A Tour Through Our Coming Concert

Chorale’s current a cappella concert preparation features repertoire from diverse sources, reflecting numerous genres.   We have chosen pieces composed in the twentieth century, and appropriate to the Monastery of the Holy Cross’s visual and acoustic qualities; beyond this, though, we have exercised considerable latitude in our choices.  I attempt to choose pieces which complement one another and build an effective arc for concert performance; I also have chosen pieces which represent Chorale’s history and personal preferences.

Two of our pieces, Poulenc’s Ave Maria, and Pilgrims’ Chorus by Stephen Paulus, started out as opera choruses. Paulus based his 1997 “church opera,” The Three Hermits, on a Tolstoy story about a bishop and the three saintly hermits who enlighten him.  Modest in scope and resource requirements, it is notable largely for it’s choral writing.  Pilgrims’ Hymn, excerpted from the opera and published separately, has gone viral in the choral world—it was even performed at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan, in 2004.  Ave Maria comes to us by a somewhat more complicated route.  It was originally sung by soloists and chorus, with minimal orchestral accompaniment, in Act II, scene II of Dialogues of the Carmelites, Poulenc’s 1956 opera about the seizure of a Carmelite monastery in Compiègne in 1794, and the executions of the nuns who lived there.    It has subsequently been arranged as an SSAA chorus with piano accompaniment; in Chorale’s version, men’s voices sing the piano part.

Music for the Orthodox rite figures prominently in Chorale’s repertoire.  We are singing two settings of Bogoroditse Devo, (Hail, Mary), one by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, one excerpted from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s setting of the All-Night Vigil, a lengthy liturgy intended to be performed during the night prior to a major feast.  Igor Stravinsky, though not widely known for his church music, also composed for the Russian Orthodox Church; we will sing his Otche Nash (Our Father).  Finnish Othodox composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has also composed a setting of the All-Night Vigil, entitled Vigilia; we will sing a short excerpt from this work, entitled Litanian Ektena.

Chorale performs German music nearly every season, from both the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic traditions.  In fact, singers wishing to sing with us are required to sing one piece in German as part of their audition.  On this concert we will present music by two World War II-era Lutheran composers:  Hugo Distler’s haunting motet Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit auf, and two movements from Johann Nepomuk David’s Deutsche Messe, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.  The tenors and basses of the choir will sing the Ave Maria as set by Austrian Catholic composer Franz Biebl—along with Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrims’ Chorus, one of the most celebrated a cappella works of the entire century.

The third “most celebrated” piece on our program is Alleluia, by American composer Randall Thompson.  I vividly remember the day Thompson died:  Grant Park Chorus was scheduled to sing a concert that evening, and right before show time, our conductor passed out copies of the Alleluia; we sang it, without rehearsal, for the usual Grant Park audience of thousands.  Most of us sang from memory, and nearly everyone in the audience knew it, as well; it was that famous a piece.  Rounding out our American group, Chorale will sing the Alice Parker/Robert Shaw arrangement of the Sacred Harp hymn, Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, both in recognition of these two giants of American choral music, and in acknowledgement of the vast musical resources we have in these collections of early hymnody.

Only three pieces remain to be listed.  The first is a real oddity:  Komm, süßer Tod.  The original is a song for solo voice and continuo by J.S. Bach.  Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt has harmonized it for four voices; Chorale’s presentation, utilizing Nystedt’s harmonization, is organized as an exercise in choral improvisation by Swedish composer and arranger Gunnar Eriksson. It requires five conductors, and comes off differently each time it is performed.  The second, Benedictio, by Estonian composer Urmas Sisask, is so popular in the Baltic countries that it is sung at outdoor festivals by thousands of singers, as a statement of national identity and pride.  The third, the only English piece on our program, is the fifth movement of the Requiem by Herbert Howells, composed in memory of his son Michael.  Chorale does not sing much English music; I find the style to be very particular, and difficult for American choirs to achieve.  But this Requiem is a great favorite of mine, and of the choir, and we have performed it in its entirety twice.

Often, Chorale presents new and unfamiliar works, with the goal of surprising and edifying our listeners—as well as our singers.  There is a lot of worthy music out there, and we look hard for it. But this particular concert is not about that. We expect that nearly everyone in the audience will be familiar with one or more of the works we are presenting, and that some listeners will know almost all of them.  We want to give these well-loved works a hearing in an extraordinary acoustic space, where they can sound in their full glory, and where we can experience, again, the reasons they are so well-loved, and so persistent in the repertoire.   Please join us!  Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m., Monastery of the Holy Cross.