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Pathways of Devotion – Program Notes


  • Hosanna to the Son of David – Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
  • My Heart Is a Holy Place – Patricia Van Ness (b. 1951)
  • Bogoróditse Djévo – Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
  • Faire is the Heaven – Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973)
  • Only in Sleep – Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977), text by Sara Teasdale (b. 1884)
  • Barbara Allen – John Rutter (b. 1945), arr. Christopher Gabbitas (b. 1979)
  • Mairi’s Wedding – Bob Chilcott (b.1955), arr. Christopher Gabbitas
  • The Road Home – Stephen Paulus (b. 1949) *Encore*

Our Pathways of Devotion broadcast features highlights from Artistic Director Christopher Gabbitas’s first concerts leading the Phoenix Chorale in February 2019. This program was recorded at Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, AZ on Sunday, February 24, 2019. Click here for details on how to watch this free concert on Saturday, October 24, 2020 (7:00 pm AZ/MST).

Program notes by Christopher Gabbitas.

Life is full of relationships, both worldly and spiritual. Many seek solace in religious fervor, their faith sustaining them. Others seek more worldly explanations for the way things are, or subscribe to a humanist framework bound together by family and friends. What joins us together, ultimately, is the essential human need for acceptance, dedication and unconditional love: devotion. Whether between parent and child, between friends or lovers, or between mankind and God, devotion is all-pervading. Musicians are no different, and composers throughout the ages have been inspired by sacred and secular texts alike. This program explores the ways in which their resulting compositions approach life, death, love, friendship and spirituality. 

Our journey of devotion begins with religious passion, as embodied by settings of biblical texts relating to Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1623) set the joyful Palm Sunday text, Hosanna to the Son of David, the shout given up by the Jerusalem crowds as Jesus entered the city on a donkey. It is perhaps the finest and is almost competitively virtuosic in its composition. Gibbons strengths begin with imitative polyphonic entries, bringing to mind the organic effect of a chant passing through a massed crowd; effortlessly captures the excitement of the occasion, using word-painting techniques at “peace in heaven” and florid runs up to “the highest heavens” as the singers bubble over with joy. 

A meditation follows: the American composer, violinist and poet Patricia Van Ness (b. 1951) is perhaps little known outside New England, although her work has been performed across the world for many years. She has been praised for the atmosphere created by her compositions, which often talk of stillness and meditation. My Heart Is a Holy Place employs a ground bass throughout, a technique often employed by Henry Purcell in his writing, above which the upper voices create simple moving chords as their lines interweave. Setting her own text, Van Ness brings together elements of Renaissance and Medieval concepts with simple intonations of the text, moving step-wise for the most part, conjuring up an almost trance-like state. The piece resolves onto a supertonic minor chord, leaving the listener in an uncertain state – in order to provoke further thought, perhaps.

Commissioned for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, Arvo Pärt’s (b. 1935) swift setting of Bogoróditse Djévo (“Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God”) brings together the joy and wonder at the virgin birth and Mary’s place as Queen of Heaven within the Catholic Faith. Beginning with “patter song” elements in the tenor statement of the text, on a single note and rapidly delivered, the work unfolds into triumphant chords on “you who gave birth to the saviour of our souls” before subsiding once more into a penitential, respectful repetition of the initial text, this time tutti.

Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973) was amongst the foremost composers of Anglican choral music, serving as organist and choirmaster at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle – in which capacity he conducted the choirs at both the 1937 and 1953 Coronations. As a choir trainer he was without compare during his life, although he is now best known for his choral works, a favourite amongst which is Faire is the Heaven. Setting text by the Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser, the piece paints a picture of heaven and the afterlife. Harris sets the words with great sensitivity, from the initial sighing of the repeated “Faire” to the terrible wonder of the “burning Seraphins” and “Angels and Archangels” and the simple yet powerful semi-tone elevation as the basses approach “the Highest.” As we dissolve into “endlesse perfectnesse” at the last, the music moves into the peace and calm of the Promised Land.

As we grow older, we naturally use our memory to think back on our life, reminisce, and muse upon the relationships we’ve formed since we were young. And so, we find comfort in reminiscence. American poet Sara Teasdale’s (b. 1884) beautiful poem Only in Sleep focuses on the poignant memories of an elderly woman, as she recalls childhood friends in her dreams. The woman says that “only in sleep, time is forgotten” and wonders of her friends “do they, too dream of me?” Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) sets the main text to a solo soprano line, quite separate from the chorus which provides a bed of supporting sound in verses one and three, and acts as a “chorus of reminiscence” in between, with the solo voice soaring above in descant. There is a distinctly folksong feel to the composition, with the soprano descant feeling almost like improvisation towards the end, as the woman settles again and perhaps slips back to sleep.

Folksongs provide a wonderful means of conveying stories from generation to generation. Touching on themes of love, war, drinking, fighting and celebration, they offer a snapshot of history as we hear how differing peoples considered aspects of everyday life. In this broadcast we look at the dangers of unrequited love, and the joys of everlasting love. 

Barbara Allen is considered to be amongst America’s first folksongs. Popular in England, it was known in the new colonies as well, having crossed the ocean with the early settlers. Telling of a cruel woman who leads her suitor in a merry dance all the way to his deathbed, it provides a warning to young men everywhere to beware of bewitching, pretty ladies! Originally arranged by John Rutter (b.1945), this version is heard today in a world premiere performance.

To end, Mairi’s Wedding, a Celtic folk song with origins in Scotland. The song paints a vivid picture of a Scottish wedding in full swing, with the food (“plenty herring, plenty meal”) and the beautiful bride (“fairer far than any star”) described in detail. Bob Chilcott’s (b. 1955) arrangement keeps to strict three-part harmony until the final chorus repeat, complete with whoops and cries, brings the party to a raucous close!