Thursday, April 30, 2009

Raptor Rapture

The other day, I wrote about a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks that I see almost every day on my morning drive (read it HERE). That got me to thinking about the number and variety of birds of prey (called raptors) that I see in my neighborhood on a regular basis. Though raptors are not as common as many of our birds, they are there if you know where and how to look for them. On a typical day, I’ll see a dozen or more individual birds of prey around my neighborhood, around town, and even in my own yard.

What’s out there? Well, our most common daytime raptor in Connecticut is probably the Red-Tailed Hawk, a big, robust buteo, or soaring hawk, that has a striking orange-red tail. This is the chunky, brown-and-white hawk that can often be seen perched on a light pole or exposed branch along the sides of highways and other major roads. In and around my neighborhood, I know of at least four established pairs of Red-Tailed Hawks. I enjoy checking in on them as I drive about the area. Another less-common buteo in our area is the Red-Shouldered Hawk, slimmer than the Red-Tailed and with chestnut shoulders and a snazzy striped tail. Keep an eye out for this beautiful bird in swampy areas, including wet areas near roads; it enjoys frogs and snakes. Our smallest buteo, the Broad-Winged Hawk, is just now returning to our region after having spent the winter months in warmer climes. Look for this smallish hawk soaring overheard with wide-spread wings and boldly striped tail. Listen for its plaintive whistle; look upward once in a while!

Our “roadside raptors” prey on rodents that are feeding on the garbage that so many people throw from their cars. Unfortunately, they are often struck by cars when they swoop down on their prey. Please — don’t throw garbage or trash, even biodegradable food items, from your car.

If you have bird feeders in your yard, you may have seen a Sharp-Shinned Hawk or its larger and almost-identical cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk, as they snatch smaller birds from on and around feeder areas. These are both accipiters, or true hawks, skilled in high-speed flight and able to maneuver quickly in forested areas and around the feeders. They can take birds right out of the air, and will often pluck and eat them on the spot. This is fascinating to watch! Read HERE about encounters that I’ve seen at my backyard feeders between these hawks and some smaller feeder birds. Once or twice, always in the winter, I’ve seen a Northern Goshawk, the rarer, larger cousin of the two mentioned above. Big, pearl grey, fast. A silvery streak through the trees…

Last week, just a few miles from home, I spotted my first-of-the-season Osprey, a specialized raptor that feeds on fish that it takes live from rivers, lakes, and brackish waters. After it spots a fish — which it can do from 30-40 feet above the water — it dives feet-first into the water and grasps the fish with specialized talons that are equipped with very sharp claws and sharp spiky structures on the “palm” of its foot which help it to grip the slippery fish. After it rises from the water, the Osprey maneuvers the fish so that it is held in an aerodynamic head-forward position, making it much easier to carry the load back to the nest. We live near a large river and several lakes that offer great habitat for a good number of Osprey families.

The river is also a place to see Bald Eagles, mostly north and west of town, as they commute between river fishing areas and lakeside nesting areas. And one day last fall, I was stunned and delighted to see a Golden Eagle as it migrated south. During last year’s spring migration, I spotted a Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) in its tip-tilting low flight over the meadows, where it was probably hunting field mice. We see Harriers most often over salt marshes.

Of all the raptors, the falcons are my favorites. Our town includes some extensive agricultural areas, and I often see an American Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk, when I drive through that area. Kestrels are becoming increasingly scarce as their preferred grassland habitat disappears to development. You can read about this situation in an article I edited for the Hawk Migration Association of North America; the article was originally published at the Environmental News Network (www.enn.com), but I think the only place you can read it online now is at http://tinyurl.com/cvzgfb

Once in a great while, I see a Merlin, a fairly-common medium-sized falcon that preys on small birds. Last fall, I was lucky enough to surprise a dark-plumaged juvenile Peregrine Falcon, and had some excellent close-range looks as it circled around me then took off in a big hurry. Peregrines, once nearly extinct, have rebounded nicely and can now be seen in many cities, where they nest on the tall office buildings that closely resemble cliffs, their preferred wild habitat. In downtown Hartford, a pair is busy right now incubating four reddish-brown eggs. You can follow the progress of this nest via a webcam at http://falconcam.travelers.com/

We often forget about the raptors that populate our neighborhoods at night – owls. Perhaps because we so rarely see them, some people think of owls as mysterious or even spooky. Take a few minutes to learn about owls; they are fascinating! In the summer, we often hear a Screech Owl or two in our backyard; their call is the most amazing tremulous glissando! Several weeks ago, I saw what looked like a large splash of thick white paint on our deck; it was owl feces, often called “whitewash.” Some large owl, perhaps the Great Horned Owl I hear occasionally, had been in the tree that overhangs our deck, probably hunting mice that were picking up seeds around our bird feeders. Or maybe it was a Barred Owl; I hear their who-cooks-for-you-all calls pretty regularly, and just a few weeks after seeing the whitewash on the deck, I spotted a large and beautiful Barred Owl down the street.

All the birds I mentioned here were seen in my yard, in my neighborhood, or within a few miles of my home. Raptors are all around us…do take time to look for them! They are an important part of our ecosystem, keeping populations of smaller animals in check. They are beautiful to look at and interesting to watch, too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“A Kiss for All the World”

As The Hartford Chorale prepares for its May 9 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”) with the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, I’ve been thinking about this music and its place in our cultural awareness. Yesterday, in writing about why each of us in the Chorale should invest ourselves fully in this performance, even if we have performed this music umpteen times in the past few years, I said, “Spiritually, the Symphony belongs to the world and to every person in it. Every performance of this music has the potential to become an affirmation of the joy in living that Beethoven, despite his often-tragic life, was able to comprehend and communicate so clearly.” (Read the entire essay HERE.)

But is the Ninth Symphony primarily about joy? Certainly Beethoven, through Schiller’s words, exhorts us repeatedly to experience Freude! And Beethoven’s musical setting, which exalts and illuminates Schiller’s text in the way that only music can do, creates joy in us and in our listeners. Countless critics and interpreters have come to the same conclusion. For example, in his Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford UP, © 2005), program annotator Michael Steinberg observes: “Just think of what Beethoven [achieves] in the Ninth Symphony, how he can make us believe in the power of joy as no lecture or dissertation on joy could, and more important, as Schiller’s ode cannot do by itself.”

Others contend that Beethoven’s theme in this Symphony is brotherhood, and that we achieve joy through our bonds with our fellow humans. Music critic and composer Alexander Serov (1820-1871), explaining the musical and thematic integrity of the Symphony, posited that the overall theme of the symphony is “the idea of brotherhood,” which is expressed musically through the “joy” theme. (Quoted by Nicholas Cook in Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Cambridge UP, © 1993).

But I think there’s more to it than that.

Certainly, in the emphasis Beethoven places on the words Freude and Brüder, we can see and hear that these concepts are indeed important to him (and, by extension, to us). But why use a multi-movement symphony as the framework for what could have been composed as a free-standing, independent choral work? Are the first three movements necessary to our understanding of the fourth? What is Beethoven getting at in insisting that we listen to almost an hour of instrumental music before we hear his setting of Schiller’s poem?

In trying to answer this question, I did a lot of reading and thinking and listening. In my research, I came across an article by composer and musicologist Jan Swafford that seemed to articulate the idea I was struggling to define, that is, that the music is at the core of the symphony, not the text. Rather than try to paraphrase his ideas, I’ll offer the key excerpts that spoke to me most clearly:

In a singular way, the Ninth enfolds the apparently contradictory qualities of the epic and the [elusive]. First movement…Big and loud…wildly unstable…searching…inconclusive…. At the end there's a funeral march… But who died…? Next comes the scherzo… a Dionysian whirlwind, manically contrapuntal … The third movement is peculiar mainly in its cloudless tranquility… one of those singing, time-stopping adagios that mark Beethoven's last period. … The famous finale is weirdest of all. … Why does this celebration of joy open with a dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner dubbed the “terror fanfare”? Then the [string] basses [play] … a recitative with no words… One at a time, themes from the earlier movements are introduced only to be rebuffed by the [string] basses… This, then: The Joy theme is unveiled by the [string] basses unaccompanied, sounding … like somebody (say, the composer) quietly humming to himself … Then … the terror fanfare again. And now up steps a real singer, singing a real recitative: “Oh friends, not these tones! Rather let's strike up something more agreeable and joyful.” Soon the chorus is crying, “Joy! Joy!” and the piece is off, praising joy as the universal solvent… [here’s the part that strikes home in me:] The finale's Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music [emphasis mine], about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? “This kiss for all the world!” runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing. The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world… When the bass [soloist] speaks the first words … [the] invitation to sing for joy [comes] from Beethoven, not Schiller. It's the composer talking to everybody, to history."
Music about music. And consider that this quintessential music about music was composed by a deaf man, a sometimes bitter and despairing man who created for us this most human, most loving Symphony, given to us now and forever as his “kiss for all the world.”

Swafford, Jan. “The Beethoven Mystery: Why haven't we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?” Slate.com, June 30, 2003 http://www.slate.com/id/2084948/

********************************************

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Choral)
New Britain Symphony Orchestra
With guest artists The Hartford Chorale
Maurice Peress, Music Director
Saturday, May 9, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm

Welte Hall, Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, Connecticut
Directions: http://www.ccsu.edu/Viewbook/find_us.htm
Map: http://www.ccsu.edu/campus_map/default.htm
Telephone: (860) 826-6344
E-mail: information@newbritainsymphony.org

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

“An Opportunity to Create an Extraordinary Musical Experience”

In 2008, The Hartford Chorale performed Beethoven’s two extra-human choral symphonies, the Missa Solemnis (in May) and the Ninth Symphony (in October). I wonder how many symphonic chorales have the opportunity to perform these two extraordinary pieces within the space of just six months. Our performances with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra were magnificent and well-received, as documented by reviews in The Hartford Courant. Read the Missa Solemnis review HERE, read the Ninth Symphony review HERE, and click HERE to read The Courant’s opinion that our performance of the Missa Solemnis was “the most extraordinary orchestral concert in Connecticut during 2008.”

The year with Beethoven was an extraordinary journey of learning and discovery. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and posted my observations and discoveries in a number of essays posted here at Quodlibet. (You can read my Missa Solemnis essays HERE and the Ninth Symphony essays HERE.)

Now, as The Hartford Chorale prepares for its May 9 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), this time with the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, I find myself revisiting some of my earlier explorations and thinking about how to prepare mentally for yet another performance of this epic work. After all, many members of the Chorale could probably perform the Ninth Symphony in their sleep. We performed it with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 2006 and 2008 (two performances each time, with the 2008 performances sung from memory), and a large contingent of Chorale members performed it again in China during the summer of 2008. And of course, many members have performed it countless times in earlier years, both with the Chorale and with other ensembles.

It would be so easy to show up in New Britain this weekend and just “sing the notes,” wouldn’t it? After all, we’ll be performing with an unfamiliar orchestra, working with a new conductor none of us have met, and singing for an entirely different audience with whom we do not have an established relationship. Will it matter, and will anyone even know, if we don’t invest ourselves fully in this performance?

Yes, of course it matters.

The New Britain Symphony Orchestra has kindly invited The Hartford Chorale to participate in this performance as guest artist. This is our début with the NBSO; perhaps it will be the first of many collaborations. We owe it to the NBSO and its audience (that’s our audience, too!) to offer our very best artistry. We can sing well for the NBSO.

Though the Ninth Symphony is widely known, frequently recorded, and often performed, there’s a good chance that there will be people in our audience who have never heard it before, or who have never heard a live performance. Perhaps an aspiring musician or poet will be listening. Perhaps a would-be philanthropist is wondering if he or she should invest in local arts organizations, and came to hear if we are any good. Perhaps there’s a member of the orchestra who has never performed this music before! Our performance just might be a life-changing event for someone. We can sing well for that person.

Musically, the Symphony demands the utmost from every musician who performs it, whether that musician is in the orchestra or in the chorus. There’s no “half-way” in this music, no “sort of,” no “good enough.” The music commands our attention, our interest, our investment, and our commitment as musicians, as singers, and as thinking people. To perform the Symphony with anything less than our best musicianship would be to deny ourselves the opportunity to create an extraordinary musical experience, which we can appreciate as individuals and as members of an ensemble. We can sing well for ourselves.

Spiritually, the Symphony belongs to the world and to every person in it. Every performance of this music has the potential to become an affirmation of the joy in living that Beethoven, despite his often-tragic life, was able to comprehend and communicate so clearly. As performers, we have a duty to present this music and text with dignity and passion, as Beethoven conceived it and as he wished it to be performed. To do less is to cheapen both its intrinsic worth and ourselves as choral artists. We can sing well for the world, to whom this music belongs.

So yes, it matters.

********************************************

New Britain Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Choral)
With guest artists The Hartford Chorale
Maurice Peress, Music Director
Saturday, May 9, 2009, 7:30 p.m.pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm
Welte Hall, Central Connecticut State University
Directions: http://www.ccsu.edu/Viewbook/find_us.htm
Map: http://www.ccsu.edu/campus_map/default.htm
Telephone: (860) 826-6344
E-mail: information@newbritainsymphony.org

“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)

CONCORA
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!

You Can See a Lot Just By Looking

Each day, I drive past a golf course where a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks has taken up residence. I see at least one of them there every day, perched in a tree or on a fencepost, patrolling the area for prey. I often have to stop for the traffic light in front of the property, so I have a chance to look for them and see what they’re up to. A few weeks ago, I pulled over to watch the female consume what looked like a rabbit.

This morning, as I slowed for the light, I saw the male of the pair (he’s the smaller of the two) perched in a still-bare tree right next to the road, just a few feet from the passing traffic. He had his back to the road, and was looking carefully down at the lawn and hedges below him, probably hoping to find some breakfast. That particular traffic light is on a slow cycle, so I had plenty of time to study the brown-and-white chevron on his back, notice the loveliness of the patterns produced by the different sized feathers, and note the size and strength of his talons. That’s how close he was – no binoculars needed!

I was curious…did any of my fellow commuters see this magnificent bird perched just a few feet away? I looked around – nope. About half of them were on their cell phones (what do they all talk about??), one woman was applying eye makeup (in the car??), two people were eating, and the rest had that staring-straight-ahead-blank-thought-bubble look that seems ubiquitous these days… Not one person that I could see looked at the beautiful bird, about two feet tall, that was perched right next to the road almost at eye-level.

How much of life’s beauty and wonder do we miss simply because we are not paying attention? I will always be so grateful to my mother, who opened my eyes to the wonder of the world around me when I was just a tiny girl. From her, I learned to appreciate the colors and textures of tree trunks and leaves, the infinite variety of birds’ songs, the subtleties of light and color in the sky during the course of a day, and so much more.

Thanks, Mom. My life is all the richer for you.

All of a Sudden

Though spring has been emerging and blooming steadily for some weeks, it finally burst upon me fully today. Early this morning — 4:30! — I was woken by the song of the House Wren in our back yard, a cheerfully optimistic sound I look forward to each year. He must have just returned from his southern sojourn yesterday, or perhaps overnight. The House Wrens nest on the edge of our yard; I never tire of the bubbling cascade of his song. It’s like an inexhaustible champagne fountain. I have not recently seen the Carolina Wrens that came to our feeders all winter. Last year, they nested nearby and I saw them every day during the summer. Perhaps they’re busy nest-building and will be more active later.

This morning on my way to the office (!) I stopped at one of my favorite birding spots, a museum that has extensive property, both landscaped and natural. I parked by the little pond, where forest, swamp, meadow, and lawn areas come together, producing a good mix of birds. I saw Palm Warblers there last week; today Black and White Warblers were scaling the trunks of the shagbark hickories, looking for all the world like zebra-striped Nuthatches. I saw my first-of-year Yellow-Rumped Warbler, too, a bird that always makes me think of Acadia, where we see so many of them during the summer. Bluebirds were everywhere, and I saw one pair already feeding young. Another Bluebird pair seems to have appropriated a nest box that had initially been claimed by a pair of Tree Swallows.

At the pond, a pair of Canada Geese fed quietly together; they became alert when a pair of Wood Ducks splashed in. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Robins, and a noisy Mockingbird dotted the trees at the water’s edge; some painted turtles were hauled out on the muddy bank to catch the early sun. I didn't see either of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks that patrol the hillside, but I did have a chance the other day to get a long look at a Sharp-Shinned Hawk preening and resting. And two Turkey Vultures sailed overhead; they are among the most buoyant and graceful of our birds.

I could hear call notes of many birds as they passed over and around me. One in particular caught my ear: Pik, pik – the call-note of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, one of our most beautiful birds and one of the best songsters in our region. I waited…and there it was, high in an oak tree just beginning to leaf out. Bright black, brighter white, and the most lovely rose-red on its upper breast and under the wings. He gave a brief phrase or two of that cool, clear warble, but he was more intent on looking for caterpillars, as he must have been hungry after his long migratory flight. We’ve had a pair of Grosbeaks nest in or near our yard for the past two years…hope they return again.

Spring doesn’t really arrive, though, until I spot my first Northern Oriole. And when I pulled into my office (!) parking space, there he was in the maple tree. What a bird! His song is just delightful, a jaunty whistle as bright and memorable as his black and fluorescent orange plumage.

All of a sudden, it’s spring.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Most Beautiful Music Ever Composed for Firefighters

The men of The Hartford Chorale have been invited to perform with CONCORA in Sonic Spectacular, a concert of resonant music for choirs and organs (yes, two organs!) to be held on Sunday, May 3 in Hartford. (Details on venue, tickets, etc., are at the end of this post.) The program includes one of the most popular choral works in the repertoire, Franz Biebl’s astonishingly beautiful Ave Maria for double male choir, which will be sung by the men of CONCORA and a contingent of men from The Hartford Chorale in its original scoring for two male choirs.

Last night following The Hartford Chorale’s regular rehearsal, the men rehearsed their portion of the Biebl for the first time, and I stayed to listen as I waited for Dennis. Though many of the Chorale men were familiar with the music and have performed it before, there was nonetheless a lengthy learning process as they familiarized themselves with Mr. Coffey’s interpretation and, in some cases, with different parts than they might have sung with other ensembles. Within a half hour, they sounded just wonderful. Mr. Coffey asked the Chorale’s four male section leaders (all of them members of CONCORA) to sing the first choir part as the Chorale men performed the second choir part they had just learned. Though the balance (four against thirty or so!) was not ideal, the blended sound, and the rise and fall of the arching lines, was quite moving. During the performance, there will be sixteen CONCORA men for the thirty Chorale men, which will be just wonderful in the spectacular acoustic of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford.

Wondering what this all has to do with firefighters? Here’s my program note for Biebl’s Ave Maria, wherein the answer may be found:

Using a simple but moving harmonic language, German composer Franz Biebl (1906-2001) created one of the most-frequently performed works in the choral repertoire, his Ave Maria (Angelus Domini). Though Biebl was well-known in Germany as an influential choir director and teacher, his compositions were not widely performed until, impressed by the singing of the Cornell University Glee Club in Frankfurt in 1970, he gave some of his works (including Ave Maria) to the group for performance in this country. The professional choir Chanticleer was among the ensembles to embrace the Ave Maria, and that ensemble’s recordings and performances of the work (including one at Immanuel Congregational Church with CONCORA in 1992) ensured its fame. Biebl composed Ave Maria in 1964 for the firemen’s choir of the Fürstenfeldbruck parish near Munich. Though he later arranged it for mixed and treble choirs, we hear it today in his original setting for two male choirs. The text is the “Angelus” liturgy, traditionally chanted every morning, noon, and evening, preceded by the ringing of the Angelus bell.
© 2009 GraceNotes Writing. All rights reserved. www.grace-notes.com

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

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
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)

CONCORA
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!

Monday, April 20, 2009

CONCORA Festival 2009: Choral Music of Maurice Duruflé

Every year, I look forward to the choral festival-workshop offered by CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists), the top-notch professional choir in which I am so privileged to sing. Each July, CONCORA sponsors a choral workshop during which adult singers from the community (and select high school and college singers) have the opportunity to spend a week with CONCORA’s Artistic Director Richard Coffey and CONCORA singers, preparing and performing great works of the choral repertoire.

CONCORA is now accepting applications from experienced singers for the 2009 festival, scheduled to be held July 19-25 in Hartford. Singers interested in participating are encouraged to download an application form at http://www.concora.org/. You may also call CONCORA at (860) 224-7500 or send an email to contact@concora.org to obtain more details or request an application. The deadline to apply is May 15, 2009. Scholarships are available for qualified high school and college-age participants. Details about schedules, rehearsal and performance venues, etc., may be found online at www.concora.org/summer_workshop.htm.

This summer, CONCORA devotes the choral Festival to a celebration of the glorious music of Maurice Duruflé. The festival repertoire includes his masterpiece, the incomparable Requiem (1947), as well as the four unaccompanied motets Ubi caritas, Tota pulchra es (for women’s voices), Tu es Petrus, and Tantum Ergo. The men of the Festival will present the Duruflé setting, in French, of The Lord’s Prayer (Notre Père). CONCORA welcomes Larry Allen, its founding accompanist, as organist for Festival 2009; Mr. Allen will perform the organ solo, Prelude and Fugue on the Name A-L-A-I-N. “Every work,” says Rick Coffey, “whether for choir, organ, or both in combination, is a masterpiece. Festival 2009 will be one of emotional, musical, and spiritual ecstasy – nothing for a lover of great choral and organ music to miss.”

After a week of rehearsals, the festival choir offer a public performance. Mark your calendar to be at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford on July 25, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. to hear this wonderful music and to see the results of a remarkable week of music making. Call the CONCORA office at 860-224-7500, or purchase tickets at CONCORA’s website, http://www.concora.org/. Hope to see you there!

Friday, April 17, 2009

CONCORA Presents a Sonic Spectacular!


Take one organ – or two – add chimes and antiphonal choirs, and get a Sonic Spectacular! On Sunday, May 3, CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists) will present majestic and evocative music by Charles Ives, Petr Eben, Herbert Howells, Charles-Marie Widor, and others, including Franz Biebl’s astonishingly beautiful Ave Maria for double male choir.

Though I’m not singing in this performance (not all CONCORA singers perform in each concert), I’ll be in the audience to enjoy the performance “from the other side.” It was my pleasure to prepare the program notes for this concert, and my husband Dennis is singing with a contingent of male singers from The Hartford Chorale, who will perform with CONCORA in the selections for double-choir by Biebl and Widor. And of course, as a member of CONCORA’s board of directors, I will be there to support the ensemble and greet our patrons. I hope you can be there, too! Details on time, location, and tickets are below.

Here is the introduction to my essay that will appear in the printed program:

This program brings to our ears an astonishing spectrum of sonorities, from the introspective intimacy of a solo voice quietly intoning an ancient chant, to the lushness of music for unaccompanied voices, to the rich tapestry of a first-rate pipe organ, to the breathtaking and sometimes overwhelming “sonic spectacular” produced by choir and organ sounding together. Framing the program are mass settings written for three of the great religious edifices of Paris: Notre-Dame de Paris, the Église Saint-Sulpice, and the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. It was in these three churches that the great symphonic organ tradition was born and flourished...
Please join CONCORA for what promises to be a memorable afternoon.

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
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)

CONCORA
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!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers: A Spring Fling

This Sunday evening (April 19), The Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers, conducted by Ehren Brown, will present “An Evening of Light Classical Music” at Groton Congregational Church in Groton, Connecticut. At the piano will be our wonderful accompanist, Kathleen Bartkowski.

The major work on the program is Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse, which is a little gem. I had the privilege to be one of about a dozen singers to sing the “Little Organ Mass” in the gallery at the Bergenkirche in Eisenstadt, Austria, where Haydn was organist. The “little organ” he played is still there, and it was played for our performance. I will never forget the sound of that organ, or the excitement of being one of the singers chosen from our large touring ensemble to present this wonderful music in the space for which it had been composed.

In additon to a nice selection of choral music, Sunday’s program includes several solo selections. (The entire program is listed at the end of this post.) My dear friend Jane Scott and I will reprise George Frideric Handel's duet for two sopranos and continuo, Quel fior che all'alba ride. We had so much fun performing this duet for a fundraising event for The Hartford Chorale last year, and I'm so pleased that we can perform it again. You can read about that performance, and learn more about this duet, and see a picture from that day, HERE.

Shown above is a photo of the The Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers taken in the stunning sanctuary of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford last fall.

Details on the concert:

An Evening of Light Classical MusicThe Hartford Chorale Chamber Singers
Ehren Brown, conductor and Kathleen Bartkowski, piano
Sunday, April 19, 2009 at 7:00pm
Groton Congregational Church
162 Monument St, Groton, Connecticut

On the Program:

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo ("Kleine Orgelmesse")
Kevin Siegfried (b.1969): Shaker Harmony: “Gentle Words,” “Help Me O Lord,” “Star of Purity”
Morten Lauridsen (b.1943): “Dirait-on”
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) “Quel fior che all'alba ride” [my duet with Jane]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Magnificat in D: III. “Quia respexit humilitatem” [solo]
Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846-1916): “Sogno” [solo]
Dominick Argento (b.1927): Six Elizabethan Songs: I. “Spring” [solo]
Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949): “My Lord, What A Mornin'”
Bobby McFerrin (b.1950): “Psalm 23”
James Mulholland (b.1935): “A Red, Red Rose”
Moses Hogan (1957-2003): “My Soul's Been Anchored In the Lord”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Hartford's Chorale's Verdi Requiem - “A Powerful Performance”

On April 3 and 4, it was my pleasure to sing the Verdi Requiem with The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The Chorale was prepared by its gifted Music Director Richard Coffey, and the performances were conducted by the HSO’s dynamic Artistic Director Edward Cumming. (Visit Maestro Cumming’s blog, From the Podium.)

I regret that a busy schedule in the past few weeks prevented me from writing more about our preparation and performance of this remarkable music. As usual, I engaged in some in-depth reading and study which deepened my understanding of this music and informed my performance. I’ve kept my research and score notes; perhaps someday the essays will be finished and published here.

In any case, the Chorale and the Orchestra shone in both performances. The second performance in particular was riveting; the Chorale achieved stunning dynamic contrasts and a remarkable emotional intensity that was wholly appropriate for this very dramatic (though sacred) text music. The orchestra was magnificent; the HSO just gets better and better.

I love, love, love my assigned standing spot on the risers, at the very end of the third row, stage right; it affords a sweeping view of the entire orchestra and is just a few feet away from the percussion section. The Requiem calls only for timpani and bass drums, and these were played to perfection! The bass drum strokes in the Dies irae were played with such force on the extra-tight drum head (as specified by Verdi) that my hair actually vibrated. Oh my, it was wonderful.

The Hartford Courant published a review of the Friday night performance. Too bad the reviewer was not there for the Saturday performance, which was so much better!.The review was published at The Courant's website on the afternoon of April 4; since then, it seems to have been removed from The Courant's website.

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Hartford Symphony Meets The Requiem ChallengeBy JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant
April 4, 2009

To perform the Verdi Requiem is to accept a challenge. The work requires the coordination of massive forces and abounds in logistical complications. It is expensive to produce. The music itself is challenging.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, bringing the Masterworks Series back into the Mortensen Hall for the first time since September, met the Requiem challenge with a powerful performance.

The historical record shows that Verdi allowed an intermission after the "Dies Irae," and also acknowledged, and sometimes encouraged, applause after movements. Verdi also, on occasion, allowed encores of movements at the request of the audience.

Maestro Edward Cumming chose the opposite strategy. He presented the work in a single sweep, without intermission — 90 minutes of music. This became the sweetest of all the challenges, because it allowed the audience to experience the sequential drama of this haunting music. To hear the work uninterrupted is to hear it with all possible connections "plugged in." It allows direct contact with the elegant distribution of ensembles that sum and carry forward as the music progresses.

Cumming framed his interpretation by developing strong contrasts. This interpretation came across right from the start in passages like the "Te decet hymnus" ("There shall be singing"). The Hartford Chorale, prepared by music director Richard Coffey, broke cleanly, in forte, from the music that came before, and sang both the details and the message of the text, through dynamic extremes, in beautifully executed vocal motions.

The chorus also triumphed in the fugal passages, the "Sanctus" fugue was fast and bouncy, and the high-volume excitement of the "Dies Irae" was sung with support, not screeched as is commonly the case.
The timpani [actually, it was two bass drums] strokes during the "Dies Irae" sounded like cannon shot, and during its final reprise, in the midst of the "Libera Me," audience members physically startled in their seats.

The four soloists in this work are central to its success. Contralto Jennifer Hines blew us away. Her voice was a rainbow. It was absolutely unforgettable and hypnotic. Her musicality brought lines to life again and again. Everyone seemed to be talking about her in the hallways after the performance.

The "Agnus Dei" was launched by a beautifully balanced duet between Hines and soprano Kate Mangiameli. Their music, developed afterward by the choir, had a sureness of touch that made the colorful extensions later in the movement, particularly the passage accompanied by three flutes, memorable music making.

Mangiameli's singing was most impressive when she got above the staff. She could control her high Bs and Cs and met the challenges of the frequently exposed writing that this music presents. Her voice was lovely in the closing "Libera Me," but her decision to add drama to the part with operatic facial gestures distracted from her musicality.

Tenor Bryan Register and bass Gustav Andreassen added power to the mix, contributing both in solo work and especially in well-balanced quartet singing. Lesser singers get covered by the orchestra, but Register and Andreassen had no problem being heard.

Cumming conducted the work from memory. This is not typical in performances of the Verdi Requiem, perhaps because the conductor is so frequently invisible behind the soloists. In a work of this complexity it revealed a kind of assurance, and it focused that signature of Cumming — his direct and unbroken communication with the ensemble.

Just prior to setting this massive work in motion, Cumming addressed the audience. He dedicated the performance of the work to the memory of Alexander Lepak who died on March 25. Lepak was a timpanist and percussionist with the Hartford Symphony for 56 years. This performance of the Verdi Requiem, filled with both attention and passion, was a worthy tribute.
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant