The New Hampshire Master Chorale’s spring concerts, on June 17 in Concord and June 18 in Plymouth, embrace life’s gamut.
The program, titled From Time to Time, ranges from the innocent hope embodied in a newborn baby to the funk and lustiness of youth, and from the dawning sense of life’s limitations in middle age to the poignancy of failing health and memory in the twilight years.
The centerpiece is a new commissioned work provocatively entitled Smoking, Drinking, Messing Around, featuring the poetry of Liz Ahl set to music by Jonathan Santore, the Master Chorale’s composer-in-residence. It’s Santore’s 19th commission from the Master Chorale over as many years, and his third collaboration with Ahl.
Perkins says the program’s concept springs from a personal place – a reminiscence of his 26 years on the Plymouth State faculty.
“For me, this is kind of an examination of a quarter-century of making music in New Hampshire,” Perkins says. “It’s nostalgic to some extent. And funny. Imagining the incredible range of experiences I’ve had here. It’s a look-back at what we’ve been able to do – in the knowledge that someday it’s going to end. We can’t continue to do this forever. And that’s OK.”
He hastens to add that the end appears nowhere near.
This is the Master Chorale’s 14th season. The 31-voice chamber chorus holds a unique place in New Hampshire’s musical life.
Perkins characterizes it as “a group of trained and experienced musicians, many of whom are music educators, some of whom are professional musicians, who work together to create concerts that are eclectic and diverse. We get to do anything we want, from Sondheim to Bach.”
Santore says he writes music for the Master Chorale with its distinctive sound and capabilities in mind. “It’s a smaller choir, working at a very high level of musicianship,” Santore says., “Dan has selected voices that blend extremely well. It’s a very focused sound, a very cohesive music unit. That really informs the relationship.”
Perkins and Santore say the process of creating this newest commissioned work was different from usual. Normally Perkins comes up with a precise idea of what he wants, Santore says, but this time was more open-ended.
Both say they were searching for “something edgy,” or as Santore puts it, “something a little more roistering” than his last piece for the group, a piece commemorating the Civil War.
It all started with the title, Smoking, Drinking, Messing Around.
“The title came first,” Santore says. “I thought it would be entertaining to write a piece about smoking, drinking and messing around.”
Once Santore and Perkins agreed on the title, the composer went to his friend and frequent collaborator Liz Ahl, who sent him a packet of poems and gave him the freedom to pick and choose.
“I love Liz’s stuff at a level I almost can’t put into words, which is odd because I write music that conveys her words,” Santore says. “I hear her voice in everything she writes. Some of it’s funky, some of it’s tender and some of it’s astonishingly personal.”
The first of the five movements, for example, is both funky and personal. It’s called When We Smoked.
“That poem is autobiographical, for sure,” Ahl laughs. She’s a former smoker who kicked the addiction 14 years ago. The first line – “We were happier when we smoked” -- came to her readymade from an offhand comment of a friend who’d also quit smoking.
“As soon as the friend said it, I thought ‘I have to use this in a poem,’” Ahl says. “It’s simultaneously the most ridiculous thing and it felt so true. Of course, we weren’t happier because we smoked. But we were happier in a way that everyone was once happier. And you make up all sorts of reasons why you were happier.”
Another, very different, piece in the program is called Smoking Can Kill. Written by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, it sets to music the warning on cigarette packages, in the fa-la-la style of a Renaissance madrigal.
Mantyarvi also contributes The Lusty Smith, a rollicking tale of a young blacksmith and a buxom young damsel.
In the same boisterous frame is a drinking song, The Inn, based on Lithuanian folksongs set by Algimantas Brazinskas. American-flavored rowdiness, with an evocation of wide-open spaces, comes from The Settling Years, three “pioneer texts” set by Libby Larson.
In striking contrast are jazzy, note-bending settings of the African-American poet Langston Hughes in two pieces by Elizabeth Alexander and William Averitt.
Perkins notes that Alexander’s piece, Folks, I’m Tellin’ You, underscores the program’s “live-life-right-now” theme: “Birthin’ is hard and dyin’ is mean,” the lyrics go, “So get yourself a little lovin’ in between.”
In yet another completely different mood are three pieces on the beginning and ending of life. Jenny Rebecca by Carol Hall (arranged by Clair T. McElfresh) is a tender lullaby for a four-day-old girl. The Earthly Rose is a setting by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds of an Emma Jones poem about a traveler who returns home to her failing parents. And When Memory Fades, with music by Jayne Southwick Cool and lyrics by Mary Louise Bringle, is about the twilight of life.
The Master Chorale will perform From Time to Time at the Eagle Square Atrium in Concord on Friday, June 17 at 8 p.m., with appetizers and cash bar from 7 p.m.; and at the ice arena lobby of the Plymouth State University Welcome Center on Sunday, June 18, at 4 p.m., with intermission appetizers and cash bar.
Tickets are available at nhmasterchorale.org and at the door for $30, or $25 for seniors and $15 apiece for groups of 10 or more. Admission is free for undergraduates and students from kindergarten through high school.
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