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To Morning – by Gabriel Jackson

i thank You God for most this amazing day – Eric Whitacre

A boy and a girl – Eric Whitacre

Tal vez tenemos tiempo – Tarik O’Regan

Cecilia Virgo – Gabriel Jackson

Sancta Maria – Ola Gjeilo

Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems – Morten Lauridsen

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine – Eric Whitacre

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To Morning Gabriel Jackson

Not no faceless Angel Choral Music by Gabriel Jackson   Polyphony  with Stephen Layton
Not no faceless Angel – Choral Music by Gabriel Jackson (Polyphony with Stephen Layton)

Excerpts reproduced by kind permission of Hyperion Records.

Gabriel Jackson’s father, a clergyman at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity in Bermuda, was himself a talented pianist and an avid music lover, and the son has clearly inherited his father’s enthusiasm.  When Gabriel was three, his father moved the family back home to England to take up a position at Canterbury Cathedral, and Gabriel joined the Choir School there at the age of eight, soon becoming a chorister.  He started composing before he could even read music, sharing that he would write the note heads on the staves because he was fascinated by how it looked, and then would find someone to play the piece for him so he could discover what he’d written!  Jackson went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in composition at the Royal College of Music, where he won both the R. O. Morris Prize and the Theodore Holland Award.  His years in the Canterbury Choir instilled in him a great love for Medieval and Renaissance music, with a special affinity for the Tudor composers.  Other major influences have been Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett, and minimalist composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Phillip Glass.  His music is predominantly tonal, with a fondness for harmonic and rhythmic ostinatos.  The text of To Morning is by William Blake, the English mystical poet.  One of history’s great artists, he was considered more eccentric than gifted and not a little mad by his contemporaries, for he never outgrew his ecstatic visions of angelic figures that had begun while he was just a child.  However, posterity soon recognized him as a “glorious luminary,” in the words of the 19th-century scholar William Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

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i thank You God for most this amazing dayEric Whitacre

Excerpts reproduced by kind permission of Hyperion Records.

Cloudburst and other Choral Works by Eric Whitacre  Polyphony with Stephen Layton
Cloudburst and other Choral Works by Eric Whitacre (Polyphony with Stephen Layton)

Eric Whitacre is one of the most prominent names in choral music today, with a distinctive and immediately recognizable musical language built on tonal clusters and unconventional chord progressions (a style he has referred to with self-deprecating humor as his “oven mitt technique,” as if playing the white keys of the piano with mitts on).  Whitacre didn’t become involved with music until his freshman year at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, when he joined the choir because of the “cute girls in the soprano section,” but the experience of singing Mozart’s Requiem ensnared him, and he began to learn how to read music and started composing soon thereafter.  In an interview with Tom Schnabel for KCRW’s Café L.A., he described his harmonic language by saying, “There’s something about close and tight harmonies when human voices sing them, especially if I’m surrounded by them, that it’s transcendent for me – it kind of makes me giggle or tear up.”  Whitacre discovered e. e. cummings’ i thank You God for most this amazing day and was instantly and profoundly moved, and he has maintained a very special relationship with the poem ever since:  “I say this poem to myself every morning before I wake up, actually before I open my eyes, I have a little ritual that I’ve done since I learned it seven years ago…”

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A boy and a girlEric Whitacre

The surrealist poet, playwright, and diplomat Octavio Paz is Whitacre’s “single favorite poet,” and A boy and a girl is a sensuous little gem.  Paz’s classic The Labyrinth of Solitude, a series of essays written in the 1950s and 60s that seeks to define the nature of the Mexican soul, has never been out of print.  In 1990, he was the first Mexican to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was still considered one of Mexico’s most noted men of letters at his death in 1998.

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Tal vez tenemos tiempoTarik O’Regan

Tarik O’Regan, the noted young British composer, currently divides his time between England, where he is a Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, and New England, where he has been associated with the faculties of Columbia, Harvard, and Yale.  He spent much of his childhood in Algeria, where his mother worked as a professional translator.  He is rapidly garnering critical acclaim, having been called “original and eloquent,” “tonal but cutting edge,” and “a brilliant new voice,” while Threshold of Night, a disc devoted to his choral music, received two Grammy nominations in 2009.  Tal vez tenemos tiempo was written for that disc, and takes as its text a poem by Pablo Neruda, the noted Chilean author and diplomat.  He began writing poetry as a teenager (a fact he at first had to keep secret from his father), but after the young scholar began to publish during his college years, the government rewarded him with several honorary consulships.  The Spanish Civil War turned Neruda into an ardent Communist and admirer of Lenin, and later he became a fervent Stalinist, an admiration which drove an insurmountable wedge into his friendship with Octavio Paz (indeed, the two men nearly got into a fist fight during a final argument about Stalin).  Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, although his political activism made that a hard-won fight and a very controversial decision.  Although O’Regan first made the acquaintance of Tal vez tenemos tiempo in English translation, he ultimately decided to set the poem in its original Spanish “to allow Neruda’s language the utmost ‘breathing’ space.”  The largely homophonic setting, which is not particularly typical of his compositional style, was a deliberate attempt to capture “something so universally spiritual in the linguistic rhythm of the poem,” and the choir “moves as one for much of the piece, echoing Neruda’s call for unity in carving out the time, as an individual or wider society, to ‘simply be.’”

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Cecilia VirgoGabriel Jackson

Cecilia Virgo showcases Jackson’s love of slowly evolving melodic fragments and rhythms that gradually stretch and morph with subtle elasticity.  The shimmering cascades that tumble throughout the voices build up an astonishing sense of resonant space, yet still never become overwhelming, maintaining the “essentially contemplative” nature Jackson feels embodies his compositions.  Its text is a 16th-century supplication to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.  Cecilia, a young Christian woman who dedicated her virginity to God, converted her husband upon their wedding night and thus preserved her chastity.  After her husband’s death, she was desired by a Roman officer, but refused to submit, thereby sealing her fate.  When the time came for her martyrdom, she was sentenced to be suffocated in the steam from her bath, but when she failed to succumb, the headsman was sent in.  The three whacks he gave her (the maximum allowed by law) also failed to kill her outright, and she lingered for three more days, which gave her time to settle her affairs and to donate her house for use as a church.  She first came to be associated with music in the fifteenth century, based possibly upon a mistranslation from the Acts of St. Cecilia (c. 500 A.D.), and is often credited with inventing the organ.

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Secrets & PrayersOla Gjeilo

Norwegian Ola Gjeilo is now a New York resident, where he maintains an active schedule as a composer and performer, both as a solo pianist and as a member of the eponymous Ola Gjeilo Group.  His own music (he received his Master’s in composition from Juilliard, where his work won several prizes) is a synthesis of jazz, classical, and folk music, and his list of commissions is already very impressive, including pieces for Phillip Brunelle, Ensemble Mendelssohn, Con Amore, and the renowned soprano Barbara Bonney.  Gjeilo is serving as Composer-in-Residence for the Phoenix Chorale during the 2009-10 concert season.  Secrets & Prayers, he says, was a piece in which the music was inspired by an extraordinarily beautiful photo of Mt. McKinley, and that the “Ave Maria” text “seemed to fit into what I was looking for in this piece, expressing something mystical, and kind of regal, which Mt. McKinley is in every possible way.”

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Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance PoemsMorten Lauridsen

Excerpts reproduced by kind permission of Naxos Records.

Ove lass il bel viso

Amor, io sento l’alma

Sa per havervi, oime

Morten Lauridsen Choral Works  Elora Festival Singers with Noel Edison
Morten Lauridsen Choral Works (Elora Festival Singers with Noel Edison)

Morten Lauridsen is a native of the Northwest, where he spent his formative years in Portland, Oregon before migrating to California for his collegiate training at the University of Southern California.  He joined the faculty of USC in 1967, later serving as Chair of the Department of Composition from 1990-2002, and also served as Composer-in-Residence to the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001.  He is one of the best-selling choral composers on record, and his music has been championed by some of the field’s greatest names, including Robert Shaw and Dale Warland.  In 1998, the Los Angeles Master Chorale received a Grammy nomination for their disc Lux aeterna, which is devoted to Lauridsen’s music.  Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems are united by the motif of fire as a metaphor for love.  Not all of the poets have been identified, or were credited only by one name (and that one likely to be shared with more than one compatriot).  Ivo (if he is indeed Ivo de Vento) can be traced to the Bavarian court in the mid-1500s.  Ruffo may well be Vincenzo Ruffo, an Italian priest and composer who in the late 1500s may have taught Monteverdi.  One of the poets, at least, is no mystery, and that is Monteverdi himself!  Monteverdi’s madrigals were the inspiration for Lauridsen’s own cycle.  In addition to the fire motif of the texts, the composer provided musical continuity through his use of “one dramatic chord that would encapsule the intensity of the entire cycle…the ‘Fire Chord,’ [which] opens the piece and is found extensively throughout all six movements in myriad forms and manipulations.”

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Leonardo Dreams of his Flying MachineEric Whitacre

This live excerpt reproduced by kind permission of Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare.

In 2000, Whitacre became the youngest composer to be honored with the Raymond Brock commission from the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA).  The result was Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, a collaboration between the composer and longtime friend Charles Anthony Silvestri, who wrote the text.  In his interview with Tom Schnabel for KCRW’s Café L.A., Whitacre discussed his general approach to composing a new piece:  “I very much want to create a dramatic piece.  Most of the time I feel like I’m writing little movie scores without the movie and so I’m trying to take the listener on a little journey…mostly I just want to try to write beautiful or breathtaking or exciting or heartbreaking music that’s incredibly pure, that simply is that thing.”  Certainly Leonardo is the perfect summation of that philosophy.  Whitacre threw out the possible title, and immediately Silvestri began combing through da Vinci’s notebooks, culling ideas and tidbits that could be used to create a cinematic narrative, such as the vignette describing how da Vinci would release pigeons so he could sketch them in flight and at the moment of take-off.  Eventually the text coalesced into an English “plot” interspersed with Italian interpolations from da Vinci’s diaries, a device used by Silvestri to “increase the sense of urgency, frustration, mania, desperation, obsession – whatever you want to call it – that drives Leonardo to attempt the flight.”  And finally, as the man triumphs, so does the music, bubbling up in joyous eddies of sound and sweeping both the dreamer and the listener away on swirling thermals of rising air to drift on the distant winds.

Program Notes by Kathryn Parke.