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American Invention

The New York Virtuoso Singers present a February 2023 concert of first performances


The New York Virtuoso Singers conducted by Harold Rosenbaum present American Invention on Sunday 19 February 2023, featuring vibrant American choral music from the eighteenth century to today. Taking place at 3pm at Christ & St Stephen's Church, the concert will comprise a wide range of American works including first performances by Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Davis, Peter Zummo, Elena Ruehr and William McClelland. There are also first New York performances by Pulitzer Prize winner Tania León, David Patterson, and Edie Hill. The concert also includes music by other outstanding American composers, including Florence Price, Annea Lockwood, Jessie Montgomery, Mari Esabel Valverde and Nancy Wertsch, and eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century choral works by William Billings, Lowell Mason, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and Milton Babbitt, as well as an arrangement by William Appling.

American Invention

The programme embraces the inventive and adventurous spirit that has been part of American music's DNA since William Billings, the country's first great native-born composer, published his first collection, The New-England Psalm-Singer, in 1770. This spirit infused the pioneering work of Charles Ives, one of the towering figures of twentieth century music, the innovations in electronic and serial music by Milton Babbitt, and the musical explorations by many of the contemporary composers in this programme. At the same time, the works do not sacrifice feeling and beauty for mere originality, and many moving, joyful and uplifting compositions will be performed.

William Billings (1746-1800) wrote many remarkable works, one of which, Jargon, is as dissonant as any work in the musical canon. It was written in response to certain music critics who dismissed Billings' harmonic vocabulary as too consonant. Billings dedicates Jargon to the 'Goddess of Discord', and, in a forward to the piece, he suggested that if the piece still isn't dissonant enough, performers should add other 'instruments' to the ensemble, including a squealing hog, a howling dog, a squalling cat, a squeaky cart-wheel, and a finger rubbing on a window glass. Through the miracle of modern technology, the NYVS concert will include the only version of Jargon incorporating all the sounds Billings called for in his score, creating an extraordinary sonic experience. Two other works by Billings will be included in the program: the delightful Modern Music and one of his most poignant works, When Jesus Wept.

In the concert will also be Psalm 67 by Charles Ives (1874-1954), a towering figure of twentieth century music. The piece was composed around 1892-93 when Ives was still a teenager. In this bitonal work, written in two keys at the same time, Ives has the men's voices sing in the key of G minor while the women sing in C major, and he creates a sound that is otherworldly yet remarkably beautiful. Ives and his father, George Ives, also a highly regarded musician and marching band leader in Danbury, Connecticut, were true musical inventors who investigated advanced musical ideas such as bitonality, quarter tones and polyrhythms years before other American composers, and even Europeans like Arnold Schoenberg, began exploring these ideas and methods.

Born in Arkansas, Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. The composer of over three hundred works, Price (1887-1953) has in recent years been increasingly performed and recorded after the discovery in 2009 in an attic in St Anne, Illinois of dozens of her previously unknown works. Her luminous and moving hymn for chorus, Resignation, will be performed in the concert.

Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), another twentieth century master, was particularly noted for his electronic music and works incorporating serial techniques. However, he also composed a number of pieces which, while using advanced compositional techniques and chromaticism, were also melodic and truly beautiful, such as his 1940 piece, Music for the Mass. The opening Kyrie from this eminently singable work will be performed in the American Invention concert.

The music of a number of adventurous and innovative living twentieth and 21st century American composers will also be performed. Tania León's Rezos ('Prayers') will have its first New York (and East Coast) performance at the concert. This a cappella work, originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, is set to a text from author Jamaica Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River. León describes Rezos as a 'sound palette propelled by a series of complex chords that dissolve into simple sounds, sudden interruptions and/or silence', and the music continuously uncovers the deeper meanings of Kincaid's profound writing. Rezos is dedicated to the memory of the innocent victims of 11 September 2001 worldwide.

Anthony Davis' Great Lights, a work for chorus and organ, was composed in 1996 but will receive its first performance by NYVS on this program. The work was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for their 1996 Biennial Convention in New York City, but due to unforeseen circumstances, was not performed. The piece incorporates many aspects of Davis' capacious style that has made him one of today's leading composers: improvisatory jazz and funk elements, modernist harmonies and rhythms, and even a nod to Broadway show tunes. NYVS is delighted to present the first performance of this work.

A work specially commissioned for this concert is Peter Zummo's Blue Headlights. Widely known for his groundbreaking innovations as a trombonist and music written primarily for his own ensembles, it will be this brilliant musician's first-ever composition for chorus. Zummo has worked with artists such as choreographer Trisha Brown and composer/cellist Arthur Russell, and he appears on dozens of recordings of his own music and that of other composers and ensembles. His latest releases are Second Spring OST from 2021, and Deep Drive, released in 2019.

Annea Lockwood, described by The New York Times as a composer of 'audacious experimental works on the border of musical performance and conceptual art', will be represented by her 1983 work Malolo, for women's voices. Set to a series of mellifluous Samoan words, this short lullaby is made up of a series of hypnotic repeated and recombined pentatonic patterns.

The rhythmically propulsive Danse Africaine by Jessie Montgomery, who was recently honored as Musical America's 'Composer of the Year', is a setting of the Langston Hughes poem and was commissioned for the Young People's Chorus of NYC.

Mari Esabel Valverde is a young composer and singer who has already made an impact on the contemporary music world. Her piece for men's voices, Darest, O Soul, is set to a text from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass which dares the soul to 'walk out with me toward the unknown' where there is 'no map ... nor guide'.

Another first performance will be Elena Ruehr's In Time of Silver Rain, a poem by Langston Hughes celebrating the joy of earth's rebirth with every spring. Well-known particularly for her vocal works, Ruehr has composed four operas and four cantatas in addition to six string quartets and works for orchestra.

Minnesota-based composer Edie Hill has numerous credits including a recent recording of her music by The Crossing choir. NYVS will give the first New York performance of Hill's funny and touching Dog from Duluth, a work with text by the composer celebrating her beloved dog, Gobi.

Composer David Patterson, professor of music at UMass-Boston and former student of both Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen, will be represented by a composition entitled The Opossum. The text, by John Champlin Gardner, is from the author's novel October Light and hilariously celebrates an animal which rarely receives any respect. This performance by NYVS will be the first New York performance of Patterson’s delightful work.

William McClelland's latest recording, Where the Shadow Glides, was released on Naxos Records in July 2022 and includes three choral works performed by NYVS. This concert features the first performance of Hail Lovely and Pure, McClelland's a cappella setting of a passage from a fifteenth century English mystery play, The Second Shepherd's Play. The composer discovered a small manuscript of a translation of the Middle English text among the papers of his late brother, calligrapher David C K McClelland, and felt it would be perfect for a choral setting. The passage consists of the first lines spoken by the shepherds as they enter the stable to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Wisconsin native and New York-based Nancy Wertsch is a composer whose style ranges from complex polychoral music to motets, art songs and instrumental works for brass, wind ensemble and organ. Her CD With Peace in Mind was recorded by Harold Rosenbaum and NYVS, and includes the powerful O Great Spirit, a Native American prayer for peace, which will be performed at the concert.

Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung is from a collection of popular Elizabethan tunes and dance pieces called William Ballet's Lute Book published in England in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The text has been set by a number of composers, among them Benjamin Britten, and Henry Cowell's version was composed in 1948 for the Northwestern University Chorus.

NYVS's 19 February 2023 performance will conclude with William Appling's arrangement of the Negro spiritual, We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace. Appling (1932-2008) was a noted conductor, pianist and teacher, and also arranged a number of spirituals which have found their place in the choral repertoire. We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace has been recorded by many groups including Chanticleer, Cantus, the Dale Warland Singers, as well as Appling's own William Appling Singers & Orchestra.

Further information about this concert:

Posted 7 January 2023 by Keith Bramich



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