In the first article of this 3-part series, we discussed some of the factors conductors must consider when assembling a program that is compelling, coherent, and musically satisfying. We began with a pair of pieces–John Cantrell’s Ave Verum Corpus and Joseph Twist’s Versa est in Luctum–that form an intriguing kernel around which we might assemble complementary material. In this installment, we’ll take a look at some of the challenges that this process might present.
Because of the demanding features of these pieces—they require precise tuning, an array of color variations from the singers, and, at their respective lengths of 5 ½ and 4 minutes, a good deal of endurance given their unaccompanied nature—they are best programmed within separate sets. An impeccably executed back-to-back performance of the works would be a demanding ask of even the most skilled ensemble, and there are no bonus points given for unnecessarily demanding programs done in a mediocre fashion.
Several possible themes of varying specificity emerge from the marriage of these two pieces: meditations on death, suffering, or the subordinate nature of man to God come readily to mind. Since it would be advisable to periodically revisit the aesthetic space these two pieces occupy—as well as related spaces—throughout our program, we have a clear direction in which to begin searching. Renaissance motets and other modal a cappella works are the obvious low-hanging fruit here; triadic accompanied works and more harmonically complex pieces that nevertheless demand the same type of singing—clean, straight-tone, well-blended—provide other likely pairings to these pieces.
Several possibilities make themselves apparent, given these guidelines. Jonathan David’s Stabat Mater thematically and aesthetically mirrors our two anchor pieces, leaving it as a possible centerpiece to the program, given its long length of 11 to 12 minutes. Other intriguing and obvious possibilities are offered by Tomas Luis de Victoria’s setting of Versa est in Luctum—after which Twist’s setting takes—from his Officium Defunctorum and William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus. Still others include:
• Wolfram Buchenberg – Ich bin das Brot des Lebens from Vier Geistliche Gesänge
• Josquin de Prez – Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi
• Egil Hovland – The Glory of the Father
• Richard Nance – Batter my heart, Three-personed God
• G.P. da Palestrina – Nativitas tua
• Olivier Messiaen – O sacrum convivium!
• Charles Wood – Glory and honour and laud
• Ola Gjeilo – Dark night of the soul
Assuming a normal program length consisting of roughly 50 minutes of music, that leaves us with 25-30 minutes left to program. Considering the inclusion of David’s piece on the program, it would be counterproductive to program another work of a similar length, eliminating Gjeilo’s piece. With only one accompanied work remaining on the list of candidate works, it would likely not be worth it to go to the trouble of hiring an accompanist, so we can, without too much consequence, eliminate the Wood, as well.
Buchenberg’s piece then sticks out as the only one left not in English or Latin; given the trouble some choruses may have with German, it, too, can be eliminated. After this first round of culling, a new subtheme begins to emerge amongst the remaining pieces – works dealing with the redemption of humanity. This collection of works—all of which might be suitable as communion anthems across Christian denominations—hews close in theme to Cantrell’s motet, leaving us with a possible set or set of sets. Given the hopeful messages in the texts and their reflections in the musical content accompanying them, they can serve as an effective counterweight to the darker mood of our other works. The Josquin, Kverno, Palestrina, and Messiaen motets provide an interesting mélange of music to add to our slowly-expanding kernel.
At this stage in the process, with close to an adequate number of pieces selected, I find it helpful to zoom back out to review what we have collected. Our list thus far includes:
• John Cantrell: Ave Verum Corpus
• Joseph Twist: Versa est in Luctum
• Jonathan David: Stabat Mater
• Josquin de Prez: Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi
• Trond Kverno: The Corpus Christi Carol
• G.P. da Palestrina: Nativitas tua
• Olivier Messiaen: O sacrum convivium!
With possible inclusion of the following:
• Victoria: Versa est in Luctum
• William Byrd: Ave Verum Corpus
In the third and final installment of this series, we will finish drafting and finalizing our program and perform a gut check on it, after which we will wrap up by reviewing some of the dilemmas and challenges we considered in assembling our program.
Holding degrees in Vocal Arts from USC and Choral Conducting from Yale University, Nate Widelitz has sung under the batons of Franz Welser-Möst, Gustavo Dudamel, and Helmuth Rilling and collaborated with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras and the Cleveland Orchestra. A Fulbright Scholar to Bulgaria, Nate is Assistant Conductor of Pacific Chorale, a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Choir Director at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church of Pacific Palisades, a faculty member at Cal State LA, Mt. San Antonio College, and Los Angeles Valley College, and a co-conductor of the Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles.