Friday December 9, 2016, 7:30 PM
St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church
380 Academy Hill Road
Sunday December 11, 2016, 2:00 PM
Rockport Opera House
6 Central Street
Down East Singers likes to vary its repertoire—especially at Christmastime. We’ve had yuletide celebrations of English, French, Russian, Greek and Latin-American music in recent years but never delved into the jazzy pieces of the holiday season. Could Down East swing for a change? The prospect appealed to us even though we’re far from a swing choir. Then, as we talked it over, a powerful musical member of our community passed away–Glenn Jenks. We had to pay tribute to him, especially since he had written a piece for our concert tour to Russia in 2001. So this concert is dedicated to the memory of Glenn and features a work that isn’t jazzy but speaks so poignantly to our world at this time of year.
We begin the concert energetically running with Torches by John Joubert. The English words are a translation from the Galician by J.B. Trend. Joubert was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1927 and studied at the South African College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. He has spent most of his career in England. Known best for his choral works, Joubert has also composed over 160 other works, including two symphonies, four concertos and seven operas.
Bouncy rhythms are nothing new to Christmas music. Much Renaissance vocal music is based on dance music. Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) was a German composer, organist and music theorist. As a linguist and writer, Praetorius is also famous as the author of of Syntagma Musicum, a three-volume encyclopedia of music and musical instruments. His Psallite is typical of the period with its mishmash of Latin and German which is typical of Protestant (Lutheran) music of his time.
Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) represents the next generation of German composers who wrote with verve. He is often cited as the most important German composer before J.S. Bach. (He was born exactly a century before Bach.) Schütz was not only influenced by the music of Praetorius but also by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, with whom he studied. He then moved to Dresden, Germany, as court composer to the Elector of Saxony. He later returned to Venice to study with Claudio Monteverdi. Schütz’s Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt comes from a collection of sacred motets entitled Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred choral music) published in 1648.
Jazz-influenced choral music isn’t just about jumpy rhythms. It’s also intertwined with the lush harmonies of the Romantic Period, especially as they influenced chord structures in 20th-century choral music. Franz Biebl (1906–2001) studied composition in Munich and then served as Choir Director at the Catholic of St. Maria in Munich from 1932 to 1939. He was then drafted into the military and taken prisoner of war from 1944 to 1946, being detained at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. We sing his most famous piece, Ave Maria, which was brought back to the US by the Cornell University Glee Club in 1970 after a concert tour of Germany. Cornell conductor Thomas Sokol met Biebl during a recording session at a radio station. Biebl’s original score was for male voices. After it became famous Biebl rearranged the piece for mixed chorus.
Another German composer who was strongly influenced by jazz harmony was Hugo Distler (1908–1942). Distler was an organist and choral conductor as well as a composer. Born in Nuremberg, he attended Leipzig Conservatory and then became the organist and choir director of St. Jacobi Church in Lübeck. He later moved to Stuttgart and in 1940 to Berlin where he taught and conducted the Cathedral Choir. As World War II intensified Distler became increasingly depressed and foresaw that he would be drafted into the army. In 1942 he committed suicide. His biographer, Nick Strimple, notes that, “…it appears that he saw the futility of attempting to serve both God and the Nazis, and came to terms with his own conscience unequivocally.” Distler’s Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming is translated from the original German and taken from his Opus 10 The Christmas Story.
Ragtime was one of Glenn Jenks’s passions. We pay tribute to this tradition in a scene from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha entitled “We’re goin’ around.” Joplin (1868–1917) an African-American composer and pianist, was born in Texas and died in New York City. He is often called “King of Ragtime Writers.” During his brief career he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet and two operas. One of his first pieces, “Maple Leaf Rag,” became ragtime’s first and most influential hit and is Joplin’s most famous composition. Although the opera Treemonisha was not well received when it was first performed in 1915 it was resurrected in 1972 and was widely acclaimed. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Glenn Jenks was born in Boston in 1947 and before his second birthday he had learned to conduct the William Tell Overture while standing in front of the family phonograph. As a teenager he studied at the Wellesley branch of New England Conservatory and then went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in music from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He taught in private schools for three years before embarking on a career as a solo performer of folk music and ragtime, and in 1975 he joined the country music singer Jud Strunk as guitarist and vocalist. He toured with Strunk for three years, appearing all over North America including the summer musical theater circuit where he and Strunk joined acts such as Manhattan Transfer and Andy Williams.
Jenks had been composing since the age of 12. His works included a String Quartet in Ragtime and also classical chamber works, songs and pieces for solo piano. In 1975 he moved to Camden where he combined music with a remarkable talent at growing roses. In 2001 when Down East Singers combined with the Rachmaninoff Choir to tour across the entire extent of Russia, the group commissioned Jenks to write Heaven and Earth are Full of Thy Glory. The words are by American poet Margaret Fishback Antolini, the mother of conductor Anthony Antolini.
People are often surprised to learn that one of America’s greatest gifts to Germany after World War II was jazz. Those who are interested in reading the history of this trend are encouraged to read Jazz and the Germans: Essays on the Influence of “Hot” American Idioms on 20th-Century German Music (Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, 2002.) The final chapter of that book is entitled “The Influence of American Music on a German Composer,” by Heinz Werner Zimmermann. It is fascinating reading because Zimmermann details his studies in the USA that have led to such works as his Weihnacht Motetten (Christmas Motets).
Zimmermann was born in 1930 and studied church music in Heidelberg. While teaching in Heidelberg he became friends with musicologist Thrasyboulos Georgiades, whose rhythm and language studies influenced him most, along with a growing fascination with American spirituals and jazz. He eventually studied in the United States at various institutions including Stanford University. His best-known style is what you will hear in our performance: sacred choral music accompanied by solo string bass. Zimmermann’s Christmas Motets were published in 1958 and are widely performed in Germany but little known in the USA.
We end our holiday romp with three arrangements by Nile Norton (b. 1941). Nile attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then Stanford University where he completed his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in choral conducting and voice. It was at Stanford that Nile met Anthony Antolini when the two tenors joined the Stanford Memorial Church Choir and the Stanford Mendicants (a male a cappella group). Nile was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study voice at the Vienna Academy of Music. After completing his degree he taught at Whittier College in California, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. He now lives in Seattle with his wife, Sarah.
Nile is no stranger to Mid-Coast Maine audiences. He has performed as a tenor soloist with Bowdoin Chorus in Ramírez’s Misa Criolla and conducted that same work with Down East Singers. His three arrangements of Christmas pieces for chorus, violin soloist and piano were written for the Schola Cantorum, Gregory Wait, conductor, in 2015. We are grateful to him and Schola Cantorum for allowing us to perform these pieces.