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PHOENIX CHORALE
Christopher Gabbitas, conductor

PROGRAM

Hear my prayer, O Lord – Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

BIBLICAL PASSION
Hosanna to the Son of David – Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Ave Maria – Robert Parsons (1535-1570)
Hosanna to the Son of David – Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623)

A MEDITATION
My Heart Is a Holy Place– Patricia Van Ness (b. 1951)

VISIONS OF HEAVEN
Denn er hat seinen Engel befohlen – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Bogoróditse Djévo – Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Faire is the Heaven – Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973)

THE PILGRIM’S WAY
Path of Miracles – Joby Talbot (b. 1971)

  1. Leon

INTERMISSION

TWO VALENTINES
A Lover’s Journey – Libby Larsen (b.1950)

  1. In The Still Garden
  2. Will You, Nill You

ON REMINISCENCE
Only in Sleep – Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977)

LOVE’S PHILOSOPHY
Barbara Allen – John Rutter (b. 1945), arr. Christopher Gabbitas (b. 1979)
Scarborough Fair – arr. Christopher Gabbitas
Con amores, la mi madre – Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523), arr. Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)
She’s Like the Swallow – Bob Chilcott
Mairi’s Wedding – Bob Chilcott , arr. Christopher Gabbitas


Life is full of relationships, both worldly and spiritual. Many seek solace in religious fervor, their faith sustaining them. Others seek more worldly explanations for the way things are, or subscribe to a humanist framework bound together by family and friends. What joins us together, ultimately, is the essential human need for acceptance, dedication and unconditional love: devotion. Whether between parent and child, between friends or lovers, or between mankind and God, devotion is all-pervading. Musicians are no different, and composers throughout the ages have been inspired by sacred and secular texts alike. This program explores the ways in which their resulting compositions approach life, death, love, friendship and spirituality. The first half looks at spiritual relationships, heaven, and the afterlife, whereas the second focuses on worldly devotion, love and reminiscence.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) can justifiably be seen as one of music’s great innovators. Writing during the early Baroque period, he remained perhaps the finest English composer to have lived, until the early 20th century. Hear my prayer, O Lord sets a single line of text –the first verse of Psalm 102 – and was possibly intended as the opening statement of a larger work. The piece begins with a lone voice, imitated through the other seven parts, which comes across almost like a plainsong intonation. As each voice joins and the polyphonic texture builds, the prayer becomes more and more insistent and anguished, building to a dissonant crescendo before ending on an open chord, exhausted and emotionally spent.

Following the opening prayer, our journey of devotion continues with religious passion, as embodied by settings of biblical texts relating to Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Several Renaissance composers set the joyful Palm Sunday text, Hosanna to the Son of David, the shout given up by the Jerusalem crowds as Jesus entered the city on a donkey. The two we perform tonight, by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1623) and Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), are perhaps the finest, and are almost competitively virtuosic in their composition. Each composer plays to his strengths: Gibbons beginning with imitative polyphonic entries, bringing to mind the organic effect of a chant passing through a massed crowd; by contrast, Weelkes’ setting begins with a more formal, homophonic statement before the voices split and burst in different directions. The subtle differences continue: Gibbons effortlessly captures the excitement of the occasion, using word-painting techniques at “peace in heaven” and florid runs up to “the highest heavens” as the singers bubble over with joy. Weekles, by contrast, chooses to present the text in a powerful minor key that presages Holy Week and the ultimate sacrifice to come: Crucifixion of Jesus.

Sandwiched between these two is the chance for reflection with Robert Parsons’ (1535-1570) Ave Maria. Certainly one of the most popular texts for composers since time immemorial, Parson’s setting has become one of the best-loved of all Anglican motets – with good cause! The composer captures perfectly the gentleness and grace demanded by the text; the sopranos control the narrative at the start with calm, urging iterations of the prayer, with each new line starting note ascending by a tone. Underneath, the lower voices display their fervour with rising phrases and gentle swells before subsiding into each cadence. The concluding “Amen” is surely one of the most beautiful moments in Renaissance choral music, beginning softly with the altos and continuing in turn as each voice rolls over the others until the final soaring statement; tension and release in perfect harmony.

A meditation follows: the American composer, violinist and poet Patricia Van Ness (b. 1951) is perhaps little known outside New England, although her work has been performed across the world for many years. She has been praised for the atmosphere created by her compositions, which often talk of stillness and meditation. My Heart Is a Holy Place employs a ground bass throughout, a technique often employed by Henry Purcell in his writing, above which the upper voices create simple moving chords as their lines interweave. Setting her own text, Van Ness brings together elements of Renaissance and Medieval concept with simple intonations of the text, moving step-wise for the most part, conjuring up an almost trance-like state. The piece resolves onto a supertonic minor chord, leaving the listener in an uncertain state – in order to provoke further thought, perhaps.

The ultimate destination for Christians is heaven – the just reward for all who have devoted their lives to living the true Christian life – and our next group of works touches on mankind’s visions of the afterlife. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) was an early Romantic composer, conductor and organist who is now amongst the most popular composers of his era, following a period in the 20th century when anti-Semitism had led to his works being denigrated and largely ignored. Known for his orchestral works and “Songs without words” for solo piano, Mendelssohn was also a champion of the music of Bach, and it is in part due to his efforts that we know so much of Bach’s music today. Mendelssohn’s choral music is powerful, expressive and enjoyable to perform, and Den er hat seinen Engel befohlen über dir (“For He has given His angels charge over thee”) is a prime example of the beauty of his vocal writing. Male and female voices pass complementary imitative phrases back and forth, working in semi-choruses and then “tutti,” as a vision of heavenly protection unfolds. Taken from his oratorio Elijah, the music rolls forward with frequent suspensions, melting cadences and beautiful word-painting. This is homophony at its most Romantic, unmistakable in its lush harmonies and soaring melodies.

Commissioned for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, Arvo Pärt’s (b. 1935) swift setting of Bogoróditse Djévo (“Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God”) brings together the joy and wonder at the virgin birth and Mary’s place as Queen of Heaven within the Catholic Faith. Beginning with “patter song” elements in the tenor statement of the text, on a single note and rapidly delivered, the work unfolds into triumphant chords on “you who gave birth to the saviour of our souls” before subsiding once more into a penitential, respectful repetition of the initial text, this time tutti.

Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973) was amongst the foremost composers of Anglican choral music, serving as organist and choirmaster at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle – in which capacity he conducted the choirs at both the 1937 and 1953 Coronations. As a choir trainer he was without compare during his life, although he is now best known for his choral works, a favourite amongst which is Faire is the Heaven. Setting text by the Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser, the piece paints a picture of heaven and the afterlife. Harris sets the words with great sensitivity, from the initial sighing of the repeated “Faire” to the terrible wonder of the “burning Seraphins” and “Angels and Archangels” and the simple yet powerful semi-tone elevation as the basses approach “the Highest.” As we dissolve into “endlesse perfectnesse” at the last, the music moves into the peace and calm of the Promised Land.

Leon is the third of four movements in Joby Talbot’s (b. 1971) epic work “The Path of Miracles,” a musical depiction of the journey along the taxing pilgrimage route through Spain to Santiago de Compostella, and shows one of today’s most exciting composers on top form. Los Angeles-based, Talbot spent much of the 1990s as a pop composer before diversifying his writing portfolio to include choral, orchestral, film and television music. He is perhaps one of the most versatile composers in the world, equally at home in any of the multiple genres for which he writes. Leon breaks into as many as thirteen discrete musical lines in parts, but always retains a strong sense of core; mirroring psalm-tones in Gregorian chant, Talbot sets ostinato lines to soar above the text like an angelic choir. Lower voices present a diatonic melody that speaks of love and wonder for the graces of God’s gifts, as the pilgrims tread their weary way along the dusty roads with the searing sun for constant company.

Following the Intermission, we move from spiritual to worldly devotion – the emotional journey of human interaction, both romantic and familial. In 2001, the American composer Libby Larsen (b. 1950) wrote “A Lover’s Journey” for The King’s Singers. In four parts, the set looks at different aspects of love through the words of poets from across the ages. The two movements featured in this evening’s concert, Will You, Nill You and In The Still Garden tell of love from the perspective of two very different men – one shy, and the other rather more self-assured!

Will You, Nill You  takes its text from William Shakespeare’s play, “The Taming of the Shrew.” Here Petruccio is essentially telling Catherine that, no matter what she may think now, one day they WILL be married. The music is equally confident, with angular chords and complex rhythmic patterns leading almost to confusion until the voices reunite for a final “marry you.”

In The Still Garden, setting the poem “Simples” by James Joyce, describes infatuation from afar. Joyce’s  Italian inscription “O bella bionda, sei come l’onda” (O beautiful blonde, you’re like a wave) is repeated throughout, with the English text speaking of the woman’s beauty and urging the listener to protect the writer from the siren’s wiles. Larsen sets the text with great thoughtfulness, the urging insistence of the repeated infatuation tempered by the English text, which is passed from voice to voice and leads to quiet contemplation at the last bella.”

As we grow older, we naturally use our memory to think back on our life, reminisce, and muse upon the relationships we’ve formed since we were young. And so, we find comfort in reminiscence. American poet Sara Teasdale’s beautiful poem Only in Sleep focuses on the poignant memories of an elderly woman, as she recalls childhood friends in her dreams. The woman says that “only in sleep, time is forgotten” and wonders of her friends “do they, too dream of me?” Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) sets the main text to a solo soprano line, quite separate from the chorus which provides a bed of supporting sound in verses one and three, and acts as a “chorus of reminiscence” in between, with the solo voice soaring above in descant. There is a distinctly folksong feel to the composition, with the soprano descant feeling almost like improvisation towards the end, as the woman settles again and perhaps slips back to sleep.

Of all the forms of music in existence, the longest-lived is undoubtedly the oral tradition, today broadly known as the folksongs tradition. From the dawn of civilisation, humankind has sought to communicate an understanding of the world around us through song, passing their knowledge down from generation to generation. Dealing with all the emotions and events that crop up most often – life, death, war, famine, celebration (including drinking!) to name but a few – perhaps the commonest theme of all, hearteningly, is love. The early settlers in America would certainly have used songs to remind them of their old home, to pass the time during their long and dangerous voyages, and to create a sense of community once they began to put down roots in their new home. It is this pioneering tradition that we celebrate this evening, with songs from both sides of the Pond!

The King’s Singers have recorded several albums dedicated to folksongs, with new arrangements being added every year. This final group of songs brings together songs from Europe and North America, and from across the 50-year history of The King’s Singers, some specially re-arranged for tonight’s performance. Taking the audience on a journey from unrequited love and the pain of heartbreak, through the enduring love between parent and child, and ending with the joy and lifelong vows of marriage, these five songs give the briefest taste of the wealth of material that exists for singers to enjoy.

Barbara Allen is considered to be amongst America’s first folksongs. Popular in England, it was known in the new colonies as well, having crossed the ocean with the early settlers. Telling of a cruel woman who leads her suitor in a merry dance all the way to his deathbed, it provides a warning to young men everywhere to beware of bewitching, pretty ladies! Originally arranged by John Rutter (b.1945), this version is heard today in a world premiere performance.

Another new re-arrangement specially for the Phoenix Chorale, and here seen in its form as amended by the great Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the English folksong Scarborough Fair also tells of the pain of love. In this case, a rather reticent young lady, who requests impossible tasks of her male admirer before, it seems, he gives in and admits defeat. The American influence is provided by Simon and Garfunkel’s provocative counter-lyrics, written during the time of the Vietnam War, which only add to the poignancy of the song.

Written in Quinta-style, that is to say in 5/8 meter, Con amores la mi madre was written by Basque composer Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523). This simple folk-like melody is beautifully set by Bob Chilcott (b.1955)  in a contemporary harmonic style, starting with a solo soprano and adding invoices through as the verses progress, culminating in a lush six-part final verse that concludes with heart-rending simplicity.

Newfoundland folk song She’s Like the Swallow was collected by dictation by Maud Karpeles in 1930, and tells of a beautiful woman whose heart is broken by a faithless lover. “How foolish, foolish you must be, to think I love no-one but thee” he exclaims, as he tells her he “takes delight in everyone.” The melody is beautiful and mournful, with ostinato broken chords in the accompaniment and staying within a modal harmonic structure that lends reassurance and weight to the story. In particular, Chilcott’s depiction of the night sky above the young heroine is an example of the beautiful word-painting he employs in order to set the scene.

To end, Mairi’s Wedding, a Celtic folk song with origins in Scotland. The song paints a vivid picture of a Scottish wedding in full swing, with the food (“plenty herring, plenty meal”) and the beautiful bride (“fairer far than any star”) described in detail. Bob Chilcott’s arrangement keeps to strict three-part harmony until the final chorus repeat, complete with whoops and cries, brings the party to a raucous close!

© 2019 Christopher Gabbitas. All Rights Reserved.