Program Notes

This afternoon’s program offers a glorious adventure of musical contrasts and intersections – Baroque/Contemporary, virtuosic/minimalist, exuberant/profound. We invite you to experience consonance, dissonance, and tintinnabulation, as two great composers, Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741), and Arvo Pärt (born 1935), explore extremes of human suffering and heavenly exaltation, and our shared longings for peace.

Coro Allegro opens each half of our program with a setting of the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary, from the Gospel of Luke. While visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary suddenly feels her baby move in the womb and sings out in wonder. In that instant of quickening, she sees stretching out before her, generation upon generation of time. The Magnificat sets the awe and paradox of Mary’s song in twelve verses. The series of the oppositions that the Magnificat invokes and overturns – Lord and handmaiden, mighty and humble, the rich and hungry – have proved fertile ground and inspiration for composers across the centuries.

Antonio Vivaldi, Venice, and the Ospedale della Pietà.
Vivaldi composed both his Magnificat in G minor RV 610 (c. 1717) and the Gloria in D, RV 589 as part of the splendid collection of sacred choral works he produced around the time he was promoted to the position of maestro de’ concerti of the Ospedale della Pietà. The Ospedale della Pietà was one of four prominent orphanages in Venice housing foundlings, among them, the illegitimate daughters of the Venetian noblemen who sponsored them. It also served as a music conservatory, training the most of talented of its charges in music. Under the direction of Vivaldi, it held celebrated weekly performances of the very latest compositions by its most advanced students.

The concerts that supported the Ospedale were attended by large numbers of the elite of the Serenissima and visiting tourists. The instrumentalists, chorus and soloists – all women from the Ospedale – performed hidden behind screens, in galleries above the audience. In defiance of traditional gender expectations, even the tenor and bass parts were sung by specially trained women, as lists of performers such as Paulina dal tenor and Anna dal basso would indicate. Though part of a service, Vivaldi’s Gloria, probably took place in the uniquely Venetian form of a “Missa lecta,” a mass read silently by a priest. As such, the performances would have represented an odd combination of ostensible religious ritual, public musical performance, and complex, intersectional social performance unique to the culture of Venice at the time.

Vivaldi’s Magnificat
It is in this context that Vivaldi set the Canticle of Mary, the humble handmaiden whose soul magnifies the Lord. The Magnificat in his hands is less about humility and more about awe, a choice made immediately clear from the opening bars of the first movement. Majestic block chords emerge from silence and expand outwards into a magnificent arc of overlapping suspensions and harmonic shifts that are nothing short of breathtaking.

Coro Allegro is performing the original version of Vivaldi’s Magnificat that sets the canticle’s twelve paired verses in nine movements. In “Et Exultavit,” Vivaldi combines three separate verses of Mary’s rejoicing into one movement with three lyrical solos. They are joined by all the voices of the choir on the words “omnes generations,” as if all the generations were affirming Mary’s praise. Vivaldi sidesteps the structure of the poem, choosing instead to have each movement focus on a single emotional response, in accordance with the Baroque doctrine of affects.

The third movement, “Et misericordia ejus” serves as the beating heart of the piece. The steady pulse of the strings brings out the contrasting poignancy of the subject, with its chromatic leaps of minor 6ths, and major 7ths on the word “mercy.” The most tormented harmonies fall on the word “timentibus” (fear), yet the same word holds out faith in a long pedal tone of timeless promise. Sudden harmonic shifts offer rays of hope as the movement wavers between fear and faith.

The middle movements are full of fire, drama, and contrast, as Vivaldi overturns the oppositions of the Magnificat text. The vigorous writing of “Fecit Potentiam,” “disperses” the proud in scattered entrances. In “Deposuit Potentes,” the chorus and orchestra combine in unison octaves to throw down the powerful and rise up together in exaltation. The empty rests of “Esurientes” (the hungry) are filled to overflowing by the lines of the duet. The unified cry for “help” of “Suscepit Israel” gives way to the lilting conversation of “Sicut Locutus,” with voices that interrupt to remind the Lord of his promise to Abraham and his flowering seed. Vivaldi’s Magnificat comes to a close with a grand recapitulation of the opening that brings home the text of the concluding double fugue: “as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”  

Arvo Pärt, Estonia, and Tintinnabuli
After Soviet censors had banned the performance of Arvo Pärt’s early serial works in his native Estonia, he immersed himself in the study of Gregorian chant. For years, he filled notebook after notebook with thoughts about chant during a long period of enforced silence.

Out of this listening and this silence, Pärt created a revolutionary new compositional technique that he named “Tintinnabuli” after the Latin for “little bells.” Pärt’s tintinnabuli rings at the intersection of two paired lines of chant. It has commonalities with the medieval technique of organum, a halfway point between chant and polyphony, where two voices sing the same melody at the same time in parallel motion a 5th or a 4th apart.

In Pärt’s technique, an “M” or melodic voice moves stepwise along a chant-like line.  At the same time, a “T” or triadic voice jumps among the notes of a related triad. As the M-voice ascends and descends against the arpeggios of a T-voice that surround it, it creates dissonance and consonance with each passing tone. The serendipitous crossings and configurations create beautiful and unexpected harmonies. The tintinnabuli are the clash and chime that arise from the resulting overtones, harmonics, and vibrations.

Pärt’s Magnificat (1989)
If Vivaldi’s Magnificat paints awe in all its colors, Pärt’s setting exalts God’s power through the lens of Mary’s humility. His Magnificat is a masterwork of deceptive simplicity. Its minimalism conceals a formal severity that yields an austere yet haunting beauty. Pärt structures his setting of the Magnificat text around the call and response of its twelve paired verses. The length of each note in any phrase is determined by its word stress in the phrase according to a strict formula. In odd verses, a lower M-voice follows the stepwise contours of the Magnificat chant melody that weaves against a chanted C in the solo or first sopranos. In even verses, the lowest voice sings a melody whose distance up or down from the tonal center F is determined by the number of syllables in the word sung, while T-voices pivot through the triads above it.  The whole short work contains a complex nested symmetry of verses that center the unanimity of the three unexpected tutti exclamations.

The text determines the music. Despite its pedal tones and repetitions, and what seems like a formal, mechanistic application of rules, Pärt’s text setting is exquisitely expressive. There is even a surprising amount of subtle word painting. Like Vivaldi, Pärt uses all voices on “all the generations,” disperses the mighty with scattered entrances, shows the emptiness of the rich in rests, calls out for mercy in leaping intervals that land in fearful dissonance, and lays out eternity in pedal tones. Most of the expression of text, however, comes from the wondrous variety of Pärt’s musical textures. He brings out the contrasts and intersections of the Magnificat text, by playing with the number and color of voices in each short verse.

On another level, Pärt’s compositional technique of tintinnabuli serves in itself as a setting of the Magnificat text. Its chiming consonances, dissonances, and shimmering overtones mirror the juxtaposed polarities the text overturns, and add to its wonder.  

Pärt, Adam’s Lament
Arvo Part’s Adam’s Lament (2009) offers a deeply humane portrait of Adam, as he laments his fall from grace, the murder of Abel by Cain, and generations of conflict and strife to follow. On the 20th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, Coro Allegro dedicates our performance of Adam’s Lament to his memory.

From its inception, Pärt’s work was intended as a gesture of peace and a reminder of our shared humanity. Commissioned by cities of Tallinn and Istanbul (which had been chosen as the European Cultural Capitals of 2010 and 2011), Adam’s Lament was premiered by an Estonian chorus and Turkish orchestra in a Byzantine basilica, the historic Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace).

In writing an ecumenical work, Pärt chose for his subject, Adam, the father of all humankind, a figure revered by Judaism, Islam, and Western and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

“the name Adam is like a collective term which comprises humankind in its entirety and each individual person alike, irrespective of time, epochs, social strata and confession. But who is this banished Adam? We could say that he is all of us who bear his legacy.”

Pärt’s libretto is an excerpt of a poem by the same name by St. Silouan, a poet and monk of Russian origin, whose writings had a profound influence on the composer: “While I was composing the piece, I wanted to remain as close as possible to Silouan’s words and, as far as I could, to entrust myself with them, to internalize them.” As in his Magnificat, these internalized words give form to the music. Their syllables, word stress, and punctuation determine the shape and duration of his melodic and tintinnabular lines. The organization of the poem into sections of third-person narration, third-person reflection, and first-person anguish, structure the entire piece.

Even if you don’t speak or read Russian, you can get a sense of the piece from reading along with the English translation, which pauses and switches gears in the same places. The rules of tintinnabulation are at work, but unlike the chant-like and austere pleasures of Pärt’s Magnificat, the harmonic underpinnings of Adam’s Lament are constantly shifting to bring out his interpretations of the text. This is music that feels almost Baroque in its energetic rhythms, long melodies, juxtapositions of affect, rhetorical gestures, and symbolic language.

The orchestra plays a significant role in Pärt’s storytelling, from a dramatic opening that soars upwards above marked, dotted figures in the strings, to the downward spiral of parallel diminished 7th chords that mark Adam’s fall from grace. They create a shimmering around the “love of god” in a way that recalls the strings in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. The writing is almost operatic. The strings support lyrical laments, and provide biting contrasts to piercing intervals of grief. Their pizzicato, eerie harmonics, muted timbres, and dry col legno twitterings with the wood of bow, add to the beautiful desolation of quieter sections where fragmented voices mourn in intimate sorrow. Sometimes voices and strings come together in what feels similar to a rhythmic folk dance of regret for their broken covenants and community.

The most dramatic section of Adam’s Lament is the chanting of the murder of Abel by Cain, his brother, by increasingly dissonant voices. Finally, Adam cries out in a polytonal voice of many simultaneous keys: “Peoples and nations will descend from me and multiply, and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another.”

In the coda which brings this remarkable work to a close, St. Silouan says, “I too, have lost grace and with Adam I cry:  “Be merciful to me Lord, Give me the spirit of humility and love.” But it is not just Silouan who speaks the “I” of that last line. Perhaps it is what Pärt called the “collective Adam…all of us who bear his legacy.” Adam looks forward, lamenting and blaming himself for war, division and strife. So we must also own our legacy. The strings, which so often represent the presence of God, depart, leaving humanity alone to resolve our tensions. The last prayer ends with humility on a cadence whose dissonance gives way, if not to resolution, at least to openness, on the word “love.”

Vivaldi, Gloria in D, RV 589 (c. 1715)
We do not know the exact occasion that Vivaldi’s most famous Gloria celebrated. It may have been part of the ritual of a Christmas mass. The text of the “Gloria” section of the Ordinary opens with the evangelist Luke ‘s account of angels and shepherds, the context in which this work is often heard.  Perhaps given the martial character of the opening movement and the yearning for peace expressed in the second movement, “Et in terra pax,” Vivaldi may have written the work with the Ottoman-Venetian War (1714–18) very much on his mind.

The Gloria is divided into twelve short movements, further broken down into smaller sections of contrasting musical textures. Even in this concise work, the movements unfold as a series of distinct scenes, colored in rich shifts of harmony, meter, rhythm, and articulation.  These rapidly changing scenarios demonstrate Vivaldi’s theatrical sense from his work in opera of how to use the color of a solo voice or instrument, a dramatic chorus, a lyrical duet, or a dancing string ritornello for the greatest effect.

Probably the most effective of these scene changes is the shift to the second movement, which follows the sparkling octave string melodies and marked choral exuberance of the opening “Gloria.” The long lines of the “Et in terra pax” seemingly spin forever, always seeking resolution on the word “pax” (peace), but finding instead dissonances or deceptive cadences that deny it.  As the vocal lines and pulsing string arpeggios surge with hope and turn away in despair to search once more for resolution, it is as if Vivaldi is yearning for a peace unattained, rather than being reassured of a peace guaranteed.

But the piece as whole never loses its driving energy and grace. Within the compact compass of its twelve endlessly inventive movements, the work in itself is a glorious adventure in musical contrasts and astonishing stylistic range. Vivaldi recapitulates the joyful opening on “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Following a fairly common Baroque compositional practice, Vivaldi borrowed extensively from an earlier Gloria by Giovanni Maria Ruggieri for the final spirited double fugue, which brings this celebration of contrasts to a close.

Program notes © Yoshi Campbell