Sunday, May 3, 2020 • 7:00 p.m.
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Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Robert Kechley (*1952)
Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Psaume XXIV (“La terre appartient à l’Eternel”)
William C. White (*1983)
Psalm 46, Op. 14 [West Coast premiere]
— intermission —
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Daphnis et Chloé [complete]
Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger was born August 21, 1893, in Paris, and died at Mézy-sur-Seine on March 15, 1918. She composed this setting of Psalm 24 in Rome during 1916, scoring the choral accompaniment for 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and organ.
As a result of her winning the Prix de Rome in 1913, Lili Boulanger was awarded an extended stay at the Villa Medici in Rome (along with a monthly stipend), but illness cut short her initial trip to Italy. Health issues and her efforts in support of students from the Paris Conservatoire fighting in World War I curtailed her composing efforts for a time, but during the first half of 1916 she was able to return to Rome, where she composed settings of Psalms 24 and Psalm 129 as well as a treatment of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) the following year (all performed by OSSCS last season to mark the centenrary of her death).
Boulanger began sketching Du fond de l’abîme as early as 1913, and she may have been contemplating her other psalm settings simultaneously (including several that were never realized). She apparently never heard Psalm 24 performed during her lifetime. Published in 1924, details of its first performance remain elusive.
Dedicated to Jules Griset, an industrialist director of Choral Guillot de Saint-Brice, Psalm 24 opens with fanfares that call to mind the brilliant brass writing of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta (composed a decade later). The scoring for brass, organ and harp suggests, as Boulanger biographer Léonie Rosenstiel notes, “a consciously archaic and regal style,” as does the Gregorian chant–style choral writing for male voices at the beginning of the work. The mood relaxes somewhat at the second verse, with a solo tenor singing the third.
“This is an assertive work,” Rosenstiel continues. “Both the instruments and the voices are quite aggressive in declaring God’s dominion over the earth. The women’s voices appear to add both greater substance and a degree of word-painting to the composition, entering as they do for the first time on the words ‘Gates, lift up your heads, eternal gates.’” The closing pages return to the work’s opening material.
“Whereas the compositions written around the time of her Prix de Rome were impressionistic, characterized by polyharmonics, mixed sonorities, modal and whole-tone scales, and nature poetry” writes Michael Alber, “Boulanger developed a completely different and bold expressivity in Psalm 24.”
William C. White
White was born August 16, 1983, in Bethesda, Maryland. He composed this work in 2011 and conducted the premiere in Hinsdale, Illinois, on May XX, 2011. The revised version, completed in 2018 and heard for the first time this evening, calls for SATB chorus, pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta and strings.
About Psalm 46 the composer says: “I wrote this piece on a commission from the Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, to celebrate the retirement of their longtime director of music (and my one-time boss), Michael Surratt. Mike is a great guy and a really great organist, so I wanted to give him something to bite into. The church suggested I set the text of Psalm 46 (one of Mike’s favorites) and I seized the opportunity to use a translation that has fascinated me for years, namely Young’s Literal Translation of 1862. What makes this version of the bible so truly unique is that Mr. Young, a self-educated Scotsman, translated from the Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek without rendering said languages grammatically into modern English. Strangely, though, he still uses the vocabularic style and tense endings of the King James Version, lending the text a very distinct flavor of the ancient and the modern. I made just a few tiny adjustments to this text, mainly for musical purposes, and also because of Mike’s aversion to the use of the masculine pronoun for God.
“Astute listeners may recognize two hymn tunes quoted extensively (and often hidden) in the piece: ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ and ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’ — both are paraphrases of the Psalm 46 text and favorites of Mike’s.”
Originally for brass quintet, timpani, handbell choir and organ, the accompaniment has been rescored for full orchestra by the composer expressly for this evening’s performance.
Daphnis et Chloé
Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé in 1909, completing the score in 1912. The first performance took place in Paris on June 8 of that year. In addition to wordless chorus, the score calls for 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E♭ clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drums, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets, celesta, glockenspiel, 2 harps and strings.
The ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev is responsible for a number of works that today greet audiences far more often in the concert hall than in staged performances. Among these, of course, are the three great ballets of Igor Stravinsky—The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913)—as well as the remarkable ballet that premiered between those last two, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Stravinsky himself called Daphnis “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”
Daphnis underwent a longer-than-intended gestation, in part due to the personalities and high standards of Ravel’s collaborators, who included choreographer Michel Fokine, designer Léon Bakst, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, and conductor Pierre Monteux. In a 1909 letter, Ravel wrote: “I’ve had a really insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3 a.m. What particularly complicates matters is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. Even with interpreters around you can imagine how chaotic our meetings are.”
Ravel initially envisioned a “great choreographic symphony in three parts a vast musical fresco,” completing a piano score by May 1910, but significant revisions followed, particularly to the General Dance that ends the ballet, forcing the premiere to be twice postponed. When Ravel delivered the final version of this scene, the corps de ballet objected to the irregular 5/4 meter, prompting Ravel to suggest they chant “Ser-gei-Dia-ghi-lev” to keep track of the pulse.
“The work is constructed symphonically,” Ravel explained, “out of a small number of themes, the development of which ensures the work’s homogeneity.” As the ballet opens, Daphnis and Chloe fall in love; in a central episode, pirates abduct Chloe, and the god Pan rescues her; the final scene reunites the young lovers and ends in celebration:
“No sound but the murmur of rivulets of dew trickling from the rocks. Little by little, day breaks. Bird songs are heard. Herdsmen arrive searching for Daphnis and Chloe. They find Daphnis and awaken him. In anguish, he looks around for Chloe, who at last appears. They throw themselves into each other’s arms. Daphnis and Chloe mime the story of the nymph Syrinx, who was beloved of the god Pan. Chloe impersonates the young nymph wandering in the meadow. Daphnis appears as Pan and declares his love. The nymph repulses him. He grows more insistent. She disappears among the reeds. In despair, he plucks some reeds and shapes them into a flute and plays a melancholy tune. Chloe returns and dances to the melody of the flute. The dance grows more and more animated and, in a mad whirl, Chloe falls into Daphnis’ arms. A group of young girls enters. Daphnis and Chloe embrace tenderly. A group of young men invade the stage. Joyous tumult. General Dance.”
Ravel uses a wordless chorus throughout the ballet—including the final scene represented in this suite—as yet another evocative timbre in his seemingly inexhaustible instrumental palette. Although he prepared orchestral cues to replace the choral passages when absolutely necessary in smaller theaters, Ravel considered the chorus indispensable. When Diaghilev mounted a London production sans chorus, the composer wrote a scathing letter to The Times, calling the omission of the choral parts “disrespectful towards the London public as well as the composer.”