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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!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bevan "Fowre Thowsand Wynter" 2

When Allan talked to me about doing a "prequel" (my term, not his!) to Nou Goth, I said yes. We originally planned for it to be done for Pro Coro's 2008 Christmas concert. Allan began work, we continued occasional email conversations, talked about instrumentation (originally similar to Nou Goth, with a few winds in addition to harp, percussion, timpani, organ and strings), and all went ahead as planned.

Allan made great progress and in September of 2008, while in Edmonton rehearsing for our season-opening concert, Pro Coro also had a performance of the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil in Calgary. I went down a day early to meet with Allan at his home, get a score, and look it over with him. We talked about his texts, possible pronunciation (more about in my next post), and the general shape of the work.

However, Pro Coro was going through a financial crisis that fall and I'd taken over the job of Executive Director as well as Artistic Director. In October, after the Treasurer and I had gone through the budget for the umpteenth time, it became clear that we simply could not afford to hire the orchestra for Fowre Thowsand Wynter and manage to get out of debt by the end of the season (the final year of a three-year plan to elminate our deficit). I should say that Pro Coro normally has enough room in the budget to hire an orchestra once each season, usually for our Good Friday concert (we' d also gotten a grant in previous years that was specifically to hire orchestras for a series of all of the late Haydn Masses, but that was in addition to our usual budget). I'd managed to make this work for the 2008-09 season by programming Good Friday so that we'd need minimal instrumentalists (Victoria Requiem and Rutter Requiem in the version for six instruments). However, our budget now had to be radically cut in other ways, so we had to cancel Allan's premiere.

That was truly one of the most difficult phone calls I've ever had to make. Allan had done enormous amounts of work and spent countless hours working on the piece and now it was all going to disappear. I was determined to make this a postponement, not an end, to the project, but it was still enormously painful.

I can only say that I'm so happy it was not an end to our collaboration, but that we were able to include it in the 2009-10 season. As such things go, other things happened that turned the delay into a positive, instead of a negative: Allan was able to apply again for a Canada Council commissioning grant (he'd just missed the deadline the year before) and got it, as well as a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts; he revised the piece substantially, particularly the orchestration, dropping the winds; and we were able to do the work in a year when we weren't organizationally stressed (and for me, personally stressed trying to do several jobs at once).

And, I should note, we ended the 2008-09 season with our deficit eliminated.

Just a bit more about the process of collaboration/commissioning, particularly of building a relationship with a composer.

When I was doing research for my dissertation (and later book) about Swedish choral music, it became clear that one of the reasons (although there were others) that so much high-level a cappella music was written for Swedish choirs was the personal relationship between conductor/ensemble/composer. Eric Ericson is a prime example of this. He had close friendships with a number of composers, but perhaps one of the closest was with Ingvar Lidholm. Lidholm is arguably the most important Swedish composer of his generation and has written a number of very important choral works (his masterpiece for me is ...a riveder le stelle)--you can find a recording by Ericson's Chamber Choir of all of his choral music here.

Eric formed the Chamber Choir in 1945 with a group of 16 friends, primarily to perform early music that they'd studied, but rarely heard. Their first concert in 1946 was all early music with the exception of Hindemith's Acht Kanon. However, Lidholm, having heard this choir and being one of Eric's closest friends, wrote a new work for them: Laudi. I'd read how difficult this work was for the choir and Eric had written about how they'd struggled for more than six months to try to master some passages. One time I asked Eric how they'd persevered through this. He simply replied, "He was our friend."

Ultimately, that's often what it's all about.

Allan is our friend, and certainly I was determined to make sure that Fowre Thowsand Wynter would see its premiere with Pro Coro, and it's absolutely been worth it.

I don't know when Allan would have gotten the possibility of writing two large-scale works such as he did for us, but I'm proud that we got to take part in their creation.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Allan Bevan "Fowre Thowsand Wynter"

Too long since I've written! It's been a busy year since August (or July!) with a move to Texas, new job at UNT, keeping up with Pro Coro, etc. I'll try to do better going forward!

Pro Coro Canada, my professional chamber choir in Edmonton, just had its Christmas concert last Sunday, which included a major premiere, that of Allan Bevan's multi-movement work, Fowre Thowsand Wynter, for narrator, soprano soloist, choir and orchestra (six movements, about 35' long). It was a big success--the audience loved it. You can learn more about Allan on his own website.

When people ask me about Allan's style it's not a simple answer since he's not easy to pigeon-hole. He is essentially a tonal composer, but not afraid of dissonance. A wonderful melodist. Someone with an exquisite sense of poetry (which means he chooses his texts well and understands them deeply). He also has a great sense of drama, which is a large part of the success of this work.

I'll say more about the work in particular in future posts, but a bit about the origins of our relationship with Allan that led up to this piece (we're not the only choir and I'm not the only conductor to discover Allan's talents--he's been commissioned and performed by many choirs).

Allan was in Edmonton when I first arrived (I became Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada in 1999), at that time working on an MM in Choral Conducting. Soon after he left for Calgary to do his Ph.D in composition. I did a few of Allan's smaller works (Love Came Down at Christmas, The Huron Carol) and we talked about a commission, resulting in The Time Draws Near the Birth of Christ for our Christmas concert in 2003. It's based on a Tennyson text which, in Allan's words "depicts an older man standing on an English hillside on Christmas Day. From his vantage point he is able to hear the sounds of the church bells from four different neighbouring towns. He is overwhelmed by his bitter-sweet boyhood memories, producing a picture of Advent-Christmas that is intensely personal and unique." You can already tell quite a bit about Allan's response to poetry from this. It's a gorgeous work for choir and piano, with challenging choral parts and frequent divisi. I later did it with the University of Cincinnati CCM Chorale when I was a guest professor in 2006 and the students there loved it just as much as my Pro Coro singers had.

I knew from Len Ratzlaff, head of the choral program at the U of A, that Allan's doctoral thesis was a major work for chorus and orchestra, and Allan then sent me a score, too. I didn't think too much about it at first, since it wouldn't work for our chamber choir, but then had a conversation with Allan about whether it might be adapted in some way for Pro Coro. The texts were ones that could work well for our Good Friday concert, for which we often use orchestra. I can't remember all the details of scoring, but the original piece was for multiple soloists, choir, children's choir and large orchestra. Allan thought, however, that he could excerpt several movements, reduce the soloists to one, still use narrator, and reduce the orchestration to create a work for Good Friday. I had already programmed the Mozart Requiem, so we had strings available (and bassett horns/clarinets and bassoons), but Allan wanted to use oboes, horns, harp and organ (along with extra percussion), so that's what we did.

Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode uses a narrator (sometimes speaking alone, but often with underscoring by the orchestra) and soprano soloist (Jolaine Kerley, a wonderful soprano who's often sung with Pro Coro either as choir member or soloist--Allan and Jolaine were students together at the U of A, so Allan knew her singing very well). The narrator has an important role and definitely should NOT be your typical Sunday lesson of the day reader! We were lucky to use Timothy Anderson. I met Timothy early on in Edmonton--he occasionally sang with Pro Coro, was an active soloist, auther, book publisher, and actor (and as I later found out, Preacher's kid): in other words, perfect for the job! The work is in four movements, two with Old English texts and part of the mass:
I - Why Have Ye No Reuth
II - Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode (which became the title)
III. Kyrie
IV. Christe/Alleluia

The music was wonderful and the result at the concert was not what one would expect from a new work and composer that most of the audience didn't know: it received an extended standing ovation. The reviewer in the Edmonton Journal said:

It was Mozart's Requiem that drew 1,700 people to Pro Coro's Good Friday concert, but it was the world premier of Bevan's Nou Goth Sonne Under Wode that propelled them to their feet at its conclusion, and for good reason.

...The choir, soloist Jolaine Kerley, narrator Timothy Anderson and a select group of Edmonton Symphony players delivered what sounded like it could be a definitive performance of this contemporary work...Anderson did a theatrically accomplished job of conveying the persona of Christ in His excruciating last hours and as raconteur of the gospel story about Jesus' physical and psychological torment on the cross...[The] Kyrie is technically masterful and moving...almost pastoral, as though the deity addressed were the great consoler...Bevan's orchestration is full of fine detail...
A huge success! We did Nou Goth again in 2007 and Allan talked to me about the possibility of an Advent/Christmas work along the same lines--a "prequel" if you will . . . and that's where the story ends for now. More to come!