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Legacy, Light and Love

Twenty years—quite a legacy of music-making to celebrate! Over the years Cantus Novus, formerly the Bucks County Motet Singers, has grown from a small group of friends to the chamber group you see on stage at this performance. During that time, we have placed an emphasis on performing choral music that stirs the heart, ignites the soul and brings joy into the world. Despite the tremendous upheaval in our ability to “be together,” our program demonstrates how powerfully we can connect through music. Indeed, to feel the love we share with you in this concert.

Anniversary celebrations provide a perfect occasion not only to look ahead with eager anticipation but to glance back at the joys from the past. This season, Cantus Novus is revisiting a few of the most favorite works from our twenty seasons. My Spirit Sang All Day by Gerald Finzi is the first of such throwback selections. Finzi’s life bridged both the First and Second World Wars, and much of his music shows the weight of those ordeals. In contrast however, this fanfare of great joy speaks of the flame of love during courtship. Energetic and free, this is an anthem of blissful love.

Anthems and motets formed the entire body of choral singing for this choir twenty years ago. To honor this legacy and to demonstrate our commitment to 21st century compositions, we offer two settings of the immortal text from the gospel of John, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Thomas Tallis, an English composer from the Renaissance, provided the choral world with a simple, accessible motet which has been sung by choirs around the world for centuries. A combination of homophonic and polyphonic textures brings a flow to the piece that is at once gentle and comforting. In contrast, Frank Ferko’s setting is a tone and rhythmic cluster, perfectly suited to the modern ear. Ferko writes, “[my work] is a reflective commentary on the well-known motet by Thomas Tallis . . . but updated forms of modality are employed, and the lines are blurred somewhat using sustained tone clusters.” Listen for both a homophonic choir and a counterpoint sounding simultaneously at the end.

Another popular text from the book of Psalms is Cantate Domino Canticum Novum or Sing to the Lord a New Song. Hans Leo Hassler, a German composer from the late renaissance/early Baroque period was a prolific composer of choral motets. His setting for four-part mixed chorus is sprightly, fashioned in an A-B-A format, with the middle section in a quick triple meter. A much longer, accompanied setting of the same text comes from the work of Jonathan Rodgers, which was completed just three years ago. Employing both English and Latin texts, the piece opens with a declamation of the text, followed by a rollicking piano accompaniment which supports a lilting choral theme. Rapidly changing meters adds excitement and energy to the overall effect. Listen for a soothing middle section with a rousing climactic flourish at the end.

One of the most endearing choral offerings about love can be found in A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. Speculation about the death of his mother serving as the inspiration for this work abounds. Regardless, the passion, devotion and sheer beauty of this music cannot be overstated. Wie lieblich sind deine wohnungen (Psalm 84), “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place, O Lord,” is the text for the fourth movement of the Requiem. Soaring melodic lines, lush harmonies, and a heart-swelling, prayer-like ending make this a top-ten favorite of choirs everywhere.

From the Song of Solomon, known for its texts of love, we offer Healey Willan’s anthem, Rise Up, My Love, My Fair One. This composition is suitable for both liturgical use as well as the concert stage. Willan was born in England in 1880, living and working most of his life in Toronto, Canada. Well over 800 compositions fill his list of musical works, most of them for church services.

Another North American composer who is dedicated to writing church music is the rising star Dan Forrest. Entreat Me Not to Leave You adapts beautiful, loving poetry from the book of Ruth. Forrest has a gift for declaiming text with rich harmonies that support lilting melodies in a dynamic swirl that inspires and moves both listener and performer. It is one of the top favorite selections of this choir and a top choice for a reprise. You will undoubtedly agree upon hearing this gorgeous selection.

Anniversary celebrations would not be complete without gifts. This year, Cantus Novus is giving the gift of not one, but two new choral commissions. Commissioning a new choral work is thrilling for any choir, and we are especially proud to perform Bound for the Promised Land, composed by our good friend and neighbor Dr. Rollo Dilworth, Vice Dean and Professor of Choral Music Education at the Boyer School of Music, Temple University. Based on a traditional spiritual, which makes a brief appearance in the middle of the piece, this is a powerful statement of faith and love. A driving, swinging piano accompaniment supports the choir’s testimony throughout. This composition is sure to be welcomed by all at its initial publication. We are honored and grateful to present this world premiere.

The second portion of this love-fest opens with Elaine Hagenberg’s Through Love to Light. Given its premiere just last year at the American Choral Directors’ Association National Convention in Kansas City, this through-composed piece has lightness at its core, in text and texture as well as in dynamic contrast and piano accompaniment. In the end, the work shines a bright light on the joy felt by love.

VOCES8 is a world-wide phenomenon in the choral world. Based in Britain, this group travels the world showcasing extraordinary vocal prowess and beauty. In 2017, the ensemble was a co-sponsor of a composition competition, and Toby Hession, who was born in 1997 [yes that’s right!], was the winner. She Walks in Beauty is pretty much all you need to know about this piece, for it is indeed beautiful. Languid, introspective, and personal, with a text by George Gordon (Lord Byron), it delivers a maturity of sound and sense that belies the youthfulness of its composer.

What do a Scottish poet, a Latvian composer, and a college in Iowa have in common? My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose (text by Robert Burns) was arranged for The Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa by the increasingly popular composer/arranger Ērik Ešenvalds. A solo flute accompaniment, dense harmonic underpinnings and a lone solo voice combine in this hauntingly beautiful rendition of a traditional love song.

As Artistic Director, I seldom insert personal feelings into our rehearsals or these program notes. Please allow for this one exception. My mentor, Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, passed away in early 2019, somewhat unexpectedly. His influence as a teacher of the choral art was immense, impacting thousands of “Flum grads.” I was fortunate enough to sing this work of Samuel Barber, The Coolin, under his direction during my time at Westminster Choir College. It is a piece of great intimacy and devotion. Later, I was privileged to conduct the same piece with my select high school chamber choir on stages throughout China. Flum’s influence on me during those performances touched my students in a profound way. We truly felt the love. I hope you will too.

Renaissance composers are known as much for their secular songs as they are for liturgical motets. Thomas Weelkes was a master of the madrigal, defined as a complex polyphonic unaccompanied choral piece. Some madrigals employ texts that, at the time, were quite cheeky! Sweet Heart Arise is not one of those, but clearly is an exhortation to be in the moment.

The twentieth century produced an outpouring of great songs. Jazz standards, Broadway show tunes, and Top 40 hits provide the culture with a rich heritage of love songs. Beatles’ legends Lennon and McCartney penned Can’t Buy me Love in 1964. It resonates today especially with jazz master Kirby Shaw in control. We follow this with a Rodgers and Hart Broadway hit, This Can’t be Love. Toe tapping and head swaying are unashamedly encouraged.

It is the end of March as these notes are being prepared. So much of life is uncertain, yet we can be assured of some things. Love can never be cancelled. The bonds we share with family, friends, neighbors cannot be weakened by a virus. Music in our hearts cannot be silenced.

Our closing selection is another setting of text from the Song of Solomon and a Cantus Novus reprise. Paul Halley’s rendition of The Rain is Over and Gone seems a prescient and fitting conclusion to a concert about love. For when the winter is gone and the time for singing has come, we will all, as a community,

Sing of life and love and laughter,
Sing of freedom to live in peace.
And there shall be no more crying
Only joy that will never cease.

As we navigate the changing environment of our world, let us rejoice in the human spirit as expressed by our collective voices. May we feel the love singing with joy in our hearts.

Cantus Novus is sponsored in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, by the New York Life Foundation, and by Visit Bucks County Pennsylvania.

Cantus Novus is a member of Chorus America and the Guild for Early Music

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