Passport to Travel
Program Notes: Passport to Travel

by Scott Youngs
AMC Music Director

Updated May 3, 2023


In countries around the Baltic Sea, choral music is an integral part of culture and national identity.  The Arizona Masterworks Chorale takes you on a musical tour to hear choral masterworks from contemporary Baltic composers, and then it’s home to America for one of our nation’s most beloved works.

The concert is full of beautiful and accessible pieces, as well as an Arizona Premiere that will challenge the audience to stretch their ears and imaginations: It’s a journey through a mystically minimalist experience, much like meditation, and adds an unexpected dimension to the program.

Choral music has flourished in the Baltics since the end of the Soviet era.  Located in the heart of Europe, these countries stand politically, as well as artistically, between Eastern and Western Europe. Although they have many things in common, each country is strongly influenced by its own musical history and artistic mentality.  Choral music is definitely a nationalistic expression. 

The Baltic “Song Celebrations” are the most enduring national events for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, existing long before the countries were officially recognized in 1918.  During the late 19th Century, these festivals gained in popularity, and that continues today.  They are enormous gatherings, with audiences of 150,000 and 24,000 singers.


The Concert

Our tour begins with Ēriks Ešenvalds, one of the best-known Latvian composers today, especially in choral music.  Of his own writing he says:

“For me, harmony is most important . . . the melodic line is secondary.  Nevertheless, I don’t want to write simple music . . . It is important for me to create sounds that I truly feel.  I conclude that I am constantly changing, searching for new paths, but absolutely not, once having found them, mass producing them.”

We open the concert with two of his works, first his “O Salutaris Hostia”, originally written for women’s choir.  The piece has a quiet underpinning of the choir with the two soloists floating above, echoing each other, or singing in thirds.  The text comes from St. Thomas Aquinas; one of the five Eucharistic hymns.  The translation from Latin:

O Saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to all below.
Our foes press on from every side;
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.

To Thy great name be endless praise
Immortal Godhead, One in Three;
Oh, grant us endless length of days,
In our true native land with Thee.
 (tr. E Caswall)

The second work from Ešenvalds, “Stars,” has an English text by the American lyric poet Sarah Teasdale that considers nature and eternity.  The halo of sound provided by the glasses and singing bowls adds to the sense of awe and mystery surrounding the stars and allows us to imagine a life beyond.

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Another Latvian composer, Raimonds Tiguls, gives us a slightly different view of the heavens focusing on the moon, and a sense of longing for the unexplainable in his work “Moonlight Sound Design,” in its Arizona Premiere. Tiguls is interested in the “archaeology” of contemporary music and its origin in folk music. Tiguls’ work is a peculiar meditative fusion of the Latvian historical mentality and modernity.

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Moving on to Lithuania, we continue our nighttime theme with Vytautas Miskinis’s “If the Day is Done”.  Miskinis is a leading composer in Lithuania whose melodies are both warm and memorable.  He considers his many sacred compositions as beautiful odes to humanity and faith.

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We now travel to Estonia to hear the Arizona Premiere of an unusual work from a very familiar name in 20th Century music: Arvo Pärt.  His melodic writing is heavily influenced by chant, repetitive to induce the sense that time no longer matters.  This piece, “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old,” is based on the story of Sarah, the infertile wife of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, who delivers a son at an old age, thus fulfilling God’s prophecy and promise to Abraham.

Along with our collection of beautiful, accessible choral works, we like to add something that will challenge our audience a bit and stretch their ears and their imaginations.  This work for soloists, organ, and percussion does just that.  We ask that you prepare your mind, and even close your eyes, for the full experience of the performance.

We refer to Pärt as a mystic minimalist whose music suggests, more than it enlightens.  The extended duration and scarcity of notes (only four pitches), the complete lack of text, and the timeless quality, make hearing it an experience much like meditation.  It is a purely mathematical piece, and has no text, with the patterns being varied in numerical order, always coming back to the beginning to represent Sarah’s infertility.  The result is always zero, an arid desert, until the angels sent by God appear and everything comes to a close. In the finale of the work, a melody arises spontaneously – a sort of lullaby for the newborn baby Isaac.

The composer marked the sketches for the piece with the name “Sarah” in his musical diaries. Since it was not possible to reveal its actual message during the Soviet era, Pärt gave his work a modest title, Modus (Latin for “way, method”). The composition was premiered at a semi-secret event at the Student Club of the Riga Polytechnic Institute in April 1976.

In the 1980s, after his emigration to Vienna, and later to Berlin, Pärt repeatedly re-worked the composition by changing the orchestration (now soprano, two tenors, percussion, and organ) and reinstated its original title, given in the English translation as Sarah Was 90 Years Old in the published scores.

Our experience with the piece as a listener can be a journey.  We are confronted with the repetitive drum patterns, then moved along our storyline by the tenors singing their repeating patterns, and finally reaching an ecstatic conclusion with the soprano.  At its conclusion, you’ll have a distinctly different kind of stamp in your musical passport.

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Two pieces from Poland are next, by one of my favorite composers, Paweł Łukaszewski, both on sacred texts.  The first, a simple “Alleluia”, the second, a Latin setting of the “Nunc dimittis” (Now you let depart).  According to the narrative in Luke 2:25-32, Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (for the ceremony of redemption of the firstborn son), Simeon was there. He took the baby into his arms and uttered the words:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The soloists, separate from the choir sing only the word “Domine”, Lord or Master.

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Our next stop in Norway brings sounds familiar to us here in Phoenix.  Ola Gjeilo was composer-in-residence with the Phoenix Chorale, and these pieces have become extremely popular with choirs around the globe.  We begin with his setting of “Ubi caritas.” This has become one of his most performed pieces, and while it is reminiscent of Maurice Durufle’s setting of the same text, this one draws on the inspiration of Gregorian chant, but is not based on any existing chants.  It is all freely composed.  The text translates as:

Where charity and love are, God is there.
The love of Christ has gathered us together.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Let us revere and love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love one another.

“Northern Lights” is a Latin setting of a text from the Song of Solomon, and was inspired by the ethereal aurora borealis phenomenon, or northern lights.  The text translates as:

Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and beautiful daughter of Jerusalem,
Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array,
Turn away thy eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.

The third and final work from Ola Gjeilo is a piece based on the final chorale in his “Sunrise Mass.”  The title, “The Ground,” comes from a sense of having arrived at the end of the Mass, reaching a place of peace and grounded strength after the long journey through the emotional landscapes of the Mass.  

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We return home to America to conclude our musical tour with what has become, after the 9/11 attacks, almost a national anthem in the United States.  Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” from his string quartet, Op. 11 (1936), uses the “Agnus Dei” or Lamb of God text in this setting.  This is Barber’s own arrangement, created for voices in 1967.  You will know that you are back in the United States by listening to the much more crunch dissonances.  While much of the Baltic area compositions use a soft and warm approach to dissonance, Barber’s is slightly more abrasive and familiar to us.

The text translates as:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

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May 3, 2023

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