Singers' Choice Program Notes
By Amelia LeClair, Artistic Director
After so many years of working with our terrific core ensemble of singers, it occurred to me that they might enjoy singing – and we all might enjoy hearing - their favorite pieces in a concert. Cappella Clausura singers responded with delight, and delightful choices of composers from all genres. In addition, as I wanted to continue our shout-out to female conductors, it seemed that this would be a perfect program for our guest conducting spot this year. Thus was born this wonderful collaboration. As soprano Shannon Larkin put it, "we hope you enjoy this program as much as we enjoy singing it!"
Dr. Carolina Flores and I both serve on the Board of Choral Arts New England. She is a wonderful human being, and we have connected on our shared interest in female composers. When I asked her to guest conduct a concert this year, she immediately said yes.
OUR GUEST CONDUCTOR
Carolina Flores grew up in Zaragoza, Spain and earned her Bachelor and Master degrees in piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music. She also received a doctorate in choral conducting at the Hartt School. She has served in many capacities at the Connecticut chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (CT-ACDA) including as president from 2013 to 2015, and has lead choral tours in Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Currently, Dr. Flores is a Professor of Music at Manchester Community College, CT. In addition to this position, she is the Artistic Chorale Director of the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale in CT. Dr. Flores was awarded the 2015 Excellence of Teaching Award at MCC and the national 2016 NISOD Excellence in Teaching Award.
Caterina Assandra (c. 1609) was one of the lucky young women in musical Italian convents in the baroque era who got to learn composition and publish her music. Very little in known about her life. She wrote a setting of “Duo Seraphim”, a very familiar text at the time, in 1609 for 2 sopranos, alto and basso continuo. I have obtained it with permission of editor Candace Smith, of Cappella Artemisia in Bologna, and I arranged it for a trio: soprano, alto, and tenor.
Maestra nuns who wrote for their convents had to be flexible, and write accordingly as both available voices and instruments frequently changed with lives and deaths of the women, and the whims of the Catholic Church. Thus they wrote for women’s voices and perhaps some instruments which could change at virtually a moment’s notice. Most remarkably these works were published for mixed voices which suggests that a market existed for them outside the convent walls.
Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) joined the Ursuline Order of the Collegio di Santa Orsola (or the Congregation of Saint Ursula) in Novara at age sixteen. The Ursulines were known to be educators and caretakers for the poor, and therefore were not cloistered. As a result, Leonarda was able to oversee the publication of all of her works. She wrote and published over two hundred sacred works in two hundred twenty volumes, a sonata for violin and organ, and eleven trio sonatas – the earliest existent collection of trio sonatas by a 17th century female composer. The last volume of her music was completed in 1700, four years before her death. “Ave Regina Coelorum” is based on a Marian text, and is a long cresecendo of praise and supplication meant for the evening service of Vespers.
Suzanne Sheppard (b. 1960) is an award-winning composer and has earned numerous honors for her original work, including prizes from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP and the Composers Guild. Recently, in 2017, Suzanne produced debut professional recordings of two of her original works: (1) Suite for Solo Marimba, published by C.F. Peters Corp., performed by marimba virtuoso, Ayami Okamura and (2) Riding the Road, performed by jazz vibraphonist, Vid Jamnik, with the composer at the piano. Suzanne also produced a solo piano CD, On Dove’s Wings, featuring many of her original arrangements and two original compositions. “Psalm 46.1” is powerful, spacious, and chromatic, written for 8 voice parts. More at her website.
Be Steadwell (b. 1988) is a queer pop composer and storyteller from Washington DC. She composes her songs on stage using looping, vocal layering, and beat boxing. Her original music features earnest lyricism and affirming queer content. Be's goal as a musician is to make other Black girls, queer people, introverts, and weirdos feel seen and loved.
Be earned a BA in Black Studies from Oberlin College and an MFA in film from Howard University in 2014. Her thesis film Vow of Silence screened in film festivals around the world, including Black Star, HBO's OutFest, The Schomburg Center and Inside Out Toronto. “Amics”, a setting of text by a 12th c. female poet, was commissioned by and written for Cappella Clausura for our Troubadours virtual concert series.
Florence Price (1887-1953) is getting her due much sooner after her death than most. She was prolific, composing 300 symphonies, dozens of chamber pieces, works for piano, organ, chorus, and art songs. They too entered the morgue of women’s compositions after her death, due to changes in fashion as well as gender bias. Fortunately, her morgue of compositions was found: in 2009 a trove was discovered in her former summer home in St Anne, Illinois. Alex Ross of The New Yorker said at the time, "a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.”
"Nod”, with words by English poet Walter de la Mare, is a sort of pastorale / spiritual / barbershop piece with surprising and yet perfect key changes. Price has set it for tenors and basses, evoking the familiar sound of African men singing in harmony. The words liken Jesus to an old shepherd and his flock of sheep whom he has brought home to “rest, rest again, rest.”
August Read Thomas (b. 1964) is a University Professor of Composition in Music and the College at The University of Chicago. Thomas was the longest-serving Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for conductors Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez (1997-2006). This residency culminated in the premiere of Astral Canticle, one of two finalists for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music. During her residency, Thomas not only premiered nine commissioned orchestral works, but was also central in establishing the thriving MusicNOW series, through which she commissioned and programmed the work of many living composers. More information is available on her website.
Thomas is new to us. I chose her piece entitled “Freedom (in memoriam Rosa Parks)” because of its beautiful text from the words of Rosa Parks, atop a text by Rumi, a 13th c. mystic and poet. Parks’ words are sung by a soloist hovering above those by Rumi, which suggests to me that love is skybound but grounded, and that freedom is held aloft by love. Our rendition of the setting for tenors and basses will be a world premiere.
Hilary Tann (b. 1946) is a Welsh-born resident of upstate New York, where she writes haiku and music. She is one of our favorite composers. Our mutual affection has led to two recordings on the Parma label, “Exultet Terra” in 2017 and “Luminaria Magna” just this past June, 2022.
“Contemplations 8,9” was written for Amelia LeClair, on a text by Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet. Bradstreet came to these shores in 1630, and wrote reams of poetry that was actually published and much loved across the pond. Tann echoes the music of Hildegard von Bingen and of crickets and grasshoppers as she combines the language of Bradstreet and of the psalms to illuminate her love of nature. “Wellspring”, on a text by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, evokes the sound of water – the Welsh word for water is “dwr” (pronounce doo'r). Tann says, “in the opening dwr imitates water droplets”, thus she uses the word for both its meaning and its sound.
Patricia Van Ness (b.1951) is a composer, violinist, and poet who draws upon elements of medieval and renaissance music to create a signature voice that has been hailed by musicians, audiences, and critics. She has been called a modern-day Hildegard von Bingen with her ability to compose music “ecstatic and ethereal,” “both ancient and new”. As in medieval aesthetics, her music and poetry explore the relationship between beauty and the Divine.
Ms.Van Ness is currently composing new music for each of the 150 Psalms. The texts are in English, Hebrew, and Latin using the Psalter, the Hebrew Text, and the Liber Usualis. Psalm #55 is one of 9 psalms written for Cappella Clausura, and recorded on the CD “Birds of the Psalms” on the Parma label. More information is available on her website.
Sarah Rimkus (b. 1990) is new to us. She is an award-winning American composer of choral, vocal and chamber works who brings a wide range of influences to her music, from ars antiqua and ars nova polyphony to Balkan and Scandinavian folk traditions and many other sources. Her choral and vocal works have been commissioned and performed extensively across the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere by ensembles including The Esoterics, C4 Ensemble, Harmonium Choral Society, and The Gesualdo Six. Her works have been professionally recorded by ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic, featured on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, and published by GIA Publications, Walton Music, and See-a-dot Publications.
“Mater Dei” is a beautiful rendering of the ancient plainchant “Ave Maria” coursing through the poetry of W.B. Yeats on the Mother of God. Rimkus says, “this piece attempts to give the woman herself a more meaningful human voice.”
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) Fanny showed remarkable talent in music early on, and actually helped her gifted younger brother achieve his musical goals as they both studied with Carl Friedrich Zelter. There was much in the musical household to form these two young geniuses: Frau Lea Mendelssohn frequently played the Well-Tempered Clavier, maternal great-aunt Sarah Levy had direct ties to the sons of Bach (Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Phillip Emmanuel), and maternal grandmother Bella Salomon was the one who gave Felix a copy of the St Matthew Passion, setting off the launch of the Bach revival (and Fanny named her firstborn Sebastien). We have them both to thank for bringing Bach out of obscurity.
When Fanny reached the age of 13, she would be instructed by her father to step back from music-making and concentrate her energies on a future of marriage and children, as appropriate to her gender and social position. Felix would burst into the limelight of an international career. They remained devoted colleagues and critics of each other’s compositions until their deaths, a mere 6 months apart, at the ages of 41 and 38. Late in her life she finally decided to defy tradition – and Felix - and publish her work. “Lockung” is from one of Fanny’s more well known collections of 4 part songs, Gartenlieder (Garden Songs), published just a year before she died.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), a violist who was one of the first female members of the Royal Philharmonic, wrote 12 choral pieces early in her career. They are so perfectly crafted and minute, each seeming to serve as an example of a style she was given as an assignment. She was Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female student at the Royal College of England, and sang in a choral group directed by Ralph Vaughn Williams. “Philomela”, on poetry of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), is a remarkable work on a controversial text that, despite its blatant mansplaining, is a piece we all love to sing because it so effortlessly combines medieval musical tropes (such as triple time and fauxbourdon) with perfectly balanced 20th c. chromaticism.
Eva Ugalde Alvarez (b. 1973) was born in San Sebastian, Spain. Eva Ugalde’s compositions are strongly influenced by her own Basque heritage. Her engaging a capella setting of the folk tune adds an enigmatic opening and original harmonies. Begi Urdin is a popular Basque Folk Song collected by folklorist Resurrección María de Azkue (1864-1951). Azuke was also a priest, poet, and a leading scholar of Euskara (Basque), spoken in the western Pyrenees Mountains and adjacent regions of Spain and France
Diana V. Sáez (b. 1961) has conducted many different choral groups over the years, including the leading Latin American chorus Cantigas and the World Bank-IMF Chorus. Yemayá is an Afro-Cuban chant, arranged by Sáez. The piece is inspired by the Yoruba religious traditions brought to the Americas by enslaved people from West Africa. “This chant is dedicated to Yemayá, the mother of the Orishas, or deities, from the Yoruba pantheon.” The hypnotic lines are meant to be sung “as a meditation.”
Yamayá is a goddess from the Rule of the Osha; she reigns over the oceans and the seas. In the Americas, she is the mother of all things and also represents maternity. Asesu and Olodo represent different paths or avatars of Yemayá (the different shapes and forms the Orishas take within the religious oral corpus in the Rule of the Osha).
Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is perhaps our most frequently performed composer, with many ensembles, instrumental and choral, performing her work. Born in Berkeley, California to a mother of Peruvian and Chinese descent, and a father of Lithuanian Jewish decent, she explores and bestows the gifts of her multicultual heritage through her music. “Ccollanan Maria” (Holy Mary) was written in 2004. The composer notes that it is “based on a traditional religious tune from the city of Cuzco, Peru, the original capital of the Inca empire (ca 1440-1530). Many sacred tunes from Andean cultures feature a mix of Western Catholic and indigenous beliefs and it is not uncommon, therefore, to perform songs in both Spanish and Quechua”, the predominant language of the indigenous Peruvians.