Jenny Wong, conductor
Jeremy Peterman, piano
To See a World – Sven-David Sandstrom (b. 1942)
Lamenaclones de Jeremias Proheta – Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
I. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam
II. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam
III. Recordare Domine quid acciderit nobis
Chor der Israeliten: Die Zunge kelbt (from Israelites in the Desert) – Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
And the children of Israel sighed (from Israel in Egypt) – George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Chorus of the Exiled Jews (from The Death of Klinghoffer) –John Adams (b. 1947)
Across the Vast, Eternal Sky – Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
Stand in that River – Moira Smiley
The Coolin’ (from Reincarnations) –Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Super flumina Babylonis – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
There Will Come Soft Rains – Ivo Antognini (b. 1963)
Water – Anders Edenroth (b. 1963)
The Heart’s Reflection – Daniel Elder (b. 1986)
Nature is the perennial muse. She has been an endless source of awe and wonder through the ages and continues to be the fountain of inspiration for numberless artists and composers who aspire to capture even a modicum of her transcendent beauty in their work. Our physical surroundings are sure to affect the way we see ourselves in relation to the world around us, and though it’s an intangible quality, this can’t help but be reflected in our aesthetic expressions and reactions.
We in Arizona are blessed to live in exceptionally beautiful landscapes. The desert stands in stark contrast to the rushing rivers that feed it and that have carved it over the aeons into the unique terrain that it is today. The Phoenix Chorale is proud to open its 60th anniversary season with an homage to the stunning beauty that is our natural inheritance. The music we present on tonight’s program is inspired and informed by the spirits of the desert and the river, as experienced and imagined around the world at different times in history.
We begin with the desert. At first glance the desert is just a place without vegetation, a place where life is difficult. Jagged and thorny, it is something to be crossed rather than lived in. But despite this impression, or perhaps because of it, it is also a most propitious place to seek mystical experience. The desert overwhelms the human spirit with its sheer magnitude of scale, the majesty of its open spaces tends to suspend our sense of time, to dissolve it to the point where we can perceive it as a kind of eternity (the opposite of time). Many people find solace in this numinous phenomenon (Freud called it “oceanic feeling”).
In contemporary Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström’s (b. 1942) To See a World, rather than the foreboding, shadowless, inhospitable place it appears to be on its surface, the desert is a place for this kind of spiritual introspection, what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” Here is the desert of the yogis, of the contemplative mystics of yore. In this composition Sandström makes effective use of the imagery of space and time, the two primary symbolic attributes of the desert. He creates the illusion of these through his layering of breves and semibreves (long notes) atop breves, like geologic strata. The sustained notes evoke an enigmatic, mystic feeling that is echoed in the composition’s panoramic, minimal form. A gentle melody gradually develops and blossoms harmonically into a lush chord at the work’s climax. We can envisage each successive layer of sound spreading out languorously across a vast horizontal timeless landscape. The koan-like repetition of the William Blake lines adds to the sense of reverie.
Throughout our history the desert has also been a symbol of refuge from the exigencies of the world. This is a trope that goes all the way back to ancient Biblical times. Jeremiah the Prophet sought not only to escape the traps of urban complacency there, he took introspection past mere contemplation, deep into ascetic territory. His was a radical austerity. The desert wilderness, beautiful though it undeniably is, can indeed be merciless. It is the domain of the sun, not as a creative force, but as pure blinding radiance, brutal in this manifestation, and is thus a perfect backdrop for the prophet’s strident preaching. Composer Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983), known for his creative use of the folkloric traditions of his native Argentina and for later incorporating touches of primitivism in his work, wrote the triptych Lamenaclones de Jeremias Proheta (“Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah”) in 1946 during his early, objective nationalist period. The first section, O vos omnes qui transitis per viam (“You All”), suggests some of the urgency in the prophet’s exhortations with its vigorous opening of perfect intervals pulsing in rhythm. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam (“I See a Man”), a little more subdued, retains the austere ecclesiastic mood by mixing hints of plainchant into a 20th century harmonic setting. The third part, Recordare Domine quid acciderit nobis (“Remember, O Lord”) builds on this nuance with artful uses of counterpoint.
The desert has also been a symbol of exile, as exemplified by the biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews from their captivity in Egypt. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, the most successful of the elder Bach’s musical offspring, wrote Die Israeliten in der Wüste (“The Israelites in the Desert”) in 1769, immediately after succeeding Telemann (his godfather) as music director at Hamburg. The text (by Daniel Schiebeler) retells the foundational story of the Exodus. Its first movement, titled Chor der Israeliten: Die Zunge klebt (literally, “The Tongue Sticks,” a reference to one of the less-delightful side effects of extreme thirst), recalls the tribulations that the people endure in the harsh waterless Sinai, imploring their god, Yahweh, for some relief. Musically, this composition is a superlative example of the C.P.E. Bach’s mature empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive”) style, a style that utilized lyricism in a way that was new at the time, presciently anticipating the classical and romantic periods that were soon to follow in Western music.
Standing in dialectical relation to exile as a matter of course are deliverance and the prospect of redemption. George Frederich Handel’s treatment of the story of Moses points to its salvific and optimistic significance. Handel’s work, And the Children of Egypt Sighed (1739), approaches some of the same Exodus material, but in a simple, understated, and elegant style. For Handel the desert is the place where the story of divine deliverance unfolds; it’s where manna mercifully rains down from the sky, where water flows up from a rock to sate the people’s thirst. Salvation is a given to both late Baroque composers; their music is permeated with an optimism commensurate with their faith. The delicacy of the music reflects Handel’s reverence for his subject matter here. It is dignified and organic. At times it even has a curiously folksy, pastoral quality to it.
Contrast the eighteenth-century classicism of the two preceding pieces with composer John Adams’ (b. 1947) Chorus of the Exiled Jews. Known to tackle politically sensitive themes in his corpus, Adams is one of the most celebrated contemporary American composers. A part of the prologue to his controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991, about the 1986 terrorist highjacking and murder of an Israeli national), this movement presents us with a poetic montage, a cross section of the human experience in 1940s Europe filtered through remembrances in 1980’s Israel/Palestine. Its underlying minimalism is far removed from the exuberance of the baroque. At its core this is a love song, though it is also a dirge, poignantly recalling the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the generations that followed it: the latent sorrow of a vanquished people, the memory of life and love cut short, the urgent drive to persevere despite native hostility. It is solemn, funereal music, appropriate to the delicate, dark themes of the opera. Here is the strip of desert that was the adopted, alien, sometimes not- so-welcoming homeland to the people whose families had survived the insanity of Shoah. The music is characteristically minimalistic. Adams employs plaintiveness, harmonic tensions, transitional cadences, and the element of surprise to effectively parallel the themes of tragedy and remorse.
Composer Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) is a native of Norway, but he has made his home in the States since 2001, when he began attending New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. A periodic visitor to our state, his music is as inspired by our landscapes as it is by those of his homeland. The Phoenix Chorale is honored to call him a collaborator and a friend (he was our composer-in-residence from 2009–10). Gjeilo’s musical style is cinematic and hopeful. It is a life-affirming personal expression that is conversant with the rich tradition of Western choral music while simultaneously being forward-looking in the way it assimilates influences from such diverse sources as modern film music and popular song. Across the Vast Eternal Sky is an ebullient landscape painted in rich color, capturing some of that mystic, open-air quality previously mentioned, but within a tonal, diatonic harmonic vocabulary and framework, even following a kind of concerto form, where instrumental interludes alternate with the chorale (in the role of orchestra). A central rhythmic motif and melodic sequence is introduced and then reiterated and developed through an organic arc to its energetic climax and descent. The text is rich with imagery, referencing our namesake, the
Phoenix, a mythical bird that every 540 years incinerates itself in a mighty bonfire and then miraculously emerges from the flames reborn.
As yin, so yang. The desert and the river are symbolically correlated. If the desert can bring our sense of time to a momentary halt, then the river is a reminder of time’s relentless and irreversible movement, and so it is frequently a metaphor for the progression of our lives. Time is central to our aesthetic relation to both of these places. Space is as well, for rivers often serve as boundaries and can symbolize roadways into (or out of) the heart of a continent. The river can facilitate an escape from civilization (e.g. Huck Finn), but it can also provide a means for culture to seep into the hinterland. River symbolism often involves a sense of grapevine commonality, of community.
This sense of kinship is central to the river imagery that Moira Smiley’s composition Stand in that River brings to mind. Smiley is a contemporary composer, a stylist who has been featured in films and on BBC and PBS. She has found an original artistic voice through her use of traditional Appalachian folk phrasing in her original compositions. Old-timey music, as it’s sometimes referred to, represents the American experience in an inherently nostalgic idealized pre- war visualization. The Phoenix Chorale loves to incorporate works inspired by this tradition into our performances. Stand in that River is a simple invitation to celebrate community, not with overt nationalistic bombast, but by savoring the simple familiar things that so often fill the lives of the people of this continent with pride and meaning. There are obvious allusions to baptism and to rebirth into an idyllic new life, but, in addition to this, the flow of the river symbolizes a connection to the landscape and to the people along its banks, a sense of belonging. Note the way that Smiley weaves back-country lined-out hymnody phrases into a choral setting. Applying principles of orchestration: smart fugal entrances, call and response, voice leading, and the other tools at a composer’s disposal, the result is a distinctly American music that sounds familiar to us, not only because of its intentional stylistic mimesis, but also because it appeals and speaks to our common human experience.
The Coolin’ (1940), by Samuel Barber (1910–1981), rather than a folksy celebration of community, is an individualistic work conceived for chorale, but it is a celebration nevertheless. The text is a poem, a sort of love song, a subtle seduction (text by James Stephens). It celebrates the protagonist and his beloved. The flow of water here is emblematic of vital force and mystery. The mood of the theme is thus more consciously visceral. The poet relishes the potential sanctity of each moment, not in idealist retrospection, but in the physicality of the here and now, capturing a polaroid sub-cultural snapshot of pre- war melting pot America. The music curiously has a quasi-monastic tonal aspect to it, and though now and then it hints at the harmonic stylings of the serialist milieu that was in its heyday mid-century, it is essentially rooted firmly in traditional tonal choral music.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) is perhaps the best-known composer of sacred polyphonic music in the late sixteenth century. He was a singer and composer for the Sistine Chapel, and famously wrote music that satisfied a Tridentine decree that all text be clearly understood. The text of Super Flumina Babylonis, a four part motet, comes from Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon
We sat and wept
When we remembered Zion …
… How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land? ”
The famous passage tells of the exiles’ deeply felt yearning for home. It also speaks to the shame of subjugation. It is a succinct expression of Jewish self- identity under conquest. Palestrina set this passage to music in his own style (a style in which the discordant intervals are relegated to the weak beats in a measure — the style is still taught to conservatory students to this day). This piece is an example of Palestrina’s mastery of his medium. It conforms to the genre conventions of the day, and in keeping with the Tridentine decree, it clearly delineates each part, of course, which would be enough to pass muster with the church, but Palestrina manages to make it all seem so effortless, so organic, that we can easily see why he was as lauded as he was by his contemporaries and by those who followed him. Palestrina’s pieces in his day were often performed in the relaxed liturgical environment of religious confraternity meetings. It’s funny how something so beautiful could be composed for such a casual setting.
There Will Come Soft Rains by Italian composer Ivo Antognini (b. 1963) affords us an opportunity to synoptically gauge a relatively wide range of choral techniques in one piece. Where Palestrina was subject to his era’s limitations of form and invention, modern audiences are more harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically savvy, and Antognini’s piece features transitions and modulations and contrasting dynamics that are distinctly modern and are quite musical and allow our ensemble to flex a bit. Antognini’s text is a reflection on simple living in harmony with our natural surroundings. Thematically, we here leave the realm of symbolism and enter that of poetic conservationism. The water in this piece is no mere metaphor, it is a very real resource to be prudently protected from contamination. Works like this help remind us that water is life, an heirloom to be preserved, and that it is up to us to safeguard it for future generations.
In tune with this conscientious environmentalist outlook is Water, the brainchild of Anders Edenroth, founder and leader of the contemporary Swedish acapella ensemble The Real Group. This work blends harmonic invention with architectural songcraft and environmental activism. It’s a remarkable piece that speaks to the immediacy of life as we now actually live it and to the need to spread awareness that our rivers are in fact an endangered resource. It is a great song that would fit as comfortably in a pop concert as it does in a choral one. It’s an intricate poetic tapestry of rhythm and counterpoint and text, with unexpected turns of phrase that make it quite a beautifully poetic contemporary plea for water conservation.
The Heart’s Reflection by young American composer Daniel Elder (b. 1986) was one of the winning compositions in the Abbey Road Studios 80th Anniversary Anthem Competition in 2011. In the spirit of looking forward to the future of polyphonic choral music, we present this beautiful contemporary expression. Its text comes from Proverbs 27:19, which wisely warns us that “as the water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” Others reflect your heart right back to you, as well, all the more reason to always strive to put our best heart forward. This music is gentle and lyrical and textured, sometimes utilizing the rubs inherent in harmonic discord in a subtle and creative way, achieving a mild effect reminiscent of interference ripples in water, each new concentric circle affecting the previous one to reveal myriad underlying geometric patterns that titillate the senses. This piece’s impressionistic layering serves as an apt bookend, a reprise of the mystic rumination that we began with, that sublime soul stirring sensation that is so often our experience of the transcendent majesty of our desert and river landscapes.
© 2018 Leon Santiago. All Rights Reserved.