I believe that programming is one of the most important aspects of the conductor's craft. In my own case, I seek a variety of styles; contrasts in tempi, rhythms, dynamics and textures; logical key progressions from one selection to the next; multiple languages and traditions; strong literary content; realistic challenges for the singers and, above all, satisfaction for the listener.
The research process calls for a significant investment of patience and time. Experience has taught me that whatever the initial idea at the outset, the end product may well have little or no relevance or resemblance to the original concept. The great danger is to be overly rigid and inflexible in one's choices, whereas patience and perseverance will result in a program which 'sits'. If one is fortunate, the final product may be the result of four or five hours of work. In reality, five days or more of concentrated activity will achieve the desired result.
Unfortunately, all of the repertoire that was taken on tour to Serbia and Croatia in June 2009 has not been included on this CD. (Fitting the complete repertoire on one CD would be an impossible task.) Hopefully, the selections do reflect the flexibility of the ensemble, as well as some of the reasoning behind the program itself.
The tour program consisted of two halves, separated by an intermission. The first half was liturgical (sacred) and the second half, secular. We had opened our Christmas program in December 2008 with a 'stunning' setting of the Magnificat by Canadian composer Christine Donkin, and I decided to open our tour program with this same composition. Audiences loved it! The work is centered around a plainsong-like melody sung by a soloist, accompanied by ten other singers positioned around the hall, who choose notes and vowels, seemingly at random, from the melodic line. This remarkable effect created a 'presence' which some listeners likened to a host of angels hovering around Mary as she sang her words.
Magnificat is the first of a group of five compositions by Canadian composers. In order to balance the set, I decided to close it with another work centred around a plainsong-like melody, this time sung by the whole choir in unison. Ubi caritas was composed by Eleanor Daley and it is structurally interesting because the composer also incorporates a hymn-like section, using an English translation of the Latin words. At one point, the plainsong and the hymn are sung simultaneously.
Between these two 'bookends' lie three contrasting settings of Ave Maria by three other Canadian composers: Allan Bevan, Louis Dominique Roy and David MacIntyre. The Ave Maria settings were chosen because they followed the Magnificat text logically. The selections were significant in that they reflect the choir's commitment to the performance of Canadian works.
The next four compositions are quite different. In When I Am Afraid by the Danish composer Michael Bojesen, the somber text of the three verses is off-set by a lively, up-beat chorus full of joy and conviction. It was the conviction and the joy which led me to a moving and intense Alleluia by American composer Joseph A. Gregorio which was followed by an energetic Hosannah by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt and, finally, an emotionally charged, rich, and varied arrangement of the African-American Spiritual Listen to the Angels Shouting by American composer and arranger, Clifton J. Noble, Jr.
Concerto Della Donna is based in Montreal where French and English play a significant part in our daily lives. It is therefore inevitable that the two languages would play a significant role in our program choices, since they reflect our cultural environment. The French culture is represented by two delightful songs by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns and an arrangement of Un Canadien errant by Canadian composer Eleanor Daley. Incidentally, Un Canadien errant was the first French Canadian folk song I heard (and directed) when I came to Canada in 1965 and, as a homesick immigrant from Wales, I found it particularly moving – a sentiment which has remained with me to this day. (I have made a point of including an arrangement of it in every program I have taken overseas.) Finally, by way of contrast, the program concludes with a rollicking, fun-filled setting of the Newfoundland folksong I'se the B'y, arranged by the late John Govedas.
Two additional interesting and innovative works remain. Since we were traveling to the Balkans, I searched for an appropriate work from that region. Urok is a composition by the Slovenian composer Lojze Lebi, which we perform in the original language. You need to imagine a group of children playing and chanting. The work is divided into three sections; each of which begins with the word 'Urok' followed by three different incantations: one to guard against swelling, a second to guard against snake bites, and a third to guard against bad blood and disease. In addition, in the first incantation you hear simple percussion instruments in the form of small stones which the performers beat in order to add weight to their chanting.
"Urok, take away the disease from the bone marrow, then out of the bone, the flesh and finally, out through the hair. Go out onto the green plain; go nine elbows deep, go deep into the ground. Go to the very end of the root to do your magic.
Whether the venom has turned you white, black, spotted, or made you deaf mute – bad blood: begone! Urok, take this venom upon yourself.
Urok, go nine elbows deep into the ground, go to the end of the tap root, take the venom as far away as possible. Bad blood: begone! Begone, Urok! Begone!"
Revontulet (Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights) is by the Finnish composer Pekka Kostiainen. Words, music and movement create a vivid picture of one of Nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles. A number of contemporary vocal and musical
'effects' are introduced in order to heighten the dramatic effects which the composer evokes: clusters of notes describe bursts of light, short staccato notes represent twinkling lights, rapid ascending glissandi represent shooting stars, etc. We have included a translation of the original Finnish text in order to help you visualize the scene. Unfortunately, we cannot help you visualize the accompanying movements, but we would encourage you to attend a live performance of the work, should you ever have the opportunity to do so!
"They're flaring bright like flaming night,
they blaze and burn and glow,
they flicker all like columns tall,
like lava streams in flow.
They gallop, prancing stallions,
they snort and spit, they stamp and snarl,
they ride along, they glide along
spurred on by knights of old.
They slink and slide, they creep and crawl,
like cat and mouse they spar,
they sneak into the clouded sky
and hide among the stars.
They dim and die, they flag and fade,
they craze and crack like ice,
they split and splinter, spit and sput
and splutter in their flight."
Iwan Edwards, Artistic Director