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Pacific Passions

March 18-20, 2011

Program Notes by Sanford Dole

I make a point of trying to cover as many different musical eras and styles as possible in any one season. And I love it all! That said, long-time fans of our group may recognize a trend in the programming mix over the last several seasons in favor of contemporary music. I really like pieces that have jazzy rhythms and harmonies and find that such works can engage the singers and the audience in a stimulating way. It’s unfortunate that audiences in the mid 20th century became afraid of new music, as composers of that era followed the trend of writing pieces that were “academic” or employed techniques that resulted in music that was difficult to grasp. This began to change in the late 1970’s, and by now most new choral music places audience appeal at the center. If you fall into the group that hesitates when hearing the term “contemporary music,” then we hope tonight’s program will help change your perceptions.

All of the composers represented tonight are alive and working at the height of their talents. It is a thrill to bring to life the music of our times, and to be able to communicate directly with the creators. We have asked each of them to supply some background on their piece, and in the notes that follow I will mostly let them speak for themselves. In the first half of the concert, we’ll hear settings of secular texts; in the second half we’ll hear sacred texts.

Eric Whitacre began composing while singing in the choir at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, under the direction of David Weller. He has become a huge star in the world of choral music, and is so inundated by requests from his fans that we were unable to reach him for a contribution to these notes. However, his website does discuss the genesis of With a Lily in Your Hand, which is one of his earliest compositions:

I was accepted into the advanced choir in my 2nd year. David [Weller] has this beautiful tradition of programming a different setting of Go, Lovely Rose every year with that choir, and after my first year in that group I decided to write him a setting that would be all his own. We performed it the next year (1991), and in the spring of 1992 we concluded our program at the Western Regional ACDA convention in Hawaii with my music. My very first concert piece! And just when I thought life couldn’t get any better, Barbara Harlow of Santa Barbara Music found me after the performance and told me that she would like to publish the work.

Barbara thought that it might make a nice set, so I found two more flower poems (I Hide Myself and With a Lily in Your Hand) and set them using small bits of material from Go, Lovely Rose. Soon after their publication I started receiving actual commissions for my music, and my life as a professional artist took off.

Frank Ticheli joined the faculty of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in 1991, where he is Professor of Composition. I became aware of his Earth Song last year when one of our singers presented me with a copy of the music. She said, “We just sang this at church. I think you may like it.” And she was right—I fell for it instantly.

Earth Song is one of only a few works that I have composed without a commission. Instead, it sprang out of a personal need during a time when so many in this country, include myself, were growing disillusioned with the war in Iraq. I felt a strong impulse to create something that would express my own personal longing for peace.

It was this longing which engendered the poem’s creation. Normally, I would spend countless hours, weeks, perhaps months, searching for the perfect poem to set. But in this case, I knew I had to write the poem myself, partly because it is not just a poem, but a prayer, a plea, a wish—a bid to find inner peace in a world that seems eternally bent on war and hatred.

But also, the poem is a steadfast declaration of the power of music to heal. In the end, the speaker in the poem discovers that, through music, he is the embodiment of hope, peace, the song within the Song. Perhaps music has the power not only to nurture inner peace, but also to open hearts and ears in a world that desperately needs love and listening.

Hailed by critics as a master of text setting and composing for a cappella vocal ensembles, Frank Ferko is one of the most sought after composers of new choral music today. After receiving his doctorate from Northwestern University he spent many years in the Chicago area. When we first performed one of Frank’s works three years ago, I was surprised to learn that he had moved to the Bay Area! He lives near by and has become a good friend of BCG, often attending our concerts. We have really enjoyed his music, and when the idea arose to commission new works for this concert, Frank’s name immediately came to mind.

For some years now, I have been an admirer of the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth, and since Rexroth was a West Coast poet, his work immediately came to mind when Sanford asked me to write a piece for the Bay Choral Guild. Many of the poems of Rexroth are Haiku-like pieces, succinct and vivid in their imagery. As it happened, I found three short poems about different aspects of spring, so I decided to set all three of them to music as a multi-part work, The Spring of Life

All three pieces make use of the technique of text painting. The first piece, titled “Spring,” speaks of the full moon of spring and its effects on nature. The moon has always been a symbol of mystery, and in this music I suggested that mystery through the use of ambiguous harmonies which resemble in some ways the harmonic language of Ravel. The chorus engages in some dramatic musical movement depicting “rising” and “pushing” as described in the poem. The words “crystal ball,” “pale velvet,” and “gems” all suggest color to me, so the phrases with those words were set to very colorful harmonies that keep shifting, like a gem stone that turns in the light. The second piece, “This Spring,” is a bit more somber in tone. The text is about distances and vast spaces, so the music was written to depict open, endless space. The final piece, “Spring Is Early,” returns to the joyful nature of the first piece, but this time the music begins with a four-voice fugue, sung to the word “la,” which I interpolated as an added expression of carefree happiness.

I discovered Eric Banks when I was surfing the web looking for composers from the Seattle area. I came across the website for The Esoterics, a fabulous Seattle-based choir that was founded by Banks. I purchased some of their recordings and became a fan of the group and of Eric’s music. After a simple request for permission to perform the piece you’ll hear tonight, he phoned me and we struck up a friendship.

I composed Etternalmente vive in 2005, a year that I spent setting eleven of Michelangelo’s sonnets for chorus a cappella. It is a companion piece to another setting, O notte, and in both works I employ a harmonic phrase that repeats and traverses the entire “circle of fifths,” or through every key signature. In the case of Etternalmente vive, the progression starts very low, and ends very high (and subtracts flats and adds sharps to the key signature). In O notte, the progression moves in the opposite direction, adding flats and bringing darkness to the musical “color wheel.”

As the six-part choral progression rises from the choral depths, the soprano sections unite to sing an Italianate melody. As this progression rises through the choral voices, the melody is handed off to the altos, then tenors, and finally the basses. For me, this exchange of range between melody and harmony (two of the most salient dimensions of music) represent the relationship between art and nature, or memory and reality, in Michelangelo’s poem. The unchanging harmonic progression and its steady accompanying rhythm, for me, symbolize both the inevitable march of time and the timeless quality of the memory, once recalled to our mind.

[As an aside, all eleven of Banks’ Michelangelo settings, as well as works by Kirke Mechem, David Conte, and others, will be performed next week by the San Francisco ensemble Clerestory.]

Trevor Doherty’s family is friends with one of our altos. After they attended our March concert last year, Trevor was introduced to me. It turns out that he is a composition student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He was interested in writing for chorus, so we asked him to create something for this program.

Shortly before beginning The Two Ships, I had made a 72-hour journey from New York to San Francisco by train. Traveling overland greatly intensified my sense of place: I comprehended, as never before, the distances I have traveled throughout my life, and sensed the profound effects that even small changes in location have had on my psyche. Therefore, I chose to set a poem about the most formative place in my life. I was fortunate enough to find Bret Harte’s poem, which appealed to me not only for its lyrical character and allegorical imagery, but because of the poet’s intimate connection to the California landscape. Harte was born in New York in 1836, and migrated to Humboldt County at 17. Though largely uneducated, he pursued a career as a poet and journalist, and eventually became nationally known for his romantic representations of frontier life.

Initially, I struggled with writing, because the text called for a simpler and more open style than I was used to. In the end, I chose to set most of the text in short canonic phrases, in which individual vocal entries gradually coalesce into a homorhythmic statement of the last few syllables of a line, like strands of twine being braided into a rope. This approach creates a sense of textural accretion, which mirrors a similar sense that was impressed on me while reading the poem. Rather than casting the piece into a two-verse structure, I divided the poem into four sections of four lines each, and sought to give each its own distinct musical character: the first section (along with the recapitulatory fourth section) presents the accretion idea, introducing the world of the poem; the second section’s broad chorale writing evokes a flying ship; the third section’s shorter, more polyphonic phrases suggest the glittering portals of the gate. The piece ends with an echo of the opening text. To me, the poem can either depict the beginning of a journey or the end of one, and I wanted to call attention to that ambiguity.

L Peter Deutsch is a long-time member of Bay Choral Guild’s bass section. One of several PhD computer experts in our group, Peter was lead architect and founder of various computer companies before his retirement a few years ago. Since then he has been pursuing another lifelong passion, composing. He returned to Stanford as an undergraduate, receiving a second Bachelor’s degree in music, and just completed a Masters degree in composition at California State University, East Bay.

Because of circumstances, I had just under three weeks to write The Dimensions of Love. I decided immediately to look for a 20th-century secular text in English, preferably American. My partner and I both like e. e. cummings, and we have several collections of his work, so we sat down and each made a list of relatively short poems of his that we liked. There were only three poems on both our lists, and I picked the one I liked best.

In every piece I write, I try to pick one direction in which to explore or stretch my skills. For “The Dimensions of Love,” I decided it would be variety of texture (which voice parts are active). When I started writing, it seemed natural to have the phrase with the word “thicker” expand into a thick 5-part texture, followed by a “thinner” texture of the high 3 parts. I had also been thinking about the expanding from-a-unison gesture beforehand. The contrast between the minor harmonies for “mad and moonly” and major for “sane and sunly” was a bit of word association. The harmonic progression in the first half is from D minor through various by-ways to a unison F#; this is the dominant of the B minor that begins the second half, which is the relative minor of the final D major chord. D to D — not an accident.

Born in Portland, Morten Lauridsen has long been Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He also served as Composer-in-Residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001. Soneto de la Noche is part of a cycle of choral motets that was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association and was premiered in 2005. The text, by Pablo Neruda, is so moving that I have chosen to have it read, in English translation, during the course of the performance.

Still hale and hearty at the age of 85, Kirke Mechem is the elder statesmanon our list of composers. As is the case with many of the works on tonight’s program, however, his cycle The Winds of May comes from early in his career.

My pieces will be coming home, in a sense. I wrote most of them as an undergraduate at Stanford in 1949. I first became acquainted with Sara Teasdale’s poetry through Edna Bradley Troxell, to whom the cycle is dedicated. She was the mother of my girl friend and colleague in the music department, Cynthia Troxell (now Dunoyer). Since then I have set many Teasdale poems; in my opinion, she is the greatest lyric poet America has ever had. She must have loved music, as her poems seem to sing themselves.

All the poems are about love, and the cycle tells a story. Each poem begins where its predecessor left off. After the first “falters blindly … and goes out,” the second tries to forget that trauma. In the three-part dialogue of No. 3, the men remind us that the heart has been shut and “Love may starve therein,” but the women gently sing of “a new wind of May”; it does not, however, alter the men’s demand to be free. In No. 4, the women have resigned themselves to a hopeless death, when “I shall be more silent and cold-hearted than you are now.” The final song proves the resilience of young love; the men and women agree upon the lighthearted philosophy that “you must love me gladly or goodbye to you.” Musically I have followed the same sequential flow: The penultimate open fifth on F of No. 1 begins and ends No. 2. It is the dominant of the principal key of No. 3, B-flat. The third note—D—of that chord becomes the minor key of No. 4, and then becomes the first note of the finale, in G major, where the cycle began.

I first became aware of Robert Kyr and his music in the 1990’s when he came to coach the San Francisco Symphony Chorus on one of his pieces. I had never heard of any other composers from Oregon, and the fact stuck with me, so I knew I would include him in this West Coast survey. His Canticle of the Brother Sun was commissioned by the Concord Community of Choirs (David York, conductor) and was premiered in 1998 in Assisi, Italy at the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, where the saint is buried.

The work is a setting of several stanzas from a religious song by St. Francis of Assisi, composed in the local Umbrian dialect. It is often recognized as one of the first works of literature in the Italian language, an example of St. Francis’ efforts to write in the vernacular of the people, as opposed to Latin, the language of the church. The canticle clearly reveals the theology of St. Francis and his order, which celebrates nature in all of its life-sustaining aspects, and acknowledges the special place of animals as brothers and sisters of humankind.

In the canticle the chorus is divided into smaller ensembles to embody different aspects of nature: Brother Sun (full chorus); Sister Moon (women); Brother Wind (men); Sister Water (women); Brother Fire (men), and Mother Earth (full chorus). The setting emphasizes the strophic form of the St. Francis prayer by giving the role of the sisters (moon and water) to women’s chorus, and the role of the brothers (wind and fire) to men’s chorus, thus creating a little musical drama that is narrated in song. The full chorus frames the drama with an introduction and an epilogue, which embody Brother Sun and Mother Earth, respectively. The ending of the work is a chorale-like coda that is my own distillation of the inner meaning of St. Francis’ text: “Praise… In peace… In light… Praise.”

Kevin Memley’s Ave Maria is another piece that was recommended to me.

Ave Maria was written for the Clovis East High School Timberwolf Chorus, one of several choirs I accompany in Central California. We premiered the work in Carnegie Hall in April 2008. It was written in 2007, and quite oddly was input directly into a computer—I have no hand-written draft. I mention this only because as of late, I have become attached to good old-fashioned pencil and paper and truly enjoy the feel of the composition process at the piano. The “cascading waterfall” effect and the few pages of rhythms are meant to provide nothing more than a palette of colors to support the melody.

Kurt Erickson became a friend of ours when BCG was asked to sing in the pit as part of the premiere of his ballet Angels: Fallen and Otherwise, composed for the Lawrence Pech Dance Company. And I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of conducting ballet! His setting of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence was commissioned and premiered as part of a 2001–2003 Composer Residency he held at The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in San Francisco.

I’ve always found the traditional melody associated with this hymn to be strangely compelling—my piece starts with this melody over a hushed vocal drone to underscore its unique beauty. After this brief introduction, I set each subsequent verse in a slightly different variation, creating a kind of musical narrative that shadows the text in describing an ascent towards the Godhead (not unlike Dante’s Paradiso, I suppose). The climax of the piece comes at verse four, when the hymn describes the angelic host of heaven singing praise to God.

Realizing the futility (not to mention presumptuousness) of trying to recreate what this might actually sound like, the music I created for this section uses four soloists singing cascading vocal lines that are static (mirroring the unceasing praise of the angels) in ambiguous major/minor patterns. Since we can’t possibly envision such a heavenly scene, I created music that likewise doesn’t really fit our perception of traditional major/minor tonalities.

At the end of the piece the original melody and first verse are restated, as if the observer is given the chance to re-sing this beautiful melody after contemplating the divine. The “Alleluia’s” at the climax come back, but this time they are presented with a kind of hushed reverence that comes after participating in a religiously cathartic experience.

I (Sanford Dole) was introduced to the Prayer of St. Francis when I was in high school, shortly after I began making my first attempts at composing. From the start I had the idea that it would make a great text for a double choir anthem; one choir lining out the dilemma and the other responding with the solution (e.g., Choir I: “Where there is doubt,” Choir II: “faith,” etc.)

This concept has occasionally resurfaced over the years with the thought, “Some day I’ll set that text!” Finally the time arrived in 2008 as I was putting together the program for a concert at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, where I am the music director. We decided to present the first in a series of concerts that would relate to the spectacular icon of The Dancing Saints that graces the upper half of the church’s rotunda. Each piece was either composed by, had a text by, or was in some way directly related to one of the 90 historical figures that are represented in the mural. Here was my chance to set the “Prayer of St. Francis” (the only saint depicted that seems to be looking directly at the image of Jesus). Unfortunately, as part of a program of new and challenging works, the premiere of this piece did not go as well as I might have liked. And since it is a little too long and difficult to sing on a Sunday morning, it sat on the shelf until now. Perhaps Bay Choral Guild’s performance should be considered the true premiere.

I’ve known David Conte since the 1980’s and have enjoyed performing his work with various groups. And I’ve been lucky enough to premiere some of his pieces when I sang with Chanticleer and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. He was also one of my professors at the San Francisco Conservatory.

Cantate Domino was written in 1975 for the Bowling Green State University A Cappella Choir, where I was at that time a 19-year old sophomore. The work won first prize in the University’s annual Religious Arts Choral Composition Competition, and was published that year by Beckenhorst Press, making it my first publication. The work was recorded by the St. Olaf Choir (Anton Armstrong, conductor) in the 1990s. In 1989 I did a version of this piece for Brass Quartet and Organ for the consecration of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

We hope you enjoy listening to this rich set of works conceived by our West Coast “neighbors.”

The quotations used in these notes are edited from contributions sent to us by the composers. If you’re interested in reading their complete statements, you can find them here.

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