Program Notes

Luminous Night

December 6 & 7, 2014 | Download PDF | Print

Luminous NightClick to view full poster

“Sunlight shines on my face;
This is my grace, to be
Restored, born again,
In flame.”
(Charles Anthony Silvestri, from Across the Vast, Eternal Sky, 2010)

“Bach is thus a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads to him.”
(Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach, Vol. 1, 1908/1911)

The extraordinary impact of Bach’s great choral works derives essentially from his remarkable ability to balance, yet at the same time to exploit to the full, the spiritual and dramatic elements of each text, whether it be one as concise as the Magnificat or as monumental as the St. Matthew Passion.

“Concise: marked by brevity of expression or statement: free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.” With this Merriam-Webster entry, it is clear to me that concision embodies the soul of today’s program. Luminous Night was originally born of the impulse to rehearse, prepare, present and intimately live with one of Bach’s most beloved cantatas, the Magnificat. It is a work of pulsing energy, lyrical tenderness and stirring utterances.

The text Bach chose, Luke 1: 46–55, is based on words attributed to Mary on learning both of her pregnancy and its significance to humanity. This young woman boldly accepts God’s monumental call and radically suggests a critical shift to the social order: He has cast down the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away. There are no recitatives in the Magnificat. Instead, each of ten verses receives extended treatment, the chorus and soloists supplying appropriate emphasis to this rich canticle text. Each movement is a marvel of compositional economy and perfect expression.

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach travelled with his new wife of two years, Anna Magdalena, and their five children to assume his new post in Leipzig. In his first year there, he made the unprecedented decision to produce 40 new cantatas and rework more than 20 reworked pre-Leipzig pieces (a new cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the ecclesiastical year). Out of this compositional fertility came the Magnificat in E-flat for Christmas. Ten years later he revised it and transposed it into D, a much brighter and more satisfactory key for singers and instrumentalists alike. And that is the version you are hearing today.

When programming Luminous Night, I immediately thought of 36-year-old Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) as an exotic balance to the Magnificat. On first appearance, the music of Bach and Gjeilo could not possibly be more divergent. Where the great master’s music embodies the details of a fine oil painting, Gjeilo provides a cinematic wash of color and sound – shimmering, lustrous and ultimately luminous. He is a full-time composer, dedicated to his own special brand of concision: economy of harmonic language and spare textual expression, underscored by reverberating, reiterative rhythmic patterns. Both Across the Vast, Eternal Sky [2010] and Luminous Night of the Soul [2011] are scored for string quartet and piano. The composer tells us that he was “influenced by a wish to feature the piano more heavily in choral music, not just as generic, unassuming accompaniment, but as an equal partner to the choir, aided and supported by the string quartet.” Our own Jeffrey Mead deftly and sensitively brings warmth and lyricism to Gjeilo’s beautiful keyboard parts. Gjeilo has found a powerful partner in poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. Across the Vast, Eternal Sky offers the legend of the firebird, with universal themes of spiritual growth, rebirth and renewal. Luminous Night of the Soul is Silvestri’s response to St. John’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (also set by Gjeilo at an earlier date).

To round out the program, I have added Z. Randall Stroope’s Winter, based on a rich text by Kahlil Gibran. Winter provides a metaphorical view of love between two people who have experienced the wealth of each passing day in a long season of life, and now one of them is beginning to drift into a “deep and wide ocean of slumber.” One of my favorite arrangers, Michele Weir, is represented in three new jazz carols. And finally, we give you a piece that has become a part of the fabric of Cantemus, a signature piece if you will – Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night, based on James Agee’s mystical and moving text.

Cantemus is a special group – committed, funny and ultimately talented – and, as always, I am continually grateful for your continued warmth and support. I look forward to greeting you after the performances and wish you peace and joy in the holiday season.

— Jane Ring Frank, Artistic Director