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.
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!
I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be back in session with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale! Only two rehearsals into the season, and already I'm excited about the music-making. That is a testimony to the wonderful folks who make up this crew—the faithful souls (and voices!) who show up Tuesday after Tuesday to take part in this amazing thing we call choral singing.
It seems that every year, there is one piece of music that takes me by storm—that piece that reaches out and grabs my emotions in ways that are sometimes beyond explaining. Right now, it seems that that piece is Morton Lauridsen's Sure on This Shining Night. The text is from poet James Agee's 1934 collection Permit Me Voyage. Taken alone, the words are evocative and haunting. But the marriage of this text to the music of Morton Lauridsen is nothing short of breathtaking. There are moments in this setting that make me want to echo Agee's words: "I weep for wonder." Is it the words that are so moving, or is it the musical setting? The answer, I think, is "Yes." What would one be without the other?
And isn't that what choral music is all about? I sometimes remind my singers that, unlike violinists, flutists, and pianists, we choral musicians get the privilege—and the responsibility—of handling words. And what a privilege and challenge that is! Those of us who sing and conduct choral music have the awesome task of being the final link in a chain that began with a poet's words, continued with a composer's setting of those words, and comes to fruition in a performance meant to be heard. And who knows who will hear? Who knows who will be moved during that performance in ways that exceed explanation?
I like being a part of that kind of venture.
New beginnings can be exciting! The first day of school, a new job, or maybe the birth of a child or grandchild. There's something about the freshness of beginning again!
Last night was one of those fresh starts for those of us in the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale. After our summer hiatus, it was back to singing with old friends, and may I say, a good number of new friends too! As the person who has the privilege of the upfront vantage point, I must tell you how excited I was to hear the sounds I heard in that rehearsal room. There was a vibrancy of tone that was hard to miss! It all bodes well for what's ahead this year!
Last night it was music that ranged from the sentimental I'll Be Home for Christmas to the amazingly poignant sounds of Lauridsen's Sure on This Shining Night. Wow! This is going to be fun!
Thanks singers! You made my evening!
It may be July and the mercury may be soaring, but Christmas is around the corner! And those of us who plan Christmas concerts are busy choosing music and getting ready for the most wonderful time of the year! If you're a singer who has been looking for a place to make music with a lot of other great folks, I hope you'll consider the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale. We're auditioning for all voice parts, and especially for tenors and basses. Take a look around our website, and if the Chorale looks like a place for you, we'd love to talk to you! Auditions are being held on August 14 and 21. Just fill out our audition form, or if you have questions, feel free to contact us and ask!
Our childhood memories are often filled with wistful longing as we remember what it was like to see the world as a magical place, filled each day with wonder and adventure—just waiting for us to explore it.
In our 2012 Spring concert, Songs My Mother Taught Me, the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale hoped to reawaken some of those memories for you. Since the concerts fell on Mother's Day weekend, it seemed an obvious choice to take up the theme of parents and children. Whether we are parents or aging adults, we all listen with hearts and memories as children.
The concert music ranged from fun music of childhood (Puff, the Magic Dragon) to thoughtful music about what it means to care for our children (A Mother's Prayer). We were also reminded that many children around the world don't feel safe (Prayer of the Children). We hope that all of the concert music called us to think about what a special gift life is to each of us—whether parents or children.
As always, the Chorale is grateful to have had you in our audience. We hope you enjoyed the music, and that perhaps along the way, you glimpsed again a moment or two of magic from your childhood!
I remember as a boy impatiently marking off days on a calendar until the long-anticipated arrival of Christmas! The excitement was almost more than my little sister and I could bear! Watching for the first snowfall, going on an expedition to find the perfect Christmas tree (never tall enough for my sister and me), and snooping mischievously in closets for presents. All of this was delicious anticipation for us as we awaited the arrival of that magical time called Christmas.
I don't think we adults are too much different—or at least I wish we were more like that. Christmas is a wonderful time to remember that something very amazing really did happen in this old world some two millennia ago! And that there is a reason that Christmas has captivated the imaginations of people, young and old, for centuries.
The Chorale's desire for our Christmas concerts is to invite you into that celebration. Conrad Susa's A Christmas Garland provided a perfect way to joyously welcome the season! This medley of carols was first performed in 1988 in memory of Susa's friend Nikos Kafkalis, who had just passed away. Susa himself describes the recurring Noel! in this piece as the "garland" that strings together the other carols. We hope you enjoyed being called upon to lend your own voice throughout this medley!
I hope that the Chorale's presentation of this Christmas concert served as a gateway into the season for you, helping you remember what Christmas is all about!