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PHOENIX CHORALE
Peter Rutenberg, conductor

PROGRAM

I. Welcome May

Im kühlen Maien – Hassler

O süsser Mai – Brahms

Io mi son giovinetta – Monteverdi

II. Of Roses and Thorns

Contre qui, rose (from Les Chansons des Roses, 1993) – Morten Lauridsen

Go, lovely rose (1942) – Stevens

III. The Birds and the Bees

Sweet Suffolk Owl – Vautor

Sweet honey-sucking bees – Wilbye

IV. Five Centuries of Spring (1968) – Mechem

  • Spring – Nash
  • From You Have I Been Absent – Shakespeare
  • Laughing Song – Blake
  • Loveliest of Trees – Housman
  • Spring – Millay

INTERMISSION

V. Scenes of Nature

Ecco mormorar l’onde – Monteverdi

Linden Lea – Vaughan Williams

Loch Lomond – Vaughan Williams

VI. Choral Dances from “Gloriana” (1954) – Benjamin Britten

  • Time
  • Concord
  • Time and Concord
  • Country Girls
  • Rustic and Fisherman
  • Final Dance of Homage

VII. Then and Now

We Shepherds Sing – Weelkes

We Shepherds Sing (after Weelkes, 2005) – Peter Rutenberg


Spring in the American Southwest is likely to be greeted with a shrug, or a sudden pang of worry that the air conditioner has yet to be serviced, or perhaps with a passing nod that the cactus flowers seem prettier this year. Drought-flouters’ lawns and flower beds stay green year round; xeriscapes glint their wispy silver-green. We know what’s coming: searing heat and rolling ovens called cars.

The poets whose vernal expostulations grace the music on this program, however, all seem to have attended a different and more northern school, as their imagery appears hard-won after winters of privation, cold, and colorlessness. Ice melts and water flows again. The gray landscape changes its coat to lush green velvet, and a riot of rainbow hues in fruit and flower signify the return of life. They sing and dance and go mad with their new-found freedom from winter’s prison. It is an appropriate response.

The musical selections on Sing of Spring take their inspiration from the seasonal awakening, of course, but many delve deeper into personal worlds of love, requited and otherwise, the secret lives of birds and bees, the true nature of the rose, and the motivations of Nature herself. As befits the season, there will be dancing and singing suggested in the jocular, jaunty tunes, and there will be moments of introspection where, perhaps, we all can imagine a moment of personal renewal, refreshed as only music can do.

The program is cast in seven sections, each with their own theme or orientation. As April ends, we Welcome May with Hans Leo Hassler’s majestic double-choir fanfare, Im kühlen Maien. Hassler (1564-1612) studied with Andrea Gabrieli in Venice, and worked throughout Germany in his lifetime, perpetuating the Venetian style reflected in this work. In it, the cloak of winter is cast off, and young lovers frolic in a shady glen, egged on by Cupid’s arrow and Venus’s blessing. Hassler’s 19th century compatriot, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), enjoyed a successful career as a symphonist, conductor, pianist, and choral leader, while struggling throughout with a melancholy borne of unrequited love — flirtations with Clara Schumann notwithstanding. So it is not surprising that he welcomes May in this brief choral song with a plea to liberate his afflicted soul. We hear that affliction in gentle chromatic harmonies and suspensions, and the faint soaring of that soul in the bright final chords. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was an innovator of the first rank, leading the vanguard of the Baroque Era through opera, church music (including his famous Vespers of 1610), and his eight books of madrigals that straddle the old and new styles. The anonymous text to Book IV’s Io mi son giovinetta in this context serves as a merciless taunt in response to Brahms: the fiery passion of the two young lovers is aptly articulated in a flurry of virtuoso fireworks and closely argued counterpoint that ends, as some relationships must, with abrupt banishment.

In Of Roses and Thorns, two composer-giants and colleagues are reunited, their individual talents plied in service of the ‘rose’. Halsey Stevens (1908-1989) was on the faculty of the University of Southern California when Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) arrived from the Pacific Northwest to begin composition studies. When Stevens died, it was Lauridsen, by then a professor in his own right, who would complete his work, and soon become known the world over for his magnificent choral music, especially Lux Aeterna. Go, lovely rose, which he set in 1942 at the age of 34, is dedicated to Halsey’s wife Harriett. Lauridsen wrote the choral cycle Les Chansons des Roses in 1993 for Choral Cross-Ties in Portland, Oregon, on French poems of German author Rainer Maria Rilke. As befits the text of Contre qui, rose, there is a gently piercing quality to the harmony throughout.

The Birds and the Bees often has a certain connotation which, it must be said, is superfluous in this instance, as we are concerned only with one specific bird — the owl — and one specific swarm of bees. Both Thomas Vautor (fl. 1600-1620) and John Wilbye (1574-1638) are masters of the English Madrigal School, that certain collection of English composers who flourished during the waning decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and into the Jacobean Era, deriving their initial inspiration for secular part-song composition from two imported collections of Italian madrigals marketed under the name Musica Transalpina. The ‘madrigal’ afforded composers a blank but potentially colorful canvas on which to test their creativity, mainly in the form of word-painting, i.e., the transformation of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs into newly-minted musical ideas. Both titles begin with the word ‘sweet’ which sets the tone for all that is to follow. In Vautor’s case, the Sweet Suffolk Owl is vividly described in appearance and demeanor before the anticipated owl-song refrains. In Wilbye’s, the argument is a bit more protracted, for the composer first inquires of his hive why they waste their time on flowers (they are so “last spring”) when Melisuavia’s lips are ever sweeter? An extended work in two parts, Wilbye goes on to warn the hive that if they find her, and sting her, they will face certain death with “one flaming dart from her eye.” One wonders if he once experienced a similar demise. Both composers exploit textural variation — using high and low trios of voices — to enrich their canvasses with lighter and darker palettes. And both use musical ‘puns’ on specific words: Vautor’s “shrill” command stands out from the otherwise sweet tones, and Wilbye’s assertion, “was never dart so sharp,” uses a whole-tone scale with a sharped last note to drive his point home.

Kirke Mechem (b. 1925) has spent most of his long professional life in northern California, serving on the faculties of Menlo College, Stanford University, and the San Francisco and San Jose campuses of California State University. He is well-respected for his many choral as well as symphonic and chamber compositions; his opera Tartuffe was an immediate success from its premiere, with over 100 subsequent performances. Five Centuries of Spring from 1968 forms a colorful musical pentaptych, as painted by a quintet of poets, each in the voice of his or her own epoch. Still fresh and crisp as an April breeze 50 years after their composition, these pieces delight the senses with gossamer hints of the fullness of the season yet to come.

Thomas Nash names Spring as “the year’s pleasant king”, serenading him with a melange of madrigalesque bird-calls in refrain. Mechem’s softly biting harmonies and chromatically shifting melismas support the imagery nicely. Shakespeare’s 98th Sonnet, From you I have been absent, conjures a dreamy scene of “proud-pied April [who] hath put a spirit of youth in everything” as the background for his tribute to an absent lover. Mechem builds the dream through winding contrapuntal melodies dotted with staccato chords, in a transparent texture fading to musical shadow-play to portray the poem’s last phrase. Laughing Song by William Blake bursts with simplicity and merriment. Mechem’s setting pits the polytonality of broken triads — built on successive degrees of the whole tone scale — against the pithy, asymmetric “Ha, Ha, He” refrain to underscore the riot of color and joy so central to the poet’s image of Spring. A.E. Housman’s Loveliest of Trees extols snow-laden cherry blossoms viewed from horseback, in a contemplative look back over the poet’s life. Mechem views the terrain with loosely woven lines — at once warmed by harmonies clustered like cherries, and cooled by the tranquil triple meter of an icy stroll — setting only the opening and closing chords in the brilliant, cherry-red of A-Major! In the terse 18 lines that comprise Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 1921 poem, Spring, there is little of the joy or relief that marks so much of the literature on this topic. Angular melodies, taut harmonies, and rhythmic ambiguities assert the poet’s rift with April, coming to the conclusion that whatever others may see in it, “It is not enough!” Here, Mechem quotes musical themes from earlier in the cycle as a reminder of the ‘sweet season’, only to mock them alongside Millay’s wry humor.

Spring, at its essence, is profiled in Scenes from Nature. Monteverdi returns with one of his (and my) most beloved madrigals. In Ecco mormorar l’onde, dawn breaks with profound serenity: the waters lap, the bushes rustle, the birds sing, and the eastern sky laughs with color. Vaughan Williams did for England what Bartok did for Hungary and Copland the United States: they wandered the countryside in one way or another searching out original, indigenous folk songs before the advance of electronics forever obliterated their rough edges, and collected them for future generations. In the process they elevated some to art song status. Linden Lea and Loch Lomond are two such examples. Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea blooms with shady leaves, bubbling waters, and apples — a symbol of sustenance for the speaker — who goes on to sing of freedom in his work and life, freed from the gloominess of the higher-paying city, as an analog to spring. Similarly, the fresh imagery of Loch Lomond, its still waters, tall trees and steep surrounding mountains, sets the scene for what is customarily thought of as a love story. In fact, it is not. Rather, it recalls a moment when the Scottish army, fearing an ambush, splits its forces in two in the knowledge that the enemy is only strong enough to fight them via the high road or the low. It is a march to certain death for half and freedom for the rest.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a leading British composer of the 20th century, wrote his opera Gloriana as part of the coronation festivities for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, to a libretto by William Plomer, based on the 1928 work Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History by Lytton Strachey. The title comes from the nickname Edmund Spenser used for Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene. The beginning of Gloriana’s second act finds the royal party in Norwich where a Masque is given in their honor. Time and Concord form the basis for the Choral Dances. In six brief songs, Britten constructs strong musical characters for the protagonists, scenes from the Norwich countryside, and the Final Dance of Homage — a mannered procession of supplication from the townspeople to the queen. The opera was not received well, but various excerpts have enjoyed success in subsequent decades.

Then and Now juxtaposes a simple pastoral song called We shepherds sing from the English Madrigal School by the brilliant, gifted, and sometimes troubled composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), with an elaboration by yours truly, written and premiered in 2005, as the finale to my triptych Three Elizabethan Madrigals for the Fifteenth Anniversary Concert by Los Angeles Chamber Singers. Weelkes sets his brief text in the form of a ‘ballett’ (sounds like ballot) after the Italian form composed of a rhymed couplet and ‘fa la’ refrain. In general, the couplet was an incomplete thought that a ribald mind might complete in a bawdy way, such as this excerpt from Morley’s Now is the month of Maying: “…each with his bonny lass, upon the greeny grass, fa la la…” The fun, of course, is that everyone knows what happens next, but it wouldn’t be polite to say it aloud. Initially, my We Shepherds Sing bears a strong resemblance to its model, as the principal themes and structure pay homage to Weelkes with florid lines, expanded phrasing, and harmonic extravagances, all derived from the original. The extent of these elaborations goes far afield, however, and includes a variety of compositional techniques, among them, phrase-in-phrase variation, color and texture changes either by range shift or omission of one or more voice parts, key modulations, and, finally, a development of the ‘fa la’ refrain that leaves the Renaissance behind, migrating rapidly through Impressionism to a 1950s doowop style, with new words that attempt to dispel the mystery of the ‘fa la’ refrain itself!

© 2018 Peter Rutenberg. All Rights Reserved.