A Messiah Performance to Remember (or try to forget)

The following is one of several frivolous tidbits on the St. James Music Press site.

SJMP is the purveyor of the a lot of solid, accesible church music–most of which is freely reproducible once you buy the master copy.  They also publish a series of highly amusing “Liturgical Mystery” novels which are very clever in their satire of life as a church musician.

Listen to the clip here

 

Choir of St. John’s Cathedral, Albuquerque, sings at St. Thomas

The choir of St. John’s Cathedral, Albequerque, New Mexico (Maxine Thevenot, director; Edmund Connolly, assistant) was the guest choir for the Choral Eucharist at St. Thomas Church in New York City this past Sunday (June 17).

The Dean of St. John’s Cathedral is none other than Trinity’s former rector Mark Goodman, who was a curate at St. Thomas back in the day.

The choir sang interesting and engaging repetoire, and they sang it well.  Listen to it here.

Holy. holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: Trinity Sunday

June 3, 2012 – 11:00 am

Erin Althoff and Doug Merritt, violins;
Jennifer Klich, viola; Patrick O’Neil, cello;
Timothy Olsen, organ

Mendelssohn:
Wie der Hirsch schreit (Like as the hart desireth)

from Psalm 42, Op. 42 (1837/38)

Listen to the piece here.

This piece is quintessential Mendelssohn, in all its romantic sweetness and lyricism.  It works well as a stand-alone anthem, but it is actually the opening movement of a longer work.

The longer work is one of a handful of Psalms on which Mendelssohn wrote multi-movement cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra. (Smell Bach’s influence here? Me too…more on that another day.)  This one, which sets the text of Psalm 42 over 7 movements, is a big one.  It’s about 35 minutes long and requires a solo soprano, a solo male quartet, and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus.  The orchestral forces required and just as big as the vocal forces—strings and a full wind section including four horns, trumpets, trombones, and timpani.  Because Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 is such a big piece, it not performed very often—after all, if you are looking to do a multi-movement work of Mendelssohn with a full orchestra, why not just do Elijah?

For this performance (for lack of a better term) we did my own arrangement of the piece, and I would like to briefly tell the story of how that arrangement came about.  First, a bit of philosophy:

For me personally, I start from the premise that every musical performance is, by definition, a set of compromises.  I say “by definition” because I think that the first and most serious compromise occurs at the very moment of composition: that is, when the composer writes notes on page, they are already an imperfect shorthand representation of the sound that he imagines in his head.  When a performer picks up that page his job to bring his best musical knowledge to bear in rendering the notes (which are just symbols) back into sound (which is the actual thing).  This too is an imperfect and reasonably subjective process.  The context of our performance, the ability of our ensembles, and the resources we have available will necessarily determine the decisions—the compromises—that go into the process.

Now from general to specific: how did all this work out in terms of this particular piece?

The first and most obvious decision was one presented by all choral music in foreign languages.  Singing the original German is obviously closer to the composer’s intent, and one generally finds that the right vowels are in the right ranges, and the right stresses are on the right beats.  But to sing in a foreign language presents an obvious barrier to English-speaking listeners; this is an especially important consideration for music used in worship.  Singing in a foreign language can also pose a challenge to an amateur choir with limited rehearsal time.  Singing an English translation, on the other hand, can make things more accessible to the both the singer and the listener, but it can also be a significant degree of separation from the composer’s intent—especially if the translation isn’t a good one.  In fact, some translations actually create musical difficulties not present in the original.  In the case of this Mendelssohn, we elected to sing in German for a couple of reasons.  In the first place, one verse of psalm text was not that much German to deal with.  Secondly, all the English translations that were readily available were pretty awkward musically.

So we didn’t compromise from Mendelssohn’s original in terms of language, but we did have to make some compromises when it came to the manner accompaniment. Doing the piece as written—with a full orchestra—was out of the question because of the obvious limitations of space, cost, and time.  This is a no-brainer; we are used to the compromise of keyboard accompaniments for orchestral works and we accept them freely, otherwise most church and community choirs would not have access a big chunk of the great music in the world.

As it happens, Mendelssohn himself wrote a piano reduction of the accompaniment for this particular piece.  It is unusual in choral-orchestral repertoire to have a piano reduction by the composer, and this option would have provided a pretty strong claim of musical authenticity. We did not go this route, however—not only because there is no piano in the choir loft, but because we wanted a fuller sound that more closely resembled the orchestral original.  To put it another way, we wanted to choose a level and method of compromise that would best suit our particular situation.

So what we did was to have a string quartet (that’s two violins, viola, and cello) play the string parts exactly as Mendelssohn wrote them.  For the wind parts (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) I arranged them for the organ, effectively making a keyboard reduction of just the wind parts.  In fact, it wasn’t even a matter of arranging—I just entered each instrument’s line into a music editing software program (in the case Finale) and then let the software condense them onto two staves to be played by the organist.  I found that the flute parts could be omitted almost entirely because they were usually doubled an octave lower by the oboes (and they were generally in too high a register for the organ anyway).  From there it was a matter of touching up a few things so that they “laid better” for the organist to play.

I also copied the cello/double bass part into the pedal of the organ so that it would sound an octave lower, as it would with the double basses of the orchestra.  We might have achieved a yet fuller sound if we had included an actual double bass with our string quartet, but I was already concerned about balance with our smallish choir.

Download the organ reduction of the wind parts here

This idea of the organ playing a reduction of the wind parts while a quartet (or quartet plus bass) plays the original string parts is one that has been knocking around in my head for a long time, and I don’t know to what degree of success it could be used.  In this instance, my sense is that it worked pretty well.  To those who would say, “Hey you knucklehead—that’s not what Mendelssohn wrote!” I would have to acknowledge that they are of course correct.  But from where I sit, making these kinds of careful and respectful compromises is better than leaving the music on the shelf unperformed.

Listen to other hymns and anthems
from Trinity Sunday
by clicking on the links below
(download the service leaflet here):

Batten: O sing joyfully unto God
Text: Psalm 81:1-4

Kristine Chaney, soprano; Daniele Olsen, alto;
Mark Chaney, tenor; Tim Olsen. bass

Hymn 362, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty (Nicaea)

Hymn 324, Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)

stanzas 1 and 4 are harmonizations from Hymns Ancient and Modern transcribed for string quartet; stanzas 2 and 3 are from Gustav Holst’s well-known anthem setting of this hymn.

Hymn 423, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio)

Hymn 397, Now thank we all our God (Nun danket alle Gott)

+  +  +

“There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice I would finally have nothing more to do with music.  People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words.  With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words.  These too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”

-Mendelssohn in a letter to Marc-André Souchay, 1842

 

Hail thee, festival day: Pentecost

May 27, 2012 – Holy Eucharist, Rite II – 11:00 am

Chris Ackerman and John Crowley, trumpets;
Amy Tully, flute; Matt Ward, oboe;
Steve Kirkman, timpani

Listen to Hymn 225,
‘Hail thee, festival day’ (Salve, festa diesHERE 

Please click on the links below to hear other music from this service; download the service leaflet here

Bach: O Spirit of God, O Spirit of life

Psalm 104:25-37 (Plainsong, Tone 2)

Hymn 521, Put forth, O God, the Spirit’s might (Chelsea Square)

Gabrieli: Jubilate Deo. omnis terra

T. Tertius Noble: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’

The beautiful “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God” by T. Tertius Noble was sung by the Trinity Choir this past Sunday.  The anthem is a setting of Ephesians 4:30-32 and opens with a lengthy soprano solo that was elegantly sung in this instance by Kristine Chaney.

Listen to T. Tetius Noble’s ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’ here:

In our preparation of this anthem, the choir spent a little time musing about the lore and legend of T. Tertuis Noble himself, the founder of the noted St. Thomas Choir School in New York City.  First of all, the name:  what sort of a name is ‘Tertius’? And what does the ‘T’ stand for?  It turns out that the T is for Thomas, and that both his father and grandfather were called Thomas as well.  So he was the third Thomas Noble—hence, Tertius.

T. Tertius Noble (1867-1953) at the organ at St. Thomas

When Noble assumed the post at St. Thomas in 1912, he was already at the top of his profession in England.  He was the organist at York Minster and, at that time, the sanity of leaving ‘Old’ York for New York was seriously questioned by many.  When Noble’s successor at York Minster, Edward Bairstow, was asked about it he supposedly quipped that he would ‘rather go to the devil’ than to America.  But times do change: in fact, history repeated itself 92 years later when John Scott left St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to come to St. Thomas in 2004.

Aside from his edition of Handel’s Messiah (the gray Schirmer books), I would say that Noble’s most ubiquitous musical legacy is a volume called Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes.  It’s one of those collections of fancy accompaniments that organists use for the last verse of hymns.  The music is okay, but I think the most interesting thing by far about the book is Noble’s preface.  It gives a glimpse into church music of that era and reveals some really strongly-held biases on the part of the author.  Here are some excerpts:

“THE practice of singing hymns in unison has been a common one for many years, especially in churches where the congregation really knows the spiritual uplift to be gained from such a custom. I recall the thrilling effect produced by some seven hundred undergraduates singing in unison at Trinity College, Cambridge, England during the services held there on Sunday evenings. It was not only the unisonal singing that moved one, but also the masterful, free organ accompaniments improvised by Charles Villiers Stanford. As his assistant, from 1890 to 1892, I came under the inspiring influence of this outstanding church musician; and ever since that time it has been my practice to encourage unison singing in all hymns, at least in one verse, or, if the hymn is long, in two or three verses.

“Since retiring from active church work, I have had the opportunity of writing down some of these organ accompaniments used in actual practice. This book is the outcome of over fifty years’ experience of congregational singing in churches and cathedrals in England, and at St. Thomas’ Church, New York City. I hope that its contents will be useful to organists throughout the country in churches of every denomination; at least they will be found useful in demonstrating what can be done in this fashion. There may be some who will challenge the changes of harmony and the free accompanimental treatment that has been used to embellish the melodies.  But I am sure that a large number of organists will enjoy the varied treatments provided, and I trust they will be considered in good taste.

Now we leave introduction and enter into commentary:

“In the playing of free organ accompaniments care should be taken to avoid thick registration. Do not use “doubles” or sub-couplers on the manuals, and play the pedal part as written, in the right pitch. The constant use of the lower notes on the pedal board becomes tiresome and should be avoided. Filling in with the left hand should be discouraged, especially in the doubling of the major third and the leading note, and, of course, the promiscuous [emphasis added] adding of the seventh in the chord.  A thick, muddy effect only causes confusion and gives no aid to the congregation in singing. Clean phrasing in the pedal part as well as on the manuals is very essential.  The poor habit of “carrying over” at the end of the lines is very tiresome; this should occur only when the sense of the words demands it.

And yet more commentary:

“Some of the hymns in this collection are of a rather sentimental type, not so much from the standpoint of the melody, but because of the poor harmonization. Many of the tunes written between 1830 and 1900 suffered because the composers, although they could write a good melody, were not able to provide interesting harmonic backgrounds, with good part writing for all the voices…such boring part writing would seem tedious even for a small choir in a village church…

“The singing of hymns by the congregation should be encouraged not only by the organist, but also by the rector or minister of the church. Indeed, an occasional word from the pulpit about this important matter will be found to be most helpful. It is hoped that this collection of additional accompaniments may likewise be useful in carrying out the Psalmist’s injunction to “sing merrily unto God our strength; make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.”

T. Tertius Noble, 1946

 

Well done, good and faithful servant

Antone Aquino (1929-2012)

Since retiring to the Grand Strand area nearly twenty years ago, Antone and Margaret Aquino have been wonderful friends of the arts in general and to the music at Trinity in particular.

They met as undergraduates at the Crane School of Music (State University of New York, Potsdam) and their partnership in music and life was fixed from that point forward.  Antone was a gifted conductor as well as being a fine composer, singer, and organist.  Margaret always has been–and continues to be–a fabulous pianist with a particular love for accompanying.  Both are almost fanatical in their love of opera.  For all their talents as performers, the Aquinos are, at their core, teachers.  This was especially so of Antone—his years as music professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts were always spoken of with particular fondness and pride.

Antone vigorously rehearsing the Salem State College Glee Club in the early 1970’s

The cancer that Antone had dealt with for nearly two years had only begun to slow him down significantly in the last few months–and when death came to him on April 25, it came gently, with Margaret and their daughter Mary Margaret at his side.  Antone’s funeral took place at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Shalotte on May 3, and his ashes are interred in a very beautiful prayer garden on the church grounds.

On Sunday, May 6 at the 11:00 service, I played an ‘Aria’ for organ that Antone had written about ten years ago.  A manuscript of the piece was in a collection of scores that was at Trinity when I arrived.  It is a lyrical and nostalgic piece, and I was glad to add it to my repertoire and to play it in Antone’s memory.

Listen to Antone Aquino’s ‘Aria’ here:

Carolina Master Chorale This Weekend

An American Songbook:
From the American Church to Basin Street to Broadway

The Carolina Master Chorale, Timothy Koch, conductor, presents its season finale, “An American Songbook:  From the American Church to Basin Street to Broadway”.  The concert spans a broad spectrum of American music opening with hymn anthems from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and suites from the smash hit musicals, “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera” and elegant vocal jazz.

Soprano Jo Nell Koch and the Long Bay Symphony Chamber Orchestra open the second half performing Samuel Barber’s beloved “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” on a prose text by James Agee.  This work has been widely popularized in recordings by sopranos Leontyne Price and Dawn Upshaw.  The famous “Old American Songs” of Aaron Copland close the concert, sung by baritone Jeffrey Jones, and accompanied by the Chorale.   The great baritone, William Warfeild, premiered these highly entertaining songs with the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950’s.

Friday, May 4, 2012 – 8:00 PM
Calabash Presbyterian Church, Sunset Beach, NC

Saturday, May 5, 2012 – 4:00 PM
First United Methodist Church, Conway

Sunday, May 6, 2012 – 4:00 PM
Trinity Church, Myrtle Beach

For tickets call 843-444-5774
or visit the CMC website here.