Notes on the Program by Dennis Keene

When we started drawing up plans for our 25th Anniversary Season, I decided it would be enormously satisfying to put together a program of “the best of the best” – many of the greatest choruses we have performed over these past 25 years. And, unlike many ensembles which specialize in one period of music or another, Voices of Ascension and I have always enjoyed music from all periods and nationalities. This concert spans over 500 years of choral music. The great joy for me personally was to plan the order of works. You’ll notice, for example, that a piece (Chiayu’s Shui Diao Ge To) composed only a few years ago is followed by the oldest piece on our program (Josquin’s Ave Maria). The juxtaposition of these two pieces is terrific. Likewise, the timelessness and universality of Ives’ Psalm 90 seemed the perfect companion to the extreme late-Romantic emotions of Schönberg’s Friede auf Erden.

Shui Diao Ge To (2004) - Chiayu

This piece was the winner of the 2008 Sorel Medallion. These are the composer’s notes:

Shui Diao Ge To is an excerpt from the poem of the same name by Su Shi (1037-1101). The poem dates from the Song dynasty and employs a rhyme scheme known as lyric meters.  In this genre the poet creates text within a rigid pattern of rhyme, verse length, and tonal inflection.  The narrative of Shui Dio Ge To concerns the poet’s great affection for his distant brother at the arrival of the mid-autumn Moon Festival.  The festival was set for a family reunion, but for the poet, it is a heartbreaking occasion to remember the absence of his family. 

Ave Maria - Josquin des Prez c.1450-1521

Transcendence is a word so often used in great music, but perhaps never more appropriately than in the music of Josquin. His great works do not inhabit this world. They exist in another spiritual realm. And, if the performance is successful, time stops and the performers and audience alike are taken to this other world. The 4-part Ave Maria is one of his most famous and greatest masterpieces.

Justorum animae - William Byrd c.1540-1623

Byrd’s Justorum animae is perhaps the most profound setting of that text I know. For years we performed the setting by Lassus and I thought there couldn’t be a finer one - until I came across Byrd’s. Both pieces evoke an exceptional mood of tender confidence in a peaceful afterlife. But Byrd’s piece goes further in what it evokes. The beginning, for example depicts not only confidence in the peace, by one that exists side by side with - and rises above - the sense of loss or mourning. When Byrd sets the words “Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori” (In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died), his harmonic dissonances and suspensions evoke a nebulous, obscure, transitory world between this one and heaven.

Exaltabo te - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina c.1525-1594

This classic motet of Palestrina displays many of his wonderful trademarks. First, each phrase of text is given its own brief musical section, where a specific tune is passed back and forth between the various voice parts; and then the next phrase of text comes with its own section and tune, and so forth. Secondly, each vocal part has been beautifully crafted in of itself. At the same time, all the parts stack up vertically together in an extremely appealing way. Palestrina’s music is inherently vocal. Notice the remarkable upward swelling of voices on the words “clamavi ad te – I cry out to you”.

Motet: Singet dem Herrn - Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

I believe this is by far the finest of his motets, on the level of a chorus from the B Minor Mass. It is scored for two four-part choirs each with its own continuo group (cello, bass and keyboard instrument). The motet is in three large sections. The first section – which itself is in two parts – begins with the two choirs in dialogue with each other. After 74 measures of incredibly inventive and joyous music, the second part begins. Here a new melody appears in Choir I and a fugue ensues, all the while being accompanied by Choir II. Little by little, the fugue subject is passed around in Choir II also, bringing the first large section of the motet to a vigorous conclusion. 

The second large section of the motet consists of a German Lutheran hymn – a chorale – being sung by Choir II. In between each phrase of the chorale, Choir I sings a lyric commentary. This middle section is beautiful and expressive. 

At the very downbeat of the third large section, we are back with the extraordinary joy and liveliness of the beginning of the motet, even livelier now. The dialogue between the two choirs is very animated. Finally, the piece is propelled into an amazing finale as the two choirs come together on the word “Alleuia!”

Syng, hevin imperiall (2011) - Dobrinka Tabakova

This piece was composed for the Inauguration of the Manton Memorial Organ and was the 2011 winner of the Sorel Medallion.  These are the composer’s notes:

With this piece I wished to capture a feeling of anticipation and celebration, befitting the occasion of the inauguration of The Manton Memorial Organ. The text for this anthem was taken from ‘On the Nativity of Christ’ by the 15th century Scottish poet William Dunbar. I find the unique sound of the original text combined with the Latin phrases, which punctuate the poem, extremely appealing and evocative. They lend themselves so naturally to word painting. At the beginning, I wished to create a shimmering, light texture with the choir and let the organ add spark and definition. This way, I felt, a conversation could develop between the sung and the played. Increasingly throughout the piece, the material of the choir and the organ becomes more integrated, allowing the new organ to show off a variety of brilliant and deeper, rich colours. The line which eventually gave its name to the work inspired me to imagine the space and acoustics of the Church of Ascension. 

Lord, thou hast been our refuge - Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958

This motet is, I believe, Vaughan Williams’ finest composition. Like the Ives piece which ends the program, this work uses as its text one of the greatest of all psalms, Psalm 90. Vaughan Williams evokes the text’s timelessness and universality by scoring the work for two choirs: one choir with a small group of singers, usually in a chant-like style, and the second choir much larger, split into multiple parts. The two choirs often sing different material simultaneously, depicting a grand musical panorama. At first, the large choir sings the familiar hymn, “O God, our help in ages past,” pianississimo, as if from a great distance. 

When the hymn is over, the large choir sings (“As soon as Thou scatterest them...”) with rich chords and many deep bass notes. At the words “For we consume away” the music moves a bit faster, and the two choirs at times dialogue with each other, at other times exist simultaneously. All of this finally ends with the words “So shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.”

Up until now the work has been entirely a cappella (unaccompanied.) But now, all of a sudden, the organ comes in, and, little by little, it builds up to an extraordinarily inspired recapitulation of the beginning of the piece. Here the opening chant is now sung fortissimo by both choirs in unison. And, when the famous hymn tune is now repeated, this time it is played by a trumpet soloist. “And the glorious Majesty of the Lord” is depicted by a fittingly glorious choral fugue, with the trumpet continuing forth with the hymn tune. The work ends in one of the most inspired pages of British choral music.

Excerpts from Gloria - Francis Poulenc 1899-1963 

Many of you were at our Benefit concert last fall when we performed the complete Gloria of Poulenc. We are happy to reprise two of the most joyous, celebratory movements of this piece, providing a delightful contrast to the many serious masterpieces in tonight’s concert. Who can resist the Parisian panache of these two movements?

Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauren - Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

This lovely piece of Brahms was chosen not just because it is so beautiful, but also - along with the Bruckner motet - to show a progression of German-Austrian Romantic works leading to Schönberg’s immense Friede auf Erden

Brahms’ piece begins with a tender and compassionate introduction on the warm foundation tones of the organ. The chorus enters with music that is both expressive and slightly austere. Various parts are in canon with each other. The text asks the believer to be patient and trust in God’s plan. And the discretion of the music expresses this patience. Then, on the word “Amen”, the reward comes! The joys awaiting the faithful are expressed with soaring vocal lines of great inspiration. The work ends in peace.

Os justi - Anton Bruckner 1824-1896

Many concertgoers know Bruckner for his grand, expansive symphonies. His musical roots, however, were in the Catholic churches of Austria, and the mystical spirituality of the Church remained at the core of his art. Unlike his lengthy symphonies, his motets are extremely concise, as if Bruckner had condensed the emotional content of a large symphony into just a few minutes. The mere three pages of music in his Os justi, for example, amount to an epic journey in miniature.

Friede auf Erden - Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951

In the early part of the 20th Century, the great tradition of German-Austrian Romantic music was pushed as far as it could go before completely breaking down into what we would call “modernism”. This astonishing work was composed in 1907 at the very height of this “end of Romanticism”. The harmonies are rooted in the traditional tonal world that goes back all the way to the Baroque period. And yet, in his attempt for expression, Schönberg has altered this language as far as anyone could. All has been done in the service of the meaning of the text. According to the words, at times the music is completely centered in one key. At other times harsh dissonances occur. In some other places, the music seems frozen in a hazy, atonal world. And at the end, where a world full of peace is expressed, the return to a glowing “traditional” tonality is overwhelming. 

The text basically says that: at the cradle of that little baby 2000 years ago, the angels said, “Let there be peace on earth.” But, over the centuries, that peace hasn’t exactly occurred. War and hatred have been the norm. Yet, we still dream that one day there will be peace on earth.

The extraordinary emotional journey on which Schönberg takes us is practically unparalleled in the choral repertory. In the 8 or 9 minutes of the piece, we hear music of expressive tenderness, of fierce brutality and horror, of uncertainty, and, at the end, little by little, a glorious apotheosis of ultimate victory. 

Psalm 90 - Charles Ives 1874-1954

We close our program with one of the towering works of 20th century music. American composer Charles Ives wrote a great many works one could easily call “masterpieces,” such as the Concord Sonata for piano, the Fourth Symphony, and several of his many songs. But amongst all his work, Psalm 90 was the only piece with which he was completely satisfied.

The extraordinary universality of the work is set from the very beginning - the organ chords, the church bells in four different positions, and the chorus singing “Lord, thou hast been our refuge” in a manner that sounds as if they have already been singing these words for centuries. Each phrase of text is perfectly and deeply illuminated by his musical setting, sometimes with harsh dissonances, sometimes with timeless chanted sections. Each section sounds so completely distinct, but, throughout the work, time feels suspended. We travel through this great work, totally aware of the meaning of this amazing text.

The final section (“O satisfy us early with thy mercy”) is one of the great moments in music. The simple, infinitely profound music of the choir is set in a timeless halo of distant church bells.