Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On: Cantata Singers Make Magic with English Choral Works

Cantata Singers
Friday, January 14th
Music of Elgar, Finzi, Holst and Vaughan Williams

When you go to a Cantata Singers concert, you can always be assured that the programming will be interesting and the performance standards will be high. For example, McDoc and I agreed that the diction was excellent on Friday evening (kudos to vocal and diction coach extraordinaire, Allison Voth!). But the performance went far beyond simply being well-done. From the opening tenor line of Gustav Holst‘s The Evening-watch to the closing orchestral chords of Ralph Vaughan WilliamsRiders to the Sea, there was a palpable sense of magic in Jordan Hall.

While listening to that tenor line, by the way, I felt a sudden, deep desire to go home and write some choral music. That pure musical impulse is a rare and beautiful thing. Too often, it gets toxically diluted with guilt or envy, as in, “Oh, if only I could write something as good – I’d better go try!” or, “I can do that, and even better, and I’ll prove it!” Anything that rekindles one’s love of music is a precious gift. As far as I was concerned, Cantata Singers had done their job within about eight notes.

Lucky for all of us, though, they didn’t stop there!

David Hoose conducts Cantata Singers

The first half of the program consisted of unaccompanied choral works, adding fellow early 20th-century English composers Edward Elgar and Gerald Finzi to Holst and Vaughan Williams (the featured composer for Cantata Singers’ current season). The two Elgar pieces, Weary Wind of the West and The Prince of Sleep were beautiful, and beautifully sung, though they sounded a touch old-fashioned to me after Holst’s open-fourth-based harmonies. But the texts of these first three pieces united them, with repeated images of stillness and sleep. (I wonder why poets like to write about sleep so much, and why singers like to sing about it?)

The centerpiece of this group was Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs, which were lively and charming. I enjoyed the onomatopoeia of the repeated “ding-dong” figures in “Full Fathom Five,” on a text from Act I of The Tempest. “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers,” from Act IV, included the famous lines,

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

…continuing the sleep theme! I was struck by the harmonic shift at the very end of this piece, which reminded me of the final “Amen” of Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem, composed ten years later.

Three folksong arrangements completed the first half of the program: Vaughan Williams’ “Loch Lomond,” for tenors and basses, featuring tenor soloist Richard Simpson, and Holst’s “My Sweetheart’s like Venus” and “I Love My Love.” One might worry that “Loch Lomond” (“Oh, you’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye…) would risk sounding trite and sentimental, but I found this performance warm and appealing.

At any good choral performance, you can usually tell by looking at the choir members that they enjoy what they’re doing. But here especially, you could see, hear and feel their love for the music in their facial expressions and physical presence. You could feel that the audience was enthralled, too – there was an audible group sigh at the conclusion of each piece.

When the first half ended, I was so transported that I found it hard to imagine taking in anything more. But I was curious about Riders to the Sea. Vaughan Williams called it a music-drama, which is a term composers use when, for one reason or another, they aren’t quite comfortable calling something an opera. And indeed, it lacks certain features one might expect from an opera, like a love story or stand-alone arias. It does have tragedy, but unlike a typical opera that begins with love and ends in tragedy, this piece is tragedy all the way.

Riders to the Sea, based on the play by J. M. Synge (best known for another play, The Playboy of the Western World is set on an island off the West coast of Ireland. Its central character is Maurya, who has lost a husband and four sons to the sea. When the piece opens, her fifth son is missing, and she tries to dissuade her sixth and last son from sailing for Galway. By the end, her fears prove to be well-founded.

If you just read the libretto, you can’t help but find the whole affair unrelentingly woeful:

MAURYA: They are all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south… I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.

But Vaughan Williams’ sensitive treatment of the text adds another dimension, ennobling the work’s humble characters by honoring their human experience of fear, loss and facing mortality, our own and that of our loved ones. The music becomes more peaceful and transcendent toward the end, even as the words march toward resignation.

Riders to the Sea soloists take their bows

The soloists – Lynn Torgove as Maurya, Lisa Lynch as Nora, Claire Filer as Cathleen and Brian Church as Bartley – performed their roles with focus and commitment, and the semi-staged production was an unexpected theatrical treat at a choral performance.

Speaking of the theatrical element, conductor David Hoose brought stage director Alexandra Borrie on stage for a well-deserved bow after the performance concluded, and I couldn’t help but notice with some envy the fabulous dress she wore. I didn’t get a clear enough photo, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that this little black cocktail dress with its asymmetrical cut-out neckline was…

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Seriously, though, either of the two halves of this program were worth the price of admission alone. If you’re in the Boston area and have an opportunity to hear Cantata Singers, do not pass it up!

Miss Music Nerd Recommends:

Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea; Flos Campi; Household Music

There Is Sweet Music: English Choral Songs, 1890 – 1950

Gustav Holst: The Evening Watch and other choral music

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What Miss Music Nerd Did On Her Summer Vacation!

PhotobucketGreetings and Happy Autumn, Music Nerds!

It’s been an exciting summer here at Music Nerd Central! Before I get into the details, I have a few important news items to share.

First off, if you live in the Boston area and you like to sing, you are cordially invited to check out Masterworks Chorale, a group that McDoc and I sing with. We have open rehearsals tonight at 7:30, and next Tuesday, September 21, same time. Click here for location and details!

September brings with it not only the excitement of my birthday (which was the 8th, but I’ll accept greetings all month!), but the start of the classical concert season as well. I’m going to preview what’s on offer this season in the coming weeks – selectively, of course, because covering Boston’s music scene could be a full-time job (for which I’m available if anyone wants to hire me!). Among the groups I’ll be covering are friends of MMN, Cantata Singers and L’Academie, as well as the aforementioned Masterworks.

PhotobucketOn Saturday, September 25 at 7:30 p.m., my 30 Days Project will be performed Live In Concert by members of the Inter-NEC Collective, from New England Conservatory. This will be the realization of a dream I’ve had ever since I completed the digital version of the project, so I’m really excited! Details are here.

PhotobucketAnd finally, I have my first official not-on-any-old-blog writing credit! One day, while procrastinating doing some musical work I really needed to do, I came across an Open Call on Salon.com’s blog network, Open Salon. They were asking for essays on the theme, “Conflicted Carnivores.” I’m more of a conflicted vegetarian, but I got inspired and wrote a piece entitled, “Of Guinea Pigs and Tuna Melts: My Mostly Vegetarian Journey.” It was tapped as an Editor’s Pick, and I was very excited. Then I got an email from the Open Salon editor saying they wanted to post the piece in the Food section of Salon.com itself, as in the actual online magazine, not the place where any schmo can fling their pixels. So here it is, with my real-name byline and everything: A Lutheran turned vegetarian. I like my original title much better, don’t you? Now I know how Milton Babbitt must’ve felt…

In July, I performed Schumann’s Dichterliebe for the first time, with singer Peter Terry, and I believe it was one of the hottest performances on record. Literally. We had to stop in the middle to give the audience a water break. The beautiful old church where we performed has no A/C, and it has fixed windows that can’t be un-fixed, as per the Boston Landmarks Commission. I wore a halter dress that I had previously judged too bare to perform in, but this was the kind of summer that makes you change your mind about such things!

In August, McDoc and I took a trip to Montreal, where I snagged several Keyboards of the World pics. And one evening while strolling through the Parc La Fontaine, we happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear a free performance by the chamber group Constantinople, who performed Baroque music by Marin Marais and Dimitrius Cantemir in the Theatre de Verdure.
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Constantinople Ensemble

Toward the end of the month, McDoc’s son visited from Southern California. Son of McDoc is twenty-three (I’m a trophy wife, you know 😉 ) and a connoisseur of Scandinavian heavy metal, so I always learn a lot from him. We forced him to attend the final Masterworks Chorale Summer Sing, because what young person doesn’t want to go to a sing-along Mozart Requiem? He had fun, I think – he pronounced the whole affair “pretty darn nerdy!” So what’s your point? 😀

Finally, I spent the first week of September visiting my family in Northern California, for the first time in over two years! I had a great time, and began a new collection of photos: watch this space for Guitars of the World, coming soon!

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It Gets You Every Time!

RockportHarborsunsetWhen McDoc and I were on vacation recently, we were taking a leisurely walk at the end of the day, and had the good fortune to be out at just the right time to watch a beautiful sunset, with its astonishing palette reds and pinks and oranges stretching across the horizon before giving way to purple twilight. The thought occurred to me, and I said it to McDoc, that even though the sun sets every day, watching it never gets old; in fact, it can still take your breath away no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.

I think beautiful music has much the same effect.

Two days ago, I wrote a post about the “Summer Sings” being presented by Masterworks Chorale, a chorus McDoc and I sing with. The second event of the series took place last night, featurng the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. I’m quite familiar with this piece; I played the organ for a performance of it at my old church in San Diego; I conducted two movements of it with a community college chorus; and I’ve listened to it umpteen times, because McDoc plays the recording frequently (we have a whole Requiem playlist on heavy rotation, which may sound morbid, but it isn’t, really!). I’m basically sick and tired of it, to be perfectly honest! I still think it’s a beautiful piece, of course, but I thought I had become immune to it due to such frequent exposure. 😉

So there I was, minding my own business, singing along during the rehearsal portion of the evening. I was feeling pretty smug about how well I remembered the alto part, and what I didn’t remember, I was sight-reading like a fiend! Woo hoo!

Then we got to the last movement, “In Paradisum.” The altos don’t do much in this movement, which starts with a long, soaring melody for the soprano section. Here’s the Latin text and English translation:

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

I was digging on that soprano line, just appreciating the beauty of the music, to which I was perhaps not so immune after all! Then as I read the words, I felt a lump in my throat, and out of the blue, I started thinking about VirgoMom; this coming August, it’ll be 10 years since she passed away. By the time they got to “et cum Lazaro, I was toast. It was darn near impossible for me to come in on that last “requiem,” and the fact that the alto line at that point is set to the tune of “Three Blind Mice,” as I had frequently reminded my college chorus students, didn’t help one bit! 😉

What about you? What work of art never fails to move you, no matter how accustomed to it you think you are?

“In Paradisum” from Requiem by Fauré
Note: the audio is a little glitchy on this video, but I liked the performance.

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Singing for the Summer!

Happy first day of summer, music nerds! If you’re a choral music nerd in the Boston area, there’s something you should know about, if you don’t already!

It’s hard to believe, but in a few days, it’ll be exactly one year since McDoc and I arrived in Boston! In many ways, the year has raced by, but I also feel like I’ve been here longer than that, given all the wonderful people I’ve met and the amazing breadth and depth of musical activity I’ve found here.

One of the first things McDoc and I did upon arriving (after an urgent call to our new landlord when we didn’t find the key to our apartment where the rental agent promised to leave it — we needed to relieve the suffering of one very unhappy car-ride-hating kitty!) was to make our way to the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, not far from our new home, to attend a “Summer Sing” put on by Masterworks Chorale, a Boston-area choral group about to enter its 70th season. We found out about it before we even left Detroit, from a friend-of-a-relative-of-a-friend, and McDoc was particularly jazzed about it, as he loves choral singing like nobody’s business, and had not had room in his schedule for it at all during his first two years of sadistic hellish torture residency training.

What, exactly, is a Summer Sing, you ask? Well, it’s basically where you condense what would otherwise be two or three months of rehearsal into one hour, and then put on a show — all very informally and just for fun, of course! In other words, it’s a quick and easy way to feed your choral music addiction outside of the regular choral season. 😉 We attended several of them last summer, and they were indeed a gateway drug — we ended up auditioning successfully for the Chorale when they started rehearsing in September. 🙂

Each evening is led by either our fantastic music director, Steven Karidoyanes, or one of several esteemed guest conductors, and features professional soloists, too, so it’s like being a performer and an audience member at the same time — what a treat!

Masterworks Chorale in concert. The Summer Sings are somewhat less formal -- tuxes not required! 😉

Now, summer is upon us again, and it’s time for a new season of Summer Sings. This time McDoc and I are not only singing, but serving as volunteer staff! The season opened last Tuesday night with Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Tomorrow night, we’ll sing the beautiful Fauré Requiem, and if you’re in the Boston area and would like to come sing, I may just be the one selling you a ticket!

The Vital Details:

Masterworks Chorale Summer Sings
Tuesdays at 8 pm through August 3
Noble and Greenough School
10 Campus Drive, Dedham, MA 02026 (Google Map)
Tickets: $10 General Admission, $9 for Seniors;
$5 Student Rush with valid high school or full-time college ID
Discounted admission for 3, 6, or 8 sings available at the door!
Plenty of scores available to borrow, at no extra charge!

Here’s the roster of repertoire for the rest of the summer:

  • June 22: FAURÉ – Requiem
  • June 29: HAYDN – Lord Nelson Mass
  • July 6: ORFF – Carmina Burana (Oh, Four Tuna! 😀 )
  • July 13: J.S. BACH – Mass in B Minor [Part 1: Kyrie & Gloria]
  • July 20: RUTTER – Requiem
  • July 27: POULENC – Gloria
  • August 3: MOZART – Requiem

So come out and sing if you’re in town… and look for the gal with the purple streak in her hair, and say hello! 😀

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Music Nerd Merch: the Gregorian Chant Store!

Happy Father’s Day, music nerds!

almaredemptorismugMcDoc just found something to make the music nerdometer redline!

He’s heavily into Gregorian Chant, you see — more so than I am (who’s really the music nerd here, one wonders?), and he found, through the magic of Facebook, this online store featuring Gregorian Chant Merchandise and Apparel. What music nerd’s life could be complete without an Alma Redemptoris Mater coffee mug or an Ubi Caritas T-Shirt? (And if you’re really hardcore [and a grownup], check this out! :P)

But as if that weren’t awesome enough, shop proprietor Brien K. Meehan has embarked on a project to transcribe popular tunes into Gregorian chant notation, while translating the lyrics into Latin. He takes requests! My mind is, once again, reeling with the endless possibilities!

His first entry will take you down memory lane if you grew up in the previous century: Navis Amoris. The Latin doesn’t ring a bell? Here’s a hint:

Sorry to do that do you — I know it might be a bit of an earworm! 😉

Let’s have something more serious as well:

Alma Redemptoris Mater – chant sung by the Trappist Monks of Gethsemani

Ubi Caritas et Amor, setting by Maurice Durufle, sung by the Suspicious Cheese Lords

Hold the phone — the Suspicious Cheese Lords?! This is something that warrants further investigation, not to mention a tip of the nerd glasses!

And here I thought early music was boring! 😀

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Music for Juneteenth!

Happy Saturday, music nerds! Today was a busy day; McDoc and I went to a graduation party for one of his fellow residents (that’ll be McDoc two years from now!), and I spent most of the rest of the day… drumroll… composing! Woot! Oh, and there was also some activity in the Miss Music Nerd Bureau of Graphic Design, but the details have not yet been cleared for release. 😉

So today’s post will be brief: music to mark a holiday that 36 states officially celebrate today: Juneteenth. It’s a commemoration of the time in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, courtesy of federal troops who arrived to reclaim the state for the Union. (The proclamation had been issued by President Lincoln over two years prior to that; if only they’d had Twitter in those days…)

Here’s some great music to mark the day — enjoy! 🙂

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, sung by Kathleen Battle and the Boys Choir of Harlem

A Change Is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke

Lift Every Voice and Sing, sung by Ray Charles

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The Red Sox Festival Chorus? (Also, Where’s the Organ?!)

So I went to my first Red Sox game tonight. Yes, it’s true — McDoc and I have been in Boston for 10 days short of a year now, but hadn’t gone to a game yet! What can I say? We’re music nerds, not sports nerds!

redsoxBut I enjoy going to a baseball game now and then, so when friends of ours invited us to take advantage of some complimentary tickets they got through work, we were delighted to accept. After all, it’s really an excuse to drink beer, eat hot dogs (or in my case, French fries), and shoot the breeze while some dudes play a game in the background. 😉

As you might expect, I was curious about the musical angle to the whole thing. A variety of hard-rocking tunes came over the sound system in snippets throughout the game; McDoc recognized “Stranglehold,” by Ted Nugent (which I definitely could not have identified!) and there was something that sounded like it was about to be a Johnny Cash tune, but that cut out before any identifying vocals came in. I don’t think each batter had his own theme music — but then I was too busy carousing with my friends to pay very close attention!

I’m not sure if Fenway still has an organist, but there didn’t seem to be one on duty tonight. Near as I can tell, the ballpark organist is an endangered species, but support from the fans keeps them from being phased out entirely — keep those letters coming, folks! 😀 At least that’s what I learned from this article about Nancy Bea Hefley, organist for Dodger Stadium… but the article is several years old, so I wonder what the situation is now?

Anyway, what made the biggest impression on me was watching the fans stand and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” During a time when music-making by regular folks at public gatherings is severely on the wane — when was the last time you heard a group of people, who weren’t choir members or anything, sing something together on purpose that wasn’t “Happy Birthday”? — it was nice to see people singing with such gusto. It’s not the easiest song in the world, either, though its familiarity helps, of course. But it was the commitment that got me; it was on a level that many choral conductors only dream of, minus the beer-soaked out-of-tuneness, of course!

Oh, and I can’t fail to mention McDoc’s favorite part: “Ba ba baaa!!!” 😉

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