May 18, 2006

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CLASSICAL PREVIEWS
By Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

Manchester Choral Society to sing "Songs of Travel"
Also: member commissions new music for wife's birthday
IIn his first season leading the Manchester Choral Society, music director Dan Perkins is taking the group in new directions—like the Seacoast. The group takes its spring program on the road, performing at South Church in Portsmouth on Saturday, May 20 and back home at the Parish of the Transfiguration, 107 Alsace St., Manchester on Sunday, May 21 at 4 p.m. Appropriately, the program is "Songs of Travel," an eclectic mix of choral music from Norman Dello Joio, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Jonathan Santore, and other composers. Also included: music from father-daughter duo pianists Charles and Elizabeth Blood, solos from baritone Charles Stanton, and trumpet licks from Mary-Lynne Bohn. Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors or students; for info, visit www.mcsnh.org or call (800) 639-2928.

Below are program notes on each of the pieces; they're provided by Gail Kelley of the Manchester Choral Society. Pay special note to the new work by Jonathan Santore, which was commissioned by a choral society member as a birthday present for his wife.
— J.R.

“Song of the Open Road” by Norman Dello Joio:

The text for this is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. Scored for chorus with trumpet solo and piano accompaniment, this work captures Whitman’s boisterous and expansive spirit and the notion of limitless possibilities that courses through his poetry.

Now 93 years old, Dello Joio was a student of Paul Hindemith at Juilliard. In 1957 he won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his string orchestra piece “Meditations on Ecclesiastes.’’ That same year he also won an Emmy for his soundtrack for a TV special, “Scenes from the Louvre.”

He taught at Sarah Lawrence College and the Mannes College of Music before moving on to Boston University, where he became dean of the School of Fine and Applied Arts. His output consists of more than 45 choral works, three operas, nearly 30 orchestral works, and dozens of chamber and solo pieces.

“Toward the Unknown Region” by Ralph Vaughan Williams: Another setting of a Whitman poem, but in contrast to Dello Joio’s, this one progresses eerily and with subdued dynamics until the forte ending, where the music, reflecting Whitman’s characteristic boundlessness, breaks the spell.

“Island in Space” by Kirke Mechem: Commissioned for California State University at Chico A Cappella Choir for its 1990 tour of the Soviet Union, this is an appeal for peace and world brotherhood. It incorporates the words of American astronaut Russell Schweickart describing what he felt as he viewed the Earth from space and a poem by Archibald MacLeish imagining the same experience. Mechem’s music has an ethereal and reverent quality, the harmonies seeming to float weightlessly, like the space traveler whose words they convey.
“i carry your heart” by Gwyneth Walker: Though more well-known for his refusal to abide by the conventions of capitalization, the poet e.e.cummings wrote some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, all written to or about his wife. In “i carry your heart” cummings describes how much she is a part of him in his travels through life. Walker’s sweet, simple melody and open sonority are evocative of Aaron Copland in some parts of this piece and make one sigh with appreciation for how well the music suits the words.

“A Song of the Road” by Jonathan Santore: A world premiere of a work commissioned for the Manchester Choral Society by Peter Morgan as a birthday present for this wife.

As a member of the Manchester Choral Society Board of Directors, Peter Morgan knew the organization hoped to commission a work for its spring 2006 concert and needed to either stage a fundraiser or get a grant to cover the cost. Meanwhile, another spring occasion occupied his thoughts – his wife Mfanwy’s birthday. He wanted to get her a gift that was special and lasting but not something she would have to pack. The Morgans are long-time members of the Manchester Choral Society, but this will be their last concert with the group. They are leaving their Bedford, NH, home to retire to Virginia, and they have packing enough to do without adding another item to the task. Then, as the spring semester of MCS rehearsals got under way, Peter had an inspiration: he would pay for the commissioned work, have it dedicated to Mfanwy, and present it to her on her birthday.

The concert theme for the commissioned work – Songs of Travel -- is an accurate metaphor for the Morgans’ life together. They have traveled a great deal. One of their more extensive trips was their traverse of the Atlantic from their native Wales to settle in the United States.

And so it came about that Plymouth State College Music Professor Jonathan Santore composed “A Song of the Open Road” for the Manchester Choral Society in honor of Mfanwy Morgan. The work is a setting of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem of the same title. As Stevenson himself explained, the poem was based on a story of a tax assessor and a whiskey distiller who were friends. The assessor would occasionally make trips to his friend’s farm on the outskirts of Edinburgh to enjoy nips of the whiskey. As a result, he felt guilty about having to go there in his official capacity to collect annual taxes on the liquor. To assuage his guilt and save his friend from the burden of taxes, the assessor would stop along his way to the farm and play his flute for awhile. The farmer, upon hearing the flute, knew what he had to do. He loaded his barrels of whiskey onto a horse-drawn cart and took them to a glen, where he buried them. When the tax assessor arrived at the farm, everybody would be going abouttheir chores as usual. There was just enough whiskey to serve with dinner, to which the assessor was invited. He would eat and imbibe and play his flute some more until he and everyone else were mellow. The assessor would end his evening of flute playing with the tune “Over the Hills and Far Away,” and everyone would exchange knowing looks, because that was where the whiskey barrels were.

Santore decided to use a Scottish subject and musical style to make the work blend with the Scottish folksongs in the concert program. This style also added another element of appropriateness for a work dedicated to Mfanwy: the music of Wales, like that of Scotland, springs from the Celtic tradition.

Three Scottish Folksongs arranged by Mack Wilberg: With both the lilting and mournful melodies and rhythms that make Scottish folk music instantly recognizable, these songs deal with travels to or away from a loved one. If the effect this music has had on the singers is any indication, these pieces will, by turn, make listeners want to tap their feet or cry.

“Walk Together, Children” and “We Shall Walk through the Valley of Peace” arranged by Moses Hogan: The nature of the travel in these two spirituals is evident from their titles. Hogan was the arranger of the rollicking spiritual the Manchester Choral Society sang at its 2005 Christmas concert. He can be counted on to supply lush harmony, inventive rhythms, and often a surprise or two.

“Dan-u-el” by Kirke Mechem: This roof-raising adaptation of a spiritual is taken from Mechem’s opera “John Brown.” The opera has been performed in more than 40 cities and has brought audiences to their feet in each one. Baritone Charles Stanton, a recent addition to the Plymouth State University music faculty, will be the soloist as the chorus lets loose with this rousing finale to its program.


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