Music of Today for Chorus and Strings
Come bathe yourself in the rich sound of chorus with strings as Musica Sacra presents compositions by some of today’s most exciting composers!
Arvo Pärt is one of the forerunners of the minimalist style, and this mass exemplifies his approach. Peteris Vask and Anna Thorvaldsdottir take up the mantle of minimalism in Latvia and Iceland, while Ola Gjeilo, originally from Norway, continues the exploration in America. You don’t want to miss this rich and satisfying experience!
- Arvo Pärt, Berliner Messe
- Pēteris Vasks, The fruit of silence
- Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ad genua
- Ola Gjeilo, Dark night of the soul
Musica Sacra is requiring that all performers, volunteers, and audience members wear masks at all times. Audience members will be spaced apart in the sanctuary to allow for social distancing.
Venue & Parking
- First Church Congregational
- 11 Garden Street
- Cambridge, MA
- Directions and Map
- Seating Chart, Parking, and Transportation Options
For our Harvard Square performances at First Church Congregational, Musica Sacra provides free parking for all subscribers, and discounted parking for single-ticket holders. The parking lot is University Place Garage, the entrance of which is at 79 University Road. The entrance will be on your RIGHT.
The walk from the covered garage to First Church is approximately 0.4 miles. Please be sure to bring your parking ticket with you to the concert to receive a parking voucher.
- Map of Parking Garage location, with walking directions to First Church Congregational. (You will need to turn down University Road to enter the garage).
This facility is wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchair access is located at the side entrance, around and to the right of the main church doors on Garden Street.
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Notes on the Performance
From Director Mary Beekman
Musica Sacra happily presents tonight’s concert of choral music accompanied by strings. The sonorities of each group—chorus and bowed instruments—creates a whole more glorious than the sum of its parts. All of the composers represented tonight come from Northern Europe, a place which in the recent past has fostered some of the most innovative and creative developments in choral music.
We open with Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe, a work composed in Pärt’s early minimalist phase. Raised Lutheran in the Estonia of Soviet Russia, Pärt converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1976, in which he experienced the role of plainchant* in worship. It was at this time, after peregrinations among compositional styles of neo-classicism and serialism*, interspersed with self-imposed silences and the study of medieval and Renaissance music, that he developed the style, heard in this mass, for which he is celebrated. He named it tintinnabuli, Latin for bells, and described his new philosophy: I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials—with the triad*, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
Pärt has been called a “mystic minimalist,” and this work does conform to the principle of minimalism in painting as explained by the curators of The American Century, the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of 20th century art:
Both aesthetics [Minimalism and Pop]….relied on repetition and serial forms. The Minimalists used standardized units and repetitive structures as a way to downplay the role of personal choice and individual expression in the artistic process—affirming instead the purely physical properties of their work… By rejecting the idea that art expresses the personality of its maker, Minimalism shifted the focus onto the viewer.
Pärt eliminates personal choice in his composition by strictly following self-devised formulas for rhythm and movement. His rhythmic rule is that each word in the text shall have its own measure; as a result, the first syllable of every word occurs on a downbeat, and each measure is as long as the number of syllables in the word. In this environment the stressed beat (thesis) and the unstressed beat (arsis), which have parsed rhythm in musical line from the beginnings of Western European music, have no context in which to operate. In that medium of composition the downbeat is the strongest emphasis in the measure, but in Latin the word stress is usually on the penultimate syllable. Thus, the only time in Pärt’s music that the word emphasis and rhythmic structure agree is in words of two syllables. Once again, this music conforms to the traditions of Western European music only by chance, and not by design.
Pärt’s harmonies are also byproducts of the interplay of the voices moving in accordance with strict rules governing their respective melodic lines. Soprano and tenor are each confined to the notes of one triad,* giving each movement its tonal flavor. In the Kyrie the triad is g minor; in the Credo it is e major. The bass and alto voices have much more freedom in their movement, although their lines most often move stepwise, and they move in tandem, tethered to each other by the interval of a sixth. In this work he relaxes his rules somewhat, perhaps to allow for some personal expression. In fact, he has revised the Credo> since the first time we performed this work in 2000, liberating the words from their containment within their own measures. In the Veni sancte spiritus>, he abandons the rules governing linear movement altogether and honors the Western European heritage of plainchant* with the words grouped rhythmically according to thesis (stressed beat) and arsis (unstressed beat). All four voices are governed by the same principle: an e minor triad forms the basis for the melody, reinforced by a low e pedal tone in the orchestra. Tonal variety is achieved through the stepwise manipulation of one of the notes in the triad. Sometimes the melody will move to c rather than to b, thereby outlining a C major triad. Other times it will move to d rather than e, creating a G major triad. And sometimes the g of the e minor triad will become an f#, creating a b minor triad.
The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir wrote Ad genua as a commission by Philadelphia’s choral group The Crossing and its director, Donald Nally, in 2016. As described on her website:
Her music is composed as much by sounds and nuances as by harmonies and lyrical material- it is written as an ecosystem of sounds, where materials continuously grow in and out of each other, often inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, in particular structural ones, like proportion and flow.
This description of sounds and nuances aptly describes the parts in the string quintet, which employ various effects throughout the work, including bowing with no pitch, bowing with the wooden part of the bow rather than the hairs, saltando,* harmonic overtones, glissandos*, and pizzicatos.* The frequent iterations of the phrase I fall in the poem that she sets, sung by soprano solo, provides inspiration for the choral lines. Following the soloist’s declamation of the words the wild stampede of my fear, the choral parts imitate each other with the melody’s setting of I fall, I fall, I fall in increasingly shorter intervals, wonderfully depicting the panic and chaotic thinking inspired by fear. Sometimes the voices enter sequentially in descending halftones of the chromatic* scale. Other times the singers may have a descending glissando* on the word fall. The chorus will also at times echo the soloist, or sing her line for her, or double her line with minor variations. At the end of the work, when the soloist sings the final line of the poem—I fall to my knees and worship th’ eternal music—the vocal lines pass among themselves the steps of a descending diatonic* scale through its octave to the fifth below, an apt accompaniment to illustrate the final two words. As such this scale also provides a bookend to complement similar material played by the string quintet early in the piece to accompany the soloist’s first completion of her initial line.
Pēteris Vasks, a Latvian born and raised in the USSR, like Pärt, began his compositional career with the aleatoric music* favored at the time. Like the mass of Pärt, however, this piece, The fruit of silence, composed in 2014, shows his transition to a minimalist style of writing. He echoes the simplicity of Mother Teresa’s five line poem with a strophic structure in homophony* wherein each line of the prayer starts similarly to that of the first and then subtly changes through small modifications in first the accompaniment to the melody and then to the melody itself. With each line, the melody reaches a note higher in expressing the fruit of the action until peace, the final result, soars to the highest note of the piece.
Ola Gjeilo, a Norwegian by birth now living in New York City, wrote Dark Night of the Soul in 2010, using the text at the suggestion of the Executive Director of the Phoenix Chorale in Arizona. The work has three parts, with the beginning and ending part set to a restless ostinato* of arpeggiated* chords played by a piano in a molto-vivace tempo in the irregular meter of 7/8. This accompaniment calls to mind the driving repetitive arpeggios characteristic of the some of the music of the well-known minimalist composer Philip Glass. Gjeilo, casts his chorus and quintet of string quartet with piano as equal partners in their collaboration. As he writes:
One of the things I wanted to do in this piece was to make the choir and piano fairly equal, as if in a dialogue; often the piano is accompanying the choir, but sometimes the choir is accompanying the piano (or violin) as well, with the choir kind of taking the role of a soft, but rich “string orchestra” texture.
In the middle section, comprised of three different motifs, the mood changes abruptly, with the chorus humming in accompaniment to a chorale*-like treatment in the piano; this chorale* gets taken up towards the end of the section by the chorus, this time accompanied by sustained chords in the strings. The ensuing section following the chorale in the piano contains an accompaniment of arpeggiated* chords in the piano similar to those of the opening, but their mood is tempered by lushly rhapsodic solo vocal lines. Just before the return to the restless energy of the opening material, a final section in 7/4 provides a sense of introspection and freedom suited to the idea of sheer grace.
It struck me towards the end of preparation for this concert that all the works for strings and chorus in this program have the common theme of love: whether love for God, love for another, or love for music. I do not find it at all surprising that composers, when called upon to give musical voice to love, find the combination of strings and voices to consummately emphasize that emotion. The singular warmth of sound lends itself perfectly to the creation of works of tenderness, passion, yearning and devotion.
© 2022 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.