Not Just the Same Old Song and Dance: A Closer Look at the Collaboration between The King’s Singers + Seán Curran Company
ABOUT THE COLLABORATION
This ambitious collaboration is over a year in the making. Since June of 2011, The King’s Singers and the Seán Curran Company have been sharing creative ideas, carving out and rehearsing the program, which brings the Seán Curran Company to concert stages for the first time. The performances will add dynamism and pure physical excitement to the standard concert experience, and will also include a visual component created by visual designer Mark Randall, a combination film and set design that will define the space in which the singers and dancers will interact and accompany each other.
The Singers “have always been keen to explore possibilities with interesting collaborations, and willing to share a stage with other great artists,” explains Paul Phoenix, of one The Singers. “The collaboration and partnership with Seán Curran came about as a result of a desire to share both a rich vocal and visual texture with audiences. One of the aims of the project is to fully utilize the stage, with both dancers and singers sharing space, interacting with and juxtaposing one another. Seán, like The Kings’ Singers, sees a concert as an opportunity to express a whole range of emotion, and the prospect of doing this through the live performance of both music and dance is something we relish.”
Curran has previously created dance for new music, and now brings his skills and experience to the world-class vocal artistry of The King’s Singers. For Travel Songs — the title of the program comes from Frank’s “Travel Songs,” a piece from her Tres Mitos de Mi Tierra, and the song that opens the program – the Company will dance, alone, to a work by Handel. To create the overall program, the two ensembles have worked to put together music and movement for Sibelius’ Rakastava, Scenes in America Deserta by composer John McCabe, and a central work, Léon, from Joby Talbot, which has been arranged by former King’s Singers member Phillip Lawson. Curran says of the program: “Music – particularly vocal music – has always inspired and informed my choreography. The opportunity to collaborate with these world-class singers and create a cohesive evening of movement and music has challenged me to approach my choreography in a fresh way, which I have found quite fulfilling.”
Sibelius’s piece is a three movement vocal work, based on lyrical poems for them traditional Finnish Kanteletar, with a folk flavor that is a natural for dance. That, and the familiar music from Handel and Janacek stir interest for the newest works. McCabe’s piece is a commission from The King’s Singers, the words are from a book of the same title by Reyner Benham. The music and dance convey powerful, sensual impressions of the desert, the heat, the light, the stillness, the shimmering air. There is, perhaps, a contemplative path between that and Léon, which Lawson has adapted from Talbot’s large-scale work, Path of Miracles. This movement, named after the Cathedral Leon, one of the touchstones of the historically rich Catholic pilgrimage of the Camino Frances, is described by the composer as a “Lux Aeterna.” It is music about the sun with Medieval routes, an exploration of internal light, a depiction of a spiritual journey from minor to major keys, a setting for the expressive emotional and physical transformations that dance and music can express together in a way no other arts, and forms, can.
A cappella, The King’s Singers will open and close the concerts with Frank’s dancelike, myth-based songs, sing Schütz’s madrigals to spring, and contemplative and lyrical music from Kodaly and Tormis, Norvég leányok and Esti dal from the former, Ratas (The Wheel of Life) from the latter. The themes behind all this music — storytelling, observations of changes in nature and in one’s soul, journeys of the body and mind – come together in sound and sight. The simple pleasures of melody and counterpoint mark basic trips from one moment in time to the next, the soulful expressions of journeys from darkness to light, from one internal vista to the next, convey a deeper experience. To this fundamental power of music, add visual design, and the beauty and expressive force of the Seán Curran Company’s bodies moving through space in time, reacting to and acting with music, and songs and music about travel become Travel Songs, an utterly special concert experience.
Travel Songs was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and additional funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Works to be performed by The King’s Singers
Travel Song and Hechicera by Gabriela Lena Frank
O Primavera, O Dolcezze Amarissime, and Ride la Primavera by Heinrich Schütz
Ratas by Veljo Tormis
Norveg Leanyok and Esti Dal by Zoltan Kodály
Work to be performed by Seán Curran Company
Hard Bargain by George Frideric Handel
Works to be performed by both The King’s Singers + Seán Curran Company
Rakastava by Jean Sibelius
Scenes in America Deserta by John McCabe
Léonby Joby Talbot (arr. by Philip Lawson)
Tres Mitos de Mi Terra (Three Myths of My Land – 2009) by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is a set of three songs, designed to work together or as stand-alones; the first and third of these songs, “Travel Song” and “Hechicera” open and close this programme. Having travelled extensively in South America, Frank incorporates the poetry, mythology and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own.
As “myths”, each of these songs is longer than a traditional folk song, the lyrics and music, while completely original, draw direct inspiration from the mountain cultures of Perú, Bolivia,and Ecuador. Frequently referred to as “singing mountaineers,” the people of the Andes enjoy a contemporary artistic expression that still carries the overtones of their Inca and pre-Inca past. The rhythms of Tres Mitos suggest traditional dance, while melodies and harmonies evoke tunings of panpipes and guitar-like instruments. Vocal techniques such as glissandi and brief inhaled passages reference typical singing practices, and the lyrics follow a strophic declamatory style commonly encountered in Andean poetry. Tres Mitos was commissioned by the Minnesota Commissioning Club.
Hailed for playing an important part in the development of the Finnish national identity, Jean Sibelius’ (1865 – 1957) international reputation rests on his symphonies and orchestral music, while his numerous vocal and choral pieces have been unjustly neglected, perhaps because of language problems. As a rule, Sibelius tended to favor Swedish, his own first language, for the more intimate medium of the solo song, and he set a wide range of poets from Franzen (1772-1847) to Gripenberg (1878-1947). For the more public medium of choral song he turned to Finnish, the popular native language, and in particular to two collections of folk poetry, the Kalevala and the Kanteletar. These two volumes came into being as a result of the painstaking work of Elias Lonnrot (1802-1884) who traveled the length and breadth of the country assembling material. Their appearance in 1835-36 and 1840-41, respectively, made a decisive contribution to the awakening of national consciousness at a time when Finland was still a grand duchy of Russia.
Rakastava sets three lyrical folk poems from the Kanteletar and was written for a cappella male chorus in 1893. Sibelius submitted the piece for a competition arranged by the Helsinki University Chorus to find new repertoire for its spring concert, and he won second prize. The jury had perhaps been startled by the modernity of Sibelius’ composition and had awarded the first prize to his former teacher, Emil Genetz, who had written a song of traditional stamp. Rakastava was first performed on 28 April 1894 in a hastily written arrangement for male chorus and strings. Sibelius arranged it again in 1898 for mixed chorus, and in 1911-12 he revised it completely for strings, triangle and timpani, in which form it is best known.
The critics at the first performance were not slow to recognize the mastery of this earthy and erotic picture of young love. As Eric Tawaststjerna has written, the first movement is elegiac in mood and has the flavor of a folksong. The second movement breathes a restrained yet intense joy and is surprisingly innovative in texture. The final movement is about the sorrow of parting and refers back thematically to the first. The work dies away in a coda in which the two lovers are engulfed by the sad harmonies of the summer night.
Considered by many to be the most important German composer before Bach, Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672) wrote the nineteen madrigals of Il primo libro de madrigali (published in Venice in 1611) during his four-year stay in Italy, where he studied with Giovanni Gabrieli. During his time in Italy he is likely to have met Claudio Monteverdi, whose music was a strong influence on the young Schütz. The popularity of the madrigal in the early seventeenth century throughout Europe had its roots in Italy, and Monteverdi is considered to be the master of the genre. It is therefore not surprising that Schütz was inspired to compose his collection of secular madrigals, surrounded as he was by such talent, and his settings of Italian texts show his mastery of the style, as well as the enthusiasm of youth. Later in his life Schütz concentrated on the sacred compositions for which he is best known, with masterpieces such as the Psalms of David, Symphoniae sacrae and Die Sieben Worte Christi am Kreuz (The Seven Last Words from the Cross), but the youthful exuberance of his madrigals displays a less austere side to one of the seventeenth century’s most significant composers.
Composed in 1986 by John McCabe (b. 1939), Scenes in America Deserta draws its inspiration from desert country across the globe. John McCabe writes:
Scenes in America Deserta was commissioned by the King’s Singers, to whom it is dedicated and who gave the first performance in Houston, Texas, in 1987. The text is from Reyner Banham’s classic book of this title It is the sixth in a series of works inspired by desert country in various parts of the world, written for different instruments or ensembles the first four are numbered and have subtitles (Lizard, for woodwind quartet and percussion, Horizon, for ten brass, Landscape, for piano trio, and Vista, for recorder solo), in addition to which there is Pueblo, for solo double bass. This vocal work is based on texts chosen not so much to convey the picturesque aspects of the desert (indeed, one of the hardest decisions in composing it was deciding to omit what I felt to be a particularly effective section of precisely that character, when the work was nearing completion) but rather to touch on several different points: the nature of the coloring, the silence and the heat, of course, but also the human element in the man-made structures, decorations and past-times.
The work is continuous, but falls into clearly defined sections; the main aim of the music is to convey an idea of the variety and fascination which the desert country holds for me. Although there are few pictorial “effects,” I have used some of the coloristic textures produced by some of the syllables themselves as an integral part of the musical thinking.
Path of Miracles, the world’s most famous and enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage, lends its name to the four movement work by Joby Talbot (b. 1971). The movements of the original work are titled with the names of the four main staging posts of the Camino Frances, with textual themes extending beyond mere geographical reference. “Leon”, the third movement, draws on the magical Cathedral of Leon, and the impression that this great building left on Talbot became the basis for the musical structure of the work.
Joby Talbot describes the third movement as a “Lux Aeterna”; and like the interior of the magnificent Cathedral of Leon, it is bathed in light. The journey is more than half complete, the pain barrier has been crossed and the pilgrim’s worries have indeed been sloughed off. A mediaeval French refrain, an ode to the sun in the key of C minor, punctuates simple observations of land traversed and hardships overcome. As with the previous movement, there is a steady, almost hypnotic walking pulse, but the steps have lost their heaviness. By the end of the movement the verses have arrived in the relative major, fused with the refrain which retains its original key. Mystical events are again spoken of, but this time with no sense of danger. Even the relentless sun, though it may dazzle, does not burn.” – Gabriel Crouch
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) are two composers whose work has been based around the rich choral and folk traditions of their respective countries, Hungary and Estonia. The genius of both of these composers has been realized in vibrant choral music — music which reflects a passionate belief in their own respective cultures.
The two pieces here by Kodály are both reflective. Norvég leányok (Norwegian Girls), to a poem by Sándor Weöres, paints an atmospheric picture of a Norwegian sea town in which the girls stroll arm in arm in the rain, dreaming of their lovers from foreign lands. Esti dal is a folksong which dates probably from the Hungarian Liberation War against the Hapsburgs in 1848, in which many were made homeless. In this song, a fugitive prays to God for shelter and safety for the night.
The song by Veljo Tormis is more muscular in character. Ratas (The Wheel of Life) is taken from a cycle called “Bulgarian Triptych,” and makes brilliant use of ostinato and polyrhythm combined with clapping, a common feature of Bulgarian folk music.
The King’s Singers + Sean Curran performance will take place in the Norton Center’s Newlin Hall on Friday, November 16 at 8:00 PM. Tickets are available online at NortonCenter.com or by calling the box office at 1-877-HIT-SHOW