Toward our December concerts
Building our a cappella Marian program was perhaps the most difficult repertoire planning I have ever done-- took several weeks last summer, with stacks of music sitting all over my piano and office, borrowed recordings, frequent visits to the Internet, frequent emails (cries for help) to my colleagues.
Planning a concert is rather like planning a major oratorio-- in this case, a major work with texts and themes determined by a very narrow focus. I was privy to an "Ave Maria concert" several years ago which ended up, despite its entirely unobjectionable repertoire, bothering both singers and audience; the more deeply I dove into my own project, the more I empathized with that conductor and his nearly impossible task. A series of beautiful motets, one after the other, just won't cut it. One needs to discover a structure-- a wave or a mountain or some such image of forward-moving energy, which has the power to get from here to there, without dissipating before accomplishing a full-length concert. This is always difficult with unaccompanied singing, which has so narrow and subtle a range of color and dynamics; and certainly a challenge when every single text deals with the rather limited list of Mary's attributes! I didn't want to settle on a chronological arrangement, nor on a national one-- I was more interested in mixing these particular elements, not randomly, but intuitively, much as I mix voices when placing them within a section-- not by formula, but by ear, finding the best combination of the materials at hand to build a unified section sound.
I ended up with a program built on five pillars-- five slightly varied iterations of the Ave Maria text, set in widely divergent styles (Josquin, Biebl, Bruckner, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff),for SATB, TTBB, and SSA voicings. I then worked in two chants-- a Magnificat for women's voices, Alma Redemptoris Mater for men's voices-- and two settings by scandinavian composers (Olsson and Kverno) of Ave Maris Stella. At this point I felt I needed something big, a resting place between numerous small pieces-- so I added the Gorecky Totus tuus. I chose the remaining motets and texts-- Britten, Byrd, Sandström, another Rachmaninoff-- to complement what I had.
And, with regret, I discarded just about as many pieces as I chose, each of them wonderful, because I could not justify adding them to what had come to be a unified work with a rhythm and inevitability all its own. A couple that I particularly liked and hated to lose-- Pärt Magnificat and Verdi Ave Maria-- will appear in their appropriate places at our December 6 Advent Vespers at the Monastery. A good reason to attend both events!