From the Director

Choosing the music for a concert is at best a somewhat mysterious process (please see my earlier post for concert details). At the end, we hope that the audience will feel that the music fits together, that there is a flow and a connection among the pieces that makes the progression of pieces almost inevitable.

In the case of this program, we began with the Pinkham Christmas Cantata. It’s a great combination of challenging and moving moments for both audience and singers, and gave us the opportunity to design a program where brass played an important part—a treat for the Lyric Chorus, best known for its partnership with the fine pipe organ at San Francisco’s venerable Trinity Episcopal Church.

The Pinkham was designed to be sung with two brass choirs, or one brass group and organ (the version we’re doing). As we thought of what to program with it, Gabrieli’s In Ecclesiis came to mind. Just as the Pinkham is a 20th century tour de force, the Gabrieli occupies much the same position in the early 17th century. It’s actually written for a slightly larger band of instruments, but was pretty easy to arrange for our current instruments.

Since we were doing In Ecclesiis, why not include another Gabrieli, or some other multi-choir music? In short order we had added Gabrieli’s Hodie Christus natus est and Schütz’s Jauchzet dem Herren. Even though it doesn’t use brass, pairing a Schütz setting of Hodie made good sense, giving us both the opportunity to hear the text from a different vantage point as well as simply enjoy more than one work by this marvelous composer.

But wait: there’s still more music with brass! The Dufay Gloria ad modum tubae, the earliest work on our program, uses both choral and instrumental forces very sparingly, serving as a bridge from earlier chant and monophonic pieces to the later polyphonic works of the Renaissance. Because of its simplicity and directness, this work seemed like a great way to begin the concert. The Schütz Hodie, mentioned earlier, followed easily, even though the two works were separated by a couple hundred years, with the one work leading into the splendor of Renaissance polyphony, and the other a simplification of the complexity that often resulted from that polyphony.

As long as we were using brass, it made sense to have at least one work that featured our fine instrumentalists: one of Gabrieli’s Canzone per Sonare, a song without words. Although it fits chronologically between Dufay and Schütz, it follows these two in our program as it moves from the simple to multi-voice and multi-choir pieces.

After the multi-choir pieces by Gabrieli and Schütz mentioned earlier, we wanted a change of pace, both for contrast of textures and, quite frankly, to give our instrumentalists a break. Since our concert is in December, most of our music has either a Christmas or holiday theme. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist Joaquin Nin-Culmell’s delightful La virgin lava pañales. I studied composition with Don Joaquin, and came to appreciate his blend of the contemporary with the traditional. Our set of Hispanic pieces grew from that beginning, with the Vasquez En la fuente del rosel coming from a set of early Spanish choral music that Nin-Culmell edited and the González Serenissima una nocheshowing that the distance between classical and folk traditions is not very great. There is also an element of anticipation in this set, as we look towards our spring concert, Voices of Immigration¸ built around family and individual stories of our chorus members.

We wanted to end the concert with audience participation, and decided to bring back the Christmas Fantasy we premiered in 2009 (the composer part of me was quite pleased, since others suggested that we repeat the work!). In earlier planning, the second half of the concert consisted of the Pinkham cantata and the fantasy. It became apparent that something more was needed (in the Lyric Chorus we’re always looking for just one more thing!). I decided to add the brass quartet to the organ accompaniment—I can’t wait to hear it. In addition, as I was looking for that one more thing, I came across Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium Mass, very strongly modeled on his moving O Magnum Mysterium, and our concert was complete.

There are layers of connections among the pieces on this program. The predominant language is Latin, and yet as early as Schütz we have a work in the vernacular (German, in this case). Our first half ends in Spanish, yet a Spanish composer (Victoria) brings us back to Latin at the start of the second half. There is a bit of a chronological ordering, with the oldest piece first and the newest piece last, and yet the flow of musical texture and style was much more important to us than the work’s provenance.

As we move into our closing weeks of the season, with an increasing sense of urgency as we realize that rehearsal time grows ever shorter and our list of spots still not fully learned grows every longer, we nonetheless revel in the richness and variety of the music, and look forward to sharing our passion for this music with our audience.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

Christmas Fantasy

From time to time I like to comment on one of my compositions. The process gives me the opportunity to take a step back and look at the piece, and also helps me create program notes. Since the Christmas Fantasy is on the San Francisco Lyric Chorus’s upcoming concerts (December 4 and 5, 2010), this post is particularly timely.

Christmas Fantasy grew out of the process of developing the Lyric Chorus’s December 2009 program. We based our program on a list of 50 carols presented in the BBC Music Magazine. I wanted to be able to include some of the familiar carols on the list, but wished to do more with them than just sing a couple of verses and move on to the next carol–and wanted the audience to have the chance to sing. I had also been looking for a piece to end the concert, but none of the ones on the list was satisfactory. The answer was pretty obvious to me: write a piece that fulfilled these criteria.

First, a little background. To create the list, the BBC Music Magazine polled 50 choral conductors (primarily British, but including a few people across the pond…) for the five carols they most liked to include in their annual service of lessons and carols. From the 250 entries, the magazine picked the 50 most popular. As a result, in the case of some carols, like It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, tunes were picked that were more familiar to the British audience than to its American counterpart. My set begins with one of these less familiar tunes: Arthur Sullivan’s Noel. I deliberately took some time introducing this tune, so that the audience could hear it develop. As it is presented, hints (both choral and instrumental) of Richard Willis’ more familiar Carol (to American audiences, at least) appear.

The 2010 version of the Fantasy has an additional element: a brass quartet. Since our concert features music for chorus and brass, it only seemed appropriate to add the quartet to my piece. The challenge: add in the instruments in such a way that it sounds like the piece couldn’t exist without them, while at the same time NOT re-writing the choral or organ parts. In some instances, particularly when the audience sings, the brass doubles the choral harmony. In other spots, particularly those where I had the room to be more creative, the brass adds its own unique flavor.

In the example, the bottom staff shows the organ part, which is the full accompaniment in the original version. I kept the organ part spare, since I fully expected that the organist would sometimes also be the director; there are spots where I wanted a hand free to give cues and set the timing. In the 2010 version, the brass fills out the organ part, adding a fanfare to the organ pedal in the first section of the piece, while at the same time giving the sopranos their opening note as well as a hint of the melody. As the section continues, the brass fanfares build on each pedal tone, providing a bridge between organ and choir.

A short organ interlude introduces the second carol, O Come, All Ye Faithful. The audience sings along with the full ensemble on verse one. The men of the chorus sing verse two while the sopranos and altos offer a descant, hinting at yet another carol (Gloria).

The third carol, The First Nowell, begins with a canonic duet between solo soprano and tenor and ends with, well, a somewhat fanciful restatement of the refrain. This is followed immediately by a verse for audience and chorus. Following this verse, my refrain returns, leading into Silent Night. A group of soloists sings verse one, as singers move into place around the audience so that all may join together on verses two and three.

An instrumental interlude, based on Silent Night and Gloria, the tune that earlier appeared with O Come, All Ye Faithful, leads to the closing coda, with all four carols making an appearance. Ths section was perhaps the most fun to write, since Silent Night and The First Nowell are in 3, while the other carols are in 4 (note that Silent Night is presented in augmentation, while Nowell requires the singers to think in 3, while all around them the piece is in 4). It has been equally satisfying to write this piece and to work on it with the Lyric Chorus. I hope to post an excerpt, if not the full piece after our concert. If you’re in the area, come to the concert!

As a composer, it is always my hope that what I write is music to more than just my ears…

Posted in brass, carol, chorus, Christmas, composition, music | Leave a comment

Britten Jubilate Deo

The choir at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Orinda CA is singing Benjamin Britten’s delightful Jubilate Deo on Sunday, November 7, 2010. I included the date because Sunday is only a couple of hours away, and anyone reading this will likely be reading after the event.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote this piece in 1961. It’s one of a number of works he wrote for chorus and organ, the best of which, imho, is Rejoice in the Lamb, written almost 20 years earlier. The organ part in the Jubilate has the same sparkle as Rejoice. It’s a challenge for a church choir, but one my choir has relished. Britten has given this short work a bit of a rondo feel, with a spirited opening section featuring antiphonal writing between unison (well, in octaves) ST and AB giving way to a thoughtful, chant-like section, succeeded by a return to the up-tempo feel of the beginning, followed in succession by another chant-like section and a closing rousing Amen.

I found out that he wrote this work as a companion to an earlier Te Deum in C written in 1934. This latter work is apparently 9 minutes long. Since the Jubilate is much shorter (a bit over 2 minutes) it doesn’t balance well. That may be why he also wrote a Venite exultemus Domino in 1961, this latter work not published until after his death. After seeing a page of the Venite, I’m thinking seriously about giving it a go. It wouldn’t surprise me if Britten had a couple of other canticles in mind, perhaps getting distracted by the War Requiem, which I believe was finished the following year.

As part of my research I visited the Britten-Pears Foundation website. Much more than I could absorb in a single visit. One of their projects is a complete online catalog of Britten’s music: definitely worth an extended visit. I also came across an exhaustive discography of Britten’s works.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

But wait, there’s more

The same weekend as the St. Stephen’s Messiah Sing, the San Francisco Lyric Chorus offers its fall concert. Talk about a full weekend! Handel on Friday; Gabrieli, Schutz, Pinkham and others on Saturday (7:30 pm at Mission Dolores, San Francisco) and Sunday (3 pm at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Orinda). It’s going to be an outstanding program, with music for chorus, brass quartet, and organ.It’s always a juggling act, much like preparing a fine meal, getting everything ready for public consumption at the same time. The Lyric Chorus is well on track to do just that. The program includes works from the Renaissance through the piece that I wrote for the group, just premiered last December (a fun setting of four carols with audience participation).

In addition to works with brass and organ, we’re doing an a capella set of Hispanic works as well as selections from Victoria’s mass based on his hauntingly beautiful O Magnum Mysterium. What’s particularly neat about the mass is that each movement is at the same time a variation of the theme while being true to the liturgical function the piece embodies. Someone who knew the O Magnum would recognize the connection of the mass with the theme even if the listener did not know the title of the mass.. Be sure to check out the SFLC website for more information.

* Guillaume Dufay Gloria Ad Modem Tubae
* Heinrich Schütz Hodie Christus Natus Est (SWV 315)
* Giovanni Gabrieli Canzona per Sonare, #4
* Giovanni Gabrieli Hodie Christus Natus Est
* Heinrich Schütz Jauchzet dem Herren
* Giovanni Gabrieli In Ecclesiis
* Juan Vasquez En la Fuente del Rosel
* Joaquin Nin-Culmell La Virgen Lava Pañales
* Fray Gerónimo González Serenissima Una Noche
* Tomás Luis de Victoria O Magnum Mysterium
* Tomás Luis de Victoria O Magnum Mysterium Mass selections
* Daniel Pinkham Christmas Cantata
* Robert Train Adams Christmas Fantasy

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Messiah Sing

The end of the year is always a busy time for any musician. In addition to my usual compositional stuff, I have three concerts coming up in the next month and a half, the first being the 16th annual Messiah Sing at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Orinda, CA. It’s a fun event, with usually about 250 in attendance. We sing the Christmas portion with a chamber orchestra, soloists and choir of 40 or so to support the usually quite vocal audience.

The church choir sang Glory to God this past Sunday. Even though I’ve conducted portions of Messiah for the last 56 years, I’m always finding something new. This past Sunday was no exception. At a Sing, everyone tends to charge right ahead, ignoring any semblance of dynamics or musical form. My choir, on the other hand, thrives when we pay attention to “details” like dynamics, articulation and even the meaning of the text.

While we’re working with the Schirmer score–not my favorite, but the one the choir is used to–the dynamics give a nice sense of buildup, starting mezzo (sops find mp on the high f# a bit of a challenge) and gradually building to the triumphant restating of “good will” on the last page. It was such fun, that I can’t wait for our more extended performance on December 3. Now if I didn’t still have a full list of non-musical details to attend to, I would just revel in the music. But attention to detail is one of the important elements of a successful performance, so it’s back to recruiting that final instrumentalist, getting parts out to the performers, checking the stand lights, and working with a wonderful music committee, while reviewing the score and preparing the choir–what a great time to be a musician!

Posted in General | Leave a comment

tempo rubato

It’s been a good week musically. Last Sunday was Pentecost; the choir sang well, with a very spirited rendition of William Dawson’s Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit. Monday the choir was one of two at the San Francisco AGO’s post-annual meeting concert. They were fabulous. In addition to performing works of several others, the performed my My Heart is not Lifted Up from The Needham Psalter, written in 1990. Marianne (my wife) sang the solo quite nicely, and the choir was right into the piece with her. When I get a chance I’ll add in a clip from the piece.

But there was more. I performed And they were filled with the Holy Spirit, a work for solo organ, which I wrote in 1985. The Petty-Madden organ at First Congregational Church of Berkeley was in fine form. The audience–primarily organist colleagues–was quite complementary. I was delighted to be invited to perform the work again this week at the Composers’ Forum put on by the Peninsula Chapter of the AGO (which I did this afternoon). It was fun on both these occasions to hear what fellow composers were writing–and even more fun to be able to share my work.

I’m hoping that this will get me working on promoting my music a bit more, and returning to the publication fray. This was a nice break from all the emotional fallout and ensuing work resulting from my father’s passing almost a month ago.

More on that later. In the meantime, the forum, the concert, and the church service were music to my ears.

Posted in General | 2 Comments

rubato to the max

So I’ve been away a while. Actually, I’ve been ignoring my blog, my webpage, and have generally been preoccupied with real as opposed to virtual life. I’m hoping that I might be back (I’ll know if I keep these entries going for a few weeks..).

Things have changed. I’m no longer the Music Director at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Dublin CA (a great group of people), but have been Minister of Music at St. Stephen’s Episcopl Church in Orinda CA since mid-November 2007. It’s been an exciting change, with different and increased responsibilities–about which I’ll have more to say on another post.

The San Francisco Lyric Chorus keeps challenging me, with concerts upcoming in another month. They are singing the west coast premiere of my It Will Be Summer–Eventually, a setting of poems of Emily Dickinson approaching its 20th anniversary.

I’m taking handbell lessons with Michele Sharik, with the intent of developing some ability to play solo handbell music (actually, I’d just like to know the instrument better, and I learn better when I have a goal).

I’ll add more soon–probably after Holy Week services, which pick up a full head of steam tomorrow (Thursday, and keep on coming until Sunday noon.

And that’s music to my ears.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

dolce, ma con moto

Summer is supposed to be a little more relaxed. Back in the day when I relied quite a bit on freelance income from my musical pursuits, it was. And with all that extra time to do things, I didn’t have the disposable income to do them!

I’m not doing as much freelance these days, but I find I’m actually busier. This past weekend, I played at two different churches, neither one where I normally serve. On Saturday I played keyboard for St. Bridget’s Church, an Episcopal start-up in Rio Vista (roughly halfway between the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento). It was a small but valiant congregation (less than 20 in attendance). They hold one weekend service a month, in between having weekday services, small groups, social and outreach activities. A fun group to visit.

I also played at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek, where I learned to play organ and played my first services as a young musician. It was satisfying for different reasons than Rio Vista. St. Paul’s is quite established, although they, too, are trying to grow (a congregation of over 200). I played a Harrison & Harrison tracker in the chapel (it replaced the reed organ I played as a teenager), and a good-sized two manual Schlicker in the main church.

Whether new or established, both churches are dealing with issues of identity, building on Episcopal tradition while looking towards the future. Meanwhile, at John Knox Presbyterian in Dublin CA (where I serve as Director of Music), the children and adults who participated in last week’s Vacation Bible School led the service.

JKPC, roughly the same size as St. Paul’s, is also dealing with the same issues of identity and growth. Where St. Paul’s has a strong traditional service, JKPC blends contemporary and traditional elements, both in service structure and in its music: Praise Band and Chancel Choir usually share the chancel, with children’s groups and adult handbells regularly enriching the mix.

I got onto this because my quiet summer hasn’t been quiet, but rather filled with variety and offer opportunities for growth. In my previous post, I mentioned Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat, which we perform in less than a month. That has offered the San Francisco Lyric Chorus some of the same opportunities for reflection on identity and growth as the churches I mentioned above. And then our daughter Delara and her husband are moving from London to L.A.; and our son Jeremy and his spouse are moving from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania.

So maybe there’s a time for growth.

That is definitely music to my ears…

Posted in General | 1 Comment


I don’t know where the time went! I’ve written and performed some new pieces, continued directing the handbell choir at church (not to mention the Chancel Choir and our contemporary ensemble), become assistant director of San Francisco Lyric Chorus, and otherwise filled up time in a number of interesting ways…but not said anything here since December.

Oh, yeah: And it’s past time to celebrate the publication of I Come with Joy, a collection of my liturgical piano pieces published in March 2007 by Augsburg Fortress. I’m quite pleased by the set.

In succeeding entries I want to look at some of my compositions, including the piano pieces, comment on a blog or two I’ve been enjoying lately, and look at a couple of pieces I’m going to be playing soon: Herbert Howells’ Partita and Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat. Right now, I’m off to practice (26 days left before the Howells goes public…).

For now, that’s music to my ears.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

poco a poco

Little by little things get done. Another day and the formerly-hidden oak floors return to their original glory. As soon as workers return from a (well-deserved for some) holiday break, we’ll be able to live in more than one bedroom and the kitchen, with an occasional sojourn in a semi-working bathroom…

On the musical front, it’s a combination of getting ready for Christmas Eve services (one morning, 3 evening) and posting a bunch of my compositions on New Music Jukebox (run by American Music Center). I’ve had some modest success selling my music; it’s time to promote better.

poco a poco: a little bit each day. But my fingers are getting itchy to write–the last composition of 2006? the first of 2007? Before I can do that, I need to burn a CD with my Christmas Eve postlude (so I can be in two places at once…).

Whether fast or slow (and moving slowly, even poco a poco on the way from one dynamic state to another, is not my natural state), it’s music to my ears.

Posted in General | Leave a comment