Tuesday, April 28, 2009

“Music of true dignity and splendour”

Last night, following the regular rehearsal of The Hartford Chorale, the Chorale men stayed to rehearse the two selections they will perform with CONCORA in Sonic Spectacular, a concert of resonant music for choirs and organs to be held on Sunday, May 3 in Hartford. (Details on venue, tickets, etc., are at the end of this post.) About forty of the Chorale’s male singers will perform two pieces with CONCORA: Franz Biebl’s tender Ave Maria for double male choir (read about it HERE) and, to close the concert, the “Kyrie” from the Messe Solonnelle by Charles-Marie Widor. (The Music Director of The Hartford Chorale, Rick Coffey, is also the Artistic Director of CONCORA.)

Widor’s Messe Solonnelle is scored for four-part chorus (SATB), unison chorus of men’s voices, and two (yes, two!) organs. At last night’s rehearsal, once the forty or so men had mastered their part and were singing freely, the majesty of Widor’s music became evident. The part for male chorus is in a nice medium-high range for the tenors and is scored quite high for the baritones and basses; this brings a brightness and urgency to the sound that will be quite striking and will carry beautifully over the mixed voices of the CONCORA artists and the two organs, played by David Westfall and Jason Charneski.

So, how are the two organs used? In the program notes I prepared for this performance, I included this explanation from CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey: “The masses [on this program] by Louis Vierne, Charles-Marie Widor, and Jean Langlais employ the French custom of having two organs (and often two choirs) perform the liturgy. The enormous grand orgue (great organ) is located in the gallery, with the petit orgue (“small organ,” sometimes called the orgue-de-chœur or choir organ) in the apse behind the altar, near the choir, opposite from the gallery. The petit orgue, a substantial instrument in its own right, provides accompaniment for the choirs and creates an aural contrast with the grand orgue. The three masses [on this program] exploit this remarkable antiphonal effect, whether it be by two choirs and two organs (Widor) or one choir and two organs (Vierne and Langlais). The portative organ at Immanuel Congregational Church, while more baroque than symphonic in its coloring, provides a colorful contrast in its role of orgue-de-chœur. The two organs are spatially separated as the compositions require, and the grand orgue (and grand it is) will give us the ideal cathedral-esque sound that all of this music demands.”

On YouTube, one can watch a video which documents a recording, made at Sainte-Sulpice, of Vierne’s Messe Solonnelle. This video gives an idea of the immense distances between the performers, as well as the incredible sonorities that can be created in this remarkable space. At about 2:35 on this video, you can hear the middle section of the “Kyrie” movement, which CONCORA will sing on its May 3 program. Toward the end of the video, listen for the improvisation, in the style of Widor and Vierne, played by titulaire Daniel Roth at the grand orgue. Click here: http://tinyurl.com/c6pvqn

Here’s the program note I prepared for this upcoming performance of the “Kyrie” from Widor’s Messe Solennelle:

The grandson of an organ builder and the son of an organist who was also an organ builder, Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) showed early aptitude for the instrument, and by the age of 26, was appointed as organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, where he remained for 64 years. Widor succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire, where Vierne was among his students. The wealth of sonorities available in the famous Cavaillé-Coll symphonic organ at Saint-Sulpice influenced Widor’s tonal conception and found their way into his written works, including his Messe Solennelle (1878, Op. 36), composed for the choir and organs of Saint-Sulpice. The Messe calls for “a choir of two hundred seminarians” to be accompanied by the orgue de chœur (the choir organ), while the grand orgue (great organ) provides majestic interludes and forceful ending. The men of The Hartford Chorale, while not numbering 200, will be our “seminarians” in this performance of the opening movement, the Kyrie. This Kyrie demonstrates Widor’s commitment to composing sacred music of true dignity and splendour, and conveys, in Vierne’s assessment, his “authority, his sense of grandeur, his imperious mastery...”
© 2009 GraceNotes Writing. All rights reserved. www.grace-notes.com

After hearing the tremendous sound the men produced last night, I can say that whereas many composers’ settings of the “Kyrie-Christe” (Lord have mercy…Christ have mercy) are supplicating or quietly entreating, Widor’s setting is hugely powerful, a full-voiced cry for mercy that seems almost tinged with dread. It's thrilling.

Did you know…? In his best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown set part of his story in Sainte-Sulpice; if you've read the book, you'll remember the church in Paris, where an obelisk and a gnomon on the floor played a prominent part in solving the mystery. You can find many photos online that show these features, as well as the imposing exterior and breathtaking interior of the church. You can easily find photos of the two organs, too, as well as video clips of various organists performing thereon. YouTube and Google Video also contain numerous archival recordings of Widor, Vierne, Duruflé, and others of the French organ school whose music forms the core of CONCORA's "Sonic Spectacular."

Please join CONCORA for what promises to be a memorable concert.

The complete program for CONCORA's Sonic Spectacular:
Louis Vierne: “Kyrie eleison” from Messe Solennelle (Opus 16) (for choir and two organs)
James MacMillan: A New Song (1998)
Herbert Howells: Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing (1964)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria for double male choir (Read more about it HERE)
Jean Langlais: Messe Solennelle (for choir and two organs)
Petr Eben: Prager Te Deum 1989
Colin Mawby: Ave Verum Corpus
Charles Ives: Psalm 90
Howard Hanson: Psalm 8
Charles-Marie Widor: “Kyrie” from Messe Solennelle (Opus 36) (for mixed chorus, male chorus, and two organs)

Richard Coffey, Artistic Director
A Sonic Spectacular
Guest artists: The Men of The Hartford Chorale
David Westfall, organist • Jason Charneski, assisting organist
Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford (corner of Woodland and Farmington)
Plenty of free parking is available.
Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

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