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Glimpsing the universe with the Phoenix Chorale’s “Cosmos”

Written by Katrina Becker.

Local voices lifted in song are the main focus of Phoenix Chorale Artistic Director Christopher Gabbitas, but he’s also exploring other unique aspects of Arizona.

“I was just up at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art,” says Gabbitas, “and I sat in an outside installation – Knight Rise by Arizona artist James Turrell.” He sighs appreciatively. “You’re lucky in the desert to have the most incredible sky at sunrise and sunset. The moon was pretty massive.”

“The night sky has inspired people for a long, long time – particularly poets and musicians,” Gabbitas continues. He explains that the repertoire of the Chorale’s upcoming program, Cosmos, sings of constellations, mythology, celestial bodies, and the sacred heavens.

Familiar repertoire like The Spheres by Ola Gjeilo – which the Chorale recorded with the composer – balances lesser-known works. “I like to put pieces in there which reflect memories that the audiences have,” Gabbitas says reassuringly, then smiles. “So I think they’ll look at this program and say, ‘Oh, great – music by Ola. The new guy’s not going to throw everything out.’”.

Felix Mendelssohn’s famous There shall a star from Jacob come forth (from his unfinished oratorio Christus) includes the beloved chorale “How brightly shines the morning star,” while a popular encore, “Sure on this shining night” from Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes, reflects Gabbitas’s penchant for introspective interpretation. “Singers have a layer of text that instrumentalists don’t have,” he expounds enthusiastically, “and it’s our job, our duty and our sacred commandment that we not only convey the clarity of the text but the meaning of the text.”

The concert’s opening song, by early English madrigal composer Thomas Weelkes, “talks about man’s understanding of the earth and the celestial,” says Gabbitas. “It speaks about the merchants who returned laden with cochineal and artistry, and it speaks about the great volcano which burns – it speaks about the extremes of the Arctic.”

These things seem wond’rous, yet more wond’rous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

– from “Thule, the period of cosmography” by Thomas Weelkes

Gabbitas explains, “It concludes that [these wonders are] nothing compared with the human heart. Despite all of these things that are around us – things that we know not and that we’re trying to discover – we as beings are infinitely more complex and celestial.” He chuckles. “There you go – so I’m a philosopher too.”

More madrigals come from The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection assembled by composer Thomas Morley in praise of Queen Elizabeth. Morley’s 1601 publication honored his queen with the flattering nickname “Oriana” – a fair, chaste and faithful icon in the literature of romantic chivalry. Written by Michael East and Richard Carlton for the collection, the Chorale’s two selections mention the stars and the air, both ending with the refrain, “Then sang the nymphs and shepherds of Diana; Long live fair Oriana.”

“These are fun because the singers are going to sing without a conductor,” says Gabbitas. “They’re going to divide into two groups of 14 and sing these madrigals by themselves. I want them to feel like there’ll be a textural difference – being more collaborative. And it’s a fun project.”

“There’s a little dusk-’til-dawn element with German songs,” he continues, listing Josef Rheinberger’s Evening Song, Night Watch I & II by Johannes Brahms, and Max Reger’s Morning Song. “The Chorale recorded an album of Rheinberger’s music a few years ago,” Gabbitas elaborates, “and it’s important to reflect past repertoire in our choices as we move forward.”

The journey through night continues with the music of Brahms, matching “a love song which speaks to the beauty of the night and lovers who meet under the stars” with a contrasting piece “telling us we can rest peacefully as the watchmen ensure our safety throughout the night,” according to Gabbitas. As the new day breaks, Reger’s 20th-century song draws on the style of J.S. Bach, creating a chorale in six-part harmony to compare sunrise and the saving grace of Jesus.

“That’s one way of looking at the sky,” Gabbitas adds. “Another way is thinking about constellations, and we’ve got wonderful writing by Sara Teasdale set by the great contemporary American composer Frank Ticheli.”

“Unwittingly,” he says, “it turns out Teasdale is my favorite 20th-century American poet, because I’ve programmed about six pieces with her writing without knowing.” He shrugs. “I find the music, the text speaks to me, I look it up, and – great! It’s Sara Teasdale again.”

I saw a star slide down the sky,
Blinding the north as it went by,
Too burning and too quick to hold,
Too lovely to be bought or sold,
Good only to make wishes on
And then forever to be gone.

– “The Falling Star” by Sara Teasdale

Elsewhere, a piece by Jonathan Dove uses Biblical verse on the theme of starlight (Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars), with “a musical image of the night sky, a repeated organ motif of twinkling stars,” according to the composer.

“It’s about peppering these programs with complementary yet contrasting elements,” Gabbitas says, “expanding people’s horizons but also giving them some candy.” He smiles. “We all like to have candy.”

The Chorale also performs the Arizona premiere of The Astronomer, a setting of Walt Whitman’s text by 31-year-old William Yanesh describing, says Gabbitas, “how a listener, overwhelmed by the technicalities of an astronomy lecture, wanders outside and discovers the true beauty of the night sky ‘in perfect silence.’”

Two works originally arranged for the a cappella ensembles Chanticleer and Voces8 find new life on the Cosmos program: Underneath the Stars was written by English folk singer-songwriter Kate Rusby, while Erika Lloyd’s Cells Planets, which compares distances within and beyond us, was suggested to Gabbitas by one of the Chorale’s singers.

same thing…

The smallest is
the biggest thing
and in all the world
the love
is the love
from me
to you…

– “Cells Planets” by Erika Lloyd

“Whenever we consider the sky, we feel a sense of wonder,” says Gabbitas. “It could be terrifying to consider how small and insignificant we humans are,” he adds, “but I choose instead to focus on our capacity to dream, our determination to explore and our quest to make sense of what exists around us.”

The Phoenix Chorale performs Cosmos Feb. 28 through Mar. 1 in Sun City, central Phoenix, and Paradise Valley.  Get your tickets today >

© Katrina Becker