Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman | Pärt: The Woman with the Alabaster Box - Lee: Mechthild Von Magdeburg Minnelieder an Gott - O'Regan: The Ecstasies Above - Whitacre: Five Hebrew Love Songs - Gjeilo: Dark Night of the Soul (Voices and Strings) [Live]

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Classical: Choral Music Classical: Vocal Music Moods: Type: Vocal
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Pärt: The Woman with the Alabaster Box - Lee: Mechthild Von Magdeburg Minnelieder an Gott - O'Regan: The Ecstasies Above - Whitacre: Five Hebrew Love Songs - Gjeilo: Dark Night of the Soul (Voices and Strings) [Live]

by Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman

A rich and varied selection of 21st century music for chorus and strings comprising the beautifully lyric, the mystically seductive, the exultantly impassioned and the cosmically informed.
Genre: Classical: Choral Music
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. The Woman with the Alabaster Box (Live)
Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman
5:10 album only
2. Mechthild von Magdeburg: Minnelieder an Gott (Live)
Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman
17:08 album only
3. The Ecstasies Above (Live)
Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman
18:18 album only
4. Five Hebrew Love Songs: I. Rakut - II. Eyze Shelleg - III. Larov - IV. Kala Kalla - V. Tenuna (Live)
Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman
10:05 album only
5. Dark Night of the Soul (Live)
Musica Sacra, Denovo Quartet & Mary Beekman
13:08 album only
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
The individual sound of string quartet and chamber chorus becomes far more than the sum of their parts when combined. Musica Sacra is assisted in this venture by the Denovo Quartet.

Musica Sacra has championed the works of Arvo Pärt for over two decades, giving the second US performance and New England Premiere of his Passio in 1994 and our first performance of his haunting Magnificat later that same year. In The Woman with the alabaster box, written in 1997 as a commission honoring the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Pärt sets the story from Matthew’s Gospel concerning the pouring of expensive oil on Jesus’ feet in his final days before his betrayal by Judas to the Romans. The story, as you can see by reading the text, is straightforward; its meaning, however, is less so.

Raised Lutheran in the Estonia of Soviet Russia, Pärt converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1976, where he experienced the role of plainchant in worship. It was at this time that he developed his characteristic style, which he named tintinnabuli, Latin for bells, and described it thus: I build with primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation. In developing this style, Pärt championed the late 20th century compositional style known as minimalism, along with such composers as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.

In this work Pärt works mainly with a scale in the Phrygian mode, in which half steps fall between the 1st and 2nd degrees of the scale and the 5th and 6th degrees of the scale, and he often raises the 3rd degree in expressing the scale, creating the interval of an augmented 2nd between its 2nd and 3rd degrees. The words of Jesus, intoned by the basses, present this scale as a series of ever widening and then narrowing intervals, departing from the first degree of the scale but always returning to it before proceeding to the next degree. Pärt uses the similar timbres of male voices moving together in parallel motion to pose the question of the disciples. For Jesus' prediction of the effect of the woman's pouring of the oil, Pärt uses a technique I have not encountered in any of his other works. The voices run the dynamic gamut from fortissimo to pianissimo as they iterate among themselves through three and a half octaves, from highest voice part to lowest in descending parallel thirds, the descending Phrygian scale with the raised third degree. The overall effect results in a work that is much more dramatic and expressive than others in which Pärt strictly adheres to self-imposed rules. As such, it breaks the principle of minimalism, as explained by the curators of the American Century, the Whitney Museum’s 1999 retrospective of 20th century art

The Minimalists used standardized units and repetitive structures as a way to downplay the role of personal choice and individual expression in the artistic process- affirming instead the purely physical properties of their work.... By rejecting the idea that art expresses the personality of its maker, Minimalism shifted the focus onto the viewer.

Thomas Oboe Lee set his Minnelieder an Gott to writings he assembled from the work Vliessende Lieht miner Gotheit of the 13th century Beguine mystic, Mechthild von Magdeburg. Lee, a teacher at Boston College, structures his work like a Bach cantata: arioso sections alternate with ones reminiscent of recitative. In the arioso sections the chorus sings in duets- either of various pairings among the voices or of voices and harp- while the strings’ ostinato accompaniment of repeating melodic and rhythmic patterns suggests the heartbeat heard in the stillness of meditation. The repeated choral phrases in each of the three arioso sections act as the beads in a musical rosary. The motif of the opening section occasionally gets transposed up to the relative major from its habitual minor expression; as such it provides a musical representation of the moments of transcendence occurring in the meditative repetition of a mantra or prayer.

Anyone familiar with Bernini's sculpture The ecstasy of Saint Teresa can appreciate that, for the religious mystic, the desire for union with the divine can take a highly sensuous tone akin to the desire for sexual fulfillment. Two of tonight's works use texts from Christian mystics that illustrate this passion for unity with God: those of Thomas Oboe Lee and Ola Gjeilo. Gjeilo's text, excerpted from Dark Night of the Soul written by the 17th century Carmelite St. John of the Cross, is also an extremely sensual poem, which, like many of those in the Judaic tradition, uses carnal love as a metaphor for love between God and man. The recurring refrain, ah, the sheer grace, is original to the poem of St John of the Cross and taken up by Gjeilo. In this instance, though, the translation from the Spanish could as well read, ah, the fortuitous chance. For the 17c St. John of the Cross, the use of the vernacular language was not so unusual; for the 13c Mechthild von Magdeburg, however, it was ground breaking. Her writing fell into obscurity by the 15th century, but was rediscovered in the late 19th century.

While Tarik O'Regan does not use the mystical poetry of the devout, the poetry he sets is nonetheless highly flowery: The ecstasies above by Edgar Allen Poe. The text is an encomium to Israfel, the Islamic angel of music. O'Regan set it as an homage to New York City upon learning that a street near where he was living on the Upper West Side was also known as Edgar Allen Poe Street, since the poet had lived on it for a time in the 19th century. The work embodies O'Regan's interest in and influences from many musical sources. The opening section reflects his love for the choral music of the English Renaissance, particularly that of the Tudor composers. The highly ornamented lines in the soprano solos and the violins echo those highly ornamented lines of the 14th century composers Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay, whom he also admires, as well as the rhythms and melodies of North Africa, reflecting his mother's Algerian heritage and the time he spent there as a child. The imitation of line at extremely close intervals references both the live sounds of the churches and cathedrals where English Renaissance music flourished and the effects pedal used in the genre of rock music, also a major influence on his compositional style.

As this style developed, O'Regan said, I realized that you don’t need to hear the words, to comprehend them, that they could be musical devices, just the sound of the words. It has an intrinsic musicality. This allowed him to experiment more with texture and dynamic. You may not realize it, but at certain points of this piece, the chorus is instructed to sing piano while the quartet is asked to play fortissimo. At other times, the soloists are instructed to sing less loudly than the chorus, such that the aggregate sound becomes the priority, rather than the dominance of a solo texture accompanied by all the other musicians. The musical structure of O'Regan's work forms a palindrome: a prologue, mid-section and epilogue bookend two similar interior iterations embracing one single center. Among these five parts, the mood shifts from languid tranquility to frenetic agitation; sometimes they even occur simultaneously. The encircling lines of the musical ornamentation setting the words ecstasies above calls mind the whirling dances of the Sufis.

Eric Whitacre is one of today's most popular composers of choral music; his compositional style of forming chords consisting of clusters of notes in close intervals to create an atmospheric miasma has garnered him fans throughout the world. His Five Hebrew Love Songs, however, have a much different character, perhaps because they were composed originally as solo songs for soprano, violin, and piano. As Whitacre himself writes of them: These songs are profoundly personal for me, born entirely out of my new love for this soprano, poet, and now my beautiful wife, Hila Plitmann. The fact that the poetry is written by his then girlfriend certainly enhances the sense of intimacy, as does the lack of development of each of the five works. Only one lasts more than a minute and that is because it is strophic, varying a mellifluous melody with a rousing refrain that beckons the listener to get up and dance. The choral writing is sparse; you can hear the origins of the work as a single melody with accompaniment. Each of the five works starts with a melodic line either in solo or with the accompaniment of one other voice. One of them has no text except a spoken sentence. The Hebrew text inspires Whitacre to give the work a Mid-Eastern flavor: numerous ornaments coming before the beat rather than on it, as they would in Western Classical music; the occurrence of augmented seconds in the melodic line; and a distinctly modal rather than tonal sensibility.

Ola Gjeilo, a Norwegian by birth now living in New York City, wrote Dark Night of the Soul in 2010, using the text at the suggestion of the Executive Director of the Phoenix Chorale in Arizona. The work has three parts, with the beginning and ending part set to a restless ostinato of arpeggiated chords played by a piano in a molto-vivace tempo in the irregular meter of 7/8. This accompaniment calls to mind the driving repetitive arpeggios characteristic of the music of Philip Glass. Gjeilo, like O'Regan, casts his chorus and quintet of string quartet with piano as equal partners in their collaboration. As he writes:

One of the things I wanted to do in this piece was to make the choir and piano fairly equal, as if in a dialogue; often the piano is accompanying the choir, but sometimes the choir is accompanying the piano (or violin) as well, with the choir kind of taking the role of a soft, but rich "string orchestra" texture.

In the middle section, the mood changes abruptly, with the chorus humming in accompaniment to a chorale-like treatment in the strings; this chorale then gets taken up by the chorus unaccompanied. The middle section also contains lushly rhapsodic solo vocal lines accompanied by arpeggiated chords, which, because of their triple meter, seem more like a comforting lullaby than the restless energy heard in the outer sections.

It struck me towards the end of preparation for this concert that the works for string quartet and chorus on this program all have the common theme of love: whether love for God, love for another, or love for music. I do not find it at all surprising that composers, when called upon to give musical voice to love, find the combination of strings and voices to consummately emphasize that emotion. The singular warmth of sound lends itself perfectly to the creation of works of tenderness, passion, yearning and devotion.
Mary Beekman

*For the biographical and information about musical references, I am indebted to the dissertation, An Analysis of Two Choral Compositions with strings, of Dominic Gregario, published by the Thornton School of Music of The University of Southern California in 2012. You may read the dissertation in its entirety at:



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