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A CHORALE CHRISTMAS – December 18-22, 2015

The Friendly Beasts – arr. by Dan Forrest
A Dan in a Manger – arr. by Jackson Berkey
The Lamb – John Tavener
Donkey Carol – John Rutter

Ave Maris Stella – Javier Busto
Stars – Eriks Esevalds
Star Carol – John Rutter

There is no Rose of such Vertu – Fredrik Sixten
little tree – Steve Heitzig
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree – Elizabeth Poston
Christ the Appletree – Stanford E. Scriven
Cherry Tree Carol – Louis Applebaum
The Holly and the Ivy – Reginald Jacques

O Christmas Tree
Joy to the World

Still, Still Night – Jackson Berkey

As a reminder of the animals who play such a stalwart role in the Christmas story, The Friendly Beasts uses verse likely written in the 1920s by Robert Davis using a 12th-century French tune (“Orientis partibus,” or “From the East”) taken from the Donkey’s Festival, commemorating the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus into Egypt. Dan Forrest, an award-winning choral composer born in 1978 who earned his composition doctorate from the University of Kansas, described his arrangement as “a tender setting of the traditional text and tune, gently incorporating [William J. Kirkpatrick’s] Away in a Manger.”

Best known for establishing Mannheim Steamroller with Chip Davis, pianist-composer Jackson Berkey studied at the Eastman School of Music and Juilliard and served as accompanist for the Norman Luboff Choir. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where with his wife Almeda co-founded and leads Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum. As writer and arranger of more than 400 works, Berkey presented his Anniversary Carols to Almeda as gifts, infusing familiar songs with unusual twists of rhythm, meter and harmony.

A Day in a Manger, the fourth of Berkey’s Anniversary Carols, is a calm contemporary setting of the beloved 1887 carol “Away in a Manger,” sometimes called “Cradle Song” or “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” It uses a tune known as “Mueller” first presented by Massachusetts-born composer and teacher James R. Murray, with verse written by anonymous sources as well as American pastor John T. McFarland.

English composer John Tavener found it easy to set the poetry of his countryman William Blake, who included The Lamb in his 1789 collection Songs of Innocence. The Lamb “came to me fully grown so to speak,” said Tavener, “so all I had to do was to write it down. It was inspired by Blake and by my three-year-old nephew, Simon.” Tavener’s compositions reflect not only his heartfelt conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 1977 but also his ever-present focus on the significance of the text; the score indicates a singing style “with extreme tenderness – flexible – always guided by the words.”

Born in 1945, English composer and conductor John Rutter grew up as a chorister, studied at Cambridge, and embarked on a teaching career before turning his focus to composition. His works are influenced by early polyphony in addition to the melodies of Fauré, Copland, Gershwin, and Sondheim. In 1981 Rutter founded the Cambridge Singers to perform his music, and in 1984 formed Collegium Records.

John Rutter used the unusual time signature of 5/8 (five eighth-notes per measure) for his Donkey Carol of 1977. Rutter conjures the ambling stroll of a donkey over a bumpy road, first dividing tenors and sopranos then uniting them on the journey to the final stanza: “Donkey, skip for joy as you go your way.”

Ave Maris Stella (“Hail star of the sea”) features expressive solo lines and a Latin text dating back to the Middle Ages, based on a plainsong hymn to Mary. The setting comes from prize-winning composer and conductor Javier Busto, born in Spain’s Basque Country in 1949. Busto earned a degree in medicine and is currently a practicing family physician. He taught himself music and studied conducting with Erwin List, founding the ensembles Coro Eskifaia and Kanta Cantemus Koroa.

The Chorale’s exploration of the natural world continues with colorful text by Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) describing the heavens in Stars. Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds replicates Teasdale’s night sky with “singing” crystal glasses. Born in 1977, Ešenvalds composed the multimedia symphony Nordic Light and has written commissions for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Utah Symphony and the Latvian National Opera.

John Rutter wrote the Star Carol in 1971 for the annual Christmas concerts of The Bach Choir (London), which traditionally included inviting the children of the audience to join the choir onstage. This new carol — a call to worship for the newborn baby Jesus, infused with a light, happy sense of urgency – used a refrain simple enough for the children to learn and perform on the spot.

Born in 1962, Swedish composer, cathedral organist and conductor Fredrik Sixten studied at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music. For his 2010 setting of There is no Rose of such Vertu, Sixten chose ancient text in mixed Latin and medieval English declaring the marvel and virtue of Mary and the Trinity.’

Like Teasdale’s verse, the text of little tree – from the collection Tulips & Chimneys by Harvard-trained American poet e.e. cummings – evokes not only sights and sounds but also the scent of growing things. The song is one of the Chansons Innocentes by Emmy Award-winning composer Steve Heitzeg, dedicated to his parents and premiering in 1990. A self-described “advocate for the peaceful coexistence of all species through music,” Heitzeg was born in 1959 and studied with Dominick Argento. “We are all native to the earth,” writes the composer, “and this is the origin of music – chords of humanity, animal chants, oceanic and aquatic arias, mountainous percussion, insect inventions, passacaglias of plants, symphonies of sky.” One of Heitzeg’s atmospheric effects in little tree is a moment of hushed closed-mouth singing after the words “and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy,” leading to the forte presentation of the decorated tree and a recurrence of the muted effect to fade away after the final “Noel.”

Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) was an English composer, writer and pianist who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and served on the music staff of the BBC. She was influenced by her close friends and fellow composers, Philip Heseltine (known as Peter Warlock) and Ralph Vaughan Williams, earned particular respect for her scholarship of folksongs, carols and hymns, as well as her collaborations with Dylan Thomas and C.S. Lewis.

In 1967 Poston wrote the music for Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (also known as “The Apple Tree Carol”), setting words compiled by Joshua Smith and Samuel Sleeper in a 1784 collection of hymns. The text echoes verses from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible alluding to Christ as the tree of life, symbolized by an apple tree.

Christ the Appletree uses the same verse in a 2009 setting by composer Stanford E. Scriven dedicated to Dr. Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1988, Scriven directs a high school choral program in his home state. He served as composer-in-residence for the ensemble Magnum Chorum, and his music has been featured on American Public Media’s Performance Today and Minnesota Public Radio’s Regional Spotlight.

Scriven writes, “This setting of ‘Christ the Appletree’ is rooted in the wonderfully simple spirit of the text, in which the author depicts Christ in a familiar light – that of the unwavering apple tree, a symbol of strength and abundant life.” He continues, “Utilizing musical elements commonly found in the early American folk canon, this is my best attempt at amplifying the poet’s original intent without clouding its simple, yet elegant message.”

A tree speaks to Mary and proves her faithfulness to a doubting Joseph in Louis Applebaum’s setting of the Cherry Tree Carol, which takes its melody and words from the Songs from Nova Scotia collected by Canadian folklorist Helen Creighton. Over the course of 37 years Applebaum (1918-2000) produced around 250 film scores for the National Film Board of Canada plus numerous works of incidental music for the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespearean Festival.

Turning to foliage of a different stripe, The Holly and the Ivy was arranged by English organist and conductor Reginald Jacques (1894-1969) for London’s Bach Choir, which he led for nearly 30 years. Using traditional words first published in early 19th-century England and set to music of possibly French origin, the carol is believed to come from pagan traditions in which holly denoted the masculine and ivy represented the feminine; the text was later adapted to Christian symbolism.

The stately chords of O Christmas Tree were first published as a German tune in 1799. The verses of “O Tannenbaum” appeared around 20 years later – thanks in part to Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz — but may have harkened back to a much older folksong one or two centuries earlier, although the tradition of the Christmas tree itself didn’t become popular in England until the mid-19th century.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) – a pastor, author and composer of about 700 hymns – wrote text based on Psalm 98 in 1719, and more than 100 years later the American music educator Lowell Mason (1792-1872) fit Watts’s words to a tune known as “Antioch,” possibly with influence from Handel’s Messiah, creating Joy to the World.

As the eighth of his Anniversary Carols, Still, Still Night was intended as a gift from Nebraska-based composer-pianist Jackson Berkey for his wife Almeda, a choral director. Berkey explained, “Its music by Franz Gruber and text by Joseph Mohr have been translated into virtually every language where Christmas is celebrated. As an expression of love and thanks, this setting intentionally emulates, in key and feeling, the wonderful arrangement of ‘Still, Still, Still’ by [my] mentor, Norman Luboff.”

© Program notes by Katrina Becker