Here are some of conductor Bill Metcalfe's comments about upcoming and past concerts:

2015 Spring Concert - "The Lutheran Bach"

Sometimes we forget that Bach spent his entire professional life as a church musician, usually as organist /choirmaster in a major Lutheran church wherever he was living. In many cases he was responsible for providing service music, often involving a full Cantata in the German style (choruses, chorales, solos, extended orchestral sections), for Sunday performance in the liturgical context of the day. This concert lets us hear some of the results of Bach's prodigious genius (and work ethic!).

The Mass in G-Major is called Lutheran because, as was common enough, although not a universal practice, it set only those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass with which Lutheran theology was comfortable, i.e., the opening Kyrie and the Gloria which followed. This also shortened the Sunday morning somewhat, not necessarily a thing much lamented.

Nun ist das Heil is unique among Bach's church works, a brilliant, sustained piece of florid counterpoint probably originating as an opening or closing chorus for a much longer cantata.

And Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) is Bach's final elaboration of the Lutheran triumphant battle song, the story of Lutheran triumphs over Catholicism in Germany's religious wars. The emotions aroused by this grand work, probably performed first on the Sunday of St. Michael and All Angels (October 31, 1725), are many and thrilling, both frightful and joyful.

Finally the Ouverture in D-Major, BWV 1068, not a church piece, is a glorious tumbling out of winning tunes lively and gorgeous (the famous Air on the G String is one of its movements.

2014 Holiday Concert - "Magnificats"

The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, is set to a text which "magnifies the Lord". It was sung by the Virgin Mary to her cousin, the pregnant Elizabeth, a statement of faith and certainty of faith (Luke, I:46-55). One of the eight earliest hymns (canticles) used in Church services, in the Anglican tradition it is sung as part of the Evensong liturgy, and Catholics hear it during Vespers. The popularity of what is sometimes called “Mariolatry”, i.e., the excessive worship of Mary rather than of Jesus and the Father, helped make this one of the texts most often set to music of very high quality. It also became associated with church festivities surrounding the observance of Christmas, the birth of Mary’s own son.

Unsurprisingly, composers of genius from each age set the Magnificat in ways very different in style, technique, forces called for, and length. Thomas Tallis’s version is intended to be serviceable for the smallest chapel or church or school choir, to have a practical, unpretentious liturgical use. It is thus a very short, very simple (art concealing art?), unaccompanied setting by the great English Catholic composer.

Antonio Vivaldi, writing in the heart of a musical establishment in Venice which produced many highly skilled young women string players and singers, wrote his Magnificat for quite small orchestral forces accompanying a few soloists and an SATB choir. Very recognizable as by Vivaldi, with its rushing string gestures and crisp rhythms, the work barely uses the two oboes called for in its score, yet is clearly a festive Magnificat which is intended to make an energized, vivid and memorable impression in the congregation.

In 1749 CPE Bach, the finest musician among J.S.Bach’s sons, created a work in deliberate homage to his father’s own Magnificat (there are virtual quotes, not to mention a general atmosphere and distribution of vocal forces which bring the elder Bach to mind), completing it one year before “old Bach” died. Brilliant figurations and rushing string passages, emotions like hearts on the sleeve, as was increasingly the style of the day and the years to come, virtuoso string writing, and effervescent trumpets and timpani make this a work to rejoice with. Longer than both Tallis and Vivaldi, it was clearly intended to be a festive piece that an audience, as well as a congregation, would love.

Summer 2014

Gilbert & Sullivan fans tend, like the leprechaun, to love best the particular opera they are performing/seeing/hearing at the time, so high is the average measure of excellence present in almost all their shows.

But most would agree that, as far as the public is concerned, the Big Three are Pinafore, Pirates, and Mikado. HMS Pinafore, or, The Lass Who Loved a Sailor (almost all names in G&S are puns) is really the first of the tremenous commercial successes in the canon - it was so beloved that unsanctioned performances were presented all over the USA, prompting the authors to give two "premier performances" (the Topsy-Turvy World of G&S making itself known) of its successor, Pirates of Penzance, to ensure legal copyright of the work in the authors' hands. If not as sophisticated in its orchestration or dialogue as later G&S, Pinafore is nonetheless tremendously attractive, as well as thoroughly characteristic of Gilbert's, and Sullivan's, special genius. It was a smash hit in both the Empire and the US. A firm but excellent Commander of the ship is planning to marry his gorgeous daughter to the Ruler of the Queen's Navy, Sir Joseph Porter, but she, having fallen in love with "a simple sailor, lowly born", Ralph Rackstraw, determines to avoid this fate by sneaking off to "a clergyman" who will "make them one". The dastardly Dick Deadeye (little is politically correct about Gilbert's humour!) informs the Captain, and things look very gloomy indeed until "little Buttercup", to whom the Captain himself has taken a shine, steps forward with some long-hidden information which will save the day. British (Imperial) flags fly, all rejoice, and the final musical strains celebrate the fact that Captain Corcoran might have been otherwise (?)...but "remains an Englishman."

Frederick Delius, known primarily for a series of what used to be called "tone poems", musical "descriptions" of the English or French countryside and colourful events attached to it, might be surprised to know that the exquisite but very short On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring is the best known of all of these. It is an absolute gem, impossible not to think of if one ever hears a cuckoo call in the quiet, rolling hills of southern France.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was derided by less skilled composers as the Dean of the English Cowpat School, making one imagine "looking at cows over a farm gate". In Vermont, we would ask "what's wrong with that?", and the achingly beautiful work for violin and chamber orchestra, The Lark Ascending, is the work of an absolute master of this quiet, picturesque genre. RVW's Lark flies up into the clear air (as in both Meredith's poem and Ferguson's Irish song text), hovering here and there, darting to and fro,its lovely sounds mimicked throughout by the high-flying solo violin.

Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is a relatively early piece written for Britten's lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears, and the finest hornist in England, the legendary Dennis Brain. Britten has, deservedly, the reputation of being the best setter of the English language since Henry Purcell (or Arthur Sullivan, for that matter), and it is telling that in the Serenade he chooses extraordinarily fine texts to set. From the dancing "goddess goddess" calls to the truly scary Dirge (actually a country dirge processional calling up visions of a Brig o' Dread which one either crosses safely or falls down into Hell), Britten's music is immediately gripping, the tenor's penetrating vocal lines matched in spades by the wonderful horn calls. It is without question one of the few genuine masterworks of the 20th century.

Haydn's wonderful Harmoniemesse, or the "Wind-Band Mass", the last major work he himself finished and the only one to use the full complement of woodwinds, i.e., the "Harmonie", present in Viennese chamber works of the time, was written in 1802 to honour Princess Maria Esterhazy. At age 68, Haydn had just completed The Seasons, but retained enough energy to compose not one, but two High Masses, i.e., settings of the entire Mass text. It features a larger proportion of chorus work than do some of his other great masses (the Harmoniemesse was the sixth), although the short airs and quartets for the vocal soloists are very beautiful, and often are used to begin each new section of the Ordinary of the Mass. With plenty of fine wind-players at his beck and call, Haydn had a field day contrasting their rich sounds with those of the orchestral strings, the chorus, and each other. In addition to this trait the Harmoniemesse contains many pages of glorious melody given to both choir and soloists, and some sections utilize abrupt or unexpected key-changes to give variety to a work which is fundamentally in B-flat. If the opening Kyrie surprises by remaining in an adagio tempo, it pleases by being in sonata form, reminiscent of a symphonic movement. Wind-assisted declamatory passages are contrasted with gentle, almost pastoral sections (the "Gratias") but ultimately return to strong, if joyous, fully-scored fugues to end the Mass texts (one fugue in the Credo echoes a similar one in the earlier Theresienmesse). Most surprisingly, the Benedictus section is not slow and lyrical, but rather is marked Molto Allegro, hushed but "almost playfully operatic" (Richard Wigmore). The , Agnus Dei allows the winds to shine, and the Dona nobis pacem closes the work in a spectacular series of "brazen" fanfares and choral statements. Haydn, when criticized because his church music was too happy sounding, is said to have replied that it had to be joyous because whenever he thought of God, he was moved to smile. And so may we.

The greatest choral work

There is no doubt in my mind that, each in its own unique way, both Messiah and the B-Minor Mass are "the greatest choral work ever written. I would put a wee bit more money on the B-Minor as an absolute #1, for odd and sundry reasons, but both these masterpieces put the choir at the very centre of the experience, i.e., they are not merely long works w/great choruses, they are long choral works which are great overall and in every single piece therein. I realize that bringing the St.Matthew in muddies the waters, but the Passions are so very different in structure and in the role of the chorus that they almost stand as a sui generis, virtually unique choral genre. And of course I am more a B-Minor person than a Passion person, so there's that factor, too, built into my ranking.

May 2013

Handel, despite his birth in Saxony, the greatest "English" composer since the Renaissance, was often called upon to write special music for Royal and other great national public occasions. This concert pays tribute to his skills in doing so.

The first section of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, a.k.a. the "Sinfonia" to Act III of the opera Solomon, is short but breathlessly brilliant, violins scurrying in shifting arpeggios, oboes and lower strings anchoring the lot. The Singers use it as entry-music for themselves!

After George II’s great victory over the French at Dettingen, Handel provided a striking "trumpet-feast of an anthem" in commemoration. Brilliant brass, winds and drums periodically sound golden and plangent above the steady march of Handel's continuo, and the work displays elements of Handel's mature style which would soon enough be echoed by portions of Messiah.

Less cheerfully — the English were very fond of Caroline of Ansbach, married to King George II — Handel produced a glowing, luminous and very touching, 50-minute anthem for Caroline's funeral. He liked it so well that he made minor textual changes and published it as Part I of his great oratorio Israel in Egypt. In part because Parts II and III of Israel were long enough, Part I was, and still is, seldom performed in that incarnation. All the more reason to play it for its own special loveliness.

We close with the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest, as Handel resumes his Civic Music style of flourishing trumpets and crisply-struck kettle-drums. The shortest of Handel's four Coronation pieces, it has become the best-known. In the recent baroque-opera pastiche The Enchanted Island, it was used to announce the arrival of King Placido Domingo, a.k.a. Neptune, upon the stage. A "perfection of symbols", really!

December 2012

Kuhnau preceded Bach as Cantor at Leipzig's Thomaskirche, and virtually established the basic character and structure of Leipzig church cantatas, to which Bach, in large part, adhered. The two Magnificats we are singing represent two generations of Leipzig church musicians, then, although in all likelihood Kuhnau wrote his Magnificat not long before Bach wrote his, hence there are many resemblences in structure and style. Kuhnau was worried that church music had become too "theatrical", and his work is thus less contrapuntal than Bach's, often essentially homophonic and declamatory. In a way, these two works set the standard expectations for later baroque Magnificats.

We remember Respighi as the composer of three great, large-orchestra works: Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals. The Lauda... is quite different, altogether less grand and huge, but presenting the chorus as a kind of commentator which helps establish the mood over which three familiar Christmas characters - an Angel, Mary, and a Shepherd - sing about the birth of Christ in surprisingly florid, slightly operatic lines. Very cleverly accompanied by eight musicians--flutes (at times piccolo), oboe & Eng. horn, 2 bassoons, and, at the end, piano four hands (two players, one piano), plus a festive triangle (!) - the work is both dramatic and simply gorgeous, with sections which sound like Christmas carols as well as those which remind one of woodwind tunes traditional when one deals with the Shepherds in this age-old tale. Other sections express pure joy, and hushed affection. A very beautiful piece, less known than it should be - were it in English, German or Latin, it surely would be, but it is in Italian, a language we don't usually think of in a Christmas context.

July 2012

The three magical works by Mozart which make up this concert are in some ways not as well known to the general public as other masterpieces by him.

The great Missa in C minor, K.427, is the only sacred work by Mozart which shares both size and intensity with his well-known Requiem. Both these works have survived in an incomplete form. Mozart vowed to write a Mass to celebrate his marriage to Constanze in 1783, and certainly wrote some of K.427 in late 1782, and more of it in '83. But we are not sure if he ever set large sections (the Agnus Dei, for example, and much of the Credo) of the Mass text, or what form the work was performed in when he and his bride visited Salzburg that summer. Nevertheless, what we have is of such brilliance and genius that we now crave the regular concert performances which have made K.427 a major staple of choral music. What is somewhat surprising is the intensity, and the underlying darkness, of some of the choruses, only partially offset by the Christian optimism of the arias, duets, the trio and quartet which seem to flood the work with light.

Symphony #40, K.550, is thought to be a slightly "different", minor-key partner to #39 and #41 (Jupiter). It has unexpected currents of gravitas which modify its compelling, forward-moving melodies. Its first version, which omits clarinets and relies on flute, oboes, bassoons and horns for intricate interplay in the winds, seems to reveal this most clearly. Each hearing of #40 is likely to unveil new, fascinating components of its textures and onward-moving themes.

Of Mozart’s flute concertos, this one (D Major, K. 314) may be the greatest; ironically, it is a reworking of an oboe concerto! An unusually brilliant orchestral introduction (strings, oboes, horns) leads into high-flying, brilliantly decorated tunes, testing the mettle of the early Classical flute as well as the flutist. The Andante is classic Mozart, beautifully fashioned out of seemingly simple materials; the final movement a bubbling rondo. Its existence as a flute piece still irritates oboists.

March 2012

The essence of Handel, the Man of the Theatre, is to be found in his proclivity toward "gestures", short, recognizable themes which broadcast a pose, a gesture or gestures which make the pose work. He is particularly wont to sprinkle these kinds of kernels of themes throughout his early choral music, using variations on those gestures to hold longish passages or whole choral sections together. Of course this technique is in some ways at the heart of polyphony and the contrapuntal approach which polyphony utilizes.

In performance, these gestures need to be enunciated with a clear sense of what they are, how long (or short) they are, how they fit, intertwine with and balance each other within the movement. Each time they appear, they need to have their own particular character and visage.

A really good example of Handel's use of this technique is Chorus #3 in Chandos Anthem #10: "Though an host of men were laid against me", which reappears later as "though there rose up war against me". This opening text, which runs from start to finish of the piece, is already made up of two gestures. First, the rising, surging idea "though there rose up war/though an host of men", and second, the challenging, emphatic, "threatened" kind of conclusion of the gesture, "against me" (ME is the point, although it isn't accented that way). While these two ideas are going on, the chorale-like tune, in dotted half notes (whole-measure notes) marks time to the beat of a different drummer, promising safety: "yet shall my heart not be afraid". So one of the important messages of the Christian faith is enunciated throughout, the comforting resolution promising triumph over the the many perils which threaten the faithful.

One can find similar gestures, opposing or reinforcing pairs of gestures, etc., throughout his choral writing. It is clear that the influence of Italian music and rhetoric on the young Handel during his time in Rome (he was just over 20 when he wrote "Dixit", and just over 30 when he wrote "The Lord is my Light") was substantial. A glance at some of the more Germanic works he produced before he went south suggests that in Italy his ears were thoroughly opened to dramatic possibilities which appealed to his sense of theatricality in music. It can be argued that Handel never abandoned this clear, functional use of "gesture" in his choral works, certainly not in the great series of oratorios which he produced when his English public finally tired of Italian operas (for a host of complicated reasons).

But it seems true, also, that an older, wiser, more masterful Handel learned to incorporate his musical gestures in a more sophisticated, less obvious way. His Coronation Anthems, including My Heart is Inditing, written in 1727, are truly an indication of this maturity even though they were written 15 years before Messiah, not to mention a couple of centuries before Wagner and his "leitmotif" technique!

January 2012

A quick note about the HANDEL. We know his huge body of work chiefly because of the enormous popularity of Messiah, the relative popularity of a few of his great English oratorios, and his great series of Italian operas, now achieving more and more currency on opera stages all over the world. There are also the ever-green Watermusic and Fireworks Music, plus a series of some of the best concerti grossi ever written. What we don't know very well, however, are his occasional works for chorus and orchestra -- Oriana will perform three of these on May 13, illustrating Handel's progress as a composer from his early days in Rome, and then in the service of the Duke of Chandos at the great house Cannons, in England, to his magnificent setting of parts of the Coronation Anthems in 1727.

Dixit Dominus, from 1707, shows us a young German learning to write in the Italian style for his Roman patrons, full of dash and exuberance, writing high-pitched, brilliant choruses interspersed with fervent solos. The Chandos Anthems, a set from which we shall sing #10, The Lord is my Light, show how Handel was able to write for small forces with almost the same verve as he had displayed when in Italy, in essence teaching the English what "the Italian style" was all about, a style which pretty much dominated his writing through the fully-mature opera and oratorio years. Finally, the Coronation Anthem for Queen Caroline, My Heart is Inditing, is truly a masterpiece, both declamatory and noble, showing a total command of both grand tunes and perfect counterpoint. It will be a radiant close to our concert, which will also include Scott Metcalfe leading one of Handel's masterful Concerti Grossi.

Bill Metcalfe, Conductor


Oriana Music