Festival Chorus

Festival Chorus

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

National Choir Appreciation Sunday

A video message from "Queen" Latifah ahead of National Choir Appreciation Sunday, January 8th

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Carols

A rather informitive article about caroling that originally appeared in the Telegraph
You may find the original article  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8963230/O-come-all-ye-tone-deaf-if-only-once-a-year.html

O come all ye tone-deaf – if only once a year

Christmas carols give even the hardest-hearted the licence to shed a sentimental tear.

Belting out the old familiar tunes, most of which are not that old - O come all ye tone-deaf – if only once a year
Belting out the old familiar tunes - most of which aren't actually that old... Photo: PA
Years ago, I was a lodger in the vicarage of Hampstead’s parish church, a life-conditioning experience that offered an insider view of Christmas. And one thing I remember was the endless ringing of the phone from late November onwards with a thousand repetitions of the same enquiry: “What time is the carol service?” To the point that the vicar’s wife – a feisty soul who spiked her husband’s chances of a bishopric by writing books about the church as a conspiracy against women – would lose her cool and snap: “If you ever came here other than at Christmas, you’d know.”
It’s probably been much the same during the past few weeks (no doubt with a more welcoming response). Tonight, when Hampstead has its 2011 carol service, the church will be packed as it never is during the rest of the year, with people it doesn’t see at any other time. What’s more, they will be singing – which is also something they most probably don’t do at any other time.
Apart from Auld Lang Syne and the National Anthem, there isn’t much music for collective singing that the average Brit without a personal connection to Gareth Malone feels comfortable with. But Christmas carols are another matter. They give you licence to be self-exposing, sentimental, human (even corporate bankers shed a tear during Silent Night). And more significantly, they capture the effect that Christmas has on us all, irrespective of religious belief. The effect of concentrated time, collapsing.
There’s one carol in particular, O Little Town of Bethlehem, that sums it up in spiritual terms: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” But even secularists can probably feel something similar: a meeting of hopes, fears, happenings and memories, albeit without reference to any “thee”. Christmas connects us with our pasts, with all the other Christmases we’ve known. More than that, it connects us with the collective past: with all our squabbling forebears who, at this one moment, have contained their loathing of each other, gathered peaceably in Cotswold churchyards, medieval cloisters or the trenches of the Somme, and sung these tunes. Throughout the centuries, or so it’s nice to think.
Needless to say, the truth is different. Christmas is, of course, a largely 19th-century invention: so are all those carols. Most of them aren’t hugely ancient. Most of them aren’t even carols, if you’re strict on definition. And the ones that are tend not to have particularly spiritual origins, mixing the sacred with the secular – although that’s something to commend them to a modern congregation, similarly vague on where it stands with God.
Historically, a carol was a dance-tune, sung to simple, repetitive texts and a robust affair – as much to do with drinking and fertility rites as with the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t welcomed in church where, up to the Reformation at least, Christmas music was still steeped in the contemplative calm of plainsong. And when the Reformation kicked in, it came with a distrust of Christmas that prepared the ground for Cromwell’s abolition of it from 1644 to 1660. So no carol singing then.

But history being an untidy process, it was a Cromwellian soldier who came up with the first English carol text to enter common repertory: the Wither’s Rocking Hymn (best-known these days in a setting by Vaughan Williams). It caused him trouble, and the Stationers Company refused to allow publication on the grounds that it was “popish, superstitious, obscene and unfit to keep company with the psalms”. But it set a precedent. And in 1700 it was joined by While Shepherds Watched, which for a long while was the only Christmas carol officially allowed in Anglican liturgy.

By 1782 there was a second, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (or, as it originally ran, Hark, How all the Welkin Rings). But from that, you see how slow the process of acceptance was. Only in the mid-19th century – prompted on the one hand by the rigorous Methodist promotion of hymn-singing, and on the other by romantic, Anglo-Catholic medieval fantasies – that the standard repertory built up. In some cases it was a scholarly process of refashioning old texts and fitting them to new tunes (or vice versa), masking their newness in the Gothic Revival manner of texts like Good King Wenceslas – which may seem old and exotic but was actually cobbled together in East Grinstead by a Victorian liturgist called J M Neale. And it was of course these Victorians who bequeathed us a vision of Roman-occupied Judea very like East Grinstead, 1850: See Amid the Winter’s Snow and its companions wilfully adjusted the Nativity to Anglican experience.

As for false antiquity, the seemingly timeless King’s College service of lessons and carols was invented in 1918 – by a priest who had just come back from the trenches, where he’d acquired a taste for liturgical improvisation. And the first classic collection of Christmas music in print was the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols: presiding genius, Vaughan Williams. But by then the carol had taken a different turn: reinvented yet again as a refined, exquisite anthem for the choir, without participation from the pews. The early 20th century confirmed a long historical process that took carols off the streets (where they were public property) into the sanctuary (for trained musicians, robed and surpliced and apart).

Some commentators see that as a bad move, but it generated an outstanding choral culture serviced by the likes of Herbert Howells and Peter Warlock (whose Bethlehem Down, the most magical of all modern carol-anthems, exists thanks to a Telegraph competition). And happily, that culture still exists. Only the other week, I heard the elite professional choir Tenebrae sing a carol concert, and the whole event was a showcase for new or recent work – by composers like Roxana Panufnik, Judith Bingham and Patric Standford (whose This Day got my personal vote).

The problem is that all the good new carols these days are for choirs. Even John Rutter, living king of Christmas music, isn’t coming up with modern classics for a congregation. And to my mind, the fixed universe of carols that everyone can join in badly needs refreshing: thank God Christmas comes but once a year when it means another round of Silent Nights and Once in Royals. But I guess the 100 million-plus who tune in to King’s, Cambridge next week, and the throngs who make their yearly trip to Hampstead parish church tonight, will take a different view. For them it will be the same, much-loved old stuff that meets together with their hopes and fears. Even if it isn’t actually that old.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Program Notes

The following are the program notes from our December 11th performance.

Program Notes

mag∙nif'i∙cent (from the Latin magnificens doing great things)
             1. splendid; stately; imposingly beautiful; grand; rich or sumptuous, as in construction, decoration, etc.
             2. exalted: said of ideas, etc., and also of former rulers.
Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Second Edition

December is a time of preparation and, for many, a time of frantic business. It is also a time of beautiful and magnificent traditions. Music dominates the season and there is a sense of magic and wonder in people of every age and in events great and small.  Our Christmas Choral Concert this year attempts to capture the essence of those traditions and experiences both in modern music composed for the season and in the work of an exalted master of the baroque period. As we journey through various styles, ensembles and combinations of forces, the Magnificat or "Song of Mary" from the gospel of Luke serves as an anchor to our program.

magnficat is a canticle or song taken directly from the Bible which tradition tells us was sung or spoken by a specific character in the bible, in this case the Virgin Mary. Often called the “song of Mary”, the Magnificat comes from the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55 after receiving the news that Mary is to bear the son of God.

There are approximately ten canticles that have received the attention of composers through the ages and from those ten it is two of the canticles from the gospel of Luke, the “Nunc Dimitis” or “Song of Simeon” and the Magnificat that have had countless settings. Yet even among those two, the song of Mary stands out. Through the years the Magnificat has been set by such master composers as Victoria, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Byrd, Tallis and Penderecki.

The first portion of our concert features our own men's quartet, the Jingleberries (the artists formerly known as the Choir Boys), the Cherub Chicks, the debut of the "supergroup" the Mistletones and the Sisters in Song. Though the selections of the first half are either newly composed or arranged in the last fifty years ( recent in terms musical history) they all have strong roots in the long tradition of choral music. Rounding out the first half is a setting of the "Magnificat" by contemporary composer Z. Randall Stroope.

This modern setting by Dr. Stroope for soprano and alto voices and four hands piano is macaronic, meaning that it makes use of two languages, in this case Latin and English. The opening use of the Latin immediately connects us to a choral tradition stretching back to the renaissance and beyond but the recurring use of the G major add 9 chord lets us know that this is a distinctly modern piece.  This is a wonderful contribution to the legacy of compositions and stands out as stunning addition to this combination of voices.

At the beginning of this year, famed music critic of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini undertook a two week project soliciting input on the top 10 composers of all time from readers and critics alike. Quickly it became evident that one name rose to the top of the list, Johan Sebastian Bach. In an introductory video posted on the New York Times website Mr. Tommasini states "Musicians always seem to start with Bach and with good reason, if there was one composer in history who is an ultimate master,
the ultimate master it would be Bach. Bach summed up everything that happened in music and anticipated everything that was to come."

Aside from the settings of the Latin Mass and Requiem, the Magnificat is one of the most beloved Latin texts in the history of the western church. In the canon of church music few settings rival that of Johan Sebastian Bach. As musicologist Hans-Joachim Schulze so elegantly writes, “The crowning achievement of this extensive tradition is, without question, the Magnificat of Johann Sebastian Bach, a work which, by virtue of its orchestral brilliance, its compositional concentration and intensity, the variety of its constituent movements and its profundity of textual exegesis, far transcends all previously established norms.” (Concluding Remarks of the Edition Peters Vocal Score)

The Magnificat in E flat major was composed in his first year of service in Leipzig, Germany where Bach was responsible for the music programs at the two most important Lutheran churches, the Thomaskirche and Nicholaikirche. At this time, and particularly in this region, there was a strong connection to Martin Luther and the reformation (1517) in which the reformers strongly advocated the use of the German language in church. There was a swift and dramatic shift over to the German language used in church except for very special occasions, and in Leipzig, Bach encountered a tradition in which a Latin setting of the Magnificat would be sung on high feast days, such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. So it was that this setting of the Magnificat was premiered on Christmas Day, 1723.

The original setting of the Magnificat premiered at that time was in E flat major, an unusual key for many reasons, particularly because it would have been nearly impossible to play on the trumpets of that day which had neither keys nor valves which were not in widespread use until the nineteenth century. Some have suggested that the strings might have tuned down a half step to the key of D major which would have accommodated the trumpets. In that original performance, records indicate that there were four additional a cappella choral settings of interpolated Christmas texts and it is plausible that these selections were pre-existent and that the Magnificat was composed to accommodate those pieces and not cause harmonic clashes between movements.

Whatever the reasons were, it appears that in all subsequent performances Bach removed the four interpolated choral pieces and lowered the key to D major, which not only accommodated the trumpets but also allowed the strings to play in open positions, which creates a more brilliant timbre throughout the section. The removal of the additional choruses also allowed this piece to be performed on other major liturgical feasts. Somewhat ironically, it is believed that German pipe organs at the time were tuned slightly more than a half step lower than our modern instruments, the result being that the current setting of D major played on modern instruments sounds very close to the E flat of Bach’s time.

For many generations of musicians immediately following the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was primarily known and remembered for his work as an organist and composer of organ music. His setting of the Magnificat was one of the few pieces that seemed to survive the changes in musical styles and was even one of the first non-keyboard compositions of Bach to be published in the 19th century.

No matter what key it is played in, what type of instruments it is played on or even whether or not the interpolated pieces are included, the Magnificat is a piece worth performing and hearing again and again. We hope you enjoy it!

Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory!)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Greatest

More on the top ten composers of all time


Why Bach?

New York Times music critic Anthony Tomassini discusses why Bach is so important to musicians and music history in this video. One can't help but be impressed by his enthusiasm especially in a man who is payed to be critical for a living.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Concert Flyer

Christmas Choral Concert
"Magnificent Christmas"
Sunday, December 11th at 7pm
Featuring the Sisters in Song, Cherub Chicks, Jingleberries and the debut of the MistleTones. The Sanctuary Choir will be joined by members of the Chancel Choir and Masterworks Chorale of First United Methodist Church, San Diego, Soloists from the San Diego Opera, and San Diego Festival Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Stan Wicks

Childcare available
No Admission Charge
Free-Will Offering

First United Methodist Church
1200 East "H" Street
Chula Vista, CA 91910

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bach to the present

Was sent this video with some neat factoids about Johann Sebastian Bach and his organ music. While it is a great video, it's essentially an advertisement for Allen organs. Still worth sharing.