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Song Fest

Song Fest

Thursday August 17 at 12:00 pm
Central United Methodist | Free admission

Program Notes

Benjamin Britten remains one of the most important and productive English composers of the 20th century. Perhaps best remembered for his many operas (such as Billy Budd or Death in Venice), he also participated in the 20th-century folksong revival in Britain, ultimately compiling eight collections of folksongs from the British Isles. His arrangements are clever and original, drawing upon his own experience in writing for voice and years spent accompanying singers. He favored the harp in accompaniment as much for its sound as its evocative suggestion of traditional Celtic music.
The first two songs – “She’s Like the Swallow” and “Bonny at Morn” – belong to Britten’s last Eight Folk Song Arrangements, written for Britten’s life partner, tenor Peter Pears, and the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis. The mournful, yet soaring “Swallow” derives from Maud Karpeles’ collection Folk Songs from Newfoundland, and the languid “Bonny at Morn” is another example of Britten’s skillful treatment of Scottish folksongs. Both arrangements introduce beautiful harmonic nuances which are absent in simpler, perhaps more traditional, settings.
“O Can Ye Sew Cushions?” is a traditional Scottish lullaby, full of “baby talk” sounds as well as more regional renditions of English. Perhaps the words of a mother singing to her baby while the father is off at sea, the song finds a fitting partner in Britten’s two-against-three accompaniment, which effectively conjures the rocking movement of a boat at sea, or the rhythm of the mother sewing while singing her child to sleep.
“At the Mid Hour of Night” is yet another adept musical arrangement of Thomas Moore’s poetry. As in the previous settings, Britten’s accompaniment remains rhythmically and texturally interesting while never obscuring the beauty of the vocal melody, which here is allowed to luxuriate in long rising and falling phrases. This moving ode to a lost loved one happened to be a favorite of Britten and Pears on the recital stage.

Judith Shatin is an American composer boasting an extensive catalogue of chamber, choral, orchestral music, while equally at home within the milieux of electronic and electroacoustic music. She has received commissions from the Fromm Foundation, Barlow Endowment, and the Library of Congress, as well as from such prestigious ensembles as the Kronos Quartet, Da Capo Chamber Players, Ensemble Berlin PianoPercussion, and the Netherlands-based Hexagon Ensemble. Shatin has held fellowships for artistic residencies at institutions around the world, including Bellagio, Brahmshaus, Casa Zia Lina, La Cité Internationale des Arts, and Mishkan Omanim, among several others. Currently, Shatin holds the title of William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia, where she established the Virginia Center for Computer Music.
Premiered in 2012 by the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, vayter un vayter is a cycle of three musical settings to the poetry of Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. The first piece, es klopn di shleyfn (My Head is Throbbing), is a dramatic depiction of a race between good and evil, underscored by a consistently heavy, trodding pulse. The second, shpiltsayg (Toys), leaves behind the sharp angularity of the first setting and trades this for a gentler tone, with far sparser textures. Here a father speaks to his young daughter, but the tenderness of his words is plagued by dark, haunting images of the Holocaust. Ver vet blaybn (What Remains?) concludes the set with a “reflection on faith and eternity tinged with irony” (Shatin), along with a return to some of the same energy and angst which characterized es klopn.
The title of the whole set, vayter un vayter (Further and Further) reflects the composer’s sensation of being pulled “further and further” into the world of Sutzkever through engagement with his poems, and, as a result, gaining a better understanding of Yiddish-speaking communities of Eastern Europe before their destruction in World War II.

Works like the Orchestral Suites or the Brandenburg Concertos to come this weekend give us a glimpse of Johann Sebastian Bach at his most secular, writing instrumental music for an employer who prized it and one who had no need for sacred music. This was a brief episode in Bach’s life, of course. With the move to Leipzig in 1723, sacred music once again monopolized his time and energy. It would be in Leipzig that Bach would create new cantatas on an almost weekly basis. Still, we should not forget that many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas stem from earlier times. Material in his portfolio could be pulled out and recycled to make new compositions. This was especially helpful given the time constraints Bach faced. Such is the case with Cantata 51, his only cantata scored for solo soprano and trumpet. First performed on September 17, 1730 in Leipzig, some of the material likely was written much earlier.
This cantata features five movements: three arias interspersed by recitative and a chorale. Each movement uses a different form, from concerto to fugue. The soprano aria situated at the center of the cantata, “Höchster, mache deine Güte,” utilizes the simplest means and sparest texture to express a deeply felt religious feeling. Scored for soprano solo with continuo (gamba and keyboard), the aria employs soaring melismas and rising lines that mimic the text: “Highest, renew your goodness.”

© Emily Masincup, 2023

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