Choral Echoes

Saturday, April 15, 2023 • 7:30 p.m.
Plymouth United Church of Christ (1217 6th Avenue)

Harmonia Chorus
William White, conductor
Sheila Bristow, conductor and organ
Anjali Chudasama, conductor


Jake Runestad (*1986)
Nyon Nyon

Clara Schumann (1819–1896)
Drei Gemischte Chöre

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Vier Gesänge, Op. 17

John Tavener (1944–2013)
The Lamb

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30

— intermission —

Jacobus Gallus (1550–1591)
Ave Maria

Franz Biebl (1906–2001)
Ave Maria

Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
Hear My Prayer O Lord, Z. 15

William White (*1983)
O Clavis David

Stephen Paulus (1949–2014)
Pilgrims’ Hymn

Ken Burton (*1970)
A Prayer

Reena Esmail (*1983)

About the Concert

This concert of choral favorites is set up as a series of dialogues pairing works that resonate with one another, either because of their history, a personal connection between their composers, their subject matter, or some other connection that resounds across the ages.

Streaming tickets are available, however the performance will be recorded and made available approximately 48 hours after the concert.

Parking will be available (for a fee) in the Plymouth Church Garage (heading eastbound on University Street, enter on the right just before reaching 6th Avenue) as well as other nearby parking garages.

Maestro’s Prelude

Welcome to “Choral Echoes,” Harmonia’s first genuine choir concert in a good many years!

Allow me to explain: Harmonia is an orchestra and a chorus under one musical banner. Most of our concertizing is done as a choral-orchestral unit, but once each season our orchestra plays a symphony concert separately. Where does this leave our splendid chorus? For too long, it’s left them without their own opportunity to explore the rich world of choral music — but no longer!

Programming a choral concert is a totally different experience than programming an orchestral (or, by extension, a choral-orchestral) concert. With symphonic music, you generally choose one large, multi-movement work, and then program smaller bits to complement it. But in the world of choral music, the vast quantity of the literature is “smaller bits.” So how do you make a concert of short works coalesce into a satisfying whole?

To assemble this evening’s program, I considered our season theme, “Dialogue.” Each work is paired with a counterpart to create a “conversation.” For example, we have music by Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, lifelong friends who corresponded frequently about their music. We have two mid–20th century English choral works about lambs. (Metaphorical lambs, of course.) We even have musical dialogue carried out across the centuries, exemplified by two Ave Marias, one from the 1570s, the other from 1959.

I’ve contributed one of my own works to the proceedings, O Clavis David, which was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists on behalf of St. Mark’s Cathedral here in Seattle. In this work, I explicitly wanted to reference the style of Henry Purcell, hence Mr. Purcell is represented with his Hear My Prayer, O Lord.

The program is bookended with music by two of the brightest stars in the world of contemporary choral music, Jake Runestad and Reena Esmail. To represent each composer, I’ve chosen a short, energetic work that avails itself of nonsense syllables and vocal percussion.

Another consideration for a choral concert is that one can choose pieces to highlight the variety of accompaniment forms. Tonight we’ll hear a cappella works as well as music for choir and organ, but also one very special piece with an accompaniment of harp and horns. On the organ tonight, we are accompanied by the sure-fingered Sheila Bristow, Harmonia’s superb choral accompanist, orchestral keyboardist and collaborative composer.

Here’s to the founding of a new annual tradition! We hope you enjoy it very much.

William White

P.S. If at any point this evening you find yourself missing the Harmonia Orchestra, fret not. Our musical forces will reunite down the street at Benaroya Hall on May 7 for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Secure your tickets forthwith!

Program Notes

“When I was in college,” composer Jake Runestad told the International Choral Bulletin, “I put together a small choir of my friends in order to practice conducting and to perform new music. I wrote a work for them called Nyon Nyon that incorporates unique vocal sounds, beatboxing and nonsense words. At the time, I thought it was just a fun way to make music, but little did I know that this work would become my most-performed piece, receiving thousands of performances around the world!”

Clara Schumann composed her only choral work, the three part-songs heard this evening, in 1848 as a birthday present for her husband, Robert. Setting words by German poet Emanuel Geibel that evoke Venice, they received their first performance in Dresden on June 10 of that year by members of a chorus that Robert had recently founded. “The first (‘Evening Celebration in Venice’),” writes Dennis Shrock, “lauds an Ave Maria sung during the ringing of bells from the many towers in Venice; the second (‘Forward’) chides the artist to stop dreaming and wavering and to press onward in art; and the third (‘The Gondolier’) paints a picture of lovers on a gondola in Venice under the moonlight.”

In 1859 Friedchen Wagner, one of Johannes Brahms’ piano students in his hometown of Hamburg, requested that he arrange some folk songs she could sing with her sisters. “After a short time,” she wrote, “several young ladies came to take part in the singing and thus gradually a women’s chorus was formed in my parents’ home.” Among several works Brahms composed for the group is a set of four choral songs (written in February 1860) featuring the unique accompaniment of two horns and harp (the latter suggested by the text of the first song, the horns by the folk-music style Brahms employed). Clara Schumann encouraged this choice, calling it “most uncommon,” “full of feeling” and even “spellbinding.” Brahms selected for the texts of these songs two German poems and two English texts in German translation, conducting the Hamburg Women’s Chorus in the first public performance on January 15, 1861.

British composer John Tavener received an early career boost when John Lennon and Ringo Starr took an interest in his 1969 cantata The Whale, which was subsequently recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label, as was Tavener’s A Celtic Requiem, which prompted Benjamin Britten to recommend him for a Royal Opera commission. Tavener wrote The Lamb, a setting the poem of the same name from William Blake’s 1789 Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in 1982 “while being driven by my mother from South Devon to London. It came to me fully grown so to speak, so all I had to do was to write it down. It was inspired by Blake and by my three-year-old nephew, Simon.” The work was premiered on December 22, 1982, at Winchester Cathedral.

Benjamin Britten’s “festival cantata” Rejoice in the Lamb, for chorus (including vocal solos) and organ, was commissioned in 1943 by Rev. Walter Hussey for the 50th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. The text comes from the religious poem Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722–1771), first published in 1939 and written during Smart’s confinement on a “Commission of Lunacy.” The first section, writes Hussey, “sets the theme,” while the second gives examples of people “being summoned from the pages of the Old Testament to join with some creature in praising and rejoicing in God. The third is a quiet and ecstatic Hallelujah.” The fourth uses Smart’s “beloved cat as an example of nature praising God by being simply what the Creator intended it to be,” continued in the fifth with a mouse. The sixth “speaks of the flowers — ‘the poetry of Christ.’” The seventh refers to Smart’s “troubles and suffering, but even these are an occasion for praising God.” The eighth “gives four letters from an alphabet, leading to a full chorus in section nine which speaks of the musical instruments,” while the final section “repeats the Hallelujah.”

The late-Renaissance composer Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Händl and Jakob Petelin) was born in what is now Slovenia and as a teenager travelled to Austria, where he worked for a time as a choirmaster. He spent the last years of his life as organist in Prague, where in 1587 he published his six-part Opus musicum, consisting of 374 motets for use throughout the church year. His Ave Maria motet heard this evening was long attributed (mistakenly) to the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria.

The Bavarian choirmaster and organist Franz Biebl wrote his Ave Maria motet for TTBB chorus in 1959, telling Wilbur Skeels that “he had in his church choir a fireman. It was common for companies, factories, police and fire departments, etc. to sponsor an employees’ choir, which often would participate in choral competitions and festivals with other similar choirs. This fireman asked Biebl to please compose something for his fireman’s choir for such an occasion. The result was the Ave Maria.”

The eight-part choral anthem Hear my prayer, O Lord, composed around 1682 by Henry Purcell, sets the first verse of Psalm 102. Purcell’s music is a favorite of Harmonia music director William C. White, and the same Psalm 102 text opens his choral anthem O Clavis David, written on commission for the 2022 American Guild of Organists convention, where it received its premiere at St. Mark’s Cathedral on July 5. “The idea behind the O Antiphons (familiar from the hymn ‘O Come, o come Emmanuel’),” writes the composer, “is that Jesus is described in a sequence of seven Messianic titles: ‘O Wisdom,’ ‘O leader of the House of Israel,’ ‘O Root of Jesse,’ etc.” In “O Key of David,” Jesus “is viewed as the key that will unlock the gates and set the prisoners free. It seemed clear to me that this could be a very strong prison abolition/social justice piece. So I went hunting for other biblical passages that pertain to this theme.” He settled upon several such passages as well as excerpts from letters by Elizabeth Hooton (1600–1672), the first female Quaker minister, who was repeatedly imprisoned for her beliefs. Her “letters from prison decry the conditions and the widespread imprisonment of innocent people who were locked up behind bars (or in many cases, those who may have been locked up because of unjust laws). She was a regular 17th-century Martha Stewart!”

“In April 1997 I had a one-act opera called The Three Hermits (based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy) premiered at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota,” writes composer Stephen Paulus. A friend “encouraged me to have the final chorus in the opera published as a separate work” and “eventually I sort of grudgingly adapted and extracted a short choral work from the opera consisting of just the final chorus. I printed up 1,000 copies at a local print shop” as the first piece published by his own company. These “sold out quickly and we eventually started printing up 3,000 copies and then 10,000 copies at a time.” The work was subsequently sung at funeral services for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

British composer, conductor, keyboardist, singer and television judge Ken Burton composed A Prayer for the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers, who premiered it in London on March 28, 2021. The text is by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), the son of emancipated American slaves. Burton characterizes his work as “like a reflective evening hymn in its use of a consistent, rhythmically simple melody” requiring sounds ranging from “the Middle-Ages organum style” to “a contemporary vocal approach.”

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail writes that the title of Tuttarana “is a conglomeration of two words: the Italian word tutti means ‘all’ or ‘everyone,’ and the term tarana designates a specific Hindustani (North Indian) musical form, whose closest Western counterpart is the ‘scat’ in jazz. Made up of rhythmic syllables, a tarana is the singer’s chance to display agility and dexterity. While a Hindustani tarana is a solo form, I wanted to bring the tarana into an ensemble setting.” The original SSA version was commissioned by Mount Holyoke Glee Club and premiered on January 17, 2015 in South Hadley, Massachusetts; the composer has subsequently made arrangements for SATB chorus (heard this evening), as well as brass quintet.