-to-Baroque composer and theorist Johann Christoph Demantius), the full SPM ensemble discreetly gathered to join in for the remainder of the program’s first half.

The beginning words of the traditional Latin Requiem Mass inspired American composer and scholar Peter Winkler to write his musical response to 9/11 for a cappella choir, making powerful use of anguished silences and unexpected breaks in the voices to highlight the sense of desperation.

Thomas’s rich program included several other musical discoveries, such as Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s 1998 setting of parts of For the Fallen, a poem by Laurence Binyon associated with England’s grieving for its loss at the beginning of World War One. Zachary Lyman’s trumpet offered a touching counterpart to the simple, heartfelt piece.

All season Thomas and SPM have been participating in a season-long celebration of the legacy of the late Bernard Herbolsheimer (who died in January 2016). And what a compelling piece they chose for this program: …for they shall… unfolds as a remarkable harmonic “battle” between the instruments (trumpets and timpani) and the choir, with the former playing martial and aggressive, almost chaotic, passages in strikingly different keys from the singers’ placid recitation of the Beatitudes — two worlds of violently contrasting sound that eventually align on the same key for a brief moment of hope, which is soon undercut by the menace of the timpani.

The Herbolsheimer also served to foreshadow the culminating Vaughan Williams. Ending the first half was another breath of respite in the famous Nunc dimittis from 1915 by Vaughan Williams’ friend Gustav Holst. Thomas paced the music beautifully, making the luminous climax of the work, written for eight-part choir, a destination not just reached but earned.

For the Vaughan Williams, SPM pulled out all the stops, glorying in the powerful emotions, contrasts, and colorful sound worlds of a full-blown symphonic-choral score. It’s not often we get to hear them perform on this scale — and the results were nothing short of thrilling.

dona nobis pacem is a visionary cantata created during a period of worldwide political fear and dread. Vaughan Williams wrote it in 1936, before “the clever hopes … of a low dishonest decade” had expired, to borrow Auden’s phrase. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain continued to stoke false hopes of appeasement, and Vaughan Williams’ cantata grew increasingly into a warning — another case of art lighting the way unheeded.

The concept behind the work is also advanced and would point the way to a later masterpiece of 20th-century English choral music: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (bombed in World War Two).

Agnostic (or atheist) that he was, Vaughan Williams is responsible for some of the most beautiful “sacred” music of the last century, including the 1921 Mass in G minor (reflecting his own experiences on the French battlefields in the Great War). dona nobis pacem isn’t a liturgical work by any means, but it exudes a Requiem’s sense of grappling with loss, of coming to terms with grief.

For his text, the composer combined some Biblical texts with poetry by his beloved Walt Whitman (the inspiration for his much earlier A Sea Symphony as well) and a brief speech excerpt from a British politician warning against Britain’s involvement in the 19th-century Crimean War.

The singers were joined by a full orchestral ensemble for the c. 40-minute composition, which began with soprano Tess Altiveros’ moving solo plea for peace (from the Agnus Dei) — a universal plea that soon segued into the concrete terrors catalogued in Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums!

Especially in Vaughan Williams’ brass-and-percussion-heavy musical guise — with a few nods to Verdi’s Requiem — the poem’s depiction of “terrible drums” and “bugles” interrupting the peaceable life became a Civil War Dies Irae. (Never mind that a certain U.S. President recently proved to be clueless even as to the basic facts of a war that so profoundly shaped the nation passed down to us.)

Thomas obviously regards this score as a masterwork and had rehearsed the assembled forces in great detail. She also displayed a magnificent theatrical sensibility in the pacing and unfolding of these complex emotions. (I’d be eager to have a chance to hear her conduct for the stage.) The transitions between movements were notably effective, as was the immersive brass climax after “the strong dead-march enwraps me” (in the fourth movement, “Dirge for Two Veterans”).

Baritone solo Matthew Hayward sang with gripping emotion in the third movement (“Reconciliation”), which comes closest to the intimate intensity of Britten’s later War Requiem. Given the challenges of the Cathedral acoustics for combined forces of this size, Thomas judged balances well, allowing for maximum impact at the moment when all hell truly does break loose in the apocalyptic “The Angel of Death.”

From there to the solo soprano’s return at the end — again pleading, imploring for the seemingly unreachable peace — is the endless cycle of humanity’s struggle. But however familiar the pattern, this rousing performance engaged the listener in the urgency of the message, and the vision, in this our time.

One more performance, tonight at 8:00 pm, at St. James Cathedral. Information here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

 

Filed under: choral music, review, Seattle Pro Musica

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