Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jessye Norman on Singing

This morning I heard an interview with Jessye Norman on NPR’s Weekend Edition.  Now anything concerning Jessye Norman captures my attention, and not just for her velvety voice!  A number of years ago I bought an album, Spirituals in Concert, featuring Norman and Kathleen Battle singing spirituals, and I was struck by the sense of humanity, sincerity, authenticity, soul—not in the Motown sense—that she brought to these wonderful pieces.  There was a connection with the music and its meaning that went beyond the ordinary diva performance.

She grew up in a musical family, began singing as soon as she could talk: church music, spirituals, children’s songs, they were her musical language from a very early age, and that may be part of the reason her performance on the spirituals album was extraordinary.  But in this morning’s show the interviewer quoted something she wrote in her recent book, Stand Up Straight and Sing! that taps into her magic on a deeper level.

“Singing for me is actually life itself.  It’s communication, person to person and soul to soul, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual expression carried by the breath.”

This absolutely and utterly resonates in my own soul.  It’s what drives me as a conductor, and it’s what drives the chorus I conduct, Master Chorus Eastside.  It’s captured in our mission statement: Master Chorus Eastside, through the very best in choral music, feeds people’s souls.  Without that communication the music can still be beautiful, but beautifully empty.

We tend to respond to the word “soul” intuitively rather than intellectually.  Some dismiss it altogether.  It’s described in several dictionaries as that thing that encompasses consciousness, thought, feeling, life, action, morality, spiritual or emotional depth, something separate from our physical bodies.  However you define it, or perhaps dismiss it, do what Jessye Norman suggested in this morning’s piece: sing, even if you don’t think you can!  All that oxygen you breathe in in order to expel it in song is good for the body, makes you feel good, and makes the person listening to you feel good too.  Go to a Christmas Eve or Christmas day service if you are so inclined, gather with family and friends and sing carols, sing in your car, sing in the shower.  Communicate, soul to soul!

Here is the complete interview if you would like to hear it:

And here is Ms. Norman herself—soulfully!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, December 11, 2014

William Billings' A Virgin Unspotted and Chris Fraley's Let Us Be Merry

I really enjoy the music of the colonial American composer William Billings.  It is tuneful, sturdy, expressive, original, and gives a kind of snapshot of musical life in Revolutionary-War-era Boston.

So what does William Billings have to do with Master Chorus Eastside’s Christmas in the Northwest, which features several works by Northwest composers?

First, a little background on Billings.  He was a singing master in late eighteenth-century Boston, meaning he taught Bostonians how to sing and read music, conducted church choirs, and composed pieces for his six tune books, which were his main teaching tool.  He began his working career as a tanner, but his passion for music is evident in his introduction to his second publication, The Singing Master’s Assistant, in which he describes his feelings upon the release of his first tune book, The New England Psalm Singer (1770).  Here is part of it, creative eighteenth-century spellings intact, at least as best as I can make them out.  See IMSLP for the original,,_William

 “Oh! how did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy!  With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and puting on the covers, with what xtacy did I snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and press it to my bosom, with rapturous delight, how lavish was I, with encomiums on this infant production of my own [can’t make it out; could it be Numbskull?!]?  Welcome!  Thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author...”

And it goes on for a few more rapturous sentences until he begins to reveal his criticisms of this first effort, finally stating that most of it wasn’t worth printing!  Hence The Singing Master’s Assistant of 1778, which contains revised versions of the most popular tunes from his first book plus some new numbers.  He heartily recommends it as much better than The New England Psalm Singer.

I can almost picture him with his short leg, his one eye, his unconcern over his appearance and manner (the famous description of him is all over the web, and can be found in various Oxford Dictionary of Music and Musicians editions, the New Oxford Book of Carols, and lots of other publications), ardently clutching his tune book to his breast!  This is a man after my own heart!

It is in The Singing Master’s Assistant that A Virgin Unspotted appears, and thus the connection with our concert.

The text unfolds the familiar biblical story, and predates Billings by a good 100 or so years; in fact, it could be heard all over England and the colonies with all sorts of variations in text and melody.  Billings’ tune is his own, which he called Judea, and the tenor carries the melody in his four-part setting, as was typical of the time.  It is straightforward and rugged, probably much like Billings himself.  But it’s always fun to see what a modern composer can do with a good tune, so when Seattle-area composer Chris Fraley showed me his arrangement I leaped at the chance to perform it.  He calls it Let Us Be Merry, and it is indeed a merry setting.

Chris wisely doesn’t overdress Billings’ setting, but he adds some creative touches that reveal his own thought processes.    He begins with the refrain, “Let us be merry,” rather than the verse, “A virgin unspotted,” which supports the title and underscores the cheerful nature of the work.  He moves into a minor key for his second verse, perhaps to reflect Joseph and pregnant Mary’s humble origins and their stressful journey to Bethlehem as laid out in the text.  And then in his third verse (the sixth verse in the recording above), he paints the humility of the text with a deft hand: he drops to an even lower and darker minor key, moves from the original’s jolly 6/8 into a somber 4/4, and transfers the melody to the darker-voiced alto.  But hope is evident too, for he repeats the last line twice to accentuate the main theme, swings back into 6/8 for the refrain, lets it spin out for a bit in simple counterpoint, and then joyfully unleashes all in one last repeat of the refrain to conclude.

You can hear it “sung” by a computer at:

Enjoy!  We certainly have enjoyed presenting it at our concerts.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Musings on Master Chorus Eastside’s Concerts: Christmas in the Northwest

Is there something special about a Northwest Christmas?  We have evergreens and holly in abundance, but so do plenty of other places.

We are woefully short of white Christmases.

We do have rain and low clouds and long winter nights, but that’s hardly a mark of holiday distinction (although I think most of us are secretly proud of our toughness in bearing up under a Northwest winter)!

Perhaps what really makes a Northwest Christmas stand out is our wealth of music, especially choral music.  The Northwest, and Seattle in particular, enjoys a richness of choirs and composers that is the envy of cities across the country, and it is our pleasure to celebrate some of those composers in our just-around-the-corner concerts, as well as the carols, new and old, that grace this holiday season.

Our musical program flows in a kind of story line, beginning with calls to rejoice: first, a call to celebrate the birth of Christ in my own arrangement of Personent Hodie, which piles ostinato upon ostinato in spellbinding fashion; then a call invoking the presence of God in Seattle composer John Muehleisen’s mystically luminous Invocation.  He drapes the ancient Scottish text with luscious tone clusters and dissonances, freely shifting meters and soaring melodies to create a sense of ecstasy and wonder.  Next, with halls decked and the festivities prepared, like minstrels of old we unfold the ageless Christmas story in the spirited French carol, Masters in This Hall.

The focus narrows to the Virgin and Child in Seattle composer Bern Herbolsheimer’s superb setting of the much loved carol Silent Night.  Bern was my composition teacher at Cornish College of the Arts, so I am particularly fond of this work, a masterpiece of expressivity, tenderness, harmonic depth, and delicacy of treatment.  Breathless contemplation of that silent, light-filled night merges into childlike images inspired by the Christ Child in Children’s Song of the Nativity with its ingenuous journey to the manger scene, and  memories of childhood Christmases in Away in a Manger.  And in childlike innocence the lovely, graceful In dulci jubilo sings out in heartfelt longing “oh that we were there” with the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest!”  Children, Go Where I Send Thee! sends us on our way “there” in a merry counting game reminiscent of childhood that always leads back to the little bitty baby born in Bethlehem.

We continue with an emphasis on the immediacy of the birth: first, Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), one of the great works of Renaissance choral literature; then Novum gaudia, (Good news! Christ is come today), by Central Washington University professor and composer Vijay Singh.  This is a vigorous medieval processional for men’s voices that begins simply but unfurls in increasingly joyful complexity.  Woodinville composer Chris Fraley takes up a sturdy Revolutionary War-era American tune, Let Us Be Merry, and reworks it in imaginative ways.  William Billings’ original is straightforward, unadorned, but Chris creatively “paints” the text: for example, a minor key setting as Joseph and heavily pregnant Mary head to Bethlehem to be taxed, and somber music and a slower meter to depict the humility of verse 3.  The “virgin unspotted” of the first verse inspired the next grouping, There is No Rose by Oregon composer Clyde Thompson, and Ave Maria by University of Washington choral professor Giselle Wyers.  Both are modern settings of venerable texts, both are stunningly beautiful, and both adore Mary as the mother of Christ.  Clyde skillfully weaves sudden, shimmering harmonic transitions together to mark each new textual thought in There is No Rose, while Giselle’s setting of the age-old prayer to Mary, Ave Maria, layers melodic cells in tide-like ascents that climax in a rapturous outburst of devotion and praise.

We come back to earth with Il est nĂ©, le divine Enfant!, a French country stomp that turns the birth of Christ into a village celebration.  And finally we close with a modern Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, so memorably sung by Judy Garland in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis.  The movie version is sad and poignant, but this arrangement recalls the warmth of dearly loved friends and hangs a star of hope on the highest bough of the evergreen Christmas tree.  And in that lovely moment, our celebration over, we send all out with holiday wishes into their own individual Christmas in the Northwest.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Children, Go Where I Send Thee: Is it Really a Christmas Number?

One of my favorite numbers is the spiritual Children, Go Where I Send Thee, and the use of the word “number” here is not accidental!  Since it creates a kind of rhyming game with numbers, referring to it as a “number,” a synonym for “song,” seems appropriate.  It’s rhythmic, fast, playful, entertaining, but is it really a song for Christmas?

That’s hard to say because no one knows anything about the origins of the song.  It sprang into being, as true folksongs do, out of the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case enslaved African Americans, and just seems to been, well, around.  Some give credit for its revival in the 1950s by Kentucky folk singer and song collector Jean Ritchie, who may have heard it sung by a group of school children.

Here she is singing it as if it were an Appalachian folksong.

But there are several recordings of the number from the mid-‘30s and early ‘40s that pre-date her activities, so it was already in circulation.  Some think it might be a kind of counting/rhyming game (I lean toward this one), others that it served as a kind of biblical education for slaves who couldn’t read, although it’s hard to figure out what it teaches.  I’ve even heard it referred to as a missionary song since it “sends” out the listeners, rather like a sung sermon.  Maybe African American preachers were something of a model, with their dynamically rhythmic delivery!

It riffs on rhyming numbers with words—except when it doesn’t—and like most folksongs there are many variants.  The “three for the Hebrew children” sometimes occurs as “three for the three men riding,” “eight for the eight that stood at the gate” can become the eight that “sealed their fate,” the nine who dressed so fine are sometimes turned into the nine who stood in line, and the number “five” becomes quite creative: “five for the five who came out alive,” or “came back alive,” or even “five for the Gospel preachers.”

No one knows how to interpret these numbers either, although some claim to, especially online bloggers.  Some of the meanings are clear, such as Jesus as the little bitty baby, ten for the Ten Commandments, twelve for the twelve disciples (or apostles, take your pick).  But beyond that it is purely speculative.  Some say that the “three” are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego escaping from the fiery furnace, or the three Magi who brought their gifts to the Christ Child.  The “four” have been styled as the men who let the paralytic down through the roof to be healed by Jesus, or as the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), although they run into trouble when the “five” have also been styled as the Four Evangelists plus Peter.  Some think the “eight” represents those who made it into Noah’s ark.  But when it comes to the other numbers the guesses are wide open.  The  “six who never got fixed” (or “picked” as I’ve sometimes seen it) really has interpreters flummoxed!   One writer thinks it may stand for the jars of water converted by Jesus to wine at the wedding...could work, I guess.  And “guess” is the appropriate word here!

The upshot is, the only connection between Christmas and Children, Go Where I Send Thee is the” little bitty baby born in Bethlehem.”  But that is connection enough to make it appropriate for Christmas, or anytime for that matter.  Master Chorus Eastside is singing my own fast-paced arrangement of it in our Christmas concerts.  We hope to have it on YouTube soon, but until then, here is a dynamite rendition from the ‘60s by a duo called Joe and Eddy.  Their performance here is rhythmically intricate, dynamic, and riveting. I’ve watched it three times, and I am in awe of what they created.  Tragically Joe was killed in a car crash in 1966, which brought an abrupt end to their budding career.  It’s really unfortunate; they were extraordinary performers.


Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Ave Maria at Christmastide

Ave Marias have long been sung as part of choral Christmas concerts.  And that is no surprise, for they can be lovely works of high art.  Perhaps it is the devotion that many feel for the Virgin that inspires composers to create such beautiful music for this ancient text.  Here is a prime example from the 16th century, and one of my favorites.

The Ave Maria prayer has been part of the liturgy from the earliest centuries of the Church, and many, such as Victoria, have drawn directly from its venerable melody. 

But the emphasis of the Christmas season is on Christ, so how did these Marian pieces come to be?  The roots can be found in the Christmas story itself.  The opening line of the prayer is from Luke 1:28, the greeting by which the angel Gabriel saluted Mary at what has come to be called the Annunciation, or the announcement that she would bear the Christ:

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum
Hail, Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you

According to Ron Jeffers’ Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, volume I, this portion of the chant dates back to the 6th century, and was first used as a devotional greeting to Mary, accompanied by some sort of gesture of homage. Later, in the 8th century, it began to work its way into worship services during Advent, as part of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.

The second line also comes from Luke chapter 1, verse 42, Elizabeth’s joyful proclamation as the baby in her womb, later known as John the Baptist, also miraculously conceived, leaped upon hearing the voice of Mary:

benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

It is first referred to as part of established liturgical practice in the 12th century writings of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The last section, a petition for intercession, had apparently been a part of this prayer for several centuries before finally codified for liturgical use by Pope Pius V in 1568.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

These gradual accretions coincided with the flowering of polyphonic music beginning about 1400, and a genre was born.  An ongoing genre, for the bench is deep when it comes to finding Ave Maria settings, ranging from Josquin to Schubert to the present

Here is one of the most popular of 20th-century settings, Biebl’s Ave Maria, sung by one of my favorite ensembles, Chanticleer.

Master Chorus Eastside is contributing to the tradition by singing a modern Ave Maria by University of Washington professor Giselle Wyers.  I wish there was a YouTube of Giselle’s work, for it is stirring and passionate.  Her Ave Maria begins very softly, with chant-like repetitions of “Ave”, and then moves short, repetitive melodic cells, sometimes of just a single word, across a backdrop of long-held chords that gradually shift and turn in ever-changing choral color.  Like a slow-moving wave it builds to an almost-climax at “benedictus fructus ventris tui,” then falls back at “Sancta Maria,” rising through the “nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” to the true, ardent climax at “Amen.”  Then it settles through a small cascade of descending Amens to close in quietness and peace.

It is a great privilege to sing a work of such beauty.  If you can, take in a holiday concert, ours or another chorus’s, especially if it contains an Ave Maria.  For then you walk in the footsteps of the ancients.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Christmas in the Northwest: Clyde Thompson's There Is No Rose

Master Chorus Eastside recently began rehearsing a piece for our upcoming Christmas concerts, a lovely setting of a fifteenth-century carol, There Is No Rose, by Oregon composer Clyde Thompson.  I first became acquainted with the ancient carol many years ago when, as an undergrad, I was given an opportunity to choose and conduct a number for a school concert, one of my earliest conducting opportunities.  I found it in an old edition of the Oxford Book of Carols and fell in love with its simplicity and, to my ears, early music exoticism.

A couple of things make it memorable: it’s a macaronic carol, meaning it mixes two languages together, and the first verse acts as a repeated refrain, which, according to the Book of Carols, was sometimes done in liturgical processionals called sequences.  In fact, the Latin words in the first three verses appear in the Christmas Candlemas sequence that begins “Letabandus,” or “Come rejoicing.”  That may point to a church performance background for There is No Rose.  But for us the text is most famous as one of the movements of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

The carol compares Mary, mother of Jesus, to a rose, a common symbolism in many Latin hymns and a few English carols as well.  Here is the poem, in modernized spelling, with the translations of the Latin words in parentheses.  I love the way the Latin and English phrases intertwine in shared meaning.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu;
Alleluia. (Praise the Lord)

For in this rose containéd was
Heaven and earth in little space;
Res miranda. (wonderful thing)

By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma. (of the same form)

The angels sungen, the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis Deo: (Glory to God in the highest)
Gaudeamus. (Glory to God)

Leave we all this worldly mirth,
And follow we this joyful birth;
Transeamus. (Let us go)

In the early Church the rose, the queen of flowers, gradually came to symbolize Mary, the Rose of Heaven or the Mystical Rose.

A few early Christians were inspired by the contrast between this lush flower and its thorny stem.  The fifth-century poet Sedulius wrote:

“As the delightful and very gentle rose springs forth from a thorny bush without injuring the mother that it hides with delightful charm, so Mary, from the race of the guilty Eve, could as the second virgin wash away, with the coming sacred light, the fault of the first virgin.”

I found the above in a very interesting paper on the history of “rose” symbolism:

Eventually a real rose called the Mystic Rose was developed in Mary’s honor. 

There is no YouTube of Clyde’s shimmery setting, but it matches the beauty of the imagery.  The form, although compact, unfolds with skill and subtlety.  In what may be a touch of Trinitarian symbolism it falls into three parts.  The first three verses, which contemplate Mary and the mystery of the Incarnation, use closely related melodies, but the key center shifts with each verse, thus outlining each one in variegated harmonic light.  With the change of scene in verse four to the angelic “Gloria in excelsis Deo” a new melody appears and the key center moves to a bright D major.  And finally, as we are exhorted to leave worldly mirth and follow—“and follow” repeated twice for emphasis—heavenly joy, a third melody emerges and the music returns to the original key center, E flat, and stays there, no longer leaping from key to key, steady as a compass needle pointing to true north.

You’ll have to imagine what the above may sound like.  Or come to our concert and hear it for yourself.  It’s worth it!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Master Chorus Eastside's Christmas in the Northwest: Composer John Muehleisen

It’s been an extraordinarily busy last few weeks, leaving me no time to blog  But Master Chorus Eastside is gearing up for our December concerts on the 6th and 14th, which feature some exciting works by composers who live here in the Northwest, and I’m itching to write about them.  So, deadlines notwithstanding, it’s my pleasure to begin with Seattle composer John Muehleisen, creator of a beautiful and otherworldly work in our program called Invocation.

I first met John several years ago, and he struck me as friendly, unpretentious, outgoing, easy to talk to—a relief for us introverted types who find hardly anyone all that easy to talk to!  Plus he exhibited an impish sense of humor, always an appealing trait!  He showed me a piece of his, Aversion to Carrots, part of his cycle called Eat Your Vegetables!; it fit right in with a quirky concert I was planning called Sound Imaginarium, and so we performed it.  Here is the entire cycle, sung by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir.  Carrots is the middle piece, sandwiched in there between Bounty (as in the ubiquitous zucchini) and Rah! (short for Rutabagas)!

Invocation couldn’t be more different: enigmatic, mystical, Celtic in its sensibilities.  It’s part of a three-movement Christmas cycle called This Night for chorus and harp, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers in 2003-2004.  John later  reformed it into an a capella version for Seattle Pro Musica.  The poem comes from The Carmina Gadelica, a massive compendium of folk lore and remedies, poems and hymns, legends and proverbs, charms and blessings, in Gaelic and English, gathered from crofters in the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland by a tax collector named Alexander Carmichael, and first published in a limited edition in 1900.

Here is a link to the 1940 edition, volume 3:

The poem appears on two separate pages in volume 2, numbered as if it were two separate poems but John set it as one work, linked by text and music.

God of the moon, God of the sun,
God of the globe, God of the stars,
God of the waters, the land, and the skies,
Who ordained to us the King of promise.

It was Mary fair who went upon her knee,
It was the King of life who went upon her lap,
Darkness and tears were set behind,
And the star of guidance went up early.

Illumed the land, illumed the world,
Illumed doldrum and current,
Grief was laid and joy was raised,
Music was set up with harp and pedal-harp.

God of the moon, God of the sun,
Who ordained to us the Son of mercy.
The fair Mary upon her knee,
Christ the King of life in her lap.
I am the cleric established,
Going round the founded stones,
I behold mansions, I behold shores,
I behold angels floating,
I behold the shapely rounded column
Coming landwards in friendship to us.

It invokes the presence of God and overflows with conundrum and contradiction, darkness and light, mystery and nature, all in service to the Nativity of Christ: the star (of Bethlehem? The Morningstar Himself?  Who can say?), the sun, moon and waters; stagnant doldrum and flowing current, indeed the entire world, illumined; humble Mary holding the King of life; grief laid low and joy upraised; the releasing of music; the enigmatic cleric with his ecstatic vision of mansions and angels and founded stones.

John’s music is passionate, expansive, expressive, challenging!  He uses dissonance to obscure key centers and create an atmosphere of mystery, and fluid melodies and time signatures and subtle tempo shifts to build a sense of eternity, of space and time unleashed.  But the piece isn’t formless.  He brings the music of the first two strophes to the related fourth strophe, but shortened and transformed, as is its text.  The cleric begins with a new melody, befitting his sudden appearance in the poem, but then the “illumed” music reappears as he beholds mansions and shores and angels, perhaps because his vision is equally illuminating. The “star of guidance” melody, which rises and rises in layered tiers, bears a strong resemblance to the soaring lines that accompany the setting up of harp and pedal-harp.  And in a really lovely touch, a similar music unfolds as the shapely column comes “landwards in friendship to us,” but this time inverted, moving downward from heaven, even as the star and harp music moved upward toward heaven.

The above is only a brief analysis of this wonderful work.  There is no YouTube recording, so you will simply have to come and experience it 1n December.  There will be a composers’ forum before each concert, where John and several other local composers will discuss their compositions.  May it illume your Christmas season!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside