Friday, October 31, 2008

Changing of the Guard

Though I enjoy watching birds all year long, there is a particular excitement to be felt as autumn arrives in all its golden glory. Because my office is in my home, I am able to enjoy the birds at our backyard feeders every day. During the fall, it’s interesting to watch some of our summer resident birds prepare for (i.e., fatten up) and embark on their southern migration. Our summer resident Gray Catbirds, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, and American Robins are long gone, as are the Northern (Baltimore) Orioles that seem to become scarcer each year.

We keep our bird feeders up and filled almost all year round, and many birds come every day to feed and stay through the winter. Our resident Blue Jay flock — three families, I think — is a rowdy bunch. They’re like teenaged boys with hot rods; they come in to the feeders at top speed, slam on the brakes, and come to a screeching halt, scattering the smaller birds just as bullies in the school yard sometimes do. But I love them, with their bold coloring and brassy voices and the graceful upcurving of wingtips as they come in for a landing on the deck rail. They are smart and resourceful, and have figured out how to get seeds out of the feeder that is designed to exclude them. But they have a certain tenderness, too; during their spring courtship, nothing is sweeter than to see the male choose a seed for his mate and place it carefully in her beak. (OK, I’m anthropomorphizing.)

We had a good sized flock (30-40) of American Goldfinches at the thistle feeders during the winter of 2007-2008; occasionally a few Pine Siskins stopped in, as well. The goldfinches visited daily throughout the spring and early summer; they breed in late summer after the thistles have gone to seed. They line their nests with the silky white thistledown; isn’t that a nice thought? The goldfinches have been scarce these past several weeks as they’ve been busy with family duties, but one family came to the thistle feeders a few weeks ago – two parents and four young – as if the parents wanted to show the feeder to the young ones. They’ll be back in a few weeks, if not sooner.

Some birds stop at our feeders only during migration. We’ve had a small flock of Purple Grackles in the neighborhood for the past few weeks; today I noticed that the flock had grown to about three times its usual size, which may indicate that the birds are massing in preparation for departure. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brown-Headed Cowbirds are regular fall visitors, too, stopping in for a snack on their way south. Lovely, glossy, blackbirds. In 2006 and 2007, a single Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder in October; I didn’t see one this fall.

But the most exciting part of the autumn is looking out for our first visitors from the north who come “deep south” to Connecticut for the winter. Just arrived at our feeder this week are the Dark-Eyed Juncos and the White-Throated Sparrows, little beauties that seem to bring winter with them; now that they are here, the days and nights somehow really feel colder. Now I’m waiting for the Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Brown Creepers; we had one pair of each last winter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gaudeamus — Music for a Great Space

I’ve been in rehearsal for an upcoming performance, the annual Music for a Great Space concert by Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus. This year’s performance is on Sunday, November 2, at 4:00 p.m., at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford.
Chorus Angelicus is the acclaimed children’s choir founded in 1991 by the amazing Paul Halley. Gaudeamus is the adult mixed choir, also established by Paul Halley, which performs with Chorus Angelicus and, increasingly, appears on its own as an independent semi-professional ensemble. I have sung with Gaudeamus since 2005; I love the clear, clean Anglican (read: senza vibrato) sound that is characteristic of this ensemble. Nicholas White became artistic director of Joyful Noise in 2007; like Paul Halley, he is a talented chorusmaster, composer, and organist.
Here’s a photo of Gaudeamus, taken in 2008 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington, Connecticut, home of Joyful Noise, the organization that administers Chorus Angelicus and Gaudeamus.
Our upcoming concert promises to be quite wonderful. Long a favorite of Hartford audiences, Music for a Great Space has showcased the soaring choral sounds of Chorus Angelicus and Gaudeamus in some of Hartford’s acoustically finest sacred spaces. The cornerstone of this year’s concert is the Connecticut premiere of the Requiem by noted organist and composer David Briggs. The program will also include music of Byrd, Britten, Gorecki, Lauridsen, Whitacre, and Joyful Noise’s own artistic director, Nicholas White. Here’s the program:
O quam gloriosum - William Byrd (1540-1623)
O nata lux - Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) Totus Tuus - Henryck Górecki (b. 1933)
hope, faith, life, love - Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
Kyrie (after Albinoni) - Nicholas White (b. 1967)
Requiem – David Briggs (Connecticut Premiere)

The concert is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Walk Into History

“To walk into history is to be free at once, to be at large among people.”
This quote from Irish-born author Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) has been on my mind in the past few weeks. Recently, I posted news about Rick Coffey's new book, A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church. It was my privilege to provide some editorial and research assistance to Rick as he brought his sabbatical research to fruition by putting into words the remarkable story of the music ministry at South Church. Though the books may be printed (sales are moving ahead nicely) and the research done (well, there are always new treasures to be uncovered, aren’t there?), the project stays very much alive in my heart and mind.
Having worked on every word of the book through seven drafts, I naturally developed a fairly good knowledge of the people, events, architecture, pipe organs, and artistry that have distinguished this music ministry over the two centuries of its existence. It seems inevitable that this new-found knowledge must forever infuse and inform all my musical experiences at South Church. Here's an example of how this affects my thinking:
When the Chancel Choir at South Church (in which I am a section leader) receives new music, I naturally check the origins of the texts and music, noting the dates and any other historical details. This sort of information has always been of interest to me as a matter of musical and intellectual curiosity (and of course, in support of my professional work as a program annotator). Now, however, I find that I am intensely interested in how our choral and congregational repertoire fits into the history of music at South Church.
For example, a few weeks ago, the choir sang as an introit the hymn “Near to the Heart of God,” composed just after the turn of the 20th century by Cleland B. McAfee (1866-1944) (Chalice Hymnal, No. 581). McAfee (shown at left), grieving at the death of his two nieces from diphtheria, wrote the words and music to comfort himself and his family. Though stories of this hymn’s provenance vary — 1901 or 1903? Missouri or Chicago? First sung by McAfee’s choir outside the quarantined house, or by McAfee himself at the funeral? — it quickly became popular and was sung in churches across the country.
As we rehearsed “Near to the Heart of God” a few weeks ago, I wondered when this music might have first been heard at South Church and how the congregation might have reacted to it.

The minister of music at South Church during this period was the brilliant Richmond Peck Paine (1858-1938), a prominent and much-loved figure in the Hartford musical scene, “highly revered and much in demand as a conductor.” One imagines that during his tenure at South Church (1885-1905), this innovative and modern-thinking leader would have sought out new music of quality for his talented choir and the discerning South Church congregation. Perhaps Mr. Paine (shown at right) read of the new hymn or heard it sung at a neighboring church, or perhaps a parishioner brought it to his attention. We may never know (although the addictive nature of archival research may someday bring this information to light).
Though the music of this sweet and gentle hymn sounds “old” to us now, and invokes a sense of nostalgia in us more than a century later, it would have been entirely new to Mr. Paine’s choir and congregation. Did they know the story behind the words? Did Mr. Paine have to use gentle persuasion to convince reluctant choristers or congregants that “new” hymns could be just as beautiful and satisfying as the old familiar tunes? (Some things never change.)
This speculation — discerning the origins of the choral and congregational repertoires and endeavoring to understand them in the context of this church’s music history — seizes my imagination during every choir rehearsal and service. It’s an endlessly fascinating endeavor.
Orders and Information
TITLE: A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church
AUTHOR: Richard M. Coffey
PUBLISHER: South Church, New Britain, Connecticut, September, 2008
PRICE: Price: $19.00 per copy ($15.00 plus $4.00 shipping/handling)
FORMAT: Paperbound, 261 pages, 54 photographs and illustrations, index, 8” x 11” format
TO ORDER: Send a letter of request and a check for $19.00 (made out to “South Church” with “Memorial Fund” in the memo line) to:
Nancy Hemstreet Eaton, Music Ministry Administrator
South Congregational-First Baptist Church
90 Main Street, New Britain, CT 06051
PHONE 860-223-3691, ext. 154
FAX 860-827-8681

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beethoven 9 – A Monumental Event

After several weeks of careful and satisfying preparation, The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra just presented two performances of Beethoven’s monumental, yet deeply personal, Ninth Symphony, the "Choral." Here’s the review from The Hartford Courant:


A Memorable Beethoven's Ninth: Cumming Draws Fiery Performance From Hartford Symphony
As Edward Cumming conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from memory, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, in the opening program of the 2008-2009 Masterworks Series in Mortensen Hall, responded with a fiery performance.

Familiar as this work is, conducting it from memory is no small feat, given that there are some 2,600 measures of detailed textures and cues. But it put Cumming in direct and unbroken contact with the orchestra, and the level of intensity was magnified.

Cumming began the first movement by backing his feet onto the extreme left-hand corner of the podium. He was facing the celli section diagonally, looking like an Olympic gymnast getting ready for a tricky combination in a floor routine. He readied his arms and stood motionless for what seemed a good 20 seconds.

Then, from the opening downbeat through the two sweeping scales that precede the final cadence, the entire movement came across as continuous and uninterrupted compositional thought. The orchestra produced a vivid and massive sound.

The second movement developed the intensity of the first, with Cumming giving agile cues for entrances of the rhythmic motive that drives this scherzo. He took the trio at a tempo disputed by some Beethoven scholars, one that is slower than typically heard. The tempo allowed space within the driving intensity of the music and seemed an effective idea in the larger context of the performance as a whole.

“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these tones!)” With these words, sung by baritone Anton Belov, the symphonic world of instruments became vocal. This invocation consists of Beethoven's own words, and it precedes the text by Schiller. Belov was later joined by soprano Elona Ceno, mezzo-soprano Ela Zingerevich and tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier, who made an impression with spirited singing during his solo in the “Turkish-March” episode.

But it was
The Hartford Chorale, prepared by the incomparable Richard Coffey, who stole the show. They stood en masse at the return of what Wagner called the “schreckensfanfare” (horror fanfare), and it then became clear that they intended an intensification of their own — they sang the lengthy German text from memory. The sense of collective focused energy was overpowering, unbroken from the choir to us. How can one hear this kind of direct communication and not be moved? The challenges of this demanding movement were met. The passage during which the familiar “Joy” theme combines with the more austere “Seid umschlungen, millionen! (Be embraced, you millions!)” had a clarity, both in diction and direction, that became a celebration.
The closing gesture of the symphony was met with an instantaneous standing ovation. The audience stood in a single gesture, one that balanced the moment when the chorale stood just prior to its entrance. The ovation lasted 10 minutes, solid and unbroken through three complete calls.

This was a monumental event.

Afterward, it was almost difficult to place the performance of Beethoven's First Symphony, an engaging performance that opened the concert, as having taken place on the same evening.

Cumming also conducted the First Symphony from memory and did not use a podium. He was at eye level with the players and created the sense of chamber music with an ensemble that was greatly reduced in comparison with the orchestra used for the Ninth Symphony. The wind writing came across as being particularly colorful in this performance. Chuckles were peppered throughout the hall as Cumming wound the orchestra note by note, his smile growing bigger with each mischievous gesture.

“Lucky you!” said Cumming from the stage as he concluded his pre-concert talk earlier in the evening. “A whole year of Beethoven. It doesn't get any better than that!”

Indeed, it doesn't.

"A Memorable Beethoven's Ninth: Cumming Draws Fiery Performance From Hartford Symphony." By Jeffrey Johnson.
The Hartford Courant, October 26, 2008,0,4484205,print.story
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Beethoven 9 – Where’s My TelePrompTer?

When The Hartford Chorale, with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the “Choral”) October 24 and 25 at The Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, we (the choristers) will be singing from memory.

The HSO’s music director Edward Cumming usually conducts from memory, a feat I find impressive. When The Chorale performs with the HSO under his direction, our seats on stage afford an insider's view of what transpires in the orchestra. I enjoy watching him working in his memory, especially in anticipating and delivering cues even for the smallest musical gestures. I saw this at last night’s orchestra rehearsal, where in the instrumental development of the fourth movement (around measure 485 and following), he really pulled the second violins out of the rush of sound; all of a sudden, there was a gesture that Beethoven intended us to hear, which I had never really heard before. His memorization of the entire score seems to enable him to experience the music more holistically, and to better understand the composer’s intentions, than can the rest of us.

At our final piano rehearsal with The Chorale earlier this week, Maestro Cumming offered his perspective, and some advice, on performing from memory. All his advice was very good, but because it evolved from his experience as an instrumental performer and conductor, he did not mention the element which is probably most difficult for the vocalist who must memorize music: text.

I can sing almost all of the music of the Choral symphony from memory (including the first three movements), but I am challenged to memorize the text. Beethoven doesn’t make this task any easier, as he combines lines from different stanzas of Schiller’s poem, and repeats material here and there. In talking with other members of the Chorale, I find that many others face the same challenge; that is, mastering the text.

I’ve come up with a few ideas which I hope The Chorale and The Symphony will implement to help the singers deliver the text with confidence. In order of preference:

Project huge holographic images of the score, page by page, as the movement progress. Use some sort of blocking device so that these images would not be visible to the audience. On second thought, perhaps they’d enjoy following along, too. Maybe the HSO could charge premium rates for seats with the best views of the images.

Install a gargantuan TelePrompTer in the vast space over the heads of the orchestra players, or perhaps two big ones side by side. Scroll the text, along with cues such as “Stand in four measures” or “Soloists enter next, not you” or “Remember the sforzando in this next passage” or “Don’t grimace at the soloists; they’re doing the best they can.”

Use reverse supertitles. If opera audiences can get text fed to them line by line, why not us? The equipment is already in the building; just turn it around so the choristers can see it instead of the audience. This shouldn’t cost too much. During the first three movements of the symphony when the chorus does not sing, perhaps a few jokes could be projected to keep us from falling asleep.

Equip each chorister with one of those box-under-the-jacket-and-earpiece devices such as we saw George W. Bush use in a presidential debate a few years back. Four prompters, one for each voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) could help us along. We could have elegant black ear buds to match our concert attire.

Make full use of percussion instruments. The bass drum is situated right in front of the first sopranos. Why not paste some easy-to-read large-type cheat sheets on the head that faces the choir? I'm sure the percussionist wouldn't mind.

Paste a cheat sheet on the shoulders of each chorister, so that the person behind can follow along. The choristers in the first row are out of luck, of course, unless they can convince the brass and wind players to accommodate them.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Book in Hand – A Summer of Hummingbirds

I’ve just finished reading a most interesting book: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. It seems serendipitous that I should have spotted this on the new book shelf at the Farmington Public Library at a time when I have been curious about Emily Dickinson and the people in her life.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Dickinson’s poetry, but my interest in her as a person was sparked this summer during the 2008 CONCORA Summer Festival, where the festival chorus, under the direction of Richard Coffey, gave the Connecticut premiere of A Heart in Hiding, choral settings by Gwyneth Walker of what she calls “the passionate love poems of Emily Dickinson.” The professional ensemble CONCORA (of which I am a member) performed the set on the October 19 "American Voices" concert, with Dr. Walker in the audience.

Dr. Walker’s grouping and interpretation of these “passionate” poems gave me pause. I had never really considered Dickinson as a lover, either as the object of passion or as the active partner in a romantic relationship. I confess that I was skeptical of Walker’s collation and interpretation of these poems; they seemed to me to be spiritual rather than romantic. Dickinson’s appropriation of frankly spiritual, even theological language, accomplished perhaps what she intended, to screen, to conceal, to deflect. I found it particularly challenging to prepare program notes for these settings for the CONCORA Summer Festival.

Now, after having done more reading and study (in particular this book, A Summer of Hummingbirds), and having had the chance to work with Walker’s settings for the past few months, I have developed a better understanding of Emily Dickinson and many of her poems; I would write very different program notes now than I did several months ago. Not that my earlier notes were wrong; rather, they were not as complete as I would have liked them to be. I did not to delve too much into Walker’s musical interpretation since I was not convinced that I understood it.

In A Summer of Hummingbirds, author Christopher Benfey explores some surprising parallels and connections between and among the lives of writers Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and Mark Twain (1835-1910) and artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and uses these connections as a means to illuminate and analyze trends in art, philosophy, and popular culture in the years following the American Civil War. Benfey offers fascinating insights, connections, and anecdotes about these important thinkers and artists and some of the ideas and loves they held in common.

Much of the “action” of the book oscillated between Amherst (Massachusetts), where I once lived, and Hartford (Connecticut), near where I live now, so I felt many personal connections, too.

Though I found this book fascinating from beginning to end, by the time I reached the final pages, I was uncomfortably aware of the very fragile threads that Benfey found — or spun — to weave his narrative together. I sensed the essential rightness of his basic premise: that these particular thinkers had much in common, and that their work reflected and articulated many of the ideas and themes prevalent in the culture of the time. However, some of his conclusions seem to be more conjectural than factual, and the book seems to be an expression of Benfey’s wishful fantasies about this group rather than a solid analysis of a substantial body of evidence. It might have been better treated as a substantial article rather than a full-length book. (As I often do, I question the role, knowledge, and efficacy of this book’s editor, who did not wield a strong-enough hand in challenging Benfey’s assumptions and helping him to create a stronger overall narrative.)
Still, I found here much food for thought. I also appreciated being introduced to the life and work of artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), whose paintings of hummingbirds and orchids brought the heat and shimmer of the tropics home to his war-weary compatriots (see example here, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art).

As always, the more I learn, the more questions I have… so it’s off to the library again. Yes, there is an abundance of good information available online, but I will never give up the delights to be found in browsing at the library, nor will I ever give up the tactile pleasure of the book in hand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Service of Song

For much of 2008, I was engaged in a delightful project which opened a window on a world of which I knew relatively little.
In 2005, I was engaged as one of several section leaders for the outstanding Chancel Choir of historic South Church in New Britain, Connecticut. This a plum job: the excellent, talented, smart 35-voice auditioned choir has a long and loving history; the minister of music, Rick Coffey, has the remarkable ability to help his singers embrace and achieve his deeply-felt and intuitively correct understanding of all things musical, textual, and spiritual; the associate organist, David Westfall, is without peer in his mastery of the subtleties of interpretation and improvisation; and the congregation enthusiastically embraces and supports the music ministry.
From the time of my first rehearsal with the South Church Chancel Choir, I was curious about the history of this remarkable music program. The opportunity to learn more came to me unexpectedly, and with a depth and breadth that I hardly could have imagined or hoped for. Last November, as the end of his every-seven-years research sabbatical drew near, Rick asked me if I might provide some editorial assistance with the product of his sabbatical, a book-length history of the 200-year-old music ministry at South Church. I said yes. (He was savvy enough to approach me at a party where the wine was flowing and spirits were high!) What began as a discussion of the relative merits of footnotes vs. endnotes (footnotes, please!) developed into a year-long odyssey of exploration, serendipitous discoveries, and new understandings.
With his usual meticulous approach, Rick explored the extensive archives and records at South Church (uncovering many long-lost treasures in the process), interviewed church members and friends, made some field trips, and explored the 140-year old church building from roof to basement. The resulting story, starting with a streamside baptism around 1776 and culminating in a celebration of today’s vibrant and still-growing music ministry, has just been published, under the title A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church. I’ve pasted excerpts from the news release below. Rick's book may be purchased directly from South Church (details below).
South Church Publishes History of Its Remarkable 200-Year-Old Music Ministry.
At This New Britain Church, the “Service of Song” Still Rings Out Loud and Clear
At South Congregational-First Baptist Church in New Britain, Connecticut, music has been central to worship since the church was founded in 1808. South Church, as it is known, holds a special place in the musical history of Greater Hartford, and is recognized as a leader among its peers in elevating and burnishing the role of music in American worship and in the community beyond the church doors.
A newly-published book explores the innovative and lasting legacy of music and musicians at this historic Central Connecticut church. In A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church, Richard M. Coffey, Minister of Music and Organist at South Church since 1972, traces the rich history of the music ministry at South Church from its earliest days to the present time.
Mr. Coffey’s exploration of the church’s celebrated music program and outreach endeavors reveals how, over two centuries, South Church has contributed significantly to the development and sustenance of the musical arts in Connecticut. A Service in Song incorporates stories of prominent composers, performers, ensembles, church leaders, organ builders, and others from across Southern New England and around the world. Memorable anecdotes, a large cast of characters, and an inside view of the music history of Greater Hartford make this book a compelling read for area musicians and music lovers.
“One of the pleasures of researching and writing A Service in Song was the discovery that, since its founding, South Church has played a central role in developing and nurturing Connecticut’s musical legacy,” said Mr. Coffey. “For more than a century, South Church has championed, hosted, funded, encouraged, or shared staff with a number of ensembles that continue as the mainstays of our musical community, including The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, CONCORA, The Hartford Chorale, The New Britain Symphony Orchestra, and others. These ties remain strong and vital.”
Two of Connecticut’s premier vocal ensembles — CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists) and The Main Street Singers — were established at South Church as a means of providing singers and listeners with opportunities to enjoy outstanding choral music. The Music Series at South Church, established in 1973, is the region’s principal presenter of outstanding local, national, and international performers, providing annual series of free and low-cost concerts by outstanding international artists.
A Service in Song also tells the stories of the several fine pipe organs that have graced South Church, including the impressive Hutchings Organ, installed in 1896, which at the time of its installation, was the largest organ in Connecticut. More important, the Hutchings Organ was the first pipe organ to incorporate the innovative electric action developed by Ernest M. Skinner, who was then emerging as one of the nation’s great organ builders.
The story of music at South Church, while of course unique in its own right, reflects similar traditions and customs at countless churches across America. With nearly sixty historic photographs of historic church buildings, pipe organs, choirs, and organists, A Service in Song will be of interest to church musicians, local and regional historians, music and public libraries, historical societies, organ historians, and students of ecclesiastical history in the United States.
Orders and InformationTITLE: A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church
AUTHOR: Richard M. Coffey
PUBLISHER: South Church, New Britain, Connecticut, September, 2008
PRICE: Price: $19.00 per copy ($15.00 plus $4.00 shipping/handling)
FORMAT: Paperbound, 261 pages, 54 photographs and illustrations, index, 8” x 11” format
TO ORDER: Send a letter of request and a check for $19.00 (made out to “South Church” with “Memorial Fund” in the memo line) to:
Nancy Hemstreet Eaton, Music Ministry Administrator
South Congregational-First Baptist Church
90 Main Street, New Britain, CT 06051
PHONE 860-223-3691, ext. 154
FAX 860-827-8681

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – Singing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

The Hartford Chorale has been in rehearsal for its October 24 and 25 performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral) with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. (Freude!) The choral finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. In a recent essay, I explored some of the questions and issues I consider in preparing choral music from varying periods, traditions, and styles. Here’s what I have been thinking about as I prepare for rehearsals and performances of Beethoven’s remarkable Choral Symphony. (And yes, one must prepare for rehearsals, as well as for performances: vocally, musically, and intellectually.)

It’s interesting to compare the vocal challenges of singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with those of his Choral Symphony. Though the vocal portion of the Choral Symphony comprises only 15 or 20 minutes of singing, compared to the 80 or so minutes of choral singing in the Missa Solemnis, I find the Symphony much more difficult from a vocal perspective. Why? Mostly because of its tessitura; that is, the vocal range in which most of the singing is concentrated. While the soprano part for the Missa Solemnis requires a greater range from top to bottom, and includes a great many tension-blasting melismatic passages where one can race around (vocally!), the soprano part for the Choral Symphony requires long stretches of pretty-similar singing, much of it sustained at the very top of the range, around high A.

The sopranos of the chorus must sing about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Try singing a note near the very top of your range, very loud, and holding it for about half a minute. No vibrato! Perfect intonation! It has to be beautiful! Don’t let the pitch sag! Clear as a bell! Blend with the rest of the section! Enunciate the German! Decrescendo, sustain the pitch, don’t breathe! then crescendo to fortissimo! Don’t faint! Ach du lieber! Now, try doing that about 20 times, and in between, sing low, medium, high, soft, low. And every time you get back to those $#*&@ high As, they have to be as fresh and pure as the first time around.

High A is definitely not my favorite pitch to sing. I have a minor passagio (break) around that point, which means that I shift from the middle part of my range to a higher, lighter part. High B-flats are always better! (I would have been very happy if the whole Symphony were in E-flat major instead of D major, which Beethoven probably chose to take advantage of the brilliancy of the trumpets and timpani.)

So, how does one sing the Choral Symphony without blowing a gasket, developing an aversion to ledger lines, or hating Beethoven altogether? It takes some preparation and consideration of historical, musical, and vocal contexts.

Scoring and Vocal Assignments. Beethoven calls for larger vocal and instrumental forces than had generally been used previously, and he often calls upon the musicians to play and sing very loudly for very long periods. Sometimes the instruments double the vocal parts; sometimes they are playing contrasting parts. In either case, the voices need to be heard over, through, and beyond a very large orchestra. Singing without vibrato and with a clear, focused tone will help the voices to blend and carry. The Hartford Chorale’s Music Director Richard Coffey has made some judicious vocal doublings to bring important passages to the ear and to minimize vocal stress. For example, in several places, the second sopranos sing with the altos, or the second altos sing with the first tenors. None of these assignments affect the first soprano part (to which I am assigned), but it’s important for me to understand what parts my neighbors will be singing and how the voices are supposed to balance. At one of the most treacherous vocal passages (measures 650-654) — über'm Sternenzelt Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen — “surely a loving Father Dwells above the canopy of stars” — the sopranos are divided, with only the first sopranos taking the ethereal upper passage , and the second sopranos joining the first altos. Oh, it’s so lovely. Oh, it’s so difficult to make it lovely. Lightness, clarity, purity of tone.

Ensemble Size and Distribution. It’s easy to get carried away with the energy, emotion, and sheer physical exuberance of this music, but one does so at the risk of vocal injury. The Hartford Chorale has 170 singers; at least 72 of these are sopranos, and 37 are first sopranos like me. With that many voices, none of us needs to scream. Only at a few places do we really need to sing very, very loudly. It’s too easy to get too loud, at which point the voice becomes…ugly.

Program Considerations. The Choral Symphony is the only work on this program that the Chorale will be performing, so our voices should be fresh, and Maestro Coffey will warm us up carefully. But we have performances back to back on Friday and Saturday, so we’ll need to pace ourselves so as to be fresh for the second performance, as well.

So, What is the “Right Voice?” For me, lightness and clarity is key to not getting tired. The more vibrato I allow in this sort of singing (especially in loud passages), the heavier and less pleasant the voice becomes, and the more quickly I tire. Each singer must learn to sing lightly and 'healthily" throughout the work, saving the "big sound" only for the several moments when it is truly required. With 160 voices, none of us needs to shout too much. And of course, heavy or forced singing is ugly, and as Mr. Coffey tells us, "Never make an ugly sound." Such a simple concept, and so apt.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Book in Hand – Vermeer’s Hat

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening book: Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). Dr. Brook, Principal of St. John's College and Professor in Department of History at the University of British Columbia, has devised a delightful means of exploring and explaining the surge in global travel and trade in the 17th century.In the several chapters that comprise his narrative, Dr. Brook identifies common objects that may be seen in several of the paintings of Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), reveals how these objects came to be part of everyday life in 17th-century Delft, and examines how their creation, import, and use transformed trade, tradition, and human relationships around the world, not only at the time, but for our lives today, as well.
Among the objects he brings to our attention are the beaver hat of the title, as seen in Officer and a Laughing Girl (ca. 1658; click here to see an image) and silver coins weighed in a scale, as seen in Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1664; click here to see an image). Other items or activities brought forward for our consideration include tobacco, porcelain, maps and map-making, and exploration itself.
In exploring the means by which these objects and commodities were discovered, obtained, and traded, and examining the extent to which they became part of everyday life, particularly in Delft, Dr. Brook weaves a tale of adventure, intrigue, piracy, politicking, material desire, racial and social prejudice, ambition, and greed, all set within the expansive and expanding world of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In his examination of A View of Delft (1660 or 1661; click here to see an image), where several boats of varying sorts crowd the riverbank, and the headquarters of the Dutch East India trading company dominates the skyline, Brook helps readers to understand the enormous role that trade, specifically global trade, played in the everyday lives of Delft's citizens.
Though the story starts in Delft, where Vermeer made his home, we necessarily visit North American and Canada, where we learn through first-hand accounts how the European demand for beaver pelts (from which the luxurious felt hats were made) led to the devastation of indigenous people and the ultimate domination of the continent by European-born explorers and country-builders. We also travel back and forth from China, whence Dutch traders brought back samples of the exquisite porcelain ware that sparked a craze for similar goods across northern Europe. That “Delftware” on your sideboard has a long and fascinating history!
Dr. Brook also takes us to Argentina (the “land of silver”), where Europeans took control of silver-rich land and imported slaves from Africa to bring the plentiful precious metal out of the earth. Much of the silver ended up in China, where it was traded for the porcelains, silks, and other goods so much in demand in Europe. Because the Chinese valued silver more than gold, the Europeans realized huge profits on their silver operations.
Dr. Brook spins these tales with an engaging, informed, but never pedantic voice. As he is primarily a scholar of Chinese history, he brings deep understanding to his explanation of the developments, influences, products, and people of that China and its neighbors. Too often, it seems, our studies of European explorations during this period focus on European interests and outcomes; this book brought a welcome balance. Though I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the content covered here, I found myself continually surprised and delighted with the many serendipitous discoveries Dr. Brook shares, and grateful for the new understanding I developed for this important part of our history.
I’ll be recommending Vermeer’s Hat to our book group. Later this week, I’ll learn what they thought of Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka (read my review here), which was my choice for our October discussion-meeting.
An interview with Timothy Brook may be heard at:
I haven't yet listened to this podcast.

Friday, October 10, 2008

CONCORA Presents an American Voice: Alice Parker and “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”

CONCORA’s 2008-2009 season opener, “American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. Discounted “early bird” tickets for this concert, and for the entire CONCORA season, are available until October 15, 2008.

For this program, CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey has programmed a delightful mix of American choral music, ranging from new works by Gwyneth Walker and Nancy Galbraith (read more here) to superb settings of traditional folk songs and African-American spirituals.

One of the greatest of our American voices is Boston-born composer-conductor-teacher Alice Parker (b. 1925), whose fine arrangements (many with Robert Shaw) of folk songs, hymns, and spirituals form the core of many a choral library in this country and around the world. Robert Shaw said of Parker that “…she possesses a rare and creative musical intelligence.”

Parker’s creative instinct is evident in her 1969 arrangement of the traditional Irish folk song Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye. This tune may be most familiar to American audiences as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” first published in 1863 by Irish-American Union Army bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892) and widely sung in this country during and after the Civil War.

The tune, and Johnny himself, had been around for decades, however, having emerged from the Irish folk tradition. It became one of the best-known war protest songs of the 19th century, first during the Crimean War of the 1850s and later during the Spanish-American War. The first line of the text may refer to the town of Athay or Athy in County Kildare (click here to see an old photo of Athy) whence many soldiers traveled to fight for British interests in the Crimea. The lyrics were included in an 1881 collection of Irish poetry and ballads with this note: “This is a modern street ballad, as will be seen from the use of the word ‘skedaddle,’ which was one of the inventions of the American war, and has a strong and graphic humor in spite, or perhaps for the reason, of its uncouth rudeness.”

In stark contrast to the joyous welcome that the Civil War “Johnny” receives, the Crimean War “Johnny” who returns to the streets of Athy is met by his sweetheart, who is shocked by the extent of the wounds which render her lover almost unrecognizable. Additional verses not included in Parker’s arrangement make it plain: “You haven’t an arm or a leg / You’re a hopeless shell of a man with a peg.” Here there is no “Hurrah!” — only a mournful “Hurroo.”

Parker’s arrangement presents this old song as a lament, as a dirge for a near-dead soldier. By adhering entirely to the notes of the natural minor scale (without using any sharps or flats), she evokes the old modes of ancient music and creates a bleak, rather colorless harmonic palette. The tune passes from part to part, amid the echoes of drums and bugle as imitated in the voices. Throughout, the words “your drums and your guns and your guns and your drums” are repeated like the tramp of soldiers in the distance.

Here are the words to this poignant song. How sad that it is as relevant today as it was so long ago.

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
While goin’ the road to sweet Athy,
A stick in me hand and a drop in me eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry,
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

With your drums and guns and guns and drums
The enemy nearly slew ye
Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer
Faith, Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Where are your eyes that looked so mild
When my heart you so beguil’d
Why did ye skedaddle from me and the child
Why, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Where are the legs with which you run
When you went for to carry a gun
Indeed your dancing days are done,
Why, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

I’m happy for to see ye home
All from the island of Sulloon [Ceylon]
So low in flesh, so high in bone,
Faith, Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Additional verses not in this setting:

It grieved my heart to see you sail,
Though from my heart you ran away, —
Like a cod you’re doubled up head and tail.
Faith, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg
Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
[or, You’re a hopeless shell of a man with a peg.]
Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

But sad as it is to see you so,
And to think of you now as an object of woe,
Your Peggy ‘ll still keep ye on as her beau ;
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

They’re rolling out the guns again,
But they never will take our sons again,
No they never will take our sons again,
Johnny, I’m swearing to ye.

“American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. (click here for directions) Discounted “early bird” tickets for this concert, and for the entire CONCORA season, are available until October 15, 2008. Season subscriptions and individual tickets are available now at, or by calling (860) 224-7500.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beethoven 9 - Always New, Always Compelling

Last spring, I posted a series of essays on Beethoven and his magnificent Missa Solemnis (check this blog’s subject index). (Of course, this librarian indexes all her posts by subject(s)!) The critically-acclaimed May 2008 performances by The Hartford Chorale, with The Hartford Symphony, were my first experience with this work. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and came away from the experience with a new appreciation for Beethoven as a spiritual person (with qualifications; see my essay on this topic, in particular the paragraph headed “Spirituality”). The investment of time and thought changed my understanding and appreciation of Beethoven and his music.

Now, as The Chorale prepares now for its October 24 and 25 performances (with the HSO) of Beethoven's iconic, remarkable, and utterly unique Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I find myself marveling that 184 years after its completion, this work is still fresh and compelling. Though most of us on stage will have performed it before, there are members of the Chorale, and perhaps of The Hartford Symphony, and surely of the audience, who will experience it for the first time on October 24 or 25. Even after 184 years and countless performances, the “Choral” Symphony will always be new for someone. This was made manifest in a recent conversation with my 15-year-old daughter.

The other day, as my husband (who also sings in the Chorale) was listening to a recording of the Symphony and working hard at memorizing the fourth movement (yes, we will be performing from memory), my daughter was delighted, not only in the magnificent music, but in the text itself. She could hardly keep from dancing through the house. (Freude!)

A few years ago she had pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

This time around, it was the thrilling syncopation that underscores the most important line of the text (“Alle Menschen verden Brüder” — “All people are brothers”) that moved her most. In her words: “It pushes all the energy, and the whole idea, forward!” (It is very sad that in many hymnals and other instances where this melody has been used the syncopation is smoothed over and made foursquare, supposedly to make it “easier” to sing.)

Her other “amazing moment” is the otherworldly and ethereal pivot modulation that flings us from D major to F major (“steht vor Gött,” or “stand before God,” at measure 330) in preparation for the drop into B-flat major for the Turkish march. She was left speechless with joy and amazement, as most of us usually are at that remarkable moment. (That is also one of the best soprano moments in the choral repertoire!)

Of course, those who have known and loved the Symphony for a long time would agree that these are the “big” moments and the “big” ideas, but it was moving to watch her discover these on her own, and enlightening to hear her analysis of what makes them special.

Being an avid student of history (especially via the wonderful lectures from The Teaching Company), she knows a fair amount about Beethoven, his life, his music, and his leadership in the progression of musical development from what we call the “Classical” period to what we now call the “Romantic” period. “He was a radical, wasn’t he?” she observed. “You know, if he were alive today, he’d be playing an electric guitar.” She’s right!

When I perform the Symphony with The Chorale later this month, I will sing for everyone who will be hearing it for the first time. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

CONCORA Explores an American Voice: Emily Dickinson and "Wild Nights"

For CONCORA’s 2008-2009 season opener, “American Voices,” Artistic Director Richard Coffey has programmed two recent settings — beautiful in their contrasts — of verses by American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Of special interest are two settings — “very different, and equally persuasive,” according to Maestro Coffey — of Wild Nights!, which has rightly become one of Dickinson’s most celebrated works.

We often picture Emily Dickinson as a shy and solitary girl, a reclusive woman, a lonely invisibility in an upstairs bedroom. Though she never married, there is much evidence that Emily Dickinson sustained close relationships with a few men and women, both through correspondence and in their visits to her Amherst home. Certainly her poetry is warm with passion and longing; in some instances, it flares with unbridled ecstasy. Such is the case in Wild Nights!

Wild Nights! — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

An image of Dickinson's manuscript for Wild Nights! is shown at left.

Pittsburgh-based award-winning composer Nancy Galbraith, described as “one of the present era’s most original and dynamic composers,” has created an immediate and compelling setting which climbs steadily, wave on wave, until “The sea! Ah! the sea!” bursts ecstatically upon us, subsides, then rushes into port in a tremendous surge of sound. (This setting is part of Galbraith’s Two Emily Dickinson Songs, which was commissioned by the Providence Singers for CONCORA, and was premiered by CONCORA at the NEA American Masterpieces Choral Festival in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 4, 2007.)

Emily Dickinson’s surprising love poems inspired New England composer Gwyneth Walker to pen A Heart in Hiding, her interpretation of six of “the passionate love poems of Emily Dickinson.” The use of a solo voice brings immediacy and intimacy to these settings, while an expansive and expressive piano part adds color and texture. Walker has provided wonderful music for the piano, making the pianist an equal partner with soloist and chorus, far beyond an accompanying role. As the various textures and colors emerge in the piano, and as they are carried from movement to movement, they introduce an extra-textual element to express what is beyond, and implied by, the words. The glissando at the close of the first movement, the rippling figures in several of the movements, and the ecstatic tremolos at the opening of Wild Nights! bring to the ear the sensuality that permeates these texts. Among the many remarkable moments, the breathless, spent ending of Wild Nights! is just wonderful. This evening marks the second Connecticut performance of A Heart in Hiding; the Connecticut premiere was given in July 2008 by the choir of the CONCORA 2008 Summer Festival, with Richard Coffey conducting and Dr. Walker in attendance. Dr. Walker is a long-time friend of CONCORA and a member of CONCORA’s Honorary Board of Directors.

The concert includes settings of several other Dickinson verses, as well as words and music by other much-loved American voices — Alice Parker, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, William Billings, Emma Lou Diemer, Herman Melville — as represented in hymns, spirituals and folk songs.
“American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. (click here for directions) Discounted “early bird” tickets for this concert, and for the entire CONCORA season, are available until October 15, 2008. Season subscriptions and individual tickets are available now at, or by calling (860) 224-7500.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Miracle of Cooperation and Common Purpose

In the midst of this endless election season, I naturally find myself considering what qualities we find desirable in the people who put themselves forward to be our leaders. Recently, as I have been rehearsing with five very different choral ensembles, I have also been thinking about what qualities are desirable in a good chorister. It seems that the two skill sets are not all that different.

Last night at the weekly rehearsal of The Hartford Chorale, I was supposed to be concentrating on Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which The Chorale is preparing for its upcoming “Harvest Song” concert on November 22. While we rehearsed, though, I found myself thinking about how well the 170 members of The Hartford Chorale, accompanist Jim Barry, Assistant Music Director Ehren Brown and Music Director Rick Coffey were working together to bring this most marvelous music to life. I wondered to myself, “What do each of these 170 diverse singers and their leaders need to do in order to create a unified experience? How must each of us prepare, perceive, react, and act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goal of communicating truth and beauty, through music, to our audience?”

Any good chorister knows the answers to these questions, and puts them into action week after week. In fact, I think that most choral singers will agree that this common striving — and its results — is among the most satisfying and elevating of our life experiences, not just for the pleasures of music, but for the way of living that we embrace as choristers that influences our lives and attitudes beyond the rehearsal hall and concert stage.

I found myself thinking — well, wishing, really — OK, it was an impossible fantasy — Anyway, I imagined how wonderful it would be if our political leaders were brought together to form a chorus and rehearse together for just one evening each week. I soon began to envision the choral rehearsal as an ideal environment for diplomatic and leadership training.

So, how would my fantasy chorus be organized? First, I’d choose meaningful repertoire that would, in its texts and music, speak to a common humanity. (Oh, there is so much from which to choose!) On the podium, install the best choral conductor you can find: one who can lead with artistry and humility, one who can command discipline with grace and humor, one who understands and deeply loves both texts and music, and who can instill that passion in each singer. Finally, engage an accompanist who is an artist in his own right, and one who is in sympathy with the director. Happy is the choir that has a mutually-elevating team of this sort at the front of the rehearsal room.

Now, consider the questions I posed earlier: What do 170 diverse singers, plus their leaders, need to do in order to create a unified force? How must each of us envision, perceive, react, and, ultimately, act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goals? Here’s what I came up with, in no particular order:

A good chorister is reliable. He arrives in good time. (“Early is on time, on time is late!”) He is prepared for the rehearsal. He makes and keeps his commitment to the season, to the rehearsals, to the performances, to his fellow choristers, to the Director, to the music, the audience. Imagine if all our leaders were reliable and kept all their commitments.

A good chorister is gentle. Hartford Chorale rehearsals start with stretching exercises and backrubs for and by our seat mates. A good chorister notices what sort of back rub her neighbor enjoys, and also notices what is uncomfortable, so that she can avoid hurting her neighbor. Imagine if all our leaders were gentle and looked for ways to comfort their neighbors, and took care not to hurt them.
A good chorister is a good listener. He listens carefully so that he may find out how best his voice will fit in with the others. He listens to himself, so that he might never make an ugly sound. He listens to his neighbors, so that he might blend with them and uplift his section. He listens to the entire chorus, so that he might understand the larger vision and understand that he is just one of many. Imagine if all our leaders were good listeners, and were able to listen in all these ways, and understand their place in the larger scheme of things.

A good chorister takes responsibility. She raises her hand to take responsibility for her error if she sings a wrong note, makes a wrong entrance, or lets slip a vagrant “s,” so that the Director need not interrupt the rehearsal to correct the error. Imagine if our leaders admitted their errors freely and took responsibility for correcting their wrongs.

A good chorister keeps his area clean. He puts his chair away in the proper place, and takes care of his own water bottles, cough drop wrappers, etc., so that no one has to clean up after him. If he sees that someone else has forgotten to put away his chair, he takes care of it. Imagine if all our leaders dedicated themselves to keeping the Earth clean, and pitched in to help clean up what has already been made dirty.

A good chorister is respectful. She is respectful of her music, keeping it clean and in good condition so that others may use it at another time. She is respectful of the rehearsal process, keeping quiet when it is not her turn to sing, so that others may listen and learn. She is respectful of those who sit and stand near her, being careful not to jostle or bump. Imagine if all our leaders were respectful of us, of each other, and of themselves.

A good chorister is helpful. He wants his fellow singers to do well. He carries an extra pencil or cough drop and offers it when his neighbor is in need. He contacts a fellow singer who has been absent to offer information on what happened at a missed rehearsal. He mentors a new member. He volunteers. Imagine if all our leaders looked for ways to be helpful to others.

A good chorister is willing to change. Though she may have sung a particular piece of music many times with another conductor, she will lay aside that interpretation for the sake of bringing unity to the interpretation of the director on the podium. Imagine if all our leaders were flexible in their thinking and willing to try new ways of doing things.

A good chorister remembers why he is there. He is there to make beautiful music with other people. At each rehearsal and performance he re-commits himself to beauty, not just for himself, but for every person in the rehearsal room, and later, in the audience. Imagine if all our leaders remembered why they are in leadership positions, and re-committed themselves each week to service and to the greater good.

A good chorister envisions and embraces a common goal. She leaves her ego at the door. She engages her energies and sympathies toward the common good. Imagine if all our leaders were willing to lay their egos aside. (That alone would address most of these other issues, yes?)

A good chorister is committed to making the world a better place. Though a choral concert may not change the world, it will make it more beautiful. This fall, the 170 members, staff, and audience of The Hartford Chorale will dedicate well over 6300 hours to rehearsals, meetings, and performances. During those hours, each of us will be committed to peace and beauty. Imagine if all our leaders were truly committed to making the world a better place, for always, and invested their time not in warmongering, but in the creation and sustenance of beauty and betterment.

Imagine how the world might be if our leaders had the attitudes, and work ethic, of good choristers! Could they do it? Could they experience — and embrace — the miracle of cooperation and common purpose that we call “making music together?” Imagine how it could change the world. I know how it has changed me.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

The Hartford Chorale’s Upcoming Concerts:
Beethoven Symphony No. 9The Hartford Chorale with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Edward Cumming, Conductor
October 24, 2008 8:00pm and October 25, 2008 3:00pm
The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts, Mortensen Hall, Hartford, Connecticut

TICKETS: Contact The Hartford Symphony Orchestra:
PHONE 860-244-2999
Online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

Harvest Song
The Hartford Chorale
Richard Coffey, Conductor
November 22, 2008 7:30pm
Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford, Connecticut

For tickets, call Immanuel Congregational Church at 860-527-8121 or visit

Thursday, October 2, 2008

CONCORA Explores "American Voices"

CONCORA’s 2008-2009 season opens with “American Voices,” an exciting collaboration with the University Singers of Central Connecticut State University and their Director, Dr. Pamela J. Perry. Each choir will perform individually and both will join forces for several selections. “American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut.

CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey has put together a program of rich and rare repertoire whose music or whose text was born of American creativity. In designing this program, Maestro Coffey aimed “to highlight the breadth and depth of music and words with American origins,” choosing meaningful texts and compelling musical settings from five centuries. “What ‘burns’ for me is the power of the words,” he explains further, “especially as they are conveyed in these exceptional musical settings. For example, this program offers a particular emphasis on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, not only in the music of two remarkable women composers, but, in the case of "Wild Nights!" in two very different, and equally persuasive, interpretations of the same poem. The settings of words by great American poets — Melville, Poe, Frost, and Dickinson — will, I hope, thrill the heart of anyone who loves literature.” Folk and ethnic elements are strong here, too, with extremes of emotion ranging from poignant ("Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye") to rollicking ("She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain").

Here are just some of the beautiful voices to be heard in this remarkable program:

Emily Dickinson: Her surprising love poems inspired New England composer Gwyneth Walker to pen A Heart in Hiding: The Passionate Love Poems of Emily Dickinson. Walker's musical voice is as sensual, reflective, and passionate as the six Dickinson poems she has chosen. These are remarkable, evocative settings; anyone with an interest in Dickinson should know this music. This evening marks the second Connecticut performance of A Heart in Hiding; the Connecticut premiere was given in July 2008 by the choir of the CONCORA 2008 Summer Festival, with Richard Coffey conducting and Dr. Walker in attendance. Dr. Walker is a long-time friend of CONCORA and an honorary member of CONCORA’s Board of Directors.

Nancy Galbraith: This award-winning composer has also set to music two poems of Emily Dickinson — "The Sea of Sunset" and "Wild Nights." The latter poem is also included in the Walker suite. This is a great opportunity to hear two different musical renderings of the same Dickinson poem. Nancy Galbraith’s Two Emily Dickinson Songs was commissioned by the Providence Singers for CONCORA, and was premiered by CONCORA at the NEA American Masterpieces Choral Festival in Providence, RI, on March 4, 2007.

Eric Whitacre has quickly become one of the most popular and frequently-performed composers of his generation. His compositions have been praised as “works of unearthly beauty and imagination, (with) electric, chilling harmonies.” CONCORA and the CCSU University Singers join forces for the new classic “With a Lily in Her Hand,” Whitacre’s setting of text by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

The program also includes words and music by other much-loved American voices — Alice Parker, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, William Billings, Emma Lou Diemer, Herman Melville — as represented in hymns, spirituals and folk songs.

I prepared the program notes for this concert, and I’ll share some of my discoveries and impressions in this space in the weeks leading up to the concert, so check back often.

“American Voices” will be offered on Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Church of Christ, New Britain, Connecticut. Season subscriptions and individual tickets are available now at

Thanks to CONCORA artist and marketing director Stacey Grimaldi for providing material for this posting.