This Spring, Philomusica presents

Shakespeare, Brahms and All That Jazz

John Rutter’s Birthday Madrigals with renowned jazz pianist Eli Yamin who will also perform solo jazz selections; James Bassi’s Harpsonnets with Diane Michaels, harp; Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder with Shea Velloso, piano; J.S. Bach’s Choral Prelude, Bourrée, from English Suite No. 2, and Aria, Suite in D Major, No. 2, arr. by Ward Swingle, with Pat O’Leary, bass.

Saturday, May 14, 8 pm • Sunday, May 15, 4 pm

Performances at Our Lady of Peace Church
1740 Route 130 North, North Brunswick
Click here for directions.

Program Notes

As our title promises, we begin our concert with musical settings of four sonnets by William Shakespeare. The New York based composer, James Bassi, wrote Harp-sonnets in 2005 for the Central City Chorus. Mr. Bassi chose to begin this collection with what may be the most well known of the sonnets, Number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The opening time signature is 6/8, which gives the piece a flowing, pastoral feel. Many of the harmonies in the choral parts contain the open, archaic sounds of 4ths and 5ths, rather than full triads made up of 3rds. However, the harp part completes the chords in surprising ways and gives a modern sound of the extended harmonies of 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths of today. In general, the piece is in ABA form, with the harp serving as accompaniment in the two A sections. However in the middle B section, the harp has its own counter-melody and its harmonic changes happen much more quickly.

The second sections uses Sonnet 97, “How like a winter hath my absence been” dealing with a lost love. In the loved one’s absence, all is seen as dark and wintry, even though these thoughts and feelings are occurring in summer and autumn. To aid this feeling of loss the harp part beings with a descending motif in G minor, accompanying only the men’s voices singing melody in unison. The voices then expand to two parts, one for men and one for women plus the harp motif. This harp motif continues through almost the entire piece in different ranges and sometimes reversing direction. The men return in unison and two parts to remember the actual beauty of the summer and autumn and now the harp is heard in a major key. This leads to a short section for the women in two parts before the whole choir finally enters in four parts to a very spare accompaniment. We then return to the opening men’s melody now sung in four parts by the entire choir with the accompaniment in B flat major: the relative major of the opening key of G minor. As the feeling of the loved one’s absence again grows stronger, the choir grows softer and softer. They end on an ambiguous chord which is neither major nor minor, while the harp returns with the opening motif in the original G minor.

Section three employs Sonnet 128, “How oft when thou, my music, music play’st.” For the first time the harp introduction supplies not only the key, tempo, and emotional attitude of the piece but also plays a melody that comes close to the choir’s opening melody as well. In order to help us picture the “blessed wood” (a keyboard like a spinet or a virginal) and the “jacks” (keys of the instrument) the harp part is written more like a keyboard part. Both parts frequently seem to chase and/or echo each other through this lively love song.

The final section is set to Sonnet 19, “Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” and rages against the decay of time. To keep our mind on the subject of time, the harp plays exactly on the beat for most of the piece. Any syncopated rhythms are found in the choir in order to accent the correct syllables or to lengthen an important word. Most of the piece is in various minor keys until the end, where it switches to major and stays there for the poet's final words that claim in spite of time turning all things old, through his poetry his love will “ever live young.”

Two of Brahms’s most popular and well-loved compositions are his two books of Liebeslieder Waltzes for four-part voices and four hand piano accompaniment. Like those earlier pieces, his Zigeunerlieder (“Gypsy Songs”) form a sequence of dance-songs for four-part voices and one pianist. Rather than a waltz feeling of three, they are dominated by the strong 2/4 beat of the Hungarian Csardas (“Dances.”) These eleven pieces range from the fast and energetic (e.g., Number’s 1, 2 and 11) to the slow and beautiful (e.g., Number’s 7 and 8). The accompaniment to Number 10 even makes a good imitation of the cimbalom (a Hungarian dulcimer–a favorite instrument at the time in Hungarian gypsy orchestras.) Brahms seems to have written these pieces for sheer enjoyment and described them as “cheerful and high-spirited nonsense.”)

The Swingle Singers began as a group of freelance recording session singers working in Paris, France in the early 1960s. One of them, an American by the name of Ward Swingle, had the idea of singing through some preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier just to see if they would sound good with voices. The group felt that they did, and since there were no words they improvised a version of scat-singing to go with the music. They found that a good deal of the music done this way had a natural “swing” to it. The six singers, led by Mr. Swingle, rehearsed for about a year. They recorded for Philips at the end of that year, thinking that they would sell a few recordings. When it was released in the United States in 1963 it climbed the charts to the Top Ten and stayed in the Top 100 for nearly a year and a half. That first recording also won Grammy awards that year for “Best Performance by a Chorus,” and “Best New Artist.” Philomusica offers you three of Ward Swingle’s Bach arrangements to begin the “Jazz” half of our concert.

We conclude our concert with a performance of Birthday Madrigals, written by John Rutter in 1995 to celebrate the 75th birthday of the great English jazz pianist George Shearing. The five pieces in this collection are called madrigals only because their texts come from the era of the Elizabethan madrigal. Numbers’s 2 and 4 are gorgeous slow pieces for a cappella choir. In support of the title of today’s concert, Number’s 1 and 5 have texts by Shakespeare, while Number 3 has words by Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh. These three movements are written in jazz style for both the voices and the accompanying instruments, thus bringing to an exuberant close our concert of “Shakespeare, Brahms, and All That Jazz.”

Past Events:

Wine Tasting & Silent Auction February 2011
A Festival of Magnificats - Fall 2010
In Praise and Remembrance - Spring 2010
What Sweeter Music - Fall 2009
Philomusica Celebrates Love - Spring 2009
Christmas through the Ages - Fall 2008
Celebrating Inspiration - Spring 2008
Awake, Awake - Fall 2007
Sounds of Devotion - Spring 2006
Echoes of Mystery and Joy - Fall 2006

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