A Cappella: Voices Through Time

This afternoon, we celebrate the beauty of the human voice with a program that spans nearly 500 years of music and includes texts ranging from living poets to ancient liturgies. Musical styles meander through choral classics, chant, gospel, Romantic-era gems and even musical theater. Themes of reverence, praise, hope and unity expressed through the marriage of text and melody create an emotional and rewarding journey. Whether this is your first Voces Novae concert or your 90th, we thank you for joining us today and hope that you will allow our music to
touch your soul.

Illumina le tenebrae – Joan Szymko (b. 1957)
This is one of the oldest prayers of St. Francis. It has been handed down in the original Umbrian dialect, as well as in Latin. Many manuscripts indicate that it was composed as Francis prayed before the large painted icon crucifix in the church of San Damiano, near Assisi. Francis often visited this abandoned, dilapidated chapel in the early days of his conversion. The story goes that one day while praying there, he heard a voice saying,“Francis, go repair my church which is falling into ruins.” So he began to gather stones to rebuild the chapel (which he did, eventually) though Francis later understood that he was being called to renew the living Church. While visiting Assisi in the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to view the San Damiano crucifix which now hangs in a side chapel in the Basilica of St. Clare. As I knelt before the crucifix, I read and copied down this prayer, which was displayed. I composed this setting for the Chamber Choir of First Unitarian Church in Portland while serving as interim director in 2008.

Program note by Joan Szymko

All highest, glorious God
cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith, firm hope,
perfect charity and profound humility.
Lord, give me wisdom and perception
so that I may do what is truly your holy will.

Alleluia – Ralph Manuel (b. 1951)
With only a single word of text, Manuel creates musical interest and expression through beautiful harmonies and changing textures. The piece begins with a soprano melody in the style of a pop ballad, accompanied by the other voice parts in a supportive choral style. In the middle section, the music becomes more active. The melody moves from voice to voice in a fugue-like, polyphonic texture, growing louder and thicker. After reaching a climax, the music turns darker and more expressive, finally settling into a peaceful coda. Since its publication in 1987, Alleluia has been popular with choirs from high school through professional level.

Locus Iste – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner, who is best known for his symphonic writing. His choral output includes several masses, choral-orchestral works, psalm settings and several unaccompanied motets. While many of Bruckner’s works are lengthy, Locus Iste is short and straightforward and has been popular with choirs since its publication in 1886. With a Latin text celebrating the construction of a church, the music is marked by great dynamic contrasts.

This place was made by God;
a priceless holy place,
it is without fault.

Exultate Deo – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
The oldest piece on our program today, Exultate Deo is one of over 370 motets written by the polyphonic master, Palestrina. Living most of his life in Rome, Palestrina grew up as a choirboy and became a choir master at several churches.. His vast body of work contains several collections of masses, motets, liturgical music and motets. Exultate Deo is a joyful 5-voice motet that embodies the Renaissance style, with themes passed between voices, vivid word painting and melismatic passages. The text comes from Psalm 81:1-3.

Sing we merrily unto God our strength: make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.
Take the psalm, bring hither the timbrel: the merry harp with the lute.
Blow up the trumpet in the new-moon: even in the time appointed, on our solemn feast-day.

We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace – Traditional Spiritual
William Appling (1932-2008) is best known as a concert pianist and choral conductor. He founded the William Appling Singers & Orchestra (WASO) in 1980, a professional ensemble that concertized and recorded music of all styles and genres until the early 2000s. His setting of this lesser known African-American spiritual is beautifully simplistic. Based on Psalm 23, the text is treated with elegance and clarity. This arrangement was made popular by Chanticleer who recorded it in 1994.

We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,
We shall walk through the valley in peace!
And if Jesus himself shall be our leader,
We shall walk through the valley in peace!
There will be no sorrowing there,
There will be no sorrowing there.
And if Jesus himself shall be our leader,
We shall walk through the valley in peace!

Heilig – Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Without Mendelssohn, the music of J.S. Bach would be all but forgotten. During his lifetime, Mendelssohn conducted several of Bach’s works, cultivating a new appreciation for the Baroque master’s genius and reviving music that may have otherwise been lost . Felix Mendelssohn lived only 38 years, but produced many well-known works during that time. He wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano music, oratorios and smaller choral pieces. Heilig is a double-choir motet written while he was in Berlin, a year before his death. The music unfolds by descending thirds from a single opening pitch and results in a full, eight part texture characteristic of his a cappella motets.

Holy, holy, holy is God, the Lord Sabaoth!
Every nation proclaims his glorious praise.
Sing Hosanna in the heights.
O blessed is he that comes in God’s holy name.
Sing Hosanna in the heights.

Agnus Dei – Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Variation IX (“Nimrod”) from the Enigma Variations, Op. 36 by Elgar is the source for this setting of the Agnus Dei text. Arranged for the St. Olaf Choir by its Director Emeritus, Kenneth Jennings (1925-2015), this staple of orchestral repertoire is beautifully adapted for voices. Four-part men’s voices begin with close harmony that expands to eight-part mixed voices in sweeping melodic lines while huge dynamic contrasts enhance the dramatic effect.

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
Grant us peace.

Dies Irae from Requiem – Michael John Trotta (b. 1978)
Fueled by a passion for combining tradition and innovation, American composer Michael John Trotta (b.1978) creates music that resonates with modern audiences around the world. From Carnegie Hall to cathedrals and concert halls around the world, he creates “elegant, singable music with a strong, spiritual heft” (Choir and Organ Magazine).
From Carnegie Hall to classrooms all over the world, Trotta’s unique blend of engaging and artistic music creates opportunities to experience new music and empowers individuals to realize their artistic potential. His engaging style fuses tradition and innovation to create moments of beauty that “effectively carry out a dialogue between the [music] and the modern listener.” (Choral Journal) He recently collaborated with the Tenebrae and the London Symphony Orchestra.

–taken from mjtrotta.com

Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.
Think, kind Jesu! – my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation.
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.

Hard Times – Stephen Foster (1826-1864)
Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962) gives us this hauntingly beautiful arrangement of Stephen Foster’s Civil War era song. Its deeply expressive lyrics ask us to take time to consider the suffering and hardship of the less fortunate around us. Beginning with a solo voice over a simple, but moving choral accompaniment, the piece thickens as more voices join the melody and the choral texture expands into as many as 12 parts.
It is said that Stephen Foster frequently sang this song in his last days, as he died very young with only 38 cents to his name.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
while we all sup sorrow with the poor.
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, Hard Times comes again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary.
Hard Times, Hard Times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,
Oh Hard Times, come again no more.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say,
Oh Hard Times, come again no more.
There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away
with a worn heart whose better days are o’er.
Though her voice would be merry ‘tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
‘Tis a sigh that is wafted around the troubled wave,
“Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore.
“Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave,
Oh Hard Times, come again no more.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken – Traditional Appalachian Hymn
Moving toward a lighter mood, Will the Circle Be Unbroken mixes folk, bluegrass and gospel quartet styles. This hymn first appeared over 100 years ago and has been revised, arranged and recorded by countless performers and recording artists. The version of the lyrics used by J. David Moore (b. 1962) was written by folk singers Betsy Rose, Cathay Winter and Marcia Taylor.

Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by,
There’s a better home a-waitin’ if we try, Lord, if we try.
I was singing with my sisters, I was singing with my friends
And we all can sing together ‘cause the circle never ends.
I was born down in the valley where the sun refused to shine,
But I’m climbing up to the highland, gonna make that mountain mine!
Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by,
There’s a better home a-waitin’ in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Unclouded Day – Rev. J.K. Alwood (1828-1909)
Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) writes of his arrangement:

“Unclouded Day,” the bright, first movement of Heavenly Home: Three American Songs, is an eight-part a cappella setting of the treasured gospel tune by J. K. Alwood. A straight-forward first verse and chorus are followed by two verses in which traditional bluegrass vocal stylings combine with counterpoint and fugue in a crescendo of excitement that peaks in a roof-raisingeight-part chord on the phrase “in the city that is made of gold!”

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies, they tell me of a home far away,
And they tell me of a home where no storm-clouds rise:
O they tell me of an unclouded day.
O the land of cloudless days, O the land of an unclouded sky,
O they tell me of a home where no storm-clouds rise:
O they tell me of an unclouded day.
O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
They tell me of a land far away, where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.
They tell me of a King in his beauty there, they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on a throne that is bright as the sun
In the city that is made of gold!

Somewhere – Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Dr. Robert Edgerton created this lush arrangement of the musical theater classic from West Side Story. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show first appeared on stage in 1957 and on the silver screen in 1961 and 2021. The song’s universal appeal and multifaceted text make it strong enough to stand on its own apart from the show. This arrangement is a favorite of many singers in Voces Novae, especially the altos who are often featured on the melody. Dr. Edgerton’s use of ostinatos in the background creates a texture where Bernstein’s melody is supported and featured, while the “hold my hand” sections are treated almost orchestrally with thick, rich sonorities.

The Dark Around Us, Come – Harry Pickens (b. 1960)
Honoring the collaborations of Voces Novae with Harry Pickens, we conclude our program with one of Pickens’ settings of Wendell Berry poems. The poem is from the collection, Sabbaths, and brings together several themes from this program – light, hope, unity and celebration. Beginning with a simple four part structure, the piece grows to as many as 13 parts, with soloists echoing the choir. The repeated text “and all the earth shall sing” celebrates the innateness of ourchoral art and the benefits singing brings to each of our members.

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