All Around the Circle is a completely secular concert. It is also, as the subtitle suggests, “a little bit of everything rolled into one.” Continuing with the “worth a repeat” formula, this concert was the one that had to include all of those pieces suggested by you and the choir that wouldn’t fit into any other concert. I guess you could say it is also a “potpourri” or a “pastiche.”
Amherst, Massachusetts was celebrating its 200th anniversary in 1959. To commemorate the occasion, Randall Thompson was commissioned to write Frostiana, a set of seven country songs for men’s, women’s and mixed voices with piano accompaniment, all set to texts by the American poet Robert Frost, who was living in Amherst at the time. Probably the two most popular pieces are the opening The Road Not Taken and the closing Choose Something Like a Star. Frost said of the narrator of The Road Not Taken that “he was a person, who whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.” The seven songs in the set have appealing and colloquial elements that match those found in Frost’s poetry but are enhanced by the additional layer of musical language. For the opening of Choose Something Like a Star, Frost has the sopranos hold a high D while the rest of the voices continue with the text. As one musicologist put it, “this D held for several measures…creates the musical image of a distant star that reassures mankind.” Both pieces show characteristics that one has come to expect in Thompson’s music – homophonic settings with great attention to how the notes are to be sung, and endings that are very soft and scored so that all voices are in their lowest range. Frost was so impressed with Thompson’s musical interpretations of his poetry, that for years he forbade any other composers from setting any of his texts to music.
Imant Raminsh came to Canada from Latvia as a young child. He has been composing choral (at one point he studied with Elmer Iseler) and instrumental music for over fifty years. In 1986 to celebrate the Da Camera Singers 25th anniversary Raminsh chose part of a text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The piece is entitled Smile, O Voluptuous, Cool-Breathed Earth! Primarily chordal throughout, it is a lush expression of the many wonders the earth has to offer. It is not until the end of the piece that there is resolution as to why the earth should smile. The final lines are “For your lover comes!” There is evocative use of the piano throughout the piece.
I Turn to You is also by Raminsh. The main musical theme passes back and forth between the three upper voices but often the tenors and basses provide a rich underscoring of the interplay between the soprano and alto voices. As it says in the score, Raminsh’s music “is often characterized by a sense of urgency, and is propelled by a strong lyricism and moving spiritual depth.” I Turn to You was commissioned through funds made available to Conrad Grebel College, a Mennonite liberal arts college on the campus of the University or Waterloo, to encourage the composition of sacred music. This is the only piece on this concert that could be considered religious in what else is a completely secular concert.
The American composer Z. Randall Stroope choose Spanish Renaissance poet Garcilaso de la Vega’s Soneto V to set to music. The poet wrote only 38 sonnets and a few songs and odes before he died of wounds received in military combat at the age of 33. This is a poem of great love and Stroope has painted the words and the emotions of the poet into an absolutely beautiful piece to sing and to listen to. Although Stroope’s translation does not accurately mirror the Spanish text, the profoundness of his music does. Amor di me alma (You are the love of my soul) begins and ends with much the same musical ideas that frame a section in the middle for sopranos and altos while the tenors and basses sustain a G-sharp throughout. This piece can be sung either a cappella or with piano accompaniment.
Ten years ago David L. McIntyre was commissioned to write a piece for Saskatoon Chamber Singers 30th anniversary. He chose a poem by Saskatchewan poet John V. Hicks and set Where You Begin Like Rivers to music. The piece has a challenging piano part and various sections that each paint a vivid picture from the sweet singing sound of the river, to the voices of the little stones, to the expansiveness of the flood, to the image of flying horses that leap and thunder, and finally to the calm serenity and tranquility of the water.
Figures de danse (Dance Steps) is a “suite fantaisiste pour voix mixtes.” Each of the six short sections take a rather comic look at the world of dance and the people who inhabit it, concentrating especially on some of the mishaps (or shall we say missteps) that befall them. The words and music are by Quebec composer Lionel Daunais.
Juhani Komulainen was born in Finland in 1953 and studied extensively with the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Four Ballads of Shakespeare won first prize in the 1994 composition competition of the Hensinki chapter of Sulasol, the publisher of this set of pieces. What is unusual about these pieces is that Komulainen takes texts from Shakespearean plays that are not traditionally set to music and calls them ballads which one would not necessarily expect of such texts. This concert will feature three of the four ballads. To Be, or Not to Be (Hamlet III, i) tosses fragments of the opening words of the soliloquy back and forth between the four voices, all the time creating a certain ambiguity that never really answers the question. Three Words (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii) is a gentle but urgent plea on the part of Juliet for Romeo to tell her where and when she should meet him so that they can be married. Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Macbeth V, v) captures the frustration and futility that Macbeth has to realize about his life. The pathos and the despair are evident in the musical line. A short section in the middle is sung at half the tempo as the two sections that surround it. The piece ends with a sense of frustration that seems to be heading headlong into even greater chaos. Over the course of the past forty years, SCS has presented at least two full concerts devoted to music set to the poetry of the Bard.
Rytmus (Rhythm) by Slovakian composer Ivan Hrušovský is the third of this Tri etűdy (Three Etudes). And it is just that, rhythmic and filled with energy. The text is also by the composer and is addressed to Eve, “the source of love and the queen of nobleness.” Composed mainly of changing eighth notes, this piece is mostly in eight parts with the voices either singing all together or answering each other. The dynamic range is wide and the last eighteen measures are a rollercoaster of energy and excitement.
Jenny by American composer Nick Myers tells of a sad situation in which the poet, who mourns the loss of a loved one (probably a child), is left with only the word” Jenny” carved into the bark of a tree. The piece is homophonic throughout and captures the sadness of the one who is left, but also ensures that the lost one will never be forgotten.
Matthew Harris, an American composer, has written six books all entitled Shakespeare Songs. From Book VI comes Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I which is a rhythmic and joyous expression of life, just as what Ariel experiences when he is set free in The Tempest. Also from Shakespeare, this time Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV, ii) is the fifth piece in George Shearing’s choral suite Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare. Who is Sylvia? is a gentle and serene acclamation of the virtues of Sylvia such that “to her let us garlands bring.” Each of the three verses makes use of the same tune and harmonies so that the concentration is on the words rather than the music.
One of the most beautiful arrangements done for the King’s Singers is Peter Knight’s arrangement of John David’s You Are the New Day. As the words say “Hope is my philosophy” and “Love of life means hope for me,” this piece brims over with optimism and lyricism. At a time when the world seems closer and closer to being destroyed by man’s indifference, hatred and fear, this piece tries to reassure us that love of someone and the world is always the chance of a new day.
All Around the Circle is a Canadian folksong suite written by Manitoba native John Greer. Originally written for four solo singers and two pianos, Greer subsequently arranged his piece for soprano solo (Julie Watt), bass solo (Gabe Benesh), SATB choir and one piano. The first portion of the work consists of arrangements of When the Ice-Worm Nest Again (Arctic), The Alberta Homestead, Old Grandma (the Prairies), and Rattle on the Stove Pipe (Ontario). This is followed by a section in which the piano imitates the calls of the American robin, the Connecticut warbler, the myrtle, the black and white warbler, the common yellowthroat, the white-throated sparrow and the black-capped chickadee. After that Greer has the soprano solo sing Do You See That Bird There? (Nova Scotia) and The Morning Dew (Conception Bay). At the end of the second solo, the soprano is joined by the baritone soloist and finally the full choir. The final third of the piece is called a quodlibet or “a light-hearted medley of well-known tunes.” All the songs represented are from Newfoundland (I’se the B’y, Feller From Fortune, The Loss of the Ellen Munn, A Great Big Sea Hove in Long Beach, The Banks of Newfoundland, The Killigrews Soiree, Anti-Confederation Song) and appear in the various sections of the choir, each voice often singing a different song at the same time. The section becomes more and more complex and finally ends in a rollicking gallop.