Charles Woodward led an a capella adventure as the Virginia Chorale journeyed out of this world To Touch the Sky, the opening program of their 34th season offering music to celebrate the centennial of the NASA Langley Research Center. The Chorale's 24 voices sang seven compositions related to flying, the heavens, galaxies and space flight to encourage the audience to soar beyond the madness of this passing moment in time and help us to remember that in deep space there is profound silence.
The opening piece was Observer in the Magellanic Cloud by Mason Bates (b. 1977) who grew up in Richmond, Virginia and now lives in California with his wife and two children. Commissioned by the San Francisco male chorus Chanticleer, the piece captures a futuristic snapshot of of two distant worlds briefly passing each other in celestial alignment. In the spoken introduction we were introduced to the musical language of a satellite and Maori tribesmen. In the far distant future a lost satellite floats inside the Magellanic Cloud (a group of dwarf galaxies) where it picks-up light from earth's distant past. The Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, chant toward the stars: “Magellenic Cloud, sacred one mounting the heavens, cause all our new year's growth to flourish.” It was a spectacular experience of deep voices with a lighter flow above. Lyrical and strange, it carried us into a wider, open universe.
Back to earth, we heard music by William Harris who lived in London from 1883-1973, entered the Royal College of Music at age 16 and later taught organ harmony there. His compositions remain firmly in the conservative Anglican tradition. His best work, the double choir motet Faire is the Heaven (Edmund Spencer) (1945) has a spaciousness of conception and richness of sound. It opens with gentle singing presenting the concept that God is a Person beyond description in his endless Perfection. As the choirs repeat these overlapping lines they achieved a lovely cantabile flow.
The next selection brought old and new music together in Island in Space by Kirk Mechem (b. 1925) which opened with Dona nobis pacem. After astronauts had their first look at the earth from space, astronaut Russell Schweickart (b. 1935) spoke of the earth as a whole— “so beautiful, so small and so fragile.” The men sing the text with the women adding vocal flourishes. The second text by poet Achibald MacLeish (1892-1982) makes the point that we are all riders on the earth together—brothers—and the voices all together blossom into a lovely “Dona nobis pacem” to end.
Victorian composer Charles Villiers Stanford's (1852-1924) The Blue Bird offers an ethereal vocalise opening out of which emerges a precise text by Mary Coleridge, about a blue lake and a pastel blue bird in a blue sky as a transcendent moment in time!
The ethereal vocals continued in Stars by Eriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) but this time several chorus members held partially filled wine glasses and one Tibetan singing bowl played by Bryson Mortensen. Moistened fingers circling the edges made the glasses sing. It is as if from the quiet, cold emptiness of space emerged the richest sound imaginable. Sarah Teasdale's poem tells of an evening of being alone on a dark hill looking up to the stars “myriad with beating Hearts of fire” and feeling honored to witness such majesty.
The first part concluded with High Flight, an experimental piece by British composer Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) who conducted the Wesleyan Festival Chorus at Christ and St. Luke's in August, 2014. Overlapping lines of single words created a hubbub out of which came the sung text, prominent in the continuous mix of hot, quick vocals in a rush of words. The poem, written by John Gillespie Magee, a WWI Spitfire pilot shares the exhilarating experience of flight in an open, light aircraft. Sarah Taylor, Bonnie Lambert-Baxter, Scott M. Crissman, Max Holman, Bryson Mortensen and John Irving were featured in this complex musical tapestry.
The entire second half was a single work, To Touch the Sky, by American composer Kevin Puts (b. 1972) with soprano Kimberly Nickerson the featured soloist. Puts set nine poems by women writers to explore the “eternal feminine” in this, his first mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus. Annunciation (Marie Howe) opens with the women singing out and then pulling back in the opening Latin “Magnificat” before Ms. Nickerson gave the text of Mary's personal response to bearing God's Son. The flash of light that illuminates her inner self shows her full of wonder, ecstasy and questioning humility “...only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I'd die from being loved like that.”
Unbreakable (Mirabai), was sung by the men using vocal slides and rapidly shifting tonal centers to demonstrate that the 16th century Indian poet's binding love for God cannot be broken. The women return in The Fruit of Silence (Mother Teresa) in sound as complex as a raucous Balinese monkey chant singing of peace, love, prayer and service. The contrasting setting of Falling Snow (Amy Lowell) was gentle, leaving a deep impression of life's impermanence.
The midpoint of the arc of the nine-song work, At Castle Wood (Emily Brontë), is bleak. The men open: “The day is done, the winter sun is setting in its sullen sky.” Seeing life unmasked, the women offer melismas of resignation asking no sympathy and no desire “to keep my soul below; My heart is dead in infancy.”
The feeling of gloom continues in Epitaph (Edna St. Vincent Millay). Briefly, the poet says: send no roses, I am dead and cannot see nor smell them. The voices create the busy sound of wind through dry leaves still on trees in Who Has Seen the Wind? (Christina Georgina Rossetti). In what can only be called a lullaby of mortality, With My Two Arms (Sappho)— “I do not aspire to touch the sky”— is built of layers of low voices repeating the poem's twelve words.
The finale, Most Noble Evergreen (Hildegard of Bingen) effectively captures the grandeur of dazzling sunlight on a giant tree suspended in midair but only as a vision beyond human experience. The glorious richness of highest voices was contrasted by deep voices as a sort of round that slowly winds down, only to reappear with great vigor before moving into a relaxed close. It was a profound experience superbly performed by the Virginia Chorale. But the ecstasy of beauty in the music before intermission is what I hold in my heart today as I recall the entire experience.
It is always exciting to hear a new work and one so recently written, even more so. Artistic Director Charles Woodward led the twenty-two singers in a program titled Nocturnes which included John Dixon's (b. 1957) Night Songs. Though not mentioned in the program, the pianist was Stephen Coxe.
The gentle rocking rhythm of Barcarolle from the opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) opens and closes with these words: “Lovely night, oh night of love.” Beautifully sung, this was the first of four songs sung in French. Beau Soir, the caressingly sensual art song by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was sung in an arrangement by Stanley Hoffman with piano. The text speaks of “being in the world while one is young and the evening beautiful.”
Camille Saint-Saëns' (1835-1931) Calme des Nuits (Quiet Nights), sung a cappella, was one long breath of a gentle prayer. In Soir d'Été (Summer Night) by Henk Badings (1907-1987) the piano opening was fast and peppy like a children's game, sung with text describing the sunset and descent of evening. In the last verse the music becomes more serious, painting the picture of the poignant hour when everything delights us—distant bells, a gentle breeze heavy with the scent of hay and seeing a couple escape into a ravishingly beautiful summer eve.
John Dixon's six-movement cycle Night Songs closed the first half. After a piano Prelude, the first song is a setting of Sara Teasdale's poem February Twilight. The music is engagingly pleasant, easy to hear, telling the story of a lone person on a cold, snowy evening gazing at and being seen by a lone star.
Black, the central fourth movement, with text by the composer, gives special recognition to each of the twenty-two singers. Written on eleven staves with two parts on each, every singer is a soloist within the ensemble. Dixon's beautiful, poetic text is a profound exploration of our vast universe where true black can be found. If you have the program, take another look. As Dixon says, his text has roots in the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. Beautifully performed a cappella, it was lovely and as the long-held final note faded sweetly away, we were left suspended in the vastness of the universe.
The two other poem texts are by Angier Brock, Dixon's colleague. Based on a Persian/Urdu form called a “ghazal” (pronounced “guzzle”), the first and last of the five couplets are fixed, while the other three can be interchanged without affecting the meaning very much. Come Night is the third part and offers the healing of darkness through sleep. The fifth song, The Song, the Singing, sets words of encouragement to be used to smooth out life's challenges. The sixth and final song was a reprise of February Twilight. In its own quiet way, the music is most dramatic and the probing text offers the possibility of deepened insight and healing. This sensitive performance was a fine launch for this new work.
After intermission they moved into the German choral sound of Abendlied (Evening Song) by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), who is mostly known today for his challenging organ pieces. Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) is one of Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) best known solo songs. Unable to find who arranged it for male chorus, I could only listen and appreciate its gentle, pulsing piano and the rich, lower tones of male voices singing “holy night, and dreams float down like moonlight through space into the silent breasts of men.” As day returns they can only plead that their sweet dreams return.
O schöne Nacht from Vier Quartette, Op. 92 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1898) celebrates the splendors of the night. With piano, the singers offered an engaging, soft-edged performance followed by contemporary Nocturnes by Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) that included four settings, the first and last in French by poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In the first, Sa Nuit d'Été (This Summer Night), the piano creates a sense of mystery that wraps the full, rich sound of the chorale as they sing of deep love that blossoms on a summer night. Without piano accompaniment and sung in Spanish, Pablo Neruda's poem Soneto de la Noche (Sonnet of the Night) featured baritone Bryson Mortensen's outstanding singing with the ensemble. Several listeners sighted this as their favorite song of the evening, me among them.
The third song was Sure on this Shining Night (text James Agee) sung in English with its soft and gooey setting and was followed by Epilogue: Voici le soir (Night has come) with Stephen Coxe accompanying and playing the postlude with great finesse from his most musical soul. At age 32, Daniel Elder (b. 1986) is a leading new voice in American choral music and his Lullaby was the final selection. I focused on Chuck Woodward's arms broadly moving to direct the sounds produced by these committed singers who convey their love for what they are doing in every phrase.