James K. Bass, conductor
Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
O Schone Nacht, Op 92, No. 1 – Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Warum?, Op 92, No. 4 – Johannes Brahms
Sehnsucht, Op. 112, No. 1 – Johannes Brahms
The Blue Bird – Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Mitten wir im Leben Sind – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Ich bin das Brot des Lebens – Wolfram Buchenburg (b. 1962)
Dear Sarah – James Syler (b. 1961)
Even When He is Silent – Kim Andre Arneson (b. 1980)
Five Romantic Miniatures (from The Simpsons) – Paul Crabtree
I. Abe (you remind me of a poem)
III. Homer (Marge, you make the best pork chops)
V. Homer (Marge, I need you)
changing Perceptions & EPITAPH– Dan Locklair (B. 1949)
I. What Do We Know About Life
III. Grief Poem
Choral music has the distinction of being considered the “first art” when one examines the history of Western music. The mesmerizing beauty of multiple voices singing chants written a thousand years ago is a sound that still impacts the modern listener even today. This program title is a play-on-words ascribing the “Mid-Century” portion to choral music from the middle of the 19th century and “Modern” to music created by composers born during the Mid-Century Modern architectural period. As the choral instrument moved out of the sacred spaces and into the parlors and concert halls composers began using an amazing array of textual sources. This influx of words for the composer’s palette initiated an explosion of new images and potential timbres for the choir. Our musical journey will start with music written for the sacred space but will immediately depart for the poetic recesses of the beloved’s heart. Musical tastes in the 19th century were an ever-changing tide that seemingly moved towards the edges of the physical abilities of singers. As culture lurched forward in the 20th century there was in infusion of the “popular” which resulted in many different compositional styles being present simultaneously. Subject matters and lyrics for choral music became open-ended with nothing being taboo. The second half of today’s program draws inspiration from an enormous range of sources that stretch from personal wartime letters to prime-time animated hit television shows. In the span of just 100 years the compositional potential for choral music was as wide as it has ever been.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) is regarded as a master of writing for the choral instrument. He excelled in composing unaccompanied motets and works for double choir. Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt is a setting of the Psalm 100 text for which he composed at least three versions. Composed in 1844, this homophonic work begins with a choral shout of praise. It has powerful contrasts in the alternation of tutti and solo sections. It is quite possible that this setting was intended for a Jewish service when considering Mendelssohn’s Jewish roots but most believe it was composed for the Berlin Cathedral. The raw emotional power of Mitten wir im Leben sind, a motet based on the text of Martin Luther and written for double choir, is unmatched in the choral output of Mendelssohn. This older styled work owes its inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Mendelssohn considered the greatest of all composers. Mitten wir is divided into three verses, each concluded by a ‘Kyrie eleison’, and characterized by the textural contrasts achieved by setting plaintive chorales against energized, contrapuntal vivaces.
The orchestral music of Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) has been a constant in the concert hall almost since the moment it was composed. It is surprising that the majority of classical music patrons are unaware that the largest percentage of works composed by Brahms is for vocal idioms. A hallmark of 19th century music is the exquisite chamber music written for countless combinations of instruments and voices. The vocal chamber music of Brahms is considered some of the finest examples of the form. Composed for voices and piano, the vocal quartets included in Opus 92 and 112 draw upon secular themes popular in the Romantic era. O schöne Nacht, Warum and Sehnsucht describes the beautiful night and explores the sensual and mysterious possibilities of dreams and of the beloved. Ideas such as the sweet, terrifying, fantastic creatures, ghosts, silent longings, regret and homesickness are touchstones for choral compositions of the 19th century.
Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924), friend to Johannes Brahms, composed few significant choral works. However his glorious miniature The Blue Bird is a favorite among the lovers of music for choir. The piece is essentially a sonic representation of a visual image. The combination of coolness and warmth, sunlight and cloud, creates an atmosphere that is almost palpable. The poem describes a brief moment in which a bird sees its own reflection on the surface of a still lake. Stanford’s music allows the listener to imagine in real-time the bird, represented by the soprano, and the lake, represented by the choir. The final line of the piece repeats the first (The lake lay blue below the hill) and ends on an unresolved harmony giving the listener a sense that the music may go on forever.
The second half of the program begins like the first with an unaccompanied sacred work. Wolfram Buchenberg (b.1962, Berlin) inherited the great choral tradition of Mendelssohn during his student years at the Hochschule in Munich. Although he composes music in multiple genres, choral music is his form of choice. Ich bin das Brot des Lebens is from a set of four sacred works. The piece contains text from the Old Testament (Psalm 1) alternated with the words of Christ taken from the Gospel of John. Like Mendelssohn before him Buchenberg uses the device of double choir to create overlapping textures and other worldly sounds. In the score itself Buchenberg writes an indication of “Wie aus einer anderen Sphäre” for the men’s choir. This translates to “Like from another sphere” and appears in the music only when the words of Christ are sung. The work uses several modern choral devices and when considering the Mendelssohn tradition before it represents an enormous leap forward.
In the spring of 1861 Sullivan Ballou, a young man from Rhode Island, felt the call of duty and joined the Second Regiment of the Rhode Island Volunteers. While awaiting orders near the nations capitol he penned a letter to his wife Sarah. James Syler (b.1961) uses the contents of this highly personal letter for his accompanied setting Dear Sarah. Borrowing a technique from the compositional school of Minimalism Dear Sarah utilizes a repeating rhythmic and tonal pattern as the sonic bed on which the vocal line is placed. In 1990 the letter was given national attention when it was read on the landmark television series, “The Civil War.” One week after composing the letter Major Ballou was killed at the Battle of Bull Run. The combination of the mesmerizing repeated patterns, the emotionally charged text and excellent vocal writing allows the listener to enter into the mind and times of Sullivan and to explore a full range of emotion.
Educated at the music conservatory in Trondheim, Kim André Arnesen (b.1980) is one of the most frequently performed classical composers from Norway. Kim indicates that as a young man his early influences of the band The Cure and daily doses of MTV must have surely had an effect on his compositional style. In his deeply moving work Even when He is silent Kim sets an anonymous text found on a cellar wall of a Cologne, Germany concentration camp.
In the early 1990’s television creators proposed a new genre to studio executives. The idea of creating a primetime animated series that targets adults was universally criticized and ridiculed. Not to be discouraged, the creators of the series “The Simpsons” moved ahead with production and history has shown that they forever changed pop-culture. Composer Paul Crabtree (b.1960) has found the intersection between pop-culture and art music with his setting Five Romantic Miniatures from The Simpsons. Crabtree, who was a fan of the show, started watching the series more carefully and realized that it had all sorts of deep, emotional messages. The texts of these sweeping and dramatic movements come directly from the Simpsons’ mouths!
The multi-movement work changing perceptions & EPITAPH was the winner of the 1989 Barlow International Composition Competition. After receiving an artist grant, composer Dan Locklair (b.1949) retreated to a New England township to renew his creative energies and to collect material for new compositions. As a part of his experience he began to collect texts from the local villagers pertaining to the cycle of life and death. The first movement “what do we know about life” is written by Arizona poet Carol Adler and asks the question, “what do we know about life…only a dream, what do we know about death…everything, everything we know”. The final movement of the choral cycle, EPITAPH, is intended to remind us not to take death too seriously and riotously sets the text from an old Norfolk, England tombstone which reads:
Here lies the body of William Jones
Who all his life collected bones,
Till death, that grim and ghastly spectre
That awe inspiring bone collector,
Boned William Jones all neat and tidy,
So here he lies all bonafide.
© 2018 James K. Bass. All Rights Reserved.