Night Skies Program Notes

The Night Skies (May 6,7,8 2016)

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program notes by Sanford Dole

Welcome to North Star Vocal Artists’ third concert set. With a couple of exceptions, all of the works on tonight’s program were composed in the 21st century. It is our mission to introduce exciting new music by living composers to our audiences and singers alike. Alongside these discoveries we include occasional works from other eras as a way to contrast and compare. For example, tonight’s concert includes a Romantic era piece, as well as a gem from 1971 Finland.

The common theme among the selections is some connection to the night skies, be it stars, the moon, the Northern Lights, or simply an evening prayer offered to the heavens. The poetry of Sara Teasdale is featured, along with William Blake, W. H. Auden, and others, as well as the Bible.

We’ll begin with a ravishingly beautiful work by a rising star in the choral world, 39-year-old Ēriks Ešenvalds, from Latvia. Born in Riga in 1977, he studied at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary (1995-97) before obtaining his Masters degree in composition (2004) from the Latvian Academy of Music under the tutelage of Selga Mence. From 2002-2011 he was a member of the State Choir “Latvija”. In 2011 he was awarded the two-year position of Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge University. He enjoys a busy commission schedule and performances of his music on every continent.

Commissioned by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists in 2012, Stars sets a poem by Sara Teasdale (which you will hear again in the Donald Skirvin set; approached very differently). Ešenvalds creates an etherial ambiance by employing tuned water glasses throughout. The effect is quite stunning, setting a mood for imagining the “dome of heaven like a great hill and myriads with beating hearts of fire, heaven full of stars.” I am not aware of any other choral works, besides a few experimental pieces from the 1960’s, that use glasses as accompaniment in this striking way.

Born in Wisconsin, with degrees in composition from St. Olaf Collage and the University of Minnesota, Abbie Betinis now lives in St. Paul. Still only 36, like Ešenvalds she is building an impressive resume which includes nearly 60 commissioned works and several prizes and fellowships. Setting a poem by William Blake, To the Evening Star was commissioned by The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists in 2005, and was dedicated to that group’s director, Matthew Culloton, upon the occasion of his marriage. She writes of this piece:

William Blake, born in London in 1757, penned To the Evening Star around the age of 20, while he was apprenticing as an engraver. Unlike his later works, most famously his collection of poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, this poem appeared in letterpress without illumination. One of the most famous of British poets, Blake is known as a visionary mystic who proclaimed the supremacy of the imagination over the rationalism and materialism of the 18th-century. This musical setting, both intimately tender and fiercely vehement, is meant to depict our human vulnerability as we passionately encounter all of life’s beauty.

Another young composer commanding much attention these days is Norwegian native, Ola Gjeilo. Born in 1978, he earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, and Master’s Degree in composition from the Juilliard School in 2006. He writes in the frontispiece of the score:

Northern Lights is my most Norwegian production in years. Composed in an attic outside of Oslo at Christmastime in 2007, it’s one of the few works I have written in Norway since I moved to New York in 2001. The US is my home now, so I guess my work has been increasingly reflecting my love for American music, writing, and scenery. Most of all, this piece and its text is about beauty. About a ‘terrible,’ powerful beauty, although the music is quite serene on the surface:

(setting a passage from Song of Songs, sung in Latin)

Thou art beautiful, O my love, 

sweet and comely as Jerusalem,

terrible as an army set in array.

Turn away thy eyes from me,

for they have made me flee away.

Looking out from the attic window that Christmas in Oslo, over a wintry lake under the stars, I was thinking about how this ‘terrible’ beauty is so profoundly reflected in the northern lights, or aurora borealis, which, having grown up in the southern part of the country, I have only seen once or twice in my life. It is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I’ve ever witnessed, and has such a powerful, electric quality that must’ve been both mesmerizing and terrifying to people in the past, when no one knew what it was and when much superstition was attached to these experiences.

One of the hits from our debut concert—and which gave the show its title—was Alchemy, by Seattle-based composer, Donald Skirvin. From that experience we learned that Skirvin’s music is challenging but accessible and that he has a knack for setting the poetry of Sara Teasdale. Tonight we’ll be presenting a different set of five pieces based on the writing of Teasdale. This time, however, after a brief opener, he employs three soloists who each take the lead in the following movements before singing together at the end. Culled from disparate books of Teasdale’s poetry, Skirvin has formed a satisfying cycle of songs that are about or refer to stars.

Einojuhani Rautavaara is the most notable Finnish composer since Jean Sibelius. Born in 1928, he is still actively composing at 88, in spite of suffering an aortic dissection in January 2004. He had to spend almost half a year in intensive care but has since recovered and managed to continue his work. Creator of eight symphonies, and 14 concertos, as well as numerous sonatas, string quartets and operas, he is best known in the choral world for his setting of the All-Night Vigil in 1971 for the Orthodox Church of Finland. Most famous in the settings by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, this version is the first to be set in a language other than Church Slavonic, the standard language of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ehtoohymni (Evening Hymn) is an except from the 14-movement Vespers, which comprises the first half of the All-Night Vigil. (The 20-movement Matins, is the other part. Perhaps one day North Star will perform the whole thing!) Rautavaara writes:

The All-Night Vigil ultimately stems from a vision-inducing childhood visit to the island monastery of Valamo in the middle of Lake Ladoga just before the Winter War in 1939; after that war Valamo no longer belonged to Finland. It seemed to me that the islands floated on air, and more and more colorful domes and towers appeared between the trees. The bells began to ring, the low tolling booms and the shrill tintinnabulation: the world was full of sound and color. Then the black-bearded monks in their robes, the high vaulted churches, and the saints, kings, and angels in the icons… These images dazzled my ten-year-old mind and lodged in my sub-conscious, to re-emerge  three decades later when I was commissioned to set the Orthodox divine holy service. The archaic, darkly decorative and somehow merrily melancholy holy texts affected me deeply.

Sergei Taneyev was born in 1856 to a cultured and literary family of Russian nobility. His family moved to Moscow in 1865. The following year, the nine-year-old Taneyev entered the Moscow Conservatory as a piano student. He later studied composition with Tchaikovsky and, under the tutelage of the Conservatory’s founder, the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, went on to win the Conservatory’s Great Gold Medal for both composing and performing. Taneyev became the most trusted musician among Tchaikovsky’s friends. In fact, Taneyev became the only one of Tchaikovsky’s friends encouraged by the composer to be absolutely frank about his works. However, Tchaikovsky prized spontaneity in musical creativity. Taneyev, in contrast, thought musical creativity should be both deliberate and intellectual, with preliminary theoretical analysis and preparation of thematic materials.

This deliberate approach is evident in Stars, the tenth in a collection of twelve choruses set to the poetry of Yakov Polonsky in 1909. According to Wikipedia, Polonsky, who died in 1898, was “a leading Pushkinist poet who tried to uphold the waning traditions of Russian Romantic poetry during the heyday of realistic prose.”

The Esoterics is an a cappella choir in Seattle that has a great influence on me personally, and is an inspiration for the creation of North Star Vocal Artists. I first learned of Donald Skirvin, whose music we heard earlier, when he was that group’s composer-in-residence. The Esoterics founder and director for the past 22 years is my friend and mentor, Eric Banks. As a student at Yale, Eric studied science as well as music. That interest shows up in his approach to writing music—he employs a system for selecting what chords appear in each measure based on the vowels in the text—as well as the texts he chooses to set. One of his pieces has the choir intoning a list of the all the planets in our solar system. Another describes in music a map of the zodiacal stars; the star’s height above or depth below the “celestial equator” determines its pitch, and its placement along the ecliptic determines when it occurs in the composition.

Eric’s cycle, Celestial Wystan, for eight-part chorus, from 2001, takes for its text three poems by W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden) about the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Tonight we will present the middle movement which begins “Make this night, Moon.” He employs a fascinating compositional technique in all three of these pieces; what he calls “pitch-symmetrical.” The four women’s voices precisely mirror the men’s voices. That is, the two innermost voices, Alto 2 and Tenor 1, sing the same rhythms while moving in opposite directions with identical intervals throughout the piece. The same relationship applies to the Alto 1 and Tenor 2 parts, etc.

Cecilia McDowall was born in London, 1951. She has won many awards and been seven times short-listed for the British Composer Awards, winning, in 2014, the British Composer Award for Choral Music. The skies in their magnificence was commissioned by the English Music Festival and premiered in 2008. Her notes for this piece include:

This work is a setting of two verses taken from the poem ‘Wonder’ by the Hereford-born, metaphysical poet, Thomas Traherne (1637-1674). Traherne’s works were not discovered (and indeed little known of the poet himself) until the late nineteenth century and were first published as Poems in 1903. Subsequently, he has become highly acknowledged as a very fine poet and theologian. Written for double choir, The skies in their magnificence opens with the two antiphonal soprano lines intertwining above a full chorus. The luminous, or even numinous, words inspire a slow, stately and full textured progress in which the work unfolds gently to an ecstatic climax. 

It is with great joy that we present these works tonight. So many great works are being created by living artists and it is a privilege to discover some of the best pieces and perform them for you. Thank you for taking the risk of attending a concert of music you’ve never heard before and for supporting North Star Vocal Artists. It is our quest to bring contemporary choral music to the North Bay.