Last year, Greg Funfgeld told me of his plans for our upcoming Spring Concerts, including venues and repertoire, and I laughed with glee. The art of programming a concert is a little like planning a menu for a dinner party. One seeks a variety of textures and flavors to cater to the expectations of one’s guests (or audience), taking into account individual preferences, aversions, possible allergies, etc. Hopefully, in the end, you will have served a delicious, satisfying, varied meal, or you will have put together a memorable program with a variety of musical affects, possibly a sense of a narrative arc, music that goes beyond mere entertainment, with the possibility for artistic transcendence. This is, however, where my analogy runs into trouble. That dinner party can be too much of a good thing, too many calories, too much wine, too much butter (perish the thought!) – the danger of day-after regrets lurks over the evening. Whereas, with our impossibly rich Spring Concert program, the musical equivalent of four dessert courses, replete with clotted cream (two of the pieces are as English as can be), with some modern American treats in the middle, and something German and tasty, as well, there lurks no danger of regret, save that the program might be over too quickly.
We begin with Sir William Walton’s tremendously exciting Coronation Te Deum, which was composed for the coronation of Elizabeth II. Fans of The Crown will certainly recall those memorable scenes of regal solemnity, but, I have to confess, my heart sank when I realized that the show was ignoring the Te Deum altogether. We aim to remedy that with this performance. This is a work for which Greg seems to have a preternatural affinity, and his enthusiasm is infectious. After a monumentally productive rehearsal of the work last night, a colleague in the choir confessed his excitement about the piece. This afternoon, my wife called me from the car on her way home and asked me to cue it up for listening when she arrived. In college, some of my choral geek friends and I used to air-conduct it together, pausing to argue about which of the many fanfares within the work was the best. It begins with rousing fanfares, choral entrances of up to eight parts, morphs into a Danny Elfman-esque minor-key section with double choirs fanfaring back and forth, then a quietly lyrical and devout section, wash, rinse, repeat.
I have become verklempt several times as we’ve worked on the next piece on the program, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs, partly because the music played such a significant role in my senior year of college, and partly because the process of engaging with them and putting them into your voice is just magical (or it has been both times I’ve prepared to sing them). They are tremendously evocative. Some images Morten conjures up in the score: the blazing late autumn sun, the cascading, fluttering fall of a snowflake, the deep intimacy of two lovers in bed late at night as snow falls outside, the stirring moment of sudden warm breezes at the outset of spring, and an elegiac moment in late October, right before the turn of the seasons, sitting on a sandy bank. That’s just one layer. The poetry that Morten sets is by Robert Graves, an English literary polymath whose alacrity with mythological allusions is singular. The poems become riddles to his personal life, which was tempestuous, to say the least. In the poems, the writer settles scores, conjures up scenes of almost indescribable intimacy, and spares no one, including himself in texts with layer over layer over layer of meaning. Lauridsen absorbs all of Graves’ complexity and his wide matrix of emotions, and somehow creates a musical alchemy that brings it to life. Did I mention that the music is fiercely challenging, with a harmonic palette that is quite out of the Bach Choir’s comfort zone? No matter, my colleges have wrestled with this piece in a way that is so gratifying, with an eagerness for mastery that was beyond inspiring to experience. Perhaps more challenging than the choral parts is the piano accompaniment, which is fast, full of jagged intervals, and extremely detailed articulations. Tom Goeman told me that he spent a week working exclusively on this work this past summer, and to hear him play for us with his peerless musical artistry will be one of the great pleasures of these concerts.
We will pause after this work for a brief intermission, and begin the second half with Bach’s brief and gorgeous funeral motet, BWV 118, O Jesus Christ, meins Lebens Licht. In a season that’s featured lots of other composers and styles, it was interesting to hear this year’s choir sing through this work, which we know well. To my ear, the intonation sparkles like never before, and the linearity of Bach’s counterpoint is given elegant and eloquent shape from the singers, in a way that feels instinctual. This piece has always felt autumnal and Brahmsian, as it shares a pulsing accompaniment, much like the Brahms Requiem (and also like Bach’s own Actus Tragicus). It is a work of exceptional devotion and clarity, a perfect intermezzo before the last work on the program, John Rutter’s ecstatic Gloria.
Rutter seems to pick up where Walton left off, compositionally speaking, and follows a similar dynamic structure to the Coronation Te Deum. We begin with more brass fanfares, complete with droning timpani and crisp snare drum, rhapsodic choral entrances, contrasting lyrical sections, more fanfares, increasing excitement, several climaxes with the sopranos singing high b-flats, a zesty choral fugue, and an ending that will quicken your pulse!
I have attempted to restrain myself somewhat in writing this, lest my enthusiasm for this repertoire seems too manic, but, honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to welcome spring than with this stirring, exciting, beautiful music. This is a feast of the highest quality, offered with love by over a hundred musicians, all of whom have worked tirelessly to master challenging and thrilling music in the hopes of elevating and uplifting all who would hear it. These are special concerts – I hope you’ll accept our warm invitation!