Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas in Norway with the St. Olaf Choir

Wow! Three of my favorite things in one headline: Christmas, Norway, and the St. Olaf Choir.

Who doesn’t love Christmas?

About half of my DNA came from Norwegian ancestry and I’m a little bit of a genealogy buff.  A visit to Norway is one of the items on my bucket list.

I first wrote about my affinity for the St. Olaf Choir on this blog five years ago and you can read that entry here: http://smljax.blogspot.com/2009/02/americas-finest-choir-coming-february.html. My bucket list also includes hearing the St. Olaf Christmas concert in person someday.


In 1913 the collegiate choir made its first trip to Norway under the direction of F. Melius Christiansen, its founder and director.  One hundred years later, in 2013, the choir returned under the direction of Anton Armstrong.  Part of the tour included recording a Christmas concert at Nidaros Cathedral which was built in 1070.  This concert also included songs by the Nidarosdomens Jentekor (Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir).  At the end of this post I’ll tell you how you can get a copy of this exquisite performance.

First, I thought I’d give a few highlights from the concert.

Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain (Carolyn Jennings b. 1936)
I never watch a concert without paper and pen nearby so I can write down new pieces that catch my ear. This was the first one I wrote down.  The text comes from Isaiah 40 and is closely associated with Advent.  The pure singing of the choir of girls and the gentle melody as it’s passed back and forth between the vocal sections combine to create a soothing rendering of the ancient prophet’s voice.  Before Epiphany 2013, I had discovered the piece in our own library at St. Mark’s! So we sang it as the musical offering in a service of Advent lessons and carols. We liked it so well; we’re singing it again for Christmas Eve.

O Come, All Ye Faithful
A distant angel choir, handbells, and a mighty organ – what a fantastic way to set up a congregational singing of THE Christmas Eve hymn.  You won’t be able to resist singing (or at least humming along) any more than Kevin Kline was able to resist dancing to “I Will Survive” in the movie “In & Out.”

The Glory of the Father (Egil Hovland 1924-2013)
Hovland was a Norwegian composer who wrote in a variety of styles.  Starting with open fifths and a text that is chanted more that it’s sung, the beginning is reminiscent of mysterious plainsong from a distant monastery.  This gives way to a choral motet that brings the sounds of a cathedral choir to mind.  The St. Olaf Choir performance is flawless.  Our own Festival Choir sang this piece for Christmas Eve last year. 


Night of Silence (Daniel Kantor b. 1960)
Kantor’s original arrangement is a much-loved standard by many church choirs.  It opens with a contemporary sounding melody and a text that speaks to people who seek comfort:
Cold are the people, winter of life,
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night.
Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping,
Flowers that will echo the sunrise.
Fire of hope is our only warmth;
Weary, its flame will be dying soon.
As a surprise, this melody is then paired with “Silent Night” in way that almost seems magical.  John Fergusons arrangement adds some choral harmonies and a warm lushness that is very satisfying.

Jeg er så glad hver julekveld (Peder Knudsen 1819-1863)
This is THE Norwegian hymn for Christmas Eve.  Our own Pastor Hanson has told of singing the opening stanza as a solo (in Norwegian!) when he was a young boy.  This performance includes interludes on a Hardanger fiddle that give it a folk-song whimsy.  This year, our Festival Choir will be singing Paul Christiansen’s arrangement of the tune.

Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming/The Rose (arr. Craig Hella Johnson)
This piece confuses me.  The pop song made popular by Bette Midler is paired with the hymn “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming.”  The two songs work together okay, especially in this arrangement and with gorgeous singing – but they work musically.  For me, the texts make no sense together.  I kept waiting for some textual epiphany, but it never came for me.  I have no doubt that there are people who will love this and will find it profound musically and textually.

O Day Full of Grace (arr. F. Melius Christiansen)
F. Melius lays it on thick here and in a very satisfying way.  The classic hymn is sung slowly so that harmonies unfold in all of their lush glory before the choir breaks forth in joyous singing. I keep thinking it’s time to introduce this hymn to St. Mark’s. It is No. 627 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.


 This Christmas CD was an early Christmas present to and from myself. I’ve already listened to it several times. Get your own copy at this link: http://www.stolafrecords.com/store/pc/viewPrd.asp?idproduct=231

The concert will be aired on our local public television station on Friday, December 19th, at 10:00 p.m.  Watch it then, or get it on your DVR.  I recommend the DVR because I watched the full concert at least four times last year!  Here is a link to WJCT’s schedule page.  Put in the date and time for a full description of the concert. http://www.wjct.org/tv-schedule/


Happy listening!



Top photo: The 2014-2015 choir from the college web site
Middle photo: Nidaros Cathedral from Wikipedia
Bottom photo: The CD cover

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Making the Cut

“You Lutherans,” my non-Lutheran friend opined, “just have to sing every stanza of every hymn.”  He paused for emphasis, then added, “Two stanzas is enough!”

I groaned because he and I have had this discussion before.  I asked him, “What if you only got to watch the first 45 minutes of ‘Frozen?’”

Is there a rule that Lutherans have to sing every stanza of every hymn?  Of course, not.

So why do we do it?

Hymns are usually poems before melodies are added to make them hymns.  That means they are fully formed literary works with a beginning, middle, and ending.  Some hymns tell a story so it seems pretty obvious why an assembly would sing all the stanzas. Imagine singing “The First Noel” and not including the stanza that speaks of the wise men entering the home where Jesus was with his mother, Mary.  Worse, leave out the stanza about the star.  That’s an important part of the story!

Other hymns speak of theology.

Several years ago I attended the Lutheran Church where my grandmother was confirmed.  I arrived early and was thrilled to find what looked like a lovely, well-maintained pipe organ.  I eagerly waited to hear that organ. . .and I waited awhile.  Mostly we sang praise choruses from the 70’s and 80’s to piano accompaniment.  (The piano playing was wonderful, but I still wanted to hear the organ my grandmother would have heard the day she was confirmed.)  Finally, the pianist moved to the organ for the final hymn. It was a tune I didn’t know (bonus!) and it was a Trinitarian hymn with three stanzas – one for each person of the Trinity.

The Pastor announced we would only sing the first stanza!

I was shocked that he would have us only sing the stanza addressing the first person of the Trinity and not the other two.  I can’t imagine the hymn writer would have been happy either. Plus, I didn’t get much of a chance to hear that organ!




Hymns are chosen for a particular Sunday because of how they relate to the readings and themes of the day.  Sometimes that connection isn’t clear until the middle of the fourth stanza.  (Please don’t suggest we only sing the first and fourth stanzas – I have been in churches where that is done.)  Hymns are never chosen to be place markers, something to do between readings or as a break within spoken parts of the service.

Will cutting stanzas save time?  Not really.  It’s a rare hymn stanza that takes more than 45 seconds to sing.

There are times when stanzas can be cut.  It might be wise to do so if several hymns are sung in the course of one service.  Last Sunday we had Advent Lessons and Carols with TEN hymns to sing!  I felt completely safe cutting several stanzas of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

ELW 342, "There in God's Garden," had 14 stanzas in its original incarnation.  When K. Lee Scott wrote a new melody, he cut this beautiful passion hymn down to 6 stanzas.  Imagine doing a choral arrangement with 14 stanzas and trying not to be repetitious!


St. Mark’s has an excellent repertoire of hymnody.  There are not many hymns that we sing over and over again.  When we only sing a hymn once per year, it’s hard to think about cutting stanzas. 



So, if you ever find yourself thinking a hymn is too long, take a look at it outside of the service.  Read the WHOLE thing.  Take your church bulletin home and read the Prayer of the Day and all of the readings for that day.  Then try to decide which stanzas should be cut.



First Photo (from top): Scissors - thanks to Wikipedia!
Second Photo: my grandmother
Third Photo: Russian icon (1480-1425) 
Fourth Photo: El Greco's "Jesus Carrying the Cross" 1580


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Zimbelsterns and Bagpipes Are Alike

Have you ever heard the singing of angels?

I haven’t, but there is an account of angelic singing in the sixth chapter of Isaiah. The prophet tells of six-winged seraphs flying over the throne of God as they sing, ”Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 

We sing the same song every Sunday! 


Sometimes a tinkling sound like delicate wind chimes accompanies the organ and the assembly singing. That is the zimbelstern. 

A zimbelstern is a wheel (sometimes intricately carved to look like a star) that has several small bells attached to it.  When engaged by the organist, the wheel rotates and the bells strike a rod producing a delicate, tinkling sound. It’s a common practice to play the zimbelstern when the assembly sings the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) to remind us that we are singing with angels. Zimbelsterns first began to appear in pipe organs during the 1500’s.  After 1700, they began to appear with bells tuned to specific pitches.



In addition to the Sanctus, I like to play the zimbelstern when the text brings images of water – particularly moving water, as in, “Wash, O God, our sons and daughters, where your cleansing waters flow.” (Ruth Duck, ELW 445)

A Facebook post recently suggested that it is a “Lutheran tradition” to play the zimbelstern during hymn stanzas that address or speak of the Trinity.  That’s why we heard it this past Christ the King Sunday during the singing of “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.”
“To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
the God whom heav’n and earth adore,
from us and from the angel host
be praise and glory evermore.” (William Kethe d. c. 1594, ELW 883)

The zimbelstern almost always makes an appearance for “Silent Night, Holy Night” - an aural representation of twinkling stars in the sky over Bethlehem. 


video


We have one member at St. Mark’s who is so enchanted by the zimblestern that he can barely contain his delight every time it is played.  He is so moved by the instrument that I recently told him if I am around to play for his funeral, the prelude will be a 30-minute zimbelstern solo.  He didn’t seem to think that was a terrible idea!

It’s not something I use every Sunday, but the zimblestern highlights the texts of our hymns and adds beauty to worship.  Less is more with zimbelsterns.  Played too much, they become tiresomely mundane.


Just like bagpipes.

Top photo: "God Surrounded by Seraphim" from "The Petite Heures of Jean de France" early 1400's via Wikipedia
Middle photo: one example of a modern zimbelstern
Video: the zimbelstern at St. Mark's with "Silent Night."  


Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Church Choir Triumphant



All Saints Sunday invites us to recall the impact other Christians have had on our lives.  This year, I’m thinking particularly about choir members from various churches that I have served.  Perhaps it’s just a sign of my own advancing age (51 this year!), but it seems like I know more and more people who have joined the church triumphant.

Jim joined the choir at Faith United Methodist because his wife, who sang alto, asked him to.  He was a gifted musician who taught band and orchestra in the Duval County School system.  I was a little intimidated when he joined my choir.  I’m certain I must have said and done things that made him cringe, but he never once rolled his eyes or tried to correct me.  Years later his wife confessed to me that some Wednesday evenings she would suggest they take a “night off” from choir practice, but he always told her they had made a commitment and needed to honor it.  When Jim died, the choir sang Andrew Carter’s “God Be in My Head” as the casket was taken out of the church.  For those who don’t know this beautiful prayer from the historic Sarum prayer book:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and in my departing.

Anne sang in the choir at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  She was always faithful in her attendance – and not only in the choir. She was one of those saints that everybody looked to for guidance and her non-anxious presence.  Her house was near mine, and I rarely pass it without thinking of her.



Viki was on the committee that hired me for my current post.  The first day I came into the office, there was a card from her on my desk that started “Welcome back to the Lutheran church. . .” After I was hired, her job wasn’t done.  She was always checking in with me to see how things were going and making sure I had adequate resources.  She gave St. Mark’s so many gifts and they are still around me today.

There have been many other faithful choir members I have been fortunate to work with over the years.  To all of you, living and deceased, thank you for your hard work and support.  I know I haven’t always been easy to work with. Thank you for sticking with me through the easy and the difficult times, through the right notes and the real clunkers, the good direction and missed cues, the anthems that went really well and the ones that nearly fell apart.

This list is my no means exhaustive, but some of those who have joined the church choir triumphant are:
Moose (All Saints Protestant Chapel at NAS Jax)
Shirley (All Saints)
Bev (All Saints)
Mark (All Saints)
Jim (Faith UMC)
Marty (Faith)
Judy (Faith)
Betty (Faith)

Mae (Faith)
Tom (Faith)
Reba (St. Luke’s Episcopal)
Anne (St. Luke’s)
Betty (St. Luke’s)
Viki (St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church)


I don’t know specifically what happens after we die (this post is about gratitude, not theology), but I believe that one day our voices will be joined together again.  This Sunday, as the assembly at St. Mark’s says, “I believe. . .in the resurrection of the dead,” it is many of you who will come to my mind.
Photos
Top: The choir at St. Luke's Episcopal Church with Father Ken Roach (ca. 2003)
Middle: The choir of Fort Caroline Presbyterian Church at an anthem festival at Palms Presbyterian Church (ca.1988)
Bottom: The choir of Faith United Methodist Church prepares for "An Old Fashioned Christmas" (ca. 1998)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Meine Seel erhebt den Herren" Bach Vespers 2014

Our cantata this year is “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren,” BWV No. 10. Written for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is a setting of the Magnificat that will be perfect for ushering us into Advent in the following week. The orchestra will be comprised of professional instrumentalists and this work will be sung within the context of the Lutheran Vespers service, also called Evening Prayer.

Bach Vespers has been a part of St. Mark’s worship life since 1990 when the first cantata was sung under the direction of Jim Rindelaub who was St. Mark's Cantor 1985 - 1999.  We are happy to carry on this great tradition of presenting music by one of the Lutheran Church's best-loved composers in a worship service.

Financial support from St. Mark’s members has always been an important piece of this ministry.  Music must be purchased and instrumentalists and soloists must be hired to supplement volunteer singers and members of the Festival Choir.  Your generous contributions are very much appreciated.  Gifts may be given as memorials.

Do you know someone who would like to sing with us?  Please give them a copy of this article so they will have the rehearsal schedule and will know how to contact me.

The rehearsal and service schedule follows:


Saturday Nov.1, 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Saturday Nov. 8, 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Saturday Nov. 15, 10 :00 AM - 12:00 PM
Saturday Nov. 22, 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM (This is our dress rehearsal with the orchestra.)
The service is on Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 6:00 PM.
Please send an email message to vespers@comcast.net to receive a registration form.  

The photo is "Visitation," from an altarpiece by Jacques Daret circa 1435. Via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Across the Channel: Passions Baroque to Romantic Saturday, July 26th at 7:30 PM

Tess Mattingly will be in concert at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 26th, at 7:30 p.m. The concert, “Across the Channel: Musical Passions Baroque to Romantic,” will include works by Handel, Scarlatti, Debussy, Liszt, and Britten.  Miss Mattingly is a Jacksonville native who is equally at home singing opera, art song, and sacred music.  She has performed throughout the United States and in western Europe. Recent honors include the Coeur d’Alene Symphony Orchestra and Voices of Music Young Artist awards, and an invitation to sing at the Froville Baroque Festival in Froville, France.

To hear (and see) a recording of her artistic singing, type the following into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO4n219LoEY

Dick Kerekes of eujacksonville.com says that with “. . .great stage presence and a beautiful voice, she will blow you away with her talent.”

Collaborative performers are Edie Hubert (piano) and Peter Florek (trumpet).  




Ms. Hubert currently teaches at Jacksonville University.She is also no stranger to St. Mark’s since she has played with the orchestra for past Bach Vespers services and also appeared with the San Marco Chamber Music Society. 




Paul Florek, trumpet, will also be a part of the concert.  He made his symphonic solo debut at the age of 15 and has gone on to perform with numerous ensembles such as the Elmhurst Symphony, Chesterfield Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Texas Camerata, and the Lincoln Chamber Orchestra.
Besides being an active international performer, Mr. Florek is currently a Doctoral Fellow at the University of North Texas where he maintains a full undergraduate teaching load.


You will not want to miss this elegant evening of music.  There is no admission.  An offering will benefit St. Mark’s Bach Vespers program.

Bach Vespers has a twenty year history at St. Mark's and this cantata is being sung as part of the church's 75th anniversary year celebration.  The first cantata was sung under the direction of Jim Rindelaub who was St. Mark's Cantor 1985 - 1999.  We are happy to carry on this great tradition of presenting music by one of the Lutheran Church's best-loved composers within the context of Lutheran worship.

top photo: Miss Mattingly
middle photo: Miss Hubert
bottom photo: Mr. Florek


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Do They Wear That?

Each Sunday the choir follows the cross into the nave during the gathering hymn.  Dressed alike and striving to keep an equal distance between each pair of singers, they lead the singing and encourage our full participation in the liturgy.

“Dressed alike. . .” Have you ever wondered why?

There are many reasons that choirs wear robes, but in a church setting, the primary reason for doing so is to show that one has particular duties in the worship setting.  The alb (a white robe that is nearly floor length) is the most basic of the liturgical vestments and is worn by acolytes, lectors, assisting ministers, and clergy.  For our choir, we have added one more garment – the scapular.


Scapulars (from the latin word for “shoulders”) are worn over the shoulders and drop fairly close to the ground.  They are different from stoles which remind us of yokes as in Jesus’ saying, “Take my yoke upon you. . .”  It is believed that the first scapulars were practical garments, aprons really, that protected a monk’s robe while he did the work of gardening, food preparation, or whatever else needed to be done that day.


Our scapulars today are a little fancier with their liturgical colors and embroidered crosses, but they still remind us that we come to the house of God to do the work of musically leading the assembly in worship.  They remind us of the work that we’ve done in rehearsing the liturgy, psalm, hymns, and musical offering.  They remind us that, as choir members, we have a unique “job” in worship.


Any choir member will tell you that he or she serves joyfully, but the next time you see one wearing the scapular, be reminded that it takes work and commitment to serve as a chorister. Then say a prayer of thanksgiving for that person’s service and for all who work in the music ministry of St. Mark’s.

Top photo:  Modern monks wearing their scapulars.
Bottom photo: Scapular-bedecked and with hymnal in hand, members of the Festival Choir prepare to serve.