Classical Revolution PHX
Music protesting war and violence takes many forms — from 20th century songs like Metallica’s hit “One” and Sting’s “Russians” to earlier expressions by Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez. And long before John Lennon and Pete Seeger made their mark, classical composers were objecting to conflict; for example, Benjamin Britten with his War Requiem and Krzysztof Penderecki with his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
English composer, teacher, writer, and conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams brought his own style of protest and commentary to his interpretation of the Roman Catholic Mass, Dona nobis pacem (“Give us peace”). Written in 1936 and 1937, the cantata uses text from the Bible, a parliamentary speech by British statesman John Bright, and verse by Walt Whitman.
“Dona nobis pacem was written in the dark days of the late 1930s as another European war loomed,” explains MusicaNova Music Director Warren Cohen. “Although the last section ends hopefully, the quiet ending suggests that perhaps he [Vaughan Williams] saw that things were not so hopeful in 1936.”
The six-part work includes martial drums and bugles followed by the mourning of a movement titled “Dirge for Two Veterans,” and through it all a solo soprano voice rises in entreaty. “This plea for peace is emotionally direct…[and] can be seen as a plea for sanity,” says Cohen.
This evening, he leads MusicaNova Orchestra in a performance of Dona nobis pacem and other vocal works in a program called And Open to All: Opera, Oratorio, and Song at Central United Methodist Church. The combined choirs of Arizona School for the Arts and Central United Methodist Church join the orchestra (full disclosure: I’m one of the musicians).
Soloists include singers from a newly-formed Valley organization called Opera Revolution, an offshoot of the music advocacy group Classical Revolution Phoenix, which offers casual, free performances in non-traditional venues as well as the annual Classical Revolution Phoestival. The performers include Karen Hendricks Crawford, Daniel Kurek, Susan Hurley, Andrew Briggs, Joyce Yin, John Cleveland, and Robert Altizer.
“This concert is an exploration of diversity within vocal music,” says Cohen, who has a very personal interest in song since he’s married to a soprano. He chose not only the large, introspective work by Ralph Vaughan Williams but also an assortment of art songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as a classic operatic scene.
“The songs represent five separate and distinct visions of the subject of desire and love,” he continues, describing works by Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, and Aldo Finzi. “From the expression of lost love in ‘Allerseelen (All Souls’ Eve)’ through the psychopathic manipulation of ‘Der Rattenfänger (The Rat-Catcher)’ – based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin — to the glow of ‘Morgen (Tomorrow),’ the anxious puppy love of ‘Cäcilie,’ and the longing of ‘Catharine,’ each song represents a radically different take on the subject.”
The program’s operatic excerpt is an ensemble scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, set at a party hosted by Giovanni himself, who hopes to seduce the country girl Zerlina in the course of the evening. They’re joined by Zerlina’s fiancé, Giovanni’s servant, and three masked strangers who secretly seek revenge against the seducer.
Musically, the scene features multiple voices and three instrumental ensembles, and at one point three different dances — a waltz, a quadrille, and a minuet — overlap in carefully engineered chaos “as Mozart anticipates the experiments of Charles Ives by 125 years,” says Cohen, whose adventurous programming has won him an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL).
“[It’s] a tour-de-force of complexity,” he concludes. “The seven voices appear in the guise of soloist, duet and trio partners, and ensembles, sometimes tripping over each other as the various operatic conventions run almost simultaneously.”
If you go:
When: Thursday, April 25, 7:30PM
Where: Central United Methodist Church sanctuary, 1875 N. Central Ave.
The sound of the Phoenix Chorale can be something like an instantly addictive drug – often, listeners are hooked after hearing just a few notes sung a cappella, without accompaniment. In addition to winning Grammy Awards, the Chorale’s mesmerizing sound recently received even more recognition – iTunes named the choir’s recording Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo as Best Classical Vocal Album of the Year.
Led by Artistic Director Charles Bruffy, the Chorale turns those clear, pure tones to holiday repertoire for a program scheduled for performances December 20-23 at venues around the Valley, including Brophy Chapel and Trinity Cathedral. While the concerts include traditional favorites like “I Saw Three Ships,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the “Wexford Carol,” the centerpiece is a 10-movement suite called Gaudete! (“Rejoice”) written by former Phoenix Chorale director Anders Öhrwall, and performed by the Chorale in his memory.
Born in Sweden in 1932, Öhrwall founded the Bach Choir at Stockholm’s Church of Adolf Frederik, leading it for 36 years. He received a Swedish royal medal for his work, and conducted the Swedish Radio Choir and Youth Choir, the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir, and the Drottningholm Baroque Festival. Öhrwall was known not only for his meticulous rehearsal technique, but also for his numerous and popular choral arrangements and compositions.
Öhrwall conducted the Phoenix Chorale for two years when it was known as the Bach & Madrigal Society of Phoenix, leading the ensemble’s change of name to the Phoenix Bach Choir from 1990 to 1992. He died on February 4, 2012 at the age of 79.
The tunes of Gaudete come from a collection of Latin songs published in 1582 in Sweden, and while the melodies may be recognizable – from carols like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” – the text is less familiar. Öhrwall’s work stands apart with its addition of a woodwind trio, featuring a local ensemble: the Paradise Winds. “It’s the clarity of the Phoenix Chorale that sets it apart, but also that they make such a warm sound,” Bruffy explains. “I think it’ll be a really nice and complete sonority in this pairing with instruments.”
Founded by bassoonist Joseph Kluesener, the Paradise Winds shape themselves into a flexible, varying ensemble depending on the requirements of the music. “For this concert,” says Kluesener, “there’s a combination of bassoon, oboe, and flute, and the repertoire divides the winds into different arrangements of those three instruments.” The oboist is Nikolaus Flickinger, and the flutist is Arizona State University professor Elizabeth Buck.
Kluesener, who also organizes Classical Revolution PHX, created the Paradise Winds as a genre-bending group in 2009 using ASU graduate students, alumni, and faculty. “That was the point,” he explains, “to control the programming, the repertoire we play, and to really get to know what our instruments can do together.”
As a testament to the group’s innovative and tight-knit sound, it’s been featured on American Public Media’s radio show Performance Today. Although the musicians don’t have a regular rehearsal schedule, they do enjoy a deep familiarity with their ensemble. “Everybody is really keenly capable,” says Kluesener, “so we don’t have to waste a lot of time mastering the vision of the presentation…because we’ve done so much together over the last three years.”
Beyond Öhrwall’s Gaudete, other holiday repertoire takes advantage of the Paradise Winds in different configurations – for example, Philip Stopford’s arrangement of “Silent Night” adds flute to the choir. “It’s one of my favorite songs throughout the year,” says Bruffy. “I love the melody of it, and the peace that it always evokes. It’s just quite lovely in its simplicity with an occasional fingerprint on the harmonies [from Stopford].” Born in 1977, Stopford has been compared to iconic choral composer John Rutter.
In the case of “Hark, the Herald Angels,” Bruffy says he told his friend Jim Taylor, “Hey, I like this piece, but I’m only going to have flute, oboe, and bassoon – can you hook me up?” Bruffy smiles and continues, “So he created this arrangement with the specifications of just the three instruments instead of a whole orchestra.” He laughs. “It’s the ‘Hark, the Herald’ that we know, but this time ‘Herald’ has a little more character.”
For contrast, the Chorale also performs three other arrangements of the classic Gaudete verse – one is from Phoenix Chorale soprano Kira Zeeman Rugen, who created her version for the male voices in a choir she conducted at ASU. Audiences even have the chance to sing along during a few favorite carols at each concert.
“One thing that I really like about the entirety of the program,” says Bruffy, “is that with the complexity and velocity…and even voracity of the season, the pieces we’re going to be doing are simply beautiful.”