Updated: Jun 10, 2019
Written by Richard Knox.
When I heard the theme of this concert would be “hope,” my first thought was: “Oh, that’s nice.” That is, nice in the Hallmark Card sense. Anodyne clichés leapt to mind: Hope for the best! Hope springs eternal! Never lose hope!
I should have known better. Dan Perkins is never shallow, trite or merely facile. When rehearsals began and we singers encountered the texts you will hear at the concert, it became clear they’re not about hope as a sort of passive yearning or fatalistic wish. These lyrics say hope requires energy, imagination, empathy, determination and struggle. They say that hope is as essential to us, individually and collectively, as sunlight and oxygen. And that despair – hope’s opposite -- is stifling and paralyzing; nothing good can come of it.
This program was inspired by a chance meeting Perkins had with the Polish-American composers Martin Sedek at a choral directors’ conference. Their conversations led to emails about a new, not-yet-performed piece called Hope On that became today’s centerpiece. Sedek calls it “socially conscious music,” a quality that clearly made Perkins’ antennae quiver.
“I am naturally drawn to texts that challenge us to consider difficult issues and this concert certainly has many of those,” Dan told me. “Choosing the program’s title, I wanted to project a positive energy (knowing that including the word ‘despair’ would discourage some potential attendees) and counting on Master Chorale's history and reputation to dispel any fear of triteness!”
He was also drawn to the way Hope On invites individual singers to intone ad libitum texts they themselves choose. At the beginning of the piece the effect is an overwhelming pile-up of all the reasons for despair offered by today’s headlines. Toward the end, these aleatoric, or randomly voiced, incantations paint a more hopeful sonic picture.
Like other works on this program, Hope On uses texts from what Perkins calls “wildly varying” sources. They include Hebrew scripture, the Quran, Martin Luther King, the 18th-century German poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, and the early 20th century British poet Lascelles Abercombie.
The composition’s title comes from the Kentucky poet Madison Julius Cawein, whose work spanned the 19th-century romantic sensibility of Shelley and Keats and the bleaker 20th-century modernism of T.S. Eliot. Hope On urges us to consider the existential necessity of hope.
“If hope should die what doubts would blind!/What black despairs go unconfined!/What sorrows weight us utterly!” Cawein writes. “Hope on, dear Heart!”
The duality of hope versus despair is also Robert Kyr’s theme in his 2010 composition Songs of the Soul.
Kyr, a University of Oregon professor who finds inspiration in many different faith traditions, often composes during annual retreats to a Benedictine abbey in the New Mexican desert. He calls this work a cantata “in the manner of Bach” that “traces the journey of the soul from its most despairing and earthbound condition to its most joyful and transcendent state of being.”
The Master Chorale will perform two of the cantata’s seven parts. The first, Descending: From the Abyss, is a lament and plea for deliverance from the depths of despair. Overlapping choral entrances, as in a Baroque fugue, Kyr paints despair with moments of intense dissonance, resolving eventually to glorious moments of clarity and bright tonality.
The second movement is Arising: A Time for Song, a treatment of the familiar and much-loved Old Testament Song of Solomon that begins “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Kyr divides the singers into four choruses, layering and weaving the text in three languages (Latin, English, Spanish) in an incantation that builds to an ecstatic climax.
Music also provides a vehicle for hope – even a hint of immortal joy -- in the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, which sets Shakespeare’s words from Merchant of Venice. As you might be pleased to note, the piece sets up music appreciation as a sort of litmus test of good character. Beware “the man that hath no music in himself/Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,” the bard warns, for he “is fit for treasons, strategems and spoils.”
A fresh (2018) treatment of the iconic Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus by Sander Choi gives voice to the Statue of Liberty as she welcomes immigrants to New York Harbor with the familiar words, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”
Choi is a Filipino graduate student at the University of Southern California who is seeking U.S. citizenship. He chose to set the Lazarus poem “because it makes sacrosanct the principle that the United States of America has been and will always be a nation of immigrants, regardless of xenophobic political ideologies.”
Choi’s setting is “edgy, playful and inspired,” Perkins says – a work unlike any Master Chorale audiences have ever heard. Traditional treatments of the famous poem are typically lush and comforting, he notes, but Choi’s “is the antithesis – a more accurate depiction of current immigration policy and actions.”
The piece simultaneously captures the perpetual tenuousness of our nation’s open-arms experiment, the yearnings of those who flock to Liberty’s embrace, and the majesty of her invitation. Its halting, stuttering opening vividly portrays the fear of deportation among immigrants seeking a hopeful life in America (for what is America, historically, if not a land of hope and opportunity?). Choi scores passages of labored breathing that viscerally portray immigrants’ anxious striving, before finally allowing the chorus to breathe free.
Another contemporary composition, Into the Light, pulls eclectic texts, from writers as diverse as Gandhi, M.L. King again, Frederick Douglass and Helen Keller along with the apostle Peter and John the Evangelist from the New Testament, the 13th-century mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg and Bengali poets.
Again, the very diversity bespeaks humankind’s never-ending need to hope. “You are a product of your thoughts,” Gandhi wrote, underscoring the importance of a hopeful frame of mind. “What you think, you become.”
Composer Jake Runestad wrote Into the Light in 2017 on a commission from Valparaiso University in Indiana to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The piece celebrates the triumphal power of love in the face of fear and “the night of ignorance,” in Helen Keller’s phrase. In another passage, the Reverend King notes that “We are driven by love or by fear.”
The concert concludes with a “festival hymn” by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds called Proclamation. The piece was commissioned for a 2017 Grand Prix of Nations conference in Berlin, celebrating the diversity of the choral tradition, and had its premier by a chorus of over 1,000 singers. It’s inspired by a Kim Stafford poem that is a manifesto for peace in a world where “hope seems small…kindness is seldom in the news…and peace an abstraction while war is real.” It ends with the ringing resolution that “a song shall be my calling…and peaceful words the work of my remaining days.”
Perkins says he hopes you’ll leave this concert “challenged by the newness, freshness, beauty and relevance of the music, comforted by the familiar Vaughan Williams, and inspired to hope actively.”
That last phrase – to hope actively -- is fundamental. While rehearsing this music, I’ve been reading a slim 2016 book called Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. She quotes a Cambodian refugee who says, “If I had not hoped, I would not have struggled. And if I had not struggled, I would not have survived Pol Pot.” Solnit applies this lesson to the global need to stave off apocalyptic climate change. “Hope calls for action,” Solnit writes. “Action is impossible without hope.”
And, in an aphorism I find most resonant with this concert, Solnit quotes the German philosopher Ernst Bloch: “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.”
Richard Knox is a journalist and a Master Chorale baritone.
Saturday, June 15 at 7:00PM - First Congregational Church: 177 N. Main St, Concord, NH
Sunday, June 16 at 4PM - Plymouth Congregational Church: 4 Post Office Square, Plymouth, NH
The New Hampshire Master Chorale, led by Dr. Dan Perkins, is a non-profit choir established in the spring of 2003. This premier chamber ensemble is dedicated to excellence in the art of choral music performance. Members of the group are trained singers, auditioned from throughout New England, who have performed as soloists and in choral ensembles throughout the world. You can get a taste of the NHMC on our SoundCloud page: soundcloud.com/nh-master-chorale or find us on facebook and twitter: www.facebook.com/NHMasterChorale and twitter.com/nhmasterchorale.
Tickets available at nhmasterchorale.org and at the door — $30 general, $25 senior, $15 group of 10+
Free admission for undergraduates and students in grades K–12.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale also utilizes a “Pay What You Are Able” ticket policy so that anyone can attend regardless of financial ability. We welcome all donations to support this.