Category Archives: Conductor’s Corner

Conductor’s Corner: Songs of Sweet Starlight

December 2015
Thomas E. Lerew
Interim Music Director

Stars embody many different meanings and heartfelt emotions for different people. Their mysticism connects people with a sense of wonder as they gaze up at the vast universe we all share. It’s difficult for us to realize that stars shine with infinite light twenty-four hours a day, but they are only visible because of the darkness that night brings. It’s a relationship: light can only glow when darkness is present to contrast light.

Similarly, human kind is fascinated by the patterns that stars make in the night sky. Constellations are points of brilliant starlight that form distinct patterns if we can but imagine the lines that connect them. Hundreds of them have been recorded — Aquarius, Canis Major, Leo, Orion, Scorpius, to name but a few. When we look heavenward, let us consider our own connections to people and life experiences that mean the most to each of us, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. This is the eternity that constellations symbolize – inspiration ignited by the partnership of imagination and hope.

As ARS embarks on this year of transition, we look up to the light reflecting on a past of which we can be proud and a future in which we can be confident. Stars shine through the darkness and ARS has certainly experienced darkness in the last several months. Today’s program is intended to allow singers and audience alike, to ‘explore’ the gamut of human emotions from fear, darkness and the bleakness that all humans experience — such as sorrow, loss and grief, isolation — to triumph, hope, joy, resolution, and a bright future. It is my desire that as you listen to, and experience, Songs of Sweet Starlight, you will leave with the infinite hope that stars represent when we look up to the Starry Heavens, and see the loving twinkle in God’s eyes as He blesses us.

I would like to thank our Operations Manager, Jan Sturges, for her assistance in clarifying my thoughts on the correlation between “stars” and the music we are thrilled to share with you today.

Conductor’s Corner – Heavenly Light

by Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

The Holiday season is filled with many traditions that are strictly adhered to, and fervently cultivated. One of the most common traditions during this festive time of year is listening to music. And not just any type of music, but holiday music that best describes the mood and feelings of an individual or group, and highlights their reason for celebrating.

Choral music in particular is definitely the greatest champion for the Christmas season because “holiday music” is heard anywhere and everywhere, at every time of day or night. Because the public is inundated with popular sing-along carols, I chose music for our annual ARS holiday concerts that is familiar enough to be recognizable, yet different enough to be engaging and refreshing for both the performer and the audience.

As has been said by those who are far more eloquent than I (indulge me in a little of my own paraphrasing), at Christmas – a time when classical choral music is often considered too lofty to be appreciated by everyone – the prevailing artistic expressions are not always great soul-searching, lengthy or religious works, but rather, songs that everyone can sing.

This year’s Heavenly Light concert series owes its inspiration to the same notion: we are presenting a program of well-known carols that everyone can sing (or wishes they could) in addition to music that is influenced by the customary European standard for choral music: from the solemnity and awe-filled music of the Russian Orthodox Church, to the height of German compositional grandeur during the mid-19th century, to the fanciful flair and subtle nuance that typify mid-20th century French music, to the glory and cultural stamp of the English choral tradition. Keep in mind that the classical pieces in our repertoire also define the music of the season.”

Heavenly Light demonstrates that choral music, because of its inherent blending of music and words, can touch and move one’s very soul. I am confident that when you hear Heavenly Light, you will be inspired by the fundamental joy and happiness that characterizes the holidays. You may also be surprised by the tremendous gifts that familiar carols and tunes have for you when they are musically wrapped in new ways…just waiting to be opened, and heard again, for the first time.

Conductor’s Corner: Voices at an Exhibition

by Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

For many of the singers in ARS, music holds a very prominent place in their lives. As I’ve mentioned in past concerts, people often ask this question, “Why do we sing?” The answer is immediate:  “…many of us can’t imagine not singing.”

To celebrate ARS’ 30th anniversary, our spring concert, “Voices at an Exhibition,” offers abundant proof through action that “ . . .we can’t imagine not singing.” Not only is ARS performing a concert with a variety of amazing music, but four visual artworks by local artists are also prominently featured in conjunction with the premier of four original commissioned compositions. They are being introduced in a musical and artistic multimedia presentation that demonstrates the relationship between choral music, written text and visual media.

Inspired by Mussorgsky’s classic “Pictures at an Exhibition,” this one-of-a-kind concert melds music, text and art. The result is a truly unique choral event. ARS commissioned four composers; each composer was given one work of art with a request that they allow their personal interpretation of the artwork to be expressed through a choral composition. The only direction given to the composers were simple vocal guidelines. The choosing of text, musical style and content was totally at the composer’s discretion. The result is four new compositions that clearly demonstrate each composer’s style and how each artwork served as an inspiration for them. What is even more astounding? Each artwork was created by an ARS singer, which emphasizes the tremendous artistic diversity, personal composer/artist relationships and connection with ARS.

In addition to the four premiers, this concert also features pieces that exemplify the vocal talent of ARS as the premier choral ensemble of its type in the Southwest. “Voices at an Exhibition” is just that: voices that sing and perform with a purpose to not only entertain, but to educate and create as well.

Choral singers comprise the largest segment of the musician population in the United States. When ARS displays its vocal excellence as good ambassadors of choral musicians, and couples its artistry with visual media, the result is a truly memorable, inspirational and awe-filled concert worthy of a landmark celebration.

Moments in Time

by Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

The observance of “landmark” events is an enduring hallmark of society. Significant occasions, whether private or public, are celebrated in a variety of ways that generally define the moment: raucous festivities, solemn ceremonies, or simple memorials.

Moments in Time is a concert that highlights both the occasion of musical performance and purposeful celebration. Three of the concert’s featured composers, Verdi, Wagner, and Britten, have centennial birthdays in 2013: Verdi and Wagner – 200 years, and Britten – 100 years, while a fourth composer, Edvard Grieg, falls between at 170. These “Birthday Boys” have varying significant and historical characteristics attributed to them. Verdi (Italian) and Wagner (German) are arguably the greatest musical representatives of their respective European cultures. Britten is credited with awakening English choral music and opera from its long sleep (The last great proponent was Henry Purcell, who died in 1695.). Britten, like his predecessor Purcell, is credited with a uniquely and distinctly “English” style of composition that is unaffected or influenced by other European styles. Grieg is remembered as the foremost Norwegian composer who defined and enhanced music’s ‘nationalistic’ movement.

It is hardly a coincidence that the last pieces written by this concert’s featured composers – Verdi, Wagner, Britten and Grieg – were vocal works, although all of them were equally well-versed in writing instrumental music. What makes vocal music unique is the added component of text. When true musical masters combine these elements, the result is something celebratory and memorable.”

One of my hopes for this concert, Moments in Time, is to demonstrate both the momentary, fleeting experience of performance (for musician and audience alike) and the timelessness of choral compositions that have endured, in some instances, for more than 400 years. By enlisting the musical genius of Joe, Dick, Ben and Ed, ARS invites you to celebrate these Moments in Time.

Experiencing Music History – from the Ancient to the Modern

by Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Sing and Rejoice is a diverse mix of Christmas choral music from both the “long” past, the “near” present and the “very” future.

The first half of the program includes pieces from, arguably, the 16th century’s two greatest choral composers, Palestrina and Victoria, and one of the 20th century’s greatest and most enduring composers, Benjamin Britten.

Palestrina is credited with “saving” choral music for the church after composing his Mass in honor of Pope Marcellus. In a very real way, this composition put into practice the new edicts from the monumental Council of Trent – the Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. The Council declared that vocal music for the church had become too elaborate, with little attention given to the text and too much attention focusing on florid passages and counterpoint that obscured a piece’s melodic content (all compositions for the church contained some portion of a chant tune). Victoria’s entire oeuvre consists of sacred music and he is known as one of the supreme contrapuntists of his age.

“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of lonliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.”
– Benjamin Britten

Britten’s Ceremony of Carols shows Britten at his finest: compact and masterful, he demonstrates both his attention to text nuance and his propensity of mixing the “old” with the “new” – simple melodies, that when sung in canon, contain quite a few daring harmonies. Britten employs a variety of texts that are meant to remind the listener about the profound and mystical time of Christmas.

The second half of Sing and Rejoice intermixes the traditional with the modern: selections from the Alfred Burt Carols, a visit to the Russia and Eastern Europe (including a premiere arrangement of a Russian folk song by ARS Baritone, Ray Braswell), and fresh, updated settings of the familiar carols In dulci jubilo and Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

The concert also features the premiere of a choral composition by U of A Sophomore Music Composition major Grant Jahn (oldest son of ARS Music Director, Dr. Jeffry Jahn). In keeping with the concert theme of combining the “ancient” with the “modern,” this piece uses the familiar text from the ancient responsorial chant of Matins for Christmas in a setting that shows definite influence from contemporary choral composer phenomenon, Eric Whitacre, and harmonic master, Morten Lauridsen.

“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”
– Leopold Stokowski

Sing and Rejoice is part of a great tradition – the Arizona Repertory Singers’ annual “gift” to Tucson. The purpose and goal of our December concerts has always been to celebrate the joy of the season and the ever-present hope of lasting peace for all. This year’s concert is no exception. It represents both the traditional and the modern while underscoring how the past, present and future are inexorably and mystically connected.

Musings on a Musical Mosaic

by Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

Dr. Jeffry A. Jahn

A musical mosaic, by definition, will contain music that readily underscores and enhances both similarities and differences between the spiritual and secular realm of our lives.

Music affects every aspect of our daily existence. We are surrounded by it because of our constant access to various media. As a result, we are alternately moved and even annoyed by it.

A special focus in this ‘Musical Mosaic’ is an entire section devoted to the sensual side of ARS. It includes works from Musical Theatre and popular music of the golden past. Choral arrangements of emotional gems such as Autumn Leaves, Begin the Beguine, With One Look from Sunset Boulevard, and especially Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera, are perfect examples of melodies coupled with highly expressive texts that are unforgettable, and represent the musical and choral diversity that is an ARS trademark.

The most obvious difference between instrumental and choral music is that of text. There will always be a persistent argument about what is more important – the text or the music. For centuries, composers have grappled with the real origin of their inspiration: the words or the music.

Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.
– Leonard Bernstein

When a concert contains such a diverse range of composers as J. S. Bach and Cole Porter, one instantly realizes the awesome responsibility that both the performer and the listener must undertake: the performer must be versed in the historic and musical similarities, or differences, their pieces may share. The listener is charged with the awesome responsibility of being able to recognize these similarities and differences – primarily through hearing.

When musicians perform a concert that consists of either several compositions written by one composer or a single masterwork by one composer (while containing inherent difficulties) they can rely solely on the reputation, historical background and musical record of that composer. However, when a choral ensemble performs multiple choral pieces by different composers in a mixed sequence that are, in and of themselves, just microcosms of a composer’s style, one immediately recognizes the challenge and the difficulty presented to both performer and listener. In this case, the ensemble serves as the conductor’s conduit enabling the music to be translated into a recognizable language that will be understood by the audience.

Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
– Ludwig van Beethoven

Eric Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs is unique in several ways, including a variety of voice combinations, auxiliary instruments (violin, piano & tambourine) used for accompaniment and text. Hebrew is a language that, for all intents and purposes, gives little consideration to vowels. Since vocal production is based primarily on pure vowel sounds, this work presents unique challenges for the singer and the listener. Five Hebrew Lovesongs also provides insight into the composer’s personal life and is especially significant because his wife Hila wrote the text.

Der 2 Psalm by Mendelssohn shows him at his “church” best. Written for his church choir, the Berlin Domchor, this piece sheds light on Mendelssohn’s spiritual side, one that is noticeably different than the more familiar secular side demonstrated in his orchestral works.