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PHOENIX CHORALE
Christopher Gabbitas, Artistic Director
Tom Peterson, Assitant Conductor & Outreach Coordinator 

Thule, the Period of Cosmography – Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623)

Constellation Frank Ticheli (b.1958), set to poems of Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)
     From the sea
     The falling star
     There will be stars

The Spheres Ola Gjeilo (b.1978)

Two madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana
     Hence stars, too dim of light– Michael East (1580-1648)
     Calm was the air
– Richard Carlton (1558-1638)

Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars by Jonathan Dove (b.1959)

INTERMISSION 

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn 
     Abendleid (Evening Song) Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901)
     Nachtwache I – Leise Töne der Brust (Gentle sounds of the soul) Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
     Nachtwache II – Ruhn Sie! (Rest!) Johannes Brahms
     Morgengesang (Morning Song) Max Reger (1873-1916)

There shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
from Christus 

Underneath the Stars Kate Rusby (b. 1973) and arr. by Jim Clements (b.1983)

Cells, Planets Erika Lloyd (b. 1983) and arr. by Vince Peterson(b. 1981)

The Astronomer William Yanesh (b.1989) with texts by Walt Whitman (b. 1819-1892)


“On nights like this when the air is so clear, you end up
saying things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Without even noticing
what you’re doing, you open up your heart and just start
talking to the person next to you—you talk as if you have no
audience but the glittering stars, far overhead.”
~ Banana Yoshimoto 

The earliest cosmologies naturally regarded Earth as the center of the cosmos (a Latinized form of the Greek word kosmos —suggesting the universe as an embodiment of order and harmony). Earth, of course, was not just one planet among other planets in this paradigm. It was humanity’s home base, after all, making it distinct from the celestial realm. Humanity regarded itself as the apple of the cosmic eye, around which all else revolved. So common was this idea among the people of the various continents that the notion of the earth’s centrality and uniqueness in the universe might be considered the primal cosmological intuition of humanity. For the naïve or pre-critical mind, this was a matter of common sense. The sun is this hot thing up in the sky that travels around the earth every day. Though it is incredibly hot, we had no clue how big it is, but it couldn’t be that big; after all, you can block it out entirely with just your thumb. Right? The earth, by contrast, is the whole world! It’s a place of vast mountain ranges and huge oceans and awesome and terrifying natural events. In the minds of our ancestors, the earth was obviously the most stable place in this universe. It stood still year after year while all the seasons came and went and the stars and the planets and the Sun and the moon whirled around it. Of course, the earth is at the center of it all. Isn’t it obvious? To move from this naïve but entirely natural understanding to a heliocentric model of the solar system, a view that is profoundly “unnatural” and counterintuitive, certainly seemed like a strange step to take—and a dangerous one: Giordano Bruno was burned as a heretic and Galileo Galilei was forced to recant his views for fear of being tortured to death. 

The moon and the stars still fascinate us to this day, despite all of our post-Enlightenment scientific savvy. Wherever we are, it’s hard to escape some aspect of the sky and space. And even though astronomical observation has made the heliocentric model second nature to us moderns, and despite the fact that nobody these days is in any peril of being killed or tortured for holding this view, our very human tendency to perceive specific, often meaningful images in random or ambiguous patterns such as the constellations has remained part of our cultural inheritance to this day. One need look no further than the countless astrology columns in our newspapers and magazines and websites. Though many people are today prone to mock astrology as unsophisticated prattle, it must be noted that this kind of existential naïveté is not necessarily a liability. Our cosmological concerns have always been not so much just about the stars and their physical and spatial properties. They are also about understanding our fate and our roles. Cosmography (an early, archaic variant of “cosmology”) is also about speculating on the boundaries of the known earth and of our experience and understanding of it. Moreover, the Renaissance disciplines of natural philosophy and alchemy were necessary stepping stones in our quest to place us in context in the world, and should not be dismissed so cavalierly. When people speculate from this perspective, they are speaking to such wondrous things as volcanoes and remote mysterious places like the arctic and antarctic, and about spices and precious stones and riches that come from foreign places that are brought back by merchants and sailors and intrepid explorers. 

This more expansive view of cosmology as the study of things unknown is exemplified by the first piece in our program, a madrigal, Thule, the Period of Cosmography, by the English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623). It speaks to a hopeful curiosity about the world we inhabit and about what might come next. It was written in 1600, a time when poets could only marvel at what might lie beyond the horizon. An ostensibly unmusical text on its face, this piece is based on an anonymous poem that expresses awe toward such extreme external natural realities as the fire and brimstone of volcanoes and the frozen and the barren features of the polar regions (Thule was the ancient name for a mythical island supposed to be the most northerly region of the world) and then turns that sense of awe and wonder inward, to the human condition. We now know about geological phenomena such as plate tectonics and their role in volcanism and we’ve since gained some understanding of climate and of how and why the polar regions of the earth are frozen over, but back then, these things were as mysterious as the stars themselves were. The enduring point of the poem is that the commonplace, visceral, sometimes paradoxical aspect of our own inner emotional states is more powerful still than any external speculation on the physical world could ever be. As such, it is a reminder that as the early Greek philosopher Protagoras once remarked, “Man is the measure of all things.” Though we may live in a modern scientific age, the habit of placing humanity at the center of things seems to be ingrained in our hearts and minds and is a hard intuition to overcome. 

Next, we present a piece by the American Frank Ticheli (b. 1958). One of the things that distinguish him as a composer of choral music is the undeniable evocativeness of his music. He sets texts very sensitively. Many composers set their music in a way that is at odds with the implicit or explicit rhetoric of the text. He doesn’t. His work is consistently opposite in this regard, something which is more unusual than one might think. We’ve chosen for tonight’s performance his Constellation: Three Poems of Sara Teasdale, an a cappella settings of verses by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), a wonderful American poet whose work is characterized by its simplicity, its clarity, its use of classical forms, and its passionate and romantic subject matter. This musical work was commissioned by the California chapter of the American Choral Directors Association. From the Sea is a laid back harmonically rich movement featuring a wide dynamic range. The Falling Star is more animated with a transient light step in its phrasing. There Will Be Stars is an elegantly conceived meditation on the immutability of the heavens. 

Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) is a favorite with choral music audiences throughout the world, and particularly with the Phoenix Chorale organization, where he served as composer-in-residence from 2009–2010. His compositions are marked by a wonderful intentional suspension of layers one upon another and by a sense of inexorable motion through space. There is a lovely sense of stratigraphy in his voicings and his entrances and in the way he sustains chords. The Spheres is an a cappella arrangement of the first movement from Sunrise, his Mass for chorus and string orchestra. The setting uses the traditional Kyrie Eleison text from the Latin mass. 

We opened our set with an English madrigal, a song form that originated in the 14th century, then declined and all but disappeared in the 15th, flourished anew in the 16th, and ultimately achieved international status in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The first madrigals were Italian and were ordinarily sensuous and serious works, complex and homophonic, relying on intricate word phrasing and exaggerated expression. Although the madrigal was popular outside Italy, the only country to develop its own strong native madrigal tradition was England, where composers assimilated the Italian style but adapted it to English taste, which preferred a lighter mood of poetry and of music and was somewhat more polyphonic, relying more on counterpoint, tunefulness and sometimes utilizing clashing chromatic phrasing. We present two madrigals in this English style, culled from The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection of madrigals published in 1601 that helped to popularize the form abroad. It was intended to honor the aging Queen Elizabeth I, referred to as Oriana (a simple shortening of the honorific “Gloriana”). Each of its madrigals concludes with some variant of the couplet “Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana/Long live fair Oriana,” allowing each contributing composer (there were twenty-three) to strut his polyphonic stuff at the end of the song. One of those composers was Michael East (1580–1648), whose Hence stars, too dim of light, happens to be the very first piece in the book. This was not an intentional matter of design. He was simply late in submitting his madrigal after the typesetting had already been worked out, and so it was easier to tack it onto the front of the book rather than to have to offset the formatting of the whole work by its insertion. Richard Carlton (1558–1638) also contributed a piece to this collection, Calm was the air. Both of these pieces speak about mythological beasts and beings, many of them in the context of the constellations and the way that humans tended to think about the night sky and the stars as a resting place for gods and goddesses. Elizabeth is compared to, placed on par with, the goddess Diana in particular. 

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), a wonderful English composer, has said that “the theme of light, and starlight in particular, is an endless source of inspiration for composers.” We’ve chosen for tonight’s concert his piece, Seek him that maketh the Seven Stars, an anthem that was commissioned by the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts for their annual service in St James’s Church in London. It is a beautifully evocative and thoughtful offering, speaking to our natural questioning of the celestial bodies. The starts are figuratively twinkling away in the right hand of the organ part, creating a musical image of the night sky which Dove says “sets the choir wondering who made them.” When the refrain “Seek him” enters it is with a feeling devotional longing that eventually transforms into a joyful dance, and gradually winds down, coming to rest in serenity. 

A tour of four pieces by German Romantic composers follows. Tonally and harmonically contrasting, they are very different in an expressive style, taking us through various aspects of nighttime. Again, rather than the cosmos in terms of the stars or the skies or the mythology, these just speak to our natural fascination and foreboding toward night. The first is Josef Rheinberger’s (1839-1901) beautiful Abenlied, (Evening Song) which is a piece our Chorale has previously recorded. It is full of concern and trepidation and fear. Yet, despite this sense of fear, we can find a sense of security and hope in the intimacy that night affords us. The second and third pieces, Nachtwache (Night Watch) I & II by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) are somewhat more fulfilling in this respect. This sense of hope is represented by the watchman who is on guard making sure that the people in the city are safe and sound as they sleep. The fourth work is by Max Reger (1838-1920). Morgengesang (Morning Song) is more in a chorale form in the style of J. S. Bach, but with a richer, more updated harmonic language. Its message is a simple exhortation to hold on and persevere, even in the depth of our fear and despair, for we have an assurance that the sun will come to our rescue when it rises. 

From here we go back just a bit, to the early days of German Romanticism. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is one of the most well known of composers of the period. For our performance we have chosen his work There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth. This piece speaks to the two seminal iterations of the morning star in the Bible, the first in the Old Testament prophesying the birth of Jesus, and the second in the New Testament leading the wise men to a manger in Bethlehem. Stylistically, it’s pure Mendelssohn, by which we mean its quite traditional, ending with the very famous chorale “How Bright Shine the Morning Star.” 

Moving forward to our contemporary day, we present a song by Kate Rusby (b.1973). Kate is an English folk singer-songwriter who has been nicknamed the “Barnsley Nightingale” and who has gained a lot of acclaims in her home country and abroad, playing many national folk festivals and concerts. Underneath the Stars is a very poignant song about lovers meeting one last time at night underneath a beautiful starlit sky. It speaks to the kind of intimacy and candor engendered by the stillness of night described above, of time and humanity and free will in the grand scheme of life and relationships. The beautiful choral arrangement is by Jim Clements, an English composer known for his arrangements for various contemporary choral ensembles including VOCES8, among many others. 

Continuing on with another contemporary genre-bending composer/performer, our next work is by American composer Erika Lloyd (b. 1983) Lloyd is the lead songstress for the experimental pop band, Little Grey Girlfriend. She firmly believes that artists shouldn’t have to contain themselves to any one genre or art form. Instead of blending somewhat similar musical styles, she effortlessly blends traditional choral music with the likes of modern pop – two genres that one might think are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but, as evinced by the sublime beauty of Cells, Planets, it’s a blend that can indeed result in some truly exceptional music. It is essentially a song about the connection between us organic beings, and the cells of the celestial sky. Our arrangement tonight is by Vince Peterson, the founder of Choral Chameleon, an organization of professional and avocational singers based in New York that hosts an annual teaching institute for choral composers and conductors. 

William Yanesh (1989) is an American composer who has done work on many Broadway productions. He set the Walt Whitman (1819-1892) poem, The Astronomer, (the full title of the poem is “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”) to music for the Capital Hearings, a contemporary, unorthodox group—they sometimes perform as a flash mob or even in roller derby bouts —that has become D.C.’s most versatile a cappella ensemble. This piece neatly closes our concert because it tells about a man who attends a very cerebral, intellectual lecture about astronomy and gets completely bored by the charts and the figures and the explanations given by this great academic, and so he wanders off because he’s fed up with the hyper-intellectual nature of it. Once he is outside, he looks up at the stars and is overcome with wonder. The implication is that we don’t need to necessarily understand why the sky is so incredible and beautiful; it just is. It has and continues to affect us in such an immediate and natural way that, although our technological and scientific acumen keeps growing and advancing ever forward, perhaps we shouldn’t fixate on trying to seek a deeper meaning for the stars in our intellect, but instead be content to experience them in a more immediate, grounded level. Space may be a perennial fascination to us, particularly to our generation, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, but, much like stars can be understood in terms of thermal dynamics and gravitational forces, these things are not their real “significance.” Indeed, to those who might argue that to stand on a mountaintop looking up at the immense beauty above, is to idly waste time, we could reply, with a good measure of confidence, that to not stand there taking in this exceptional crepuscular beauty is a real waste of time while we are alive in the world.

 

Program notes by  R. León Santiago.