Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Blue Sort of Morning

One of my favorite local birding spots has a nice variety of habitat: meadows and fields (yes, there is a difference!), a pond, a stream, a swampy area and a small marsh (yes, there is a difference!), hardwoods, conifers, hillsides, a swale, lawns and gardens, and a small farm. Living and dead trees, shrubs, grasses – all these make good homes for a variety of birds.

When I drove through there this morning, I stopped to check on the bluebirds that had recently started patrolling the nest boxes that the property owner has posted here and there across the property. There they were, like drops of sky come down to earth. The brilliancy of the male Eastern Bluebird can hardly be described. Azure, turquoise, lapis – all shimmering together on the back of this bird, whose incongruously rusty breast sets off the blue to perfection.

Have you ever heard a bluebird sing? Imagine the sweet warble of a its cousin the American Robin, slowed down and lower pitched, with a warmer, more liquid tone than the robin’s sweet clarity…the bluebird’s alto complements the soprano of the robin. I put down the car window and listened….

Another song caught my ear, further up the hillside: a cheery, irrepressible twittering, not melodic, but bright and eager. There, perched on one of the nest boxes, was a different kind of blue – a Tree Swallow. The swallow’s violet-blue wings and back, shining with bright blue iridescence, contrast sharply with the snowy-white breast and belly. Swallows spend most of their waking hours aloft, catching flying insects, so I took a good long look at this twittering fellow, standing on improbably short little legs on the nest box. This was the first swallow I’ve seen this spring.

When I arrived home, the backyard feeders were busy with the usual collection of juncos, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, and pine siskins (what a siskin winter it has been!). (The woodpeckers will be back when I can remember to fill the suet feeders.)

A flash of blue-gray caught my eye – a different kind of blue! There on the feeder was one of my favorite birds, a Tufted Titmouse. He took a sunflower seed to the wisteria bush, where he fixed it between his feet and hammered at it with his strong little bill. Soon the hull split in two, and he pulled out the kernel, letting the husks fall as he flew back to the feeder. Though this charming little bird is often described as gray, it’s really a pale slaty-blue that is especially pretty in the winter against the white and gray landscape. Smart little birds, and so attractive with their black eyes and beaks and cheeky calls.

As I watched, the birds suddenly flew up and away as a Blue Jay – a different kind of blue! – sped in like a dive bomber with widespread wings and tail, scattering the other birds with its loud Jay! Jay! Easy pickings at the now-empty feeders. No harm done; the little birds come back quickly and they all eat side by side. I love the Blue Jays; they’re smart and interesting to watch, and they are certainly one of the most beautiful birds we know. Do we take them for granted because they are so common? Next time you see a Blue Jay, take a few minutes to really study it. Appreciate the pearl gray breast and the soft white belly feathers. Note how many different shades of blue are in the back, wings, and crest; did you ever notice that? See the necklace of black feathers, which reminds me of the ancient ceremonial collars of scholars and clerics. Notice the white spots in wings and tail, beautifully displayed when the bird swoops up to our deck rail from its flight across the yard. Consider the strong bill, legs, and feet, all in shiny black, setting off that bright black eye. Lovely!

As the birds settle down to feed again, a few Purple Grackles fly to the wisteria bush, taking in the whole scene before dropping to the deck and feeder to pick up seeds. They are shyer than the other birds, perhaps because they stop at our feeders only during spring and fall migrations, unlike the other birds which live in and around our yard. These smaller cousins to our big black crows are glossy black all over, with an indescribable iridescence that ranges from bronze to purple to gold to aquamarine – a different kind of blue! Here’s another gorgeous bird, so common that we sometimes fail to appreciate its beauty.

Altogether, it was a blue sort of morning…and did I mention the purple-blue crocuses and scilla blooming in the neighborhood?

Friday, March 27, 2009

CONCORA in Recital: “Mendelssohn and Friends”

Each spring, CONCORA artists present a song recital with a theme that illuminates or complements the CONCORA season program. The annual recital, which is a benefit for CONCORA, draws a large and enthusiastic audience. The CONCORA singers donate their time and talent (we are paid for all other CONCORA engagements) and we have a good time together.

This year, in a continuation of CONCORA’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, about a dozen CONCORA singers will offer “Mendelssohn and Friends,” a recital of songs, duets, arias, and more from the pen of the great German composer, who was born in 1809.

The program, which will be held this Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 4:00 p.m., at St. John's Episcopal Church in West Hartford, will also include music by several of Mendelssohn’s friends and contemporaries, such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Anton Rubenstein, and Hector Berlioz. We’ll also hear music of J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert, two composers whose music Mendelssohn was instrumental in promoting and performing.

I’ll be performing a duet with my friend Sarah Potter, whose clear voice I love and whose intelligent approach to collaborative singing is really refreshing. We will sing “O wie selig ist das Kind,” a duet for two sopranos from Mendelssohn’s setting of Racine’s Athalie (1845). Oh, it’s beautiful.

In January, I had a lot of fun reading through dozens of sources to identify “Friends of Felix,” composers (and a few other luminaries) who were associated with Felix Mendelssohn. The list includes 38 composers (9 of them close acquaintances) and 6 others of interest (Goethe, Lind, Victoria!) Mendelssohn traveled extensively and had a large acquaintance which included many prominent composers and performers in Italy, Germany, and England. I hope the list was helpful to the singers as they considered repertoire for this recital.

Singing at this recital are CONCORA artists Claudia Ayer, Imelda Franklin Bogue, Salli-Jo Borden, Julie Gregorio, Stacey Grimaldi, Sarah Hager Johnston, Christine Laird, Michael Linert, Heather Petrie, Sarah Potter, and Margaret Tyler. Natasha Ulyanovsky, a skilled and sensitive pianist and vocal coach, will accompany the singers at the piano. You can read more about Ms. Ulyanovsky HERE.

All are welcome to attend a free post-concert reception with the artists.

WHAT: CONCORA Recital, “Mendelssohn and Friends”
WHEN: Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
WHERE: Hubbard Hall, St. John's Episcopal Church, 679 Farmington Avenue, West Hartford. Travel directions and a map may be seen HERE.
WHO: CONCORA artists, accompanied by pianist Natasha Ulyanovsky
TICKETS: $35 for Preferred Seating/$20 for General Admission/$10 Students
INFO: Call (860) 224-7500 or visit http://concora.pmailus.com/pmailweb/ct?d=HdD63gBzAAIAAA0IAAKlbw

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Voice Lessons

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how I went about learning my music for CONCORA’s recent all-Bach concert. (You can read that essay HERE.)

Birds have to learn their songs, too, and if you can catch one in a practice session, it can be pretty interesting.

Last week I heard an unusual bird song outside the kitchen window, in the wisteria near the feeders. Being very near-sighted, I developed excellent aural birding skills at a very young age, and I know the songs and calls of most of the birds I’m likely to see in our area. In fact, when I’m out and about, I locate and identify many songbirds by ear alone. (Most birders develop this skill even if they have good eyesight, but those of us who see poorly really rely on this ability.)

So…what was this song I was hearing? It reminded me a bit of a Song Sparrow’s whistle-plus-warble, but it was a bit shorter and more hesitant. Still, we do have Song Sparrows in the yard, and I had seen one earlier in the day. The bird sang again…No, not a Song Sparrow. Too choppy and strange-sounding, a bit reedy and weaker than a Song Sparrow usually sounds.

Could it have been the Song Sparrow’s cousin, the Fox Sparrow? We’d been fortunate to have a Fox Sparrow at our feeders since January; perhaps this beautiful visitor from the North was trying out his spring song before embarking on his spring migration. The Fox Sparrow’s song is similar to the Song Sparrow’s, but a little shorter and more melodious, a bit reminiscent of the American Robin in its quality of tone. The bird I heard did have a shorter song, but it was not as clear and melodious at the Fox Sparrow song.

Hmm. What could it be? It didn't sound like anything I had heard before. It was clearly a finch or sparrow song. It did not match anything in my mental catalog of bird songs, but it definitely reminded me of a Song Sparrow. Hmmm.

I heard the bird again the next day; the song was a little longer and somehow seemed more confident. (I know, I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s how it sounded.) Finally, I got to the window quickly enough to spot the songster at the top of the wisteria, illuminated by full sunlight, just as it opened its bill and sang again.

It was a Song Sparrow!

Perhaps this is a first-year bird, learning to sing for the first time. Though songs are “hard-wired” in birds brains, they still have to learn and practice.

Over the next few days, I watched and listened as this pretty bird sang and sang, and I marveled at the development in the song as he “practiced.” Now, a week later, the song – much longer, clearer, and more melodious than when I first heard it – sounds like any other mature Song Sparrow. I hope that a mate is attracted to his song and that they will nest in our yard. The Song Sparrow is one of the birds that sings early in the morning, and it’s delightful to wake up to that happy burble.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CONCORA Sings Bach! – The Aftermath

Three days after CONCORA’s “exceptional performance” of music by Bach with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra (read The Hartford Courant’s great review HERE), I’m still reveling in persistent aural memories of my favorite passages. (That’s the phenomenon that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey calls “tune-be-gone.”)

I’ve also got a pile of scores, papers, books, articles, and programs to sort through before I can wrap this project up intellectually and emotionally. Let me explain.

One of the delights of singing with CONCORA is that we rehearse very efficiently. For this ambitious all-Bach program (a motet, a Mass, and a cantata), we had just two choral rehearsals, plus a single “dress” rehearsal with the orchestra. (The vocal soloists, all drawn from CONCORA’s ranks, had a separate rehearsal with Mr. Coffey and the orchestra, and Mr. Coffey had an additional rehearsal with the orchestra alone.)

This compressed rehearsal schedule always leaves me a bit sad because 1) I love good choral rehearsals and 2) we have so little time to immerse ourselves in this music together. Of course, the CONCORA singers are excellent musicians, so we form a cohesive ensemble quickly; and since everyone is fully prepared for rehearsals, we begin to make music together very quickly. (Read more HERE about how much I enjoy CONCORA rehearsals, and why.)

I make up for the short rehearsal schedule with substantial reading and research on my own, both to enrich my musical preparation and, if I’ve been engaged to prepare program notes, to aid in that preparation.

And indeed, there was much to learn in order to prepare — that is, to prepare thoroughly — for a program of this depth.

First of all, there’s the music itself. I had obtained my copies of the scores very early so I could get started with listening and analysis, because in addition to singing in this concert, it was also my privilege to prepare the program notes. (More on that below.) Before I started to learn the music, I had to edit and prepare my scores according to Mr. Coffey’s instructions. (Read HERE about how I prepare my scores for rehearsals with Mr. Coffey.)

I knew the motet Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) already, and I was familiar with the cantata Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) (BWV 80) from recordings. The Mass in G Minor (BWV 235), though, which is rarely heard and is not an “easy” sing, required learning “from scratch.” I am fortunate to be a very good reader and “music-thinker,” so one or two passes through the cantata was enough to get the first movement into my head and voice; the only other movement the chorus sings is the simple closing chorale. The Mass is very challenging vocally and required two or three sing-throughs before I got it “into the voice” and into my brain. Additional musical and vocal refinements would come after our first rehearsal, when I would learn how Mr. Coffey would shape and interpret the choral parts.

Though I’ve prepared notes many times for CONCORA, this was my first year to do so for this big Bach program, having assumed the job long held by the erudite and eloquent Louis G. Neuchterlein, a Lutheran pastor and church musician who served as CONCORA’s inspired Bach program annotator and lecturer for 16 years. I was very aware of Lou’s presence as I worked hard to prepare good notes for an audience that had come to expect the best.

So, in addition to learning the music for singing, I also had to learn enough about each piece of music — origins, texts, musical forms and analysis, and performance history — to be able to write cogent, compelling notes. And in addition to the three choral works, the program included an unusual work for organ, so I also had to learn enough about that instrument to write an informative note!

As part of this research and thinking process, I did the following:
♪ Listened to several recordings of the programmed works.
♪ Read or consulted several scholarly books on Bach, including one devoted entirely to the analysis and performance of the organ works.
♪ Conducted in-depth online research, using open-web and professional sources. (Remember, I am a professional librarian and research consultant, so this work goes way beyond the major search engine!)
♪ Consulted Mr. Coffey, Mr. Neuchterlein, and other colleagues on technical, musical, theological, and textual issues
♪ Drew on my own library of program notes, particularly my program essay on Bach’s B Minor Mass.
♪ Focused my research on several areas in which my knowledge was thin, such as the life of Martin Luther, Bach’s organ registrations, and the place of the Latin Mass in Lutheran church music.

All my learnings were communicated in a long essay (about 10,000 words) that focused on historical and textual issues; this document was distributed to the singers and to the Friends of Bach, a guild of CONCORA friends that generously supports CONCORA’s Bach performances. For the actual concert program, I pared down the long essay to the 1600-word maximum that the program editor allows. Though painful, this was a useful exercise, as it forced me to choose the fewest, best words to describe the program in the most compelling, enlightening, readable way.

This entire process was a delight, from learning the music, to reading about Bach's work as an organ consultant, to considering how Bach adapted some of his cantata movements to create the "new" Mass in G Minor. By the time we got to our dress rehearsal, I felt that I really knew this music and was ready to perform with the understanding and appreciation it deserved. I can’t imagine not preparing for a concert in this way.

Today I’ll compile my archive for this project – rehearsal and research notes, programs, invitation to the Friends of Bach reception, congratulatory letters, the terrific review from The Hartford Courant (read it HERE), and some other mementos – and file it away with my other CONCORA memories.

The last echoes of our performance may have died away, but the happiness will linger for a long time.

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“An Exceptional Performance”

Late last night, I posted my own completely biased “review” of CONCORA’s recent all-Bach concert. (You can read it HERE.) It was interesting to see this morning that The Hartford Courant's reviewer praised essentially the same portions of the program that most moved me. Here’s the review, complete with the astounding mis-spelling in the headline (which appeared in the online version only; the print version was correct):


CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of BackBy JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant, March 24, 2009

Does listening to the music of Bach make you smarter? It does if you hear it live. But you were smart to begin with if you attended the annual all-Bach program by CONCORA and Hartford Symphony Orchestra musicians at the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford Sunday.

In an exceptional performance conducted by Artistic Director Richard Coffey, CONCORA opened its program with Bach's motet “Fürchte dich nicht,” BWV 228. This work, scored for eight voices in a double choir, quickly developed into the kind of intensive pattern-making that makes hearing the music of Bach its own form of paradise. In one culminating moment, the eight voices telescoped into a single choir of four voices, and the altos, tenors and basses began an entrancing chromatic fugue on a biblical text. Meanwhile the sopranos overlaid lines from poem by Paul Gerhardt with hymn-like simplicity.

CONCORA was ablaze in the physicality of this music — the mechanics of singing within this complexity, the breathing, the care given to diction, the slight sway as each singer sought to connect with others in unconscious ways. These were all subtle signs of recognition that this music is special and that this choir has arrived at a clear understanding of how it works, of how it communicates.

Bach's Mass in G minor BWV 235 closed the first half. This “Missa Brevis” consists only of the Kyrie and Gloria texts from the standard mass, with the Gloria organized around a central collection of personal responses and observations sung by soloists. David Kennedy sang the bass aria “Gratias agimus tibi,” and tenor Jack Anthony Pott sang the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” with an attractive sense of liquid line that harmonized well with the oboe solo that surrounded it.

The aria “Domine Fili unigenite,” often sung by an alto, was performed by the countertenor Michael Linert. The ethereal, almost spooky high register singing perfected by Linert breaks differently than a female voice and has a stronger more poignant and cutting sound in what would be a low register of the female voice. It was particularly fascinating to hear, near the end of the aria, how the quality of voice changed as the music dipped through middle C to low B-flat, and Linert used his chest voice rather than his head voice.

After intermission we heard a tasteful and articulate performance of the Chorale-Fantasia for Organ “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott” BWV 720 played by Edward Clark. People from the audience were often glancing up toward the ceiling during the music; the sound seemed to come from the sky itself. Clark also received some celestial support. During the second section of his Chorale-Fantasia, sunlight suddenly flooded the church and lit both Clark and the organ for more than a minute before dimming as dramatically as it appeared.

The concert closed with Cantata BWV 80 “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God).” In a work with one of the most monumental opening movements ever written, it is still the chain of soloists who made this cantata seem human and personal. Soprano Christine Laird and bass Thomas F. Cooke, baritone Peter Perkins whose arioso was both somber and delicate, tenor Gabriel Löfvall and mezzo soprano Pamela Frigo Johnson were all effective and compelling soloists. Soprano Stacey S. Grimaldi was particularly memorable in the aria “Komm in mein Herzenhaus, (Enter my heart's house)” where her natural narrative sense drew us through the winding melodic turns and graces of this aria. Her voice became brighter as she quieted each closing phrase to bring this music, central in this cantata, to a close. [end of review]


I was sorry that the reviewer did not remark on the fine playing from The Hartford Symphony Orchestra — they really were outstanding, and of course this concert was a collaboration of the two ensembles. But his paragraph extolling Stacey's exquisite singing made up for it. And I second his endorsement of the beauty of the male alto voice. I was very glad that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey assigned the alto aria in the Mass to Michael Linert, and was thrilled that Michael sang so well. We don't hear much of that sound around Hartford, and that's too bad.

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Link to The Hartford Courant’s review:


“Almost too Beautiful to Bear”

On Sunday, March 22, CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists) presented its immensely popular annual all-Bach collaboration with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey on the podium. I am so grateful to have been part of the ensemble that performed this wonderful program. Of course, any performance with CONCORA is a red-letter day, but yesterday’s concert was extra special, in part because we performed one of Bach’s rarely-heard short masses, the Mass in G Minor (BWV 235). (You can read more about Bach’s “short masses” here and here.) It’s possible that this performance of the G Minor Mass by CONCORA was the first in this region in many years, if not the first altogether.

Though as a chorister I found deep joy and fulfillment in singing the choral portions of the program, the musical and emotional highlights of the afternoon for me were two of the solos. I loved these particular movements not just for the beautiful singing that each soloist brought to our ears, but for Bach's genius in crafting perfect settings.

First, in the duet (aria plus chorale) “Alles, was von Gott geboren/Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan” that forms the second movement of Cantata 80, baritone Tom Cooke (filling in beautifully, on incredibly short notice, for a sick colleague) and soprano Christine Laird sang with verve, buoyancy, and commitment. Tom’s velvet tone and quick melismas were the perfect foil for Christine’s full-voiced declamation. The soloists were standing directly behind me, so I could not see their faces, but I could see delight reflected on many faces in the audience. I couldn’t help it – I grinned. I did try to suppress the grin, knowing that a politely interested smile was preferable, but that grin kept on coming. My toes tapped inside my shoes. I had to remind myself: Don’t sway, just stand still, don’t distract from the soloists who are standing right behind you!! But!! Bach wants us to experience delight and joy. Who can help but respond?

(My daughter, a former violist, commented on the fine ensemble playing in the string section of The Hartford Symphony Orchestra – “It sounded like one instrument” – particularly in the second movement, the duet/aria, which has a magnificent string accompaniment.)

Second, the oh-so-lovely aria for soprano that is the spiritual center of the cantata, “Komm in mein Herzenshaus,” was sung to perfection by Stacey Grimaldi. Surely this must have been the voice Bach had in mind: clear yet warm, velvety smooth yet ready to soar with strength and power. I saw serenity, wonder, and warmth reflected in the faces of our listeners. And when Stacey brought the last phrases down to a melting piano, I saw more than one person wiping away tears. I had to wait through the rest of the cantata before I could get off stage to have my own cry.

I had my favorite choral moments, too, of course. The entire motet Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) was impeccably rendered; the second half in particular was almost too beautiful to bear. I was glad to be a soprano, singing the rising-to-heaven chorale fragments, floating over the fugue that was sung so tenderly by the altos, tenors, and basses. From my program notes: “Words can describe this passage but cannot convey its ecstasy, nor can they do justice to Bach’s inspired ingenuity in its creation.” You had to be there.

Though many might say that the architectural grandeur of the opening movement of the Cantata 80 was the most thrilling music on this program, it was the “Kyrie” of the Mass in G Minor that found a place in my heart. I wanted it to last forever.

POSTSCRIPT – The Hartford Courant published a review on Tuesday, March 24, 2009. You can read it, with my comments, HERE.

The complete program:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, the “Reformation Cantata”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

It’s the Ultimate!

I’m always interested in how marketers use language. So often, they fall prey to common misuses, such as using popular but incorrect definitions to promote their products and services. For example, the label on a personal care product I use caught my eye with its interesting mis-use of the word “ultimate.” The product is a deodorant, touted as “Ultimate Clear.” On the label, it promises “Six Ultimate Benefits.” Wow!

OK, but what’s an “ultimate benefit”?

My Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (20th ed.) defines “ultimate” (which derives from the Latin ultima, meaning last) as follows:

1. Beyond which it is impossible to go; farthest; most remote or distant.

Are the benefits of this product remote or distant? NO.

2. In which a process or series comes to an end; final.

Are the benefits coming to an end? Are they final? NO.
3. Beyond which further analysis, division, etc., cannot be made; elemental; fundamental; primary.

Are the benefits beyond analysis? Are they elemental? If so, elemental to what? NO.

4. Greatest possible; maximum.

Ah! This must be it. Maximum benefits. The marketing team must have had this fourth, less-frequently used definition in mind, thinking, as many people do, that “ultimate” means “best.” But here again, the meaning is most, not best.

Consider, too, the synonyms that my dictionary offers for “ultimate” – final, terminal, conclusive, and eventual – these clearly imply a sense of finality and ending, not of superior quality or size, as implied by “maximum.”

Related to this common misunderstanding is the frequent mis-use of the word “penultimate” by people who thinks it means “better than ultimate.” Wrong! Penultimate means “next to last" (from the Latin pene, meaning almost, and ultima, meaning last).

Still wondering what the “six ultimate benefits” of this product are? The label poses the question, “What makes it ultimate?” The answer, given in six bullet points, promises 1) wetness protection; 2) odor protection; 3) stays on skin (!); 4) moisturizers; 5) smooth and silky application and 6) beautiful fragrances.

Hey, wait a minute! I bought the unscented version, so I can’t even enjoy last-named benefit, the final one on the list, the ultimate benefit! Now there’s an irony.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Heavy Lifting?

You know how some businesses adopt names that start with “AAA” or “Acme” to ensure top listing in the alphabetized listings in the Yellow Pages? Well, recently I saw a name for a local company that just made me laugh out loud. Obviously the person who thought up this name hadn’t had enough coffee that morning! Here’s what I saw on a great big delivery truck in Hartford, Connecticut, recently:

AAA Batteries
Delivered and Installed

Think about it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reuse, Recycle, Rehearse: Bach and the Practical Art of Parody

Yesterday, I wrote about how Bach, the quintessential German Lutheran church composer, came to write several Latin-language Masses. (You can read that post HERE.) I’ll be singing one of these so-called “Lutheran Masses” (the one in G minor, BWV 235) with CONCORA on Sunday, March 22. (Details are at the end of this post.) Though these Masses are rarely performed (CONCORA’s performance just might be the first-ever in New England), some of the music they contain might be familiar to Bach aficianados. Why?

In preparing his Latin-language Masses, Bach re-used much of his own music, often re-working entire cantata movements to compile “new” works. This practice, called “parody,” was common among composers of the time. For composers like Bach, who was expected to provide a steady stream of music for weekly services and other performances, it made sense to use existing music, making revisions, reinterpretations, and embellishments as appropriate for new texts or new occasions. Bach’s re-use of earlier material was not necessarily a capitulation to lack of time or energy to compose fresh material, and no stigma should be attached to this practical adaptation of existing material. In fact, the material he selected for re-use was chosen as much for its intrinsic musical value as for the convenience of its use. Often, too, he chose music that had been first used to set words which reflected the same theological ideas that would be conveyed in the new movement.

Each of the six movements of the Mass in G Minor is derived from earlier cantatas. The Kyrie and first movement of the five-movement Gloria are based on the first movements of Cantatas 102 and 72, respectively; the remaining parts of the Gloria are based on movements from Cantata 187.

While the use of parody was long held in contempt, more recent scholarship, and the perspective of time, have supported a renewed appreciation for this technique and the skill required to use it masterfully. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff offers this comment on Bach’s re-use of material in the Short Masses: “For the five Mass compositions of the 1730s Bach reworked a great number of vocal pieces of various kinds and of exceptional quality, suitable and worthy of further elaboration. They include some of the finest concerto choruses, choral fugues, arias, and duets taken mainly from regular Sunday and feast-day cantatas, in a few instances also from secular cantatas. Bach provided a new context for these highly select pieces written for specific occasions. What happens here, is, in fact nothing less that an elevation of several compositions from the liturgical (and ‘secular,’ respectively) Proper to the more universal level of the Ordinary.” (Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music, Harvard University Press, 1991)

Don’t miss this rare performance of Bach's Mass in G Minor! The concert will take place on Sunday, March 22, at 4:00 p.m., at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington). Plenty of free parking is available.

This concert often sells out quickly, so purchase your tickets soon! Group discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:
Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What’s a Nice Lutheran Like J.S. Bach Doing Writing a Latin Mass?

On Sunday, March 22, Connecticut Choral Artists (CONCORA) will present its immensely popular annual all-Bach collaboration with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. (Details are at the end of this post.) On the program this year is a rare performance of Bach’s Missa Brevis in G minor (BWV 235), one of several short Latin masses Bach composed during his years in Leipzig. Long overshadowed by Bach’s 200-plus church cantatas and seven motets, and most of all by his B Minor Mass, these Masses are little known and seldom heard. It’s possible that this performance of the G Minor Mass by CONCORA is the first in New England in many years, if not the first altogether.
To understand why Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the acknowledged master of Lutheran German-language church music, would provide a musical setting of the Latin liturgy, we must look back to Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the roots of the Protestant Reformation.

Though Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521, he continued to observe many of its rites and liturgies. In particular, he retained the Mass, that solemn commemoration and symbolic mystical re-enactment of the Last Supper of Christ. The Ordinary of the Catholic Mass includes five sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. In fashioning a revised format for his 1526 Deutsche Messe (the “German Mass”), Luther essentially followed this familiar model.

Though Luther preferred to use the German language to ensure comprehension, he initially specified that the five sections of the Ordinary should continue to be sung in Latin. Later, he eliminated Latin in favor of German, although he acknowledged the value of retaining parts of the centuries-old Latin rite for use on feast days and other occasions. Acknowledging the importance of the Latin texts to many parishioners, Luther endorsed the use of Latin texts “for those who love and understand them.”

When Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, polyphonic settings of the Kyrie and Gloria (called the Missa or “Short Mass”) were sometimes sung in the Protestant churches, though on most Sundays the words were simply chanted in unison. Between 1737 and 1748, Bach wrote at six Latin-language “Short Masses,” consisting of polyphonic settings of the Kyrie and Gloria for soloists, choir, and orchestra; the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were not included. The Mass in G Minor was probably prepared around 1738-1739 in Leipzig. Also in Bach’s Latin-texted sacred oeuvre are five settings of the Sanctus, two settings of the Magnificat, and the stupendous Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (enlarged from the Missa a 5 Voci), which includes his only known settings of the Credo, Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei portions of the Latin Mass.

Bach’s "Short Masses" have come to be known as the “Lutheran Masses,” though they are appropriate for use in both the Catholic and Lutheran liturgies. The “Lutheran Mass” terminology may be preferred by those who reserve the term “Missa Brevis” for Mass settings in which most of the portions of the Ordinary are present but in which the texts are shortened, generally by “telescoping” or overlapping texts, or sometimes by omitting the Credo, as may be found in the missa brevae of Mozart and Haydn. Because Bach’s Short Masses include, by Lutheran tradition, only the Kyrie and Gloria, they do, indeed present themselves as “Lutheran Masses.”

Don’t miss this rare performance of Bach's Mass in G Minor! The concert will take place on Sunday, March 22, at 4:00 p.m., at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington). Plenty of free parking is available.

This concert often sells out quickly, so purchase your tickets soon! Group discounts are available for groups of 8 or more. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

The complete program for CONCORA's all-Bach concert on March 22, 2009:

Motet IV, Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228)
Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235)
Chorale-Fantasia for Organ on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 720)
Cantata BWV 80, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God)

Monday, March 2, 2009

California Quails in Connecticut?

As someone who loves birds, I naturally take notice of how images of birds are used in advertisements and other corporate communications. Sometimes the effect is stunning and effective, such as NBC’s introduction of a stylized peacock in 1956, used at first to promote its color broadcasting, and later to represent the variety of its programming. That made sense.
The other day as I was running an errand, I passed a service van for a local posh hotel/resort, the Avon Old Farms Hotel located in Avon, Connecticut. The hotel logo painted on the van caught my eye; it was an attractive, stylized illustration of a California Quail. Here’s a link to the company website, where you can see the logo at top left. Isn’t that nice?
Lovely, I thought; a quail is a nice logo for a country hotel/resort. Nicely done drawing too, with the jaunty top-knot. Real panache. (You can search “california quail” Google images to see photos of living California Quails. Pretty, eh?)
Wait a minute — a California Quail?
Why did the hotel and its designer choose the California Quail, a bird that lives only on the West Coast, to represent an upscale hotel in the wooded hills and rolling farm fields of north central Connecticut??
Why not choose the equally lovely BobWhite Quail, the only quail native to Connecticut? It’s just as beautiful and has been a favorite with New Englanders for centuries, with its stunning coloration and inquiring “Bob - - WHITE?!” whistle. (Search "bobwhite" in Google images to see photos of this endearing bird.)
I wonder if a local graphic designer chose the California bird? It probably wouldn't matter if the designer were local or from Mars. I can picture a design team sitting around a conference table, reviewing stock photos of birds and choosing the one with nice visual appeal regardless of its relevance to a Connecticut-based business. Of course, most people don’t know a quail from a quark, and even if the designers were aware of their error, they probably assumed that most people wouldn’t know or care. However, just five minutes of online research, or a call to the Connecticut Audubon Society, library, or nature center, would have caught the error before it became formalized.
Whenever I think of this hotel now, I will think of their silliness and ignorance.
The Bob White’s numbers are declining as more farmland is eaten up by development. It would have been nice if the hotel had adopted the local bird for its logo, then contributed to conservation programs that would ensure the quail’s survival.