Saturday, November 2, 2019 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Michael Drumheller, bass-baritone
Jennifer Higdon (*1983)
Huntley Beyer (*1947)
Circumference [world premiere]
— intermission —
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)
About the Concert
Join us for the world premiere of Huntley Beyer’s Circumference, an oratorio written in memory of OSSCS founder George Shangrow. Also featured are Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, composed to honor her late brother, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, written “to the memory of a great man.”
Hear KING-FM’s Sean MacLean preview this concert:
As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this season, it’s only right that we should take time amid the fanfare for a bit of reflection. After all, no 50-year span in the life of a person — much less a group — is free of sadness and loss.
OSSCS suffered a critical blow in July 2010 when its founder, George Shangrow, lost his life in a car crash. George had been the guiding light for this organization for 40 years, and many of our musicians wondered if it would continue without him. But what made George special was that he inspired those around him, and our singers and instrumentalists took up his mantle and showed just how resilient our organization could be. The past nine seasons have been a testament to this sense of purpose.
That’s why tonight’s world premiere of Huntley Beyer’s Circumference is particularly meaningful. Huntley, a dear friend of George’s and a longtime Orchestra Seattle oboist, composed this work to honor George’s memory. Across its 10 movements, you will hear music of transcendent joy and bitter heartache, of silly humor and deep spirituality — everything that encompasses the life of a person.
Our program begins with music by Jennifer Higdon, blue cathedral, the piece that brought her to the international prominence she enjoys today. What I find so compelling in this work (composed as she mourned the death of her brother) is the way that it creates space for reflection and contemplation in the minds of its listeners instead of telling them how to think or to feel.
After intermission, we’ll hear a memorial work of a very different cast, a symphonic monument to a hero (or perhaps to the idea of a hero): Beethoven’s third symphony. The outer movements are rightly famed for their brimming vitality, but it’s the second movement, the funeral march, that is the core of this symphony’s spiritual message.
— William White
About the Soloist
Bass-baritone Michael Drumheller has appeared on opera and concert stages across the nation, making solo appearances with the Seattle Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera, Tacoma Opera, Pacific Northwest Opera, Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Cleveland Orchestra and OSSCS, and working with such renowned conductors as Robert Spano, Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin. As a recitalist, he is especially interested in Russian vocal music and has been an invited performer of that repertoire at the Icicle Creek Music Festival and Wellesley College. Mr. Drumheller holds a master’s degree in vocal performance from Boston University, where he was a student of Phyllis Curtin, and has studied with Armen Boyajian, Robert Honeysucker and Julian Patrick, among other notable teachers. An alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, he also holds BS and MS degrees in engineering and science from MIT. His diverse background includes playing timpani in symphony orchestras and drumming and singing for his own rock bands. Learn more: michaeldrumheller.com
Jennifer Elaine Higdon was born December 31, 1962, in Brooklyn, New York, and now lives in Philadelphia. She composed blue cathedral on commission from the Curtis Institute to commemorate its 75th anniversary. Robert Spano conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on May 1, 2000. The score calls for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, piano, celesta, timpani, percussion (crotales, marimba, tam-tam, vibraphone, glockenspiel, bell tree, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, chimes, triangle, bass drum and large tom-tom) and strings, with various musicians playing crystal glasses and Chinese health bells.
According to her official biography, “Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed figures in contemporary classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her violin concerto, a 2010 Grammy for her percussion concerto and a 2018 Grammy for her viola concerto. Most recently, Higdon received the prestigious Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University, which is awarded to contemporary classical composers of exceptional achievement who have significantly influenced the field of composition. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and blue cathedral is one of today’s most-performed contemporary orchestral compositions, with more than 600 performances worldwide. Her works have been recorded on more than 60 CDs. Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere and the opera recording was nominated for two Grammy awards. She holds the Rock Chair in Composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.”
In notes accompanying an Atlanta Symphony recording of blue cathedral, Higdon says she “imagined a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church. In my mind’s eye the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows’ figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising towards an immense ceiling which would open to the sky. As this journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward. I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music.”
William Huntley Beyer was born November 17, 1947, growing up in New Jersey; he currently resides in Redmond. Commissioned by Laurie Medill and dedicated “with love to the memory of George Arthur Shangrow, who encompassed much of human experience, and showed us how best to love life,” Circumference receives its world premiere this evening. The score calls for chorus, baritone soloist, pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Composer Huntley Beyer met OSSCS founder George Shangrow in 1969 in the classroom of harpsichordist Sylvia Kind at the University of Washington, where Beyer had come to pursue a graduate degree in composition. George played harpsichord and Huntley played both oboe and recorder. A friendship quickly developed and they began performing sonatas and trio sonatas together. Both enjoyed improvising, and would often crack each other up with “improvisational challenges” that involved ever-more absurd levels of ornamentation.
Beyer began performing with Shangrow’s Seattle Chamber Singers not long after the group’s first official concert in June 1969, playing oboe and writing a cappella pieces for the ensemble. When George formed an orchestra — originally called the Broadway Chamber Symphony (named after the performance hall where they first gave concerts) and later known as the Broadway Symphony and then Orchestra Seattle — in 1979, Huntley became a founding member, playing oboe for about 15 years while continuing to perform chamber music with George.
Over the decades, George and OSSCS premiered numerous Beyer compositions, including three of his four symphonies, a flute concerto (Toot Sweet), the powerful St. Mark Passion and a song cycle (The Turns of a Girl), along with various choral-orchestral works: Songs of Illumination, Mass of Life and Death and Requiem for the Children. Members of Orchestra Seattle premiered his wind quintet in 2011, a piano trio in 2016, and a brass quintet earlier this year.
Longtime SCS alto Laurie Medill commissioned Beyer to write Circumference. “My idea was to use poetry George had loved and often recited,” she says “and that was also connected to some of the pieces we’d done in SCS, so I came up with a few poems, and Hunt rounded out the group.”
“The 10 movements of Circumference reflect and celebrate George’s life and musical passion and leadership,” says Beyer. The work begins “with a celebration of George’s charismatic presence and musical vision,” setting “He Is the Way” by W.H. Auden: “Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness. You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.” This represents how “George’s leadership and personality always brought surprises and amazing experiences.” The ensuing a cappella song, “He Was My North,” employs another Auden poem and concerns “how important George was to everyone who knew him, and especially those in OSSCS. It expresses both a love and devotion to George, and also the shock and grief of his sudden passing.”
“The Coolin” sets a poem by Irishman James Stephens, who “sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking into a motionless languor.” Samuel Barber used this same text as part of his choral work Reincarnations, which George loved and programmed numerous times with SCS. “It is a gentle piece,” Beyer says of his setting, “and George was a gentle soul. It starts, ‘Come with me,’ as George did invite everyone to come along, and includes ‘stay with me, under my coat,’ which is an invitation to friendship.”
“Today, Like Every Other Day” is “both a humorous poem and an ode to the sacredness and life-giving qualities of music. It concludes: ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’ Making music is a sacred activity. Music and humor were woven together in George, in both his life and in rehearsals.” George often used the words “If Music Be the Food of Love” (borrowed from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Henry Heveningham for the opening line of his poem that was set to music by Henry Purcell) to advertise concerts, especially those near Valentine’s Day. Beyer’s setting is “in the style of a madrigal,” a type of secular vocal composition from Renaissance and Baroque times that the Seattle Chamber Singers sang from their very first days.
“Lamb of God,” setting poetry of William Blake, “addresses George as a creature of God in a way that captures the innocent wonder of life: George was always excited about life.” The lyrics also incorporate a line from the traditional Requiem text, “asking God to watch over him after his death,” and to grant “eternal rest.” George would often quote Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” to Huntley. “He knew many poems by heart,” says Beyer, who recalls “being surprised once at a bar when we were talking about favorite poems and George quoted this entire poem from memory!” Huntley set it as a bass solo “in a register that George, when adopting a humorous tone, often spoke in.”
“You and I Shall Go” follows “George as he moves from this life to the other, ‘along the Milky Way,’ ‘along the flower trail.’ It is a blessing that his passage to the next life be beautiful.” Next, “May It Be Beautiful Before Me” expresses “a blessing for life. It asks that life be beautiful before, behind, above, below and all around us. It asks that we be thankful for this beautiful life, no matter its length.”
Closing the work, “To the Sorrow String” illustrates “our awareness that George will always be with us, and that we will continue to hear and know him in our music-making. There will always be a sadness in George’s absence, to the ‘note not there in the score.’ Yet the joy of music-making by this community of friends and musicians — OSSCS — will continue. One of the best ways to remember and honor George is to continue making music.”
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)
Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began sketching his third symphony in 1802, but composed most of the work during the latter half of 1803, completing it in early 1804. The first public performance took place at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on April 7, 1805, with the composer conducting. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings.
By April 1802, Beethoven’s hearing loss prompted the composer to seek rest and relaxation in the village of Heiligenstadt, near Vienna. Outwardly, Beethoven appeared content, but by October 1802 the inner psychological turmoil caused by his increasing deafness compelled him to write a letter known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Addressed to his brothers, the document angrily decries the composer’s “wretched existence” and explains how his loss of hearing has caused him to live life as outcast, unable to carry on a simple conversation. And it reveals thoughts of suicide: “Only my art,” Beethoven explains, “held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”
Beethoven never delivered the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers, keeping it private until his death. In retrospect, as composer William A. DeWitt writes, the document helps “to explain, psychologically, Beethoven’s sudden and drastic stylistic change around 1803. Immediately following Heiligenstadt, Beethoven’s music suddenly becomes more daring. The learned rules of his teachers were cast aside as he struck out on a new path with [his third symphony] as the frontispiece of this change. Within weeks, perhaps days, of signing the will, Beethoven jotted down the first sketches of the Sinfonia Eroica.”
As with his piano concertos, Beethoven’s first two symphonies had recalled those of Mozart and Haydn. There were innovations, certainly, but nothing that radically challenged the concertgoers of the day like his monumental third symphony would. Two centuries later, in a world in which Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is now over 100 years old, it is difficult for modern listeners to understand the revolutionary nature of the “Eroica” symphony and just how strange it must have sounded to its first audiences — a fact often obscured by discussion of the work’s original dedicatee, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Ferdinand Ries, a friend and student of Beethoven, provided the following account in an 1838 biography: “In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word ‘Buonaparte’ inscribed at the very top of the title page and ‘Luigi van Beethoven’ at the very bottom. … I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page was later recopied and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica.”
The actual story about Beethoven’s feelings toward Napoleon, however, is more complex. Around 1797, the composer had produced a couple of anti-Napoleonic songs and as late as 1802 Beethoven replied to a suggestion that he compose a sonata in honor of Napoleon: “Has the devil got hold of you all, gentlemen? Perhaps at the time of the Revolutionary fever — such a thing might have been possible, but … now … you won’t get anything from me.” Before long, his sentiments changed and he considered dedicating his new symphony to Napoleon — until the composer’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz, offered 400 ducats in exchange for exclusive performing rights for a six-month period. Beethoven thus opted to include Bonaparte’s name in the title of the work, perhaps (as Maynard Solomon suggests) in order “to smooth Beethoven’s entry into the French capital,” as he had planned a concert tour to Paris (which never came about). Even after removing Bonaparte’s name form the score, he penciled “written about Napoleon” back onto the title page and continued to express varying opinions about the Frenchman. In the end, Beethoven simply labeled his new work a “Heroic Symphony,” inscribing it “to the memory of a great man” — leaving open for debate the question of whether this “great man” was Napoleon or a generic hero.
The symphony’s massive opening movement is of a scale and length previously unknown to listeners of the day. Eschewing a traditional introduction, two bold chords sound, then Beethoven launches into the principal theme, constructed out of a simple major triad. Throughout the movement, meter and tonality are questioned via the use of misplaced accents and striking dissonances. Beethoven takes the unorthodox step of introducing a new theme (unheard during the exposition) in the development section, at the end of which — over a hushed string tremolo setting up the recapitulation — he has one of the three horns quietly intone the opening theme. Ries recalled hearing this for the first time at the work’s initial rehearsal: “I was standing next to Beethoven and, believing that [the horn player] had made a wrong entrance, I said, ‘That damned hornist! Can’t he count? It sounds frightfully wrong.’ I believe I was in danger of getting my ears boxed. Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time.” The lengthy recapitulation incorporates the new theme from the development section and concludes with two chords that mirror the opening of the work.
The slow movement takes the form of an epic funeral march, beginning and ending in C minor, with a major-key central episode. At the beginning, cellos and basses imitate a military drum while violins present the solemn principal theme. Oboe plays an important solo role throughout, especially in the sunnier trio. With the return to C minor, Beethoven does not merely repeat the music of the opening section, but rather develops the material by means of an impassioned fugue. At the movement’s conclusion, the opening theme disintegrates in the violins, the notes breaking apart and receding into the distance. Controversy persists about the meaning of this funeral march and whether it represents the death of Napoleon’s republican ideals, mourns the actual death of a significant person in Beethoven’s life, or whether the work as a whole depicts the life, death and rebirth of the classical hero.
The third movement, a lightning-quick scherzo, returns to E♭ major. Beethoven had written a scherzo — which translates literally to “joke,” and usually in 3/4 like a Haydn or Mozart minuet, but much faster — for each of his first two symphonies, but neither was like this one: faster than the wind, with offbeat accents blurring the distinction between strong and weak pulses, often throwing the meter itself into question. Beethoven heightens tension by sustaining a quiet dynamic through much of the movement, a strategy that renders the loud outbursts even more alarming. The tempo slows slightly at the trio — at which point we realize at last why Beethoven calls for three horns instead of the usual (at the time) two. The scherzo material returns, although with some important changes, including a brief — albeit shocking — shift from triple meter to duple meter.
The finale begins with a furious outburst before settling down to a set of variations on a theme that Beethoven used on three other occasions: in fact, the first several variations come more or less verbatim from his incidental music for The Creatures of Prometheus. At first, Beethoven presents only the bass line of the eventual theme, treating it to its own variations with generous doses of Haydnesque humor. Playfulness eventually gives way to a grand fugue, a Turkish march and another fugue, before the proceedings come to a full stop. The music resumes at a slow tempo, building from quiet repose to scale monumental heights before subsiding once again. Suddenly, almost without warning, the tempo switches to Presto and the race is on to the work’s joyous conclusion.
— Jeff Eldridge