Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaudeamus Sings the Memorable Music of Nicholas White (Secunda Pars)

In an earlier essay (read it HERE), I offered my insider’s review of Nicholas White’s Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. I performed this lovely music with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus (the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise) on May 17, as part of a concert called “In Sure and Certain Hope.” This program featured beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White called “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” The major work on the program was Nick’s seven-movement requiem, titled In Sure and Certain Hope. This performance was the Connecticut premiere of this music. (You can read Nick’s own program note for this music HERE.)

When I first received my score for this music and saw that the first several pages of the opening movement were set in 7/8 time, I hesitated. I wondered how music set in an angular, disjointed, uneven meter like 7/8 (one-two-three-four-ONE-two-three) could be a reasonable framework for the opening words of this movement, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”). Well, I never knew that 7/8 could be so serene. This is perhaps the most serenely comforting and effortless music I have heard, or sung, in a long time. Over a lilting yet understated figure in the organ, the sopranos enter dolce and in unison, singing a figure that is more like a rhythmic chant than a full melody. A solo cello adds an arching melody, then the full chorus enters with a harmonized version of the soprano chant. This is one of those melodies that seems familiar, though it is not; it unfolds with graceful inevitability, burning itself into one’s memory. It was too bad that our ensemble never quite mastered the 7/8 meter; it requires a simple, visceral, non-cerebral approach, and I think many of the singers just worried too much about it. I found it entirely natural and appropriate for the text. Brief solos, presented ably by Gaudeamus singers, alternated with short choral sections to close the movement. Bruce Fifer delivered the brief baritone solo “I am the resurrection and the life…” with rich-toned assurance, and tenor Michael O’Herron’s warm, bright tone was just right for his finely-paced solo (“For none of us liveth to himself). The movement ended as it began, with treble voices singing alone on these final words: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.” And on the last phrase (“rest from their labors”) the music slipped effortlessly into just a few bars of the opening melody, the lovely lilting 7/8 music with which we first heard “Requiem aeternam…” (“eternal rest”). Beautiful.
An extended cello solo introduces the second movement, “How Does the City Sit Solitary” (words from Lamentations). This is music of deep nostalgia and longing, grieving even as it recalls that “she…was great among the nations and princess among the provinces.” A long section of irregular meter (5/4) at “She weepeth sore in the night” creates a mood of longing and instability; nothing here is certain.

A very cool modulation leads us without pause to the third movement, a lovely, understated choral setting of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”). Brief phrases chanted by the full chorus in the metrical Scottish tradition alternate with moments of repose, in which ornate but ethereal figures in the cello and organ seem to rise to the very hills. This movement would stand well on its own.

The fourth movement, “God is our hope and strength” (words from Psalm 46) is the only one of the seven that is unaccompanied. A verse that appears twice in the Psalm – “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” – is presented three times in this movement, where it functions as a refrain. This refrain, with its simple harmony and even rhythms, offers moments of calm repose that contrast with the more chromatic and rhythmically complex music to which the other verses are set.

The setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) which forms the fifth movement could stand alone as an anthem or in an arrangement for a solo voice or duet with organ (hint, hint). Here, too, a mood of serenity and calm confidence, which is so right for these words, prevails. The entire movement is lovely, but there is an especially extraordinary passage, culminating in a moment of supreme beauty, which must be mentioned. Text-appropriate sections in G major, E major, D minor, and B-flat minor lead to a polytonal augmented F-flattish crunch at the word “enemies.” The tension melts as the low F-flat melts to E-flat, setting up A-flat major (in suspenseful second inversion) for the words “thou annointest my head with oil,” where a descending soprano line soars suddenly to a high G, floating poignantly over a luscious diminished chord, before resolving miraculously to G major for the return of the opening theme. Nick could have let this important soprano line fall to the lower G, but how amazing that the melody he wrote tells us what the words can only hint at: that this oil represents the Holy Spirit, or the goodness of Divine Love, through which we move away from our enemies (diminished harmonies!) to “goodness and mercy” (G major, home key). It really is remarkable.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is the source for “In the midst of life we are in death,” the sixth movement, scored for double choir and organ. (The Gaudeamus performance used a solo octet [including me] for Choir I and the full choir for Choir II.) This music is frankly sensual, sinuous and highly chromatic, bringing to our ear the many disturbing images and ideas presented in the text: death, sin, God’s displeasure, bitter pains, and eternal death.... As the prayer for mercy turns from fear to supplication, the music becomes more diatonic and takes on an expansive expressiveness. An undulating accompaniment in the organ enriches the long, somewhat static vocal lines. Out of this rich texture, a solo soprano voice (the warm and silvery voice of soprano Jordan Rose Lee) emerges to sing a final prayer: “Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants.” How to describe the beauty of what follows? If Love could sing, surely this would be its song. The breathtaking melody soars when we expect it to fall, taking “sighing” to the heavens, “where sorrow and pain are no more.” And with the closing words -- “neither sighing, but life everlasting” – suddenly we are once again hearing the chanted tune that opened the first movement, accompanied by the lilting 7/8 figures in the organ. This is the beginning of the seventh, final movement. All the voices join in unison for a powerful restatement of the music from the opening movement, followed by a lush four-part setting of the same music, closing with a quiet “Amen.”

This is a serenely restful and optimistic Requiem, with sensitive and careful settings of these marvelous words. Obtain a recording, attend a performance, or better yet, find a choir in which to sing it.

You can listen to the first movement of Nicholas White’s Requiem here:http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/recordings.htmlThis performance is by the vocal ensemble that Nick founded, the Tiffany Consort. More about that ensemble may be found at http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/

Gaudeamus Sings the Memorable Music of Nicholas White

Regular readers of this blog know that after I’ve sung in a choral concert, it generally takes a few days for me to calm down enough to write coherently about the music and the performance. Sometimes I’m emotionally overwhelmed, sometimes I’m musically overwhelmed, and sometimes I just need to process all the information that has accumulated in my head, sorting through the “tunes-be-gone” that are still echoing in my mind, and considering what words I can use to describe an essentially ephemeral experience.

On Saturday May 17, I performed in a concert with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus, the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise. This program, “In Sure and Certain Hope,” featured beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White calls “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” (You can read my two “preview” posts HERE and HERE.)

The program was indeed, dazzling, with beautiful choral music by William Byrd, Gerald Finzi, H. Balfour Gardiner, and the Artistic Director of Joyful Noise, Nicholas White, including the Connecticut premiere of Nick’s seven movement work In Sure and Certain Hope and his Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus sang well, considering how rough a few of the week’s rehearsals had been; some portions of the concert were truly stunning, especially when we were able to get off book and respond to Nick’s leadership from the podium. (It seems that a fair number of singers spent some quality time with their scores between Friday night and Saturday afternoon.) The audience responded with a warm ovation, rising to their feet and applauding through several curtain calls. It was my good fortune to stand right next to soprano Jordan Rose Lee, whose warm and silvery voice and nice technique always help me to sing better.

Three days after the concert, I find that the melodies and textures that persist in my aural memory are almost entirely from Nick’s music. William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris, Domine is flowing and mellifluous, and I love singing music of that style, but with the exception of the plaintive “Jerusalem” fragment, it just doesn’t stick with me, having been drawn mostly from the familiar and formulaic melodic style of the English Tudor period. The Balfour Gardiner Te Deum is thrilling, of course, and Finzi’s Lo! The Full Final Sacrifice is a remarkable setting of that astonishing poem by 17th-century mystical poet Richard Crashaw. (That poem, and Finzi’s setting, deserve their own essay here.) But when I spontaneously begin to hum or sing my memories of the concert, it’s Nick’s music that comes to my ear.

What is it about Nicholas White’s music that’s so memorable? It’s simple: the music is replete with beautiful melodies, clear structures, warm harmonies, a hint of contemporary popular style without schlock, and intuitive writing for voice and organ (this comes naturally to Nick, who is also a gifted singer and organist). The music surprises us, too, with unexpected rhythmic shifts, innovative harmonies that tug at us but never in a painful or ugly way, and arching melodies that seem to last forever.

The women of Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus opened the program with Nick's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. Writing in an earlier post, I said, “The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is richly melodic, with lush harmonies that ring out sweetly but never cloyingly. There's some magical writing for the two voices in this lilting music; the two parts often sing in unison, then blossom forth with the most ravishing divisi. The Washington Times called it ‘a joyously contemporary reflection.’ I call it luscious.”

Those blossoming harmonies exalt important textual passages, such as “my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” “shall call me blessed,” “holy is His Name,” and others. Within a firm diatonic framework, Nick calls forth some ethereal harmonies, and uses familiar progressions in innovative ways. For example, in setting the passage “and the rich he hath sent empty away,” the harmony moves comfortably from F minor to D-flat major, yet never has D-flat major sounded so bleak and hopeless. What makes it so? Is it the spare scoring here, or the suspension of the C in the voices as F minor melts into D-flat major, creating a distant tension between that note and the deep D-flat in the organ pedal? Each time we sang that passage I felt moved, sad, nostalgic. My favorite moment in the work comes a bit earlier, where to set the phrase “He…hath exalted the humble and meek,” Nick employs a rising whole-tone scale that seems to stretch far, far beyond its nine-note compass. This is exalted, uplifted, ethereal! The music seems to rise endlessly, and time seems suspended in the whole-tone cluster in the organ over which the voices float.

In the hands of a lesser composer, that passage with the rising scale might sound contrived. But one of the attractive qualities of Nick’s music is that he writes skillfully and confidently without sounding gimmicky, and he brings a fresh polish to the music so that it gleams without ever sounding slick. You can listen to the first movement of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis here:


This performance is by the vocal ensemble that Nick founded, the Tiffany Consort. More about that ensemble may be found at http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/

In a future essay (perhaps tomorrow!) I’ll offer my impressions of Nick’s moving seven-movement requiem, In Sure and Certain Hope.

Nick’s own program note for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis may be read HERE. Recordings of this and others of Nick’s compositions, as well as more information about Nick and his adventures, may be obtained through his website, http://www.nicholaswhitemusic.com/

Monday, May 18, 2009

In the News…Or Not

Caveat lector: This is a long rant. Read at your own risk. [Updated June 10, 2009.]

I’ve subscribed to The Hartford Courant, the state’s only major newspaper, for longer than I can remember. Like many other newspapers, The Hartford Courant has undergone significant changes in the past several years, particularly in the ways in which print and online publishing overlap and complement each other. I understand and accept many of these changes, and as one who makes her living in the online world, I embrace the potential for better storage and retrieval that online formats allow.

One of the things I can’t understand, though, is the sloppy and inconsistent way that The Courant has established its dual presence in print and online media. The publication can’t seem to decide what to do with itself. Is it a print paper? Is it an online news source? How do the print and online editions overlap, interact, and complement each other? Which is the edition of record? That is, which is the official edition, where one should be able to track down and cite all articles that are published in The Courant, whether print or online? How does The Courant share resources with its sister publications, and how does The Courant make materials available to its subscribers and the general public? To the casual reader, these questions may not matter much, but for researchers and others who depend on reliable news sources, they present many challenges.

It used to be that all (or nearly all) of the articles that appeared in The Courant’s print editions were also published online at The Courant’s website, http://www.courant.com/. This made it easy to retrieve articles long after a print copy had gone to the recycling bin. Now, even with my multiple paid subscriptions to The Courant’s print edition, online edition, and archives (back to the 18th century!), I find that it is simply impossible to find some articles easily, especially after more than a few days have elapsed.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the problem has several aspects. First, not all the articles in the print edition are available online. Second, not all the articles in The Courant’s website are indexed in its search engine; they might be buried in the site, but not easy to retrieve. Third, The Courant jettisons some of these articles from its website within a matter of days. Some of these items disappear altogether, while some are (apparently) made available through the website of The Chicago Tribune, which, like The Courant, is owned by The Tribune Company. (That’s right, you have to go to the website of a Chicago newspaper to read local Hartford-area news. Go figure.)

Here’s an example of what happened to The Courant’s review of CONCORA’s March 22 all-Bach concert. A nice review had been published in the print edition of The Hartford Courant on Tuesday, March 24 (page C1.) It had also been posted to The Courant’s website early that morning (before 5:00 a.m.). The review had been published online at:

[UPDATE: When I clicked on this link on June 10, 2009, it took me to
http://www.courant.com/topic/. A search on "CONCORA" yields nothing. Back to the story.]

Now, if you click on this link [that is, the original link], you are taken, not to http://www.courant.com/, but to this page at The Chicago Tribune:


This is the classical music page at The Chicago Tribune’s website. OK, I can understand this, even though I don’t like it – both papers are owned by the same company. But where’s the review of CONCORA’s Bach performance at this site? Hmm. Try searching for it; it’s not there. [UPDATE: As of June 10, 2009, same results.]

So how could one find this review? Does it exist online anywhere, any more? Let’s try searching by the headline, a good method for Google. In the print copy that I saved from March 24, the headline reads “An Intelligent Rendering of Bach.” Nice distinctive headline; should be easy. Searching it (enclosed by quotation marks) in Google yields exactly three hits. Two are from unrelated items about Bach. The third is from Lexis Nexis, a paid news service. But I don’t want to pay for this article; I’ve already paid for it with my print and online subscriptions to The Courant. Grr!
Oh, I just remembered – in The Courant’s short-lived online version of this review, the headline writer used a stunning misspelling, and none of the editors or proofreaders caught it. The review was actually published as “An Intelligent Rendering of Back,” so I would have to search for it with the incorrect spelling. (Talk about adding insult to injury. This error survived online for several days, even after I asked The Courant to correct the spelling; as you’ll see below, it persists.)

OK, back to Google to search on this incorrect headline. Result: lots of hits. The first two are from topix.com, a news aggregator. No help here; the first of two Topix links takes me to the useless Chicago Tribune page, while the second link takes me to a Topix page with entries for “Recent Symphony Discussions.” I guess this is because the original review mentioned The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with whom CONCORA performed on March 22.

The next two hits in Google’s list are from weblo.com, a similarly useless aggregator. The fifth hit is to my own blog, Quodlibet, where I posted news about The Courant’s review back in March (read it HERE). The sixth and seventh hits are to healthhaven.org (???), but clicking through to that site dumps me at an empty page. Very helpful, indeed.

The eighth hit is oh, so tantalizing; it shows the target headline (albeit misspelled) and the first few lines of the review, along with this URL:


Hooray! This must be the lost review at The Courant’s website. CLICK! Silly me. This link takes me back to The Chicago Tribune and (as of this morning, May 18) 1,689 news stories about classical music, but none about CONCORA.
[UPDATE: As of June 10, 2009, the link takes one to http://xml.courant.com/topic/ -- not helpful.]

The next Google hit takes me to the “Symphony Forum” at boardreader.com, an aggregator of discussion groups. Oh, this is tempting. The board displays a comment I left on The Courant’s online review on March 24… but when I click to read the whole review I am routed back to…Topix.com, where I find a link…back to the useless Chicago Tribune page!

Do I dare go back to the Google hit list? Why not – how much more absurd can this get? (It’s sort of like being in some futuristic novel…endless white, curving corridors, with door after door…each one opens to the same grinning brainless head…) (OK, take a deep breath...back to Google.)

The next hit is to… iwantalyrics.com!! When I click through, I see abstracts from about a dozen news stories from various global news publications. At this point, one does indeed seem remotely relevant: “Hug It Out New Yorker, United States And you have all these dark voices in your head that we all know: 'Maybe I should kill myself.' 'Am I ever going to make it?' 'Am I ever going to be successful?'” Now that’s probably the most relevant result I’ve had so far!

The next-to-to-last Google entry is this:
Music News & Information from The Hartford Courant -- Courant.com
CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of Back. Kathy Mattea Gives A Moving Performance In Storrs. Jazz Guitarist Julian Lage Shows Skill And Flair ...
xml.courant.com/entertainment/music/ - 102k - Cached - Similar pages

Looks good! But when I click on the “Music News…” link shown above, I end up at The Courant’s main music page…but there is no Bach review there. Again, I try searching The Courant’s main site; I find a review of CONCORA’s May 3 “Sonic Spectacular” concert (act now while supplies last!) [GONE as of June 10, 2009!] and some calendar listings from 2008, but that’s all. But when I click on the link for “Cached” I find Google’s cache of the older Courant page, described by Google as follows: “This is Google's cache of http://xml.courant.com/entertainment/music/. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Mar 25, 2009 05:01:20 GMT. The current page could have changed in the meantime.) (Really?) When I scroll down the page....there it is! "CONCORA, HSO Deliver an Intelligent Rendering of Back." When I click through I go to....the useless Chicago Tribune page!

It seems so fitting that the final entry in Google’s hit list should be the most bizarre:

Dentist Countertenor News: Latest Dentist Countertenor Headlines ...
CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of Back. Hartford Courant - ‎45 minutes ago‎. The aria "Domine Fili unigenite," often sung by an alto, ...news.caliandental.com/Countertenor.htm - 31k - Cached - Similar pages

Dentist Countertenor News??? (Is this P.D.Q. Bach??? He did write a piece for “Bargain Counter Tenor,” after all…) OK, I’ll click… I can’t resist finding out what this is. … Of course. It’s a web site for a cosmetic dentist in White Plains, New York. Why am I surprised? But the web page is empty, offering only this forlorn message: “No news stories found for this search term. Please try again.”

I’ll try the “Cache” function again….Hmm; it seems that this dentist has a news filter set up to retrieve stories about countertenors. There are several reviews and news stories, including a link to The Courant's CONCORA review. Let’s be daring and click through… Surprise! I am taken back to… the useless Chicago Tribune website! Why do I feel like a squirrel in a cage?

All of the searches described above were executed in Google’s web search function. If you try to search the headline phrase “intelligent rendering of” in Google News, the first hit pretends to be to The Courant’s web site, but of course it is a link to the dead-end Chicago Tribune page. And when I actually click on the link, the processing to get to the Chicago Tribune page takes a long, long time, even on my brand-new PC. A blog search of “intelligent rendering of” plus “bach” turns up this blog, Quodlibet, as well as one unrelated hit.

The review is available at factiva.com and other professional database aggregators, but these are generally available only to research specialists on a fee or pay-per-view. And why should I pay again for material for which I’ve already paid??

By the way, the review exists in The Hartford Courant’s online archives, but again, only on a pay-per-view basis. Here’s what The Courant offers as the Abstract (Document Summary) in the archive: “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.” At least they corrected the spelling in the headline (replacing "Back" with "Bach") before they archived it. I guess we should be thankful for small miracles.

You might wonder if I have contacted The Hartford Courant about these issues and concerns. No, and I don't plan to. Any business or organization worth its salt these days keeps a careful eye on its online presence and reputation (often by hiring people like me), so they will probably find this entry on their own. If they don't, then shame on them. In any case, I doubt that they will take action to correct the deficiencies. The situation that I've described above is the result of conscious decisions on their part, not merely mismanagement or incompetency. They already know. Will they choose to improve their product? Now that would be news.

Friday, May 15, 2009

“A Dazzling Array of Anglican Choral Music”

On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be performing in a concert with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus, the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise. This marvelous program, titled “In Sure and Certain Hope,” will feature beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White calls “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” The concert will be offered on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 4:00pm, at Trinity Church, 220 Prospect Street, in Torrington, Connecticut.

Here’s what’s on the program:

Ne Irascaris, Domine - William Byrd
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices - Nicholas White
Lo! The Full Final Sacrifice - Gerald Finzi
Evening Hymn - H. Balfour Gardiner
In Sure and Certain Hope - Nicholas White (Connecticut Premiere)

In an earlier post I wrote about the major work on the program, Nicholas White’s In Sure and Certain Hope (read that post HERE). We’ll be singing another of Nick’s compositions, his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. Here’s Nick’s program note, which is reproduced here with his permission:

Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis was written for the boy choristers of Washington National Cathedral (Douglas Major, Organist and Choirmaster), where I was Assistant Organist and Choirmaster from 1994-1998. Originally intended for use during the daily round of choral evensong services, it has become popular as a concert piece, and has received performances across the United States, England, Japan and Australia. Although freely-composed, the Nunc Dimittis incorporates the chorale melody Wer nur den lieben Gott laesst walten (If thou but suffer God to guide thee) into the organ part.”

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is richly melodic, with lush harmonies that ring out sweetly but never cloyingly. There's some magical writing for the two voices in this lilting music; the two parts often sing in unison, then blossom forth with the most ravishing divisi. The Washington Times called it “a joyously contemporary reflection.” I call it luscious.

Don’t miss this important concert in the lovely sanctuary of Torrington’s Trinity Church. Tickets are still available from Joyful Noise; call 860-496-8841, email joyful.noise@snet.net or visit http://www.chorusangelicus.org/.

"In Sure and Certain Hope"

On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be performing in a concert with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus, the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise. This exciting program, titled “In Sure and Certain Hope,” will feature beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White calls “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” The concert will be offered on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 4:00pm, at Trinity Church, 220 Prospect Street, in Torrington, Connecticut.
Here’s what’s on the program:
Ne Irascaris, Domine - William Byrd
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices - Nicholas White
Lo! The Full Final Sacrifice - Gerald Finzi
Evening Hymn - H. Balfour Gardiner
In Sure and Certain Hope - Nicholas White (Connecticut Premiere)

The centerpiece of the program is Nicholas White's In Sure and Certain Hope, in a new version accompanied by organ and solo cello. Nick has generously given me permission to share his program note for this moving and evocative work:

“The phrase, ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’ comes from the Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer. The words of the Burial Office, while sorrowfully memorializing the loss of a loved one, are also filled with celebration and optimism for a new beginning. My piece, In Sure and Certain Hope, was written in 2005 and was originally scored for choir and string ensemble. Although the bulk of the musical material was newly composed, the work also drew upon existing compositions written during the last decade, reworking those pieces to incorporate them into this larger scale offering. The text is framed by the Requiem aeternam text from the Missa pro defunctis. On Saturday we will hear the first performance of the latest version of this piece, a version for choir, organ and cello. In a sense, this could be considered a ‘de-orchestration’ of the original, although for me the piece takes on a new life with the additional tonal palette of the organ, while preserving the original string color with the solo cello.”

Last fall, in Joyful Noise’s annual “Music for a Great Space” program (read about it HERE), we sang parts of the earlier composition to which Nick alludes. This is very beautiful music and a pleasure to sing; it’s skillfully composed and styled intuitively for the voice. Nick also has a real affinity for language and sets his chosen texts with sensitivity and care. I am looking forward to this performance!

Don’t miss this important concert in the lovely sanctuary of Torrington’s Trinity Church (pictured). Tickets are still available from Joyful Noise; call 860-496-8841, email joyful.noise@snet.net or visit http://www.chorusangelicus.org/.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

There's a particular agony that one experiences while listening to a CONCORA performance when one longs to be participating in it* ... but inevitably the agony is transformed to ecstasy as soon as the singing begins.

I experienced this transformation on Sunday afternoon, when CONCORA performed its final concert of the 2008-2009 season, its “Sonic Spectacular,” a luscious program of resonant music for two choirs and two organs. (For more information about the program for this concert, you may read my “preview” posts; they’re indexed here in Quodlibet under the tag “CONCORA Sonic Spectacular.” The index is below and to the right.)

From my seat in the balcony at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, I was able to enjoy the entire visual and aural spectacle of this French-tinged "Sonique Spectaculaire." Every moment, and every shade of sonic color, from whisper to thunder, was thrilling. Each musician – all the singers, David Westfall and Jason Charneski at the organ consoles, and CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey on the podium – sang and played and conducted with complete commitment and confidence…and not a little sense of abandon, at just the right moments. I was moved to tears several times. I found myself on the edge of my seat, breathing along with my colleagues on the chancel steps. I felt tremendous pride in their individual achievement and their collective artistry.

As usual, Rick designed a stunning program, and CONCORA’s virtuosic, sensitive singing of this complex and challenging music will be in my "tunes-be-gone" index for quite a while.

My husband Dennis, who sang with the contingent of men from The Hartford Chorale who joined CONCORA in two selections, is taking great satisfaction in reminding me that he sang with CONCORA on Sunday and I didn't. But as I've said before, the next best thing to singing with CONCORA is hearing CONCORA perform.

You can read The Hartford Courant’s great review HERE.

* Not all CONCORA singers perform in every concert.

“A Brilliant Season Finale”

On Sunday May 4, CONCORA presented its closing concert of the 2009-2010 season. This “Sonic Spectacular” was, well, spectacular. I didn’t sing in this program (not all CONCORA singers participate in each program), but as I’ve said to our Artistic Director Richard Coffey, the next best thing to singing with CONCORA is being part of its audience. And oh my, was I glad to be among the listeners for this amazing musical experience. From my seat in the front row of the balcony at Hartford’s acoustically and visually appealing Immanuel Congregational Church, I was able to take in the full spectacle – aural and visual – that CONCORA and their guests, the men of The Hartford Chorale, presented. I’ll write more about my own impressions later (I’m still a bit stunned by it all), but in the meantime, you can enjoy this review from The Hartford Courant:

A Brilliant Season Finale By Concora
The Hartford Courant
May 5, 2009

CONCORA closed its 2008-2009 season at Hartford's Immanuel Congregational Church with a program of musical works that were searching, often restlessly, for repose. It was a brilliantly conceived yet demanding program — for the singers and the audience.

The adventure started with the opening organ prelude in the "Kyrie" from the Messe Solonelle [sic], Op. 16, by Louis Vierne.
CONCORA responded with a sound that sparkled and flashed.

Next was Scottish composer James MacMillan's setting of three verses from Psalm 96, called "A New Song." The choir produced a light and feathery sound work and sang the attractive embellishments with buoyancy.

Two a cappella works followed: "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing" by Herbert Howells, and the "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl. Howells composed the first of these works for a Kennedy memorial service in 1964.
CONCORA showed adeptness at shifting between radically differing balances, but the human side of the work transcended its technical fireworks. The men of The Hartford Chorale joined the men of CONCORA to perform the Biebl in its original scoring. This gentle work shifts between chanting and a haunting ritornello (recurring passage), and this performance filled Immanuel with vibrant, rich sound — a moment of uninterrupted peacefulness in a program of vivid expressions.

The first half closed with the Messe Solonelle [sic] by Jean Langlais. Organists
David Westfall and Jason Charneski were brilliant throughout, coloring the sound with an exceptionally varied palette.

The Langlais Messe Solonelle [sic] is the equivalent of a concerto for orchestra written for choir. Every part is tricky and worthy of a soloist.
CONCORA met its challenges, closing the work with an attenuated sound to voice this cold war “Agnus Dei” — a mixture of mercy and anxiety.

After intermission the configuration of the choir shifted into an antiphonal structure (where groups sing separately and then together). This configuration changed the sound and made the contrasting speeds of text in the "Prager Te Deum" by Petr Eben dance with a dark energy.

It was the famous setting of Psalm 90 by Charles Ives that anchored the second half of the program. "What sort of mind," asked conductor Richard Coffey from the stage, "conceived such a thing?" Coffey was referring to a celebrated passage in which Ives moves the choir from a unison middle C into a breathtakingly prismatic 22 parts then back as quickly to unison middle C during the text: "For all our days are passed away in thy wrath, we spend our years as a tale that is told."
CONCORA presented the music in deep reverence and it received […] an uncluttered and direct emotional expression.

Howard Hanson's mystical and soulful setting from Psalm 8, "How Excellent Thy Name," was hard to appreciate after the Ives. Had the order been reversed, Hanson would have had a better chance. The program ended with the "Kyrie" from the Messe Solonelle [sic] by Charles-Marie Widor, filling the church with a glorious sound so impressive that it received an instantaneous standing ovation. Coffey responded by encoring the entire work.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Travelers at Travelers

The other day I wrote about the many raptors (birds of prey) that live and travel in and around my neighborhood (read that essay HERE), I enjoy watching these interesting birds as they hunt, feed, defend territories, build their nests, and raise their young. All birds are beautiful in my eyes, but I particularly love the raptors for their elegance of morphology and behavior.

Of all the raptors, my very favorite is the Peregrine Falcon, a large, swift, beautiful bird. (In fact, my research business, Peregrine Information Consultants, is named for this falcon.)

Peregrine Falcons were once on the edge of extinction but have recovered remarkably. The widespread use of certain pesticides (particularly the organochloride DDT) after 1945 affected many animals, of course, but those near the top of the food chain suffered most, because they consumed so many poisoned animals. The accumulated poisons affected the reproductive systems of Peregrine Falcons and other raptors, causing them to lay eggs with very weak shells or no shells at all.

North America had once boasted a healthy and stable population of about 7000 Peregrine Falcons. By 1963, not a single peregrine nest could be found in the Eastern United States, where as recently as mid-century more than 300 nests had been documented. It was estimated that there were not more than a few hundred of these birds left in this country. Similar declines were seen around the world.

DDT was banned in this country in the early 1970s. Around the same time, researchers began captive breeding programs, which over the years were able to produce thousands of healthy birds for release into the wild. Most of the Peregrine Falcons now living in Eastern North America were released from breeding programs or are descended from captive-bred birds.

Peregrine Falcons, which nest on cliffs and prey almost entirely on flying birds, have adapted readily to city life, where they find cliff-like skyscrapers and large supplies of pigeons, starlings, and sparrows. (Peregrine Falcons are an efficient, free, entirely natural means of controlling these non-native birds.) In many cases, generous businesses and individuals have supplied webcams so that the public can watch, enjoy, and learn more about these magnificent birds.

Right here in Hartford, Peregrine Falcons have nested at the Travelers Tower on and off since about 1997. The Travelers insurance company, which has its offices in that building, kindly hosts a website and cameras at http://falconcam.travelers.com/. There’s a neat elegance in the fact that the Peregrine (which means wanderer or traveler) nests at the Travelers Tower. Very fitting.

The Travelers falcons use the nest box that has been placed on a ledge for their use. This is typical for a falcon nest, or scrape, which consists of a scraped-out depression in a gravelly area on a cliffside. The hen falcon laid four eggs in late March:

The first two chicks hatched within the past day or so; this photo from today, May 1, shows one of the adult birds tending the two chicks and the remaining eggs:

The eggs, which were laid over a period of several days, will hatch in the order in which they were laid.

You can easily find more webcams (many of them live streams) online where you can watch falcons, eagles, bluebirds, cranes, and other birds and wildlife.

You can read a more detailed account of the Peregrine’s decline and recovery at the website of the Canadian Peregrine Foundation.