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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fowre Thowsand Wynter 3

Doing a premiere always has a higher sense of responsibility than a well-known work. If I do a bad job of the Mozart Requiem, people will know it's a bad performance, not a bad piece. But with the premiere of a new work the audience won't be able to separate the quality of the performance from the work itself. And when you're taking part in the "birthing" of a new composition by someone you know and admire, it's even more pressure (self-induced) to do well.

In this case, since I know Allan and his music fairly well, it makes the job of interpreting easier. Allan knew who he was writing for: as mentioned in an earlier post, he's known Jolaine Kerley and her abilities for a long time.

Allan's notes about his settings for Mary:
The Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is the other main chracter in Fowre Thowsand Wynter. This part is for a soprano soloist and is designated in the score simply as "Mary." The soloist should not be a member of the chorus. Rather than merely depicting Mary and the young woman who receives the angelic birth message in Luke's Gospel, the Mary of Fowre Thowsand Wynter is also a mother who is aware of her son's mission and the cruel treatment he is subjected to on the first Good Friday. Mary is portrayed much as she was understood to be in the late-Medieval period, that is, at once the holiest and most privileged of women, and Mater Dolorosa (mother of sorrows).

The part is very much written for Jolaine, taking advantage of her easy top notes (she might not say that!), with an ability to sing very pure high Bb's, B's, and C's.

In the same way, Timothy Anderson is an ideal narrator for this work, and of course, Allan knew Timothy from his work on Nou Goth. As Allan says:
The actor portrays the biblical prophet known as Isaiah of Jerusalem. . . I have assembled the text from the Book of Isaiah using the English translation found in the King James Bible. I use the Prophet's passages in Fowre Thowsand Wynter not only to represent the words of Isaiah himself, but also to suggest the words or thoughts of God and Christ.

And Allan knows Pro Coro and our abilities well, too. In particular, he knows the sound of the choir and what we're able to do expressively.

Some of the men of Pro Coro (all photos are from the dress rehearsal):

and the full ensemble:

We had additional challenges in preparing this work as a choir, since our dress rehearsal in the concert hall (the marvelous Winspear Centre in Edmonton) had to be moved to Friday night (our usual dress rehearsal is Saturday morning), because of the heavy scheduling at Christmas time. This meant we had only four (3-hour) rehearsals before the dress, and then one rehearsal (choir only) after. I'd programmed fairly easy works for the other half of the program, but still, given a new work, it's a lot to do in a short time. With the orchestra, I had a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal on Friday afternoon (with Jolaine and Timothy there) and 2 1/2 hours on Friday night with everyone. Allan arrived about a half hour or so into the Friday night rehearsal. While I would have loved to have a full run-through in that rehearsal, there simply wasn't time. It was also great to have Allan there to give notes and answer questions.

Allan uses early English texts for the first three movements: "Adam lay y'bownden," "I Syng of a Myden," and "A God and Yet a Man." This presents its own problems of pronunciation, of course. Allan gave a guide to pronunciation, with his own thoughts of current research on the phonetics of the period, but also allows for a more modern interpretation of the texts. I talked with Allan for a couple hours by phone about the work the week before, with quite a bit of that time spent on pronunciation. Allan allows a fair amount of freedom with this and, if there's a question about sound, wants to make sure it still allows for a beautiful choral sound. So my choices were to do "Adam" with as closely as possible to Allan's choice of medieval pronunciation. With "I Syng," where Allan writes a gorgeous melody for the main theme, I opted to partially modernize the text for beauty of sound (for example, "I" is a pickup--the older pronunciation is "ee" instead of the modern diphthong, and the brighter "ee" vowel stuck out). This is a somewhat arbitrary decision, of course, but I'm happy with the result. For the third movement, Allan gave more explicit options of older and newer pronunciation and I went with the more modern. We ultimately then went from old to a mix to almost all modern from movement one through three.

The fourth movement follows the third without break, utilizing a chant-like Agnus Dei ("like an incantation," Allan said) against harp, pizzicato strings, and vibraphone, much as underscoring for the Prophet's narration. After a transition into a radiant E Major, Allan sets the Dona nobis pacem, adding an Alleluia taken from the plainchant, Verbum caro factum est (and the word was made flesh), which first appears in the alto part, then to other sections, and finally the organ.

The fifth movement is a setting of a Christina Rosetti poem, a large portion of it done as a beautiful a cappella setting. He also brings back a bit of the "Adam" theme from the first movement, then to a quite beautiful "Christe eleison."

One of my worries, as I started looking at the whole work and how to pace it, rather than learning its parts, was that Allan set the end of each of the fourth, fifth and final movements with big endings, double forte. I experimented with how to do this so as not to make the real climax seem anti-climactic. We ultimately changed the dynamic at the end of #4 to a piano dynamic at the end and simply made sure that the end to #5 wasn't so big so as to feel like the end of the piece. I haven't heard the recording yet, so don't know how it really worked, but it certainly felt right and Allan was happy.

The final movement is a setting of the Sanctus, leading into "Adam lay y'bownden" to finish with the final couplet (which he didn't set in the opening movement): "Blyssid be the tyme that appil take was, therefore we moun syngen 'Deo gracias'." (Blessed be the time that the apple was taken was, therefore we ought to sing “Thanks be to God!”), ending with an Ab major chord with the soprano soloist on a high C.

A wonderful work and it was great to be a part in its "birth" into the world. Many thanks to Allan and all the performers who took part!

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