Greg Wheatley, Musical Director of the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale, shares his thoughts about past and future concerts, musical works we've performed, and the many joys of choral music.
Sitting comfortably on my back porch this afternoon, I’ve just finished listening to Morten Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium. If you don’t know this piece, stop right now, click over to Spotify or your favorite music service, and listen to it. You’ll be in good company—this piece, along with a handful of others from Lauridsen, have become the best-selling choral pieces from the publisher Theodore Presser in its more than 200 year history. In fact, Lauridsen has the distinction of being the most-frequently performed American choral composer. Kind of makes you sit up and take notice, doesn’t it?
Let me say right up front that the reason I’m writing about this is simple: the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale will sing this setting of O Magnum Mysterium in its Chistmas concerts this year. We last sang this piece in 2005, and it’s time to do it again. It will find its place this Christmas in a grouping of pieces that look at the events of the manger: Mary’s perspective as she looks on in wonder at the newborn Son, her gentle lullaby, set beautifully by John Rutter, and then O Magnum Mysterium. The text for this piece is an ancient one with its origins in the Christmas Day Matins service:
O great mystery and wonderful sacrament,
That animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger.
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
To bear Christ the Lord!
The musical setting is vintage Lauridsen: lots of close harmony that doesn’t seem to resolve according to traditional rules, but which adds up to create a shimmering tapestry of color that invites us in to its sonic world to contemplate the mysteries it communicates. Challenging to sing? Yes. But in the end, worth it all because of the wonder we singers experience, and the wonder we hope to communicate to those listening.
And that’s just one of the chorale’s pieces for Christmas. I could get excited about this—and it’s still August!
Choral directors have this in common: they're thinking about Christmas music when the temperatures are soaring! That has been my experience over the last several days, as I've been pondering the chorale's 2013 Christmas program. I've been holed up in the one room in our house that has working air conditioning, and I'm happy to say that I'm ready to talk a little about our concert Wintersong.
I think you're really going to enjoy what the chorale has for you this year! There will be familiar things like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We're also going to treat you to some tasty music you may not be familiar with. That includes All Bells in Paradise, a new piece by John Rutter which he composed just last year for the annual Lessons and Carols from Kings College. Joining the chorale for Christmas this year, in addition to our wonderful pianist Jeri Kellan, will be the wonderful sounds of the harp and the oboe. And of course, the grand contributions of the College Church pipe organ!
Add to all this the opportunity for the audience to join in on some carols, and you've got the makings of a great Christmas celebration! Our concerts will be at College Church on December 6 and 7. Save one of those dates, and watch this website for further information.
Now if all of this has you interested in singing with the chorale, I have good news! There is still time for you to audition! We are auditioning for all voice parts, and are especially interested in hearing basses and tenors. Auditions will be held August 13 and 20. More information on the main page of this website. Don't be shy! If you've had a bit of singing experience (high school, college, church choirs), you may be just who we're looking for!
Aren't you feeling cooler already?
I enjoy Yogi Berra-isms. You know what I mean--pithy quotes that have a bit of quirkiness about them. For example, "Always go to other people's funerals....otherwise they won't come to yours." Or, "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."
I've discovered that the musical world has its own Yogi Berra. His name is Eugene Ormandy. Ormandy, who died in 1985, was for many years the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. A quick Google search will turn up some of his wonderfully quirky sayings. Here are just a few:
(Looking out over the orchestra) Who is sitting in that empty chair?
I am thinking it right but beating it wrong (I think every conductor loves that one!)
Something went wrong. It was correct when I studied it
Don't ever follow me because I am difficult
Wouldn't it have been fun to play in Maestro Ormandy's orchestra?
I also love quotes about music and music making that are a bit more serious. Consider this:
Music is always a community enterprise. The solo performance does not exist. Even its creation is an attempt to communicate, and every performance an effort to unite the minds of men even of different generations.
That statement comes from a mission statement of sorts. It was the mission statement of the Collegiate Chorale, founded by the dean of American choral music, Robert Shaw. I think that it communicates volumes about what choral singing should be: a community effort in which the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Whether the chorus is singing a januty sea shanty, or a larger work like the Faure Requiem, when you release the last note of the piece, you should feel that you've just been a part of something bigger than yourself--something you simply couldn't have done alone.
Now for the commericial (you knew it was coming!) Maybe it's time to ask yourself if you've been missing this kind of musical community. The kind of community that comes from uniting your voice with 50 or 60 others to create (or maybe better to say re-create) a musical experience that you could never have on your own. It's the kind of thing we're about at the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale.
This summer, we're auditioning for all voice parts. Maybe you should consider it! Audition dates are August 13 and 20. More information is on this website.
Maybe Eugene Ormandy's question is for you: Who is sitting in that empty chair? Maybe the answer is you!
Indeed it has....and then some! The last couple of days have been quite reminiscent of full-blown summer, and if it weren't for the grading I'm doing as a college prof, I just might feel like I was on summer vacation! It's always nice to take a breather, isn't it?
But before I kick back too much, it's time to say thank you to those of you who came to the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale's concert All That Jazz. We certainly enjoyed ourselves....and weren't The Groove Merchants great! If you missed our concert, let me tell you what you missed: my good friend Howie Whitaker brought together a wonderful jazz quintet who both accompanied the chorale in several pieces, and also played some jazz of their own. I think it made a nice combination for nearly two hours of enjoyable listening.
So now it's time for a rest. The chorale returns to action right after Labor Day for what I think will be another great season! And here's where I want to catch your attention if you're a singer. Late this summer (August 13 and 20) we'll be auditioning for all voiceparts. So, if you've been thinking of putting that singing voice to use in a choral setting, please take a look around our website. If you have any questions, I'm happy to try to answer them. You may be just the singer we're looking for!
In the words of Irving Mills, "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." That simple, if exaggerated, sentiment might well sum up what the musical genre of jazz is all about. There's something infectious about hearing Take Five or I Got Rhythm—that indefinable something that makes you want to tap a toe or snap a finger.
The type of music that qualifies as jazz is a bit hard to pin down. One observer has said that jazz encompasses elements such as: swing, improvisation, and group interaction. Jazz had its birth in the American south, especially in New Orleans, where the African culture was meeting and coming to terms with European tradition in music. Jazz has roots in the blues, as well as in the work songs and field hollers of plantation workers. Whatever else it is, jazz is most certainly based on improvisation—the art of creating music "on the fly." This is one of the elements that gives jazz its excitement.
While the arrangements you'll hear from the Chorale this weekend are technically not improvised (they are written on a page of music), we do think you'll get the sense of vitality that jazz music offers. And if you're looking for authentic improvisation . . . well, that's where The Groove Merchants come in! My good friend and colleague Howie Whitaker has brought together this fine jazz combo just for the occasion. I know you'll love what they bring to this concert! And yes—much of it is created on the fly!
We hope you'll join us this weekend—Friday at 8:00 p.m. or Saturday at 3:00 p.m.—at College Church in Wheaton. Tickets will be available at the door—we'll hope to see you there!
Today I watched another of those increasingly ubiquitous flash mob videos. It seems they're popping up faster than Christmas candy at the office. This one featured a group of young people in a shopping mall, regaling the surprised onlookers with a medley of Christmas carols. As I watched the video, panning first from the singers then to the surprised but happy spectators, I found myself with a bit of a lump in my throat. And let me say that this isn't the first time that has happened to me. It happened when I watched my first choral flash mob a year or two ago. That one was a store performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. So what's going on with my emotional response to these events of "planned spontaneity?"
Well, at least two things, I think. First, there is the message behind the carols. Of all the good times of the year (as Dickens put it), now...at Christmas....we humans sense that God has come near. It's long been my conviction that, even for those who don't claim much of a religious orientation, Christmas brings an almost intuitive sense that God has done something. The 64-thousand dollar word is incarnation....meaning the invisible God has become very, very visible. So visible, in fact, that he was born in a less than inviting barn in an out-of-the-way little town. That's true identification with humanity.
The second reason I think those flash mobs create an emotional response in me springs from the first reason. It's that somehow--for those few minutes that the surprise music lasts--a tired, frazzled, sometimes cynical mass of humanity stops and shares communally in the musical gift that the choir is bringing. The message is Peace on earth, Goodwill to men. And the message is wrapped in the language of the heart--music. Watch the faces of many of the spectators--I think you'll see not just surprise, but what I can only call delight! It's as if time stops for a moment, and they put away their shopping lists, their anxieties, their worries and fears. And for just a moment, they all--singers and listeners--take in the amazing truth that God really has visited this planet. And some dare to believe!
So, maybe you'll watch one of those videos between now and Christmas. Or maybe you'll be fortunate enough to be surprised by one on your next shopping trip. You can call the choral flash mob a fad if you like, but as for me, I'm seeing more than what meets the eye!
Anybody know where that line comes from? Maybe it's ringing a bell, but you just can't quite place it. Let me help. It's from the English song Here We Come A-wassailing which originated some time in the middle of the 19th century. Back in that day, people would venture door to door, singing Christmas carols and hoping for a bit of kindness from those listening from the threshold. If you're thinking Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol just about now, you aren't far off.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year!
And God send you a Happy New Year!
The tradition of caroling from door to door is one that is at least vaguely familiar to most of us, at least if we're of middle age. But I wonder how often it's done these days. I can't tell you the last time carolers showed up at my door. But last night, a few hearty souls of the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale took to the streets of Wheaton and raised our voices in familiar Christmas carols. We weren't really looking for handouts (though one generous household did offer some brownie bites!) It was a delightful time! The responses were varied and interesting. In our busy suburban world on a Friday night, it was no surprise that many houses were uninhabited. I caught one homeowner moving across the doorway, but choosing to not open the door. I don't know if he knew that I knew....but I knew! But there were several homes where the response was wonderful! As our little crew of 11 voices (nope! not an even SATB balance) sang out Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World, one couple opened their door revealing two young boys in bath robes and bare feet. Out they came, unshod, onto the chilly concrete porch, and there they stood taking in our Christmas rejoicing. It was tonic for us singers! At another home, a look through a window revealed what was clearly a teenage girl sleepover party underway. Teen age girls? A sleepover? No hope for an audience here. They should be the ones to turn off the light and shut the door, inviting us to go away! But no! The front door swung open, and these young girls seemed to really enjoy what they were hearing! So much for generational stereotypes! At yet another home, a little one of maybe two years old, stood clapping his hands as we sang.
So maybe this Christmas, amidst all the busyness of life, amidst the worries of the looming fiscal cliff, and in spite of what can seem an increasingly cynical take on life, all of us need to be caroled. Or maybe we need to do the caroling for some one else. Maybe there's some one behind a door in your town who needs to hear voices ringing through the chilly night air:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
It's always a great moment. I'm talking about the moment two or three weeks from a concert when we start to bring all the forces together. It began last night at our rehearsal, and will pick up even more steam next week. At our rehearsal last night, our very capable pianist was joined by another set of hands. This extra set of ten fingers will handle pipe organ duties, and will also combine her talents with those of our regular pianist in a four-hand accompaniment for Deck the Hall.
And then there's next week--concert week! The chorale will be joined by an ensemble of string instruments, and the magic of Stephen Paulus' Christmas Tidings will take on a new luster. And the glory of Mozart's Gloria will be even more glorious!
Aren't you glad that music making isn't a solo venture?
Last Friday, I was asked to guest lecture in a class on Baroque and Classical music. Specifically, my charge was to talk about the vocal music of Franz Joseph Haydn. That, of course, meant spending a fair amount of time on pieces like The Creation (an amazing work!). But along the way, you know what happened? It happens to just about any one who is preparing to teach something. I learned a few things myself! And here is one of the fun surprises!
Seems that Herr Haydn and some of his students wrote 400 or so pieces based on Welsh and Scottish texts! Imagine that! A man whose native tongue was German (and who, according to reports, wasn't all that great at his English), writing music to Welsh and Scottish texts! Well, here's the fun part: One of those settings is for the Welsh text Nos galans. Now, my guess is that, like me, you had never heard that title before. It's a song about New Year's, written about 1873 by John Ceiriog Hughes. And if you listen to it, you'll immediately hear that it is the tune we know as Deck the Hall. And complete with those fa-la-la's we all love to sing! The words we know enjoy at Christmas were put to this tune around 1881.
I don't know about you, but that just makes Deck the Hall a little more interesting to sing this Christmas! Oh and by the way....that's just what the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale will do in our Christmas concerts Starry Night and Candlelight! And I think you'll like this arrangment by John Miller for choir and four-hand piano. Come check it out! Fa-la-la!
How do you know you're a choral musician? When it's still October and you've just written the introductory remarks to your chorale's Christmas concert! That's what I found myself doing this morning, and I thought I'd share a portion of those words here. I hope you'll read them, find yourself drawn in to the wonderful season of Christmas, and consider joining the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale for one of our upcoming Christmas concerts! Merry Christmas (a bit early!).........
Vincent Van Gogh's painting Starry Night has fascinated me for a long time. The Impressionistic swirls in the sky, the stars and moon with halos surrounding them, and all of these hovering mysteriously over what appears to be a sleepy little town--a village that is perhaps quite unaware of the wonders whirling above it. I think one of the reasons Van Gogh's masterpiece captivates me is that it seems to portray the touching of heaven and earth. A moment in which, as Edna St. Vincent Millay puts it, there comes a "truce between Earth and Ether." But the other wonderful thing about Van Gogh's painting is his use of light. The sky seems to be alive with light! The light doesn't just shine down on the little church and buildings below--it comes in fantastic swirls of luminescence!
Light has long been one of the primary symbols of the Christmas Festival. The Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale invites you to join with us as we marvel at that moment when heaven touched earth--the Incarnation--and all was light. In the words of one of the wonderful pieces you'll hear:
Before the marvel of this night/Adoring, fold your wings and bow,
Then tear the sky apart with light/And with your news the world endow.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,/That fear and death and sorrow cease:
Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace,/Sing peace, sing gift of peace.
Admittedly, the beginning of October is a rather strange time to ask a question about a favorite Christmas carol! On the other hand, if you're engaged in music making, October is a great time to ask such a question because you're in the thick of preparing a Christmas concert (in fact, it could be argued that waiting until October is actually a bit late!) If some one asked me this question today, I'd be hard pressed to give a single definitive answer. But one title that would certainly be on my list is Silent Night, or for you who love original languages, Stille Nacht.
The story is familiar enough, if a bit apocryphal. Legend has it that, on that fateful Christmas Eve in the little Austrian village of Oberndorf, the organ was broken down (some versions of the story even add that a mouse had chewed through the organ's bellows). In reality, we're not really sure if the organ was on the fritz. What we do know is that the assistant pastor of the little church in Oberndorf had written the words to Stille Nacht in 1816. On Christmas Eve of 1818, Mohr asked his friend and choir director Franz Gruber to compose a tune to set these words, so that it could be sung that night at midnight Christmas Eve mass. The first performance of Stille Nacht was heard with Mohr and Gruber, backed by the church choir and a simple guitar accompaniment. The rest is history--and what a history it is, as this lovely Christmas carol has found its way around the world!
Why do I rank Silent Night among my favorite Christmas carols? First, it has a simplicity that is fitting for Christmas. Amidst all the tinsel and colored lights, the shopping and the cooking, the hurrying and scurrying, Silent Night assaults us with the message of heavenly peace. Second, the musical setting doesn't get in the way of that simple text and its message. It is elegant but understated.
As part of our Christmas concerts this year, the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale will sing a wonderful setting of this old gem--one that re-captures the original style of an Austrian Landler, complete with Viennese-style strings. It's a bit different than the Silent Night you may sing this Christmas, and it is delightful! Why don't you plan to come and find out? Our Christmas concerts Starry Night and Candlelight are December 7 and 8. You'll find more details by looking around at this website!
Why do we do what we do? Ever stop to ask yourself that question, a la Socrates, who told us that the unexamined life is not worth living? We can—and should—ask that question about many things: our jobs, our leisure activities, our attendance at church, the way we raise our kids, and on and on. But let me ask it about something we share on Tuesday evenings—those of us who are part of the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale. Why do we sing?
I've just read an article by Canadian broadcaster and writer Eric Friesen about the power of the human voice, especially in singing (you can read the article for yourself here, or you can hear Mr. Friesen in a radio commentary adaptation here). If I were to summarize his thoughts, I think I'd put it this way: in a time when it's tempting to think that the impersonal has won the day, when Twitter, Facebook, and the iPhone have triumphed, the activity of singing reminds us that we still are human beings after all. What is more personal than the human voice? As I see students tromping through the conservatory schlepping their violins, trumpets, and trombones, it's a nice feeling to know that we singers carry our instrument with us all the time. And what a unique instrument it is! There are amazing nuances of tone color in the human voice that result in no two voices sounding quite alike.
So on Tuesday nights, approximately 55 of us get together in a choir rehearsal room and put those instruments to work. As Friesen points out in his article, there are times that we come having had a bad day at work, having fought the traffic to get there, and honestly, the last thing we want to do is spend two hours singing. Believe me, as a director, I feel it too! But then, an amazing thing happens. Vocal warmups remind us of that wonderful instrument that we call our singing voice. We begin to feel the tones resonating in our own bodies, and before long, we become aware that, wonder of wonders, my voice is joining with 50 others to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is an amazing thing! And as Friesen so aptly says, "As you sing, lift your voice to song, you can feel your shoulders lifting, free of the burdens. It's therapy, the cheapest and most dependable kind."
Yes. It is. And we haven't even talked about the joy of singing wonderful text joined to the music of gifted composers.
I like this thing called choral music. Count me in!