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Thursday, Decemberber 6      7:30 PM
Christmas Through the Ages

Selections from Messiah………………….…………..…………………George F. Händel (1685 – 1759)

handel   George Friederich Händel spent much of his career in London as composer of Italian opera, but when the public taste for the genre sharply declined in the 1730s, he redirected his efforts to the oratorio. There are many structural similarities between opera and oratorio: both feature recitative, arias, ensemble numbers, choruses, and instrumental interludes. The oratorio, however, is pointedly not staged, and therefore significantly less expensive to produce, Händel composed 29 oratorios in his career, mostly on biblical themes. The libretto for Messiah (1742), one of his most popular oratorios, was compiled by literary scholar Charles Jennens, who drew from both the Old and New Testaments to form a narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The oratorio features three apparent sections, the first relating the season of advent as well as the events of the nativity. Unlike many of his oratorios, Händel’s Messiah does not so much tell a story but convey a series of biblical themes.

Messiah is also one of Händel’s only oratorio without a clear dramatic narrative; the soloists in the work provide commentary on the biblical events rather than participate as characters. Messiah was not immediately popular in London but, following a successful benefit performance of the work in 1750, was performed annually until Händel’s death in 1759. Since then, it has remained one of the best-known and widely performed works in Western musical culture. It is an extremely rare example of a major Baroque work with an unbroken performance tradition since the time of its composition. Indeed, most major cities perform the work, or portions of it, at least twice a year. The style of the piece was considered to be “ancient” even in Mozart’s time, though the emotional profundity of the grand choruses and intimate solo passages continues to affect audiences today.

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14………...……………Samuel Barber    (1910 – 1981)
Allegro

barber   Barber is often labeled a “Neo-Romantic;” many composers experimented with atonality and non-traditional timbres in the 1920s and again after World War II, but Barber instead remained committed to a mostly tonal language, using conventional formal models and expressive lyricism reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century. Barber’s style might be considered conservative, but still maintains an assertive, modern sensibility in its use of dissonance. His Op. 14 violin concerto represents this sensibility, conveying a Romantic lyricism, but not necessarily confined to nineteenth-century tonal language.

    The concerto was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in February 1941 by Albert Spalding, with Euguene Ormandy conducting. Critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote of the premiere: “The only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure.” Indeed, Barber composed in more tonal style perhaps viewed as passé by his contemporaries, but his beautiful, somehow familiar melodies remain sincere developed with superb construction. The work opens with a warm, soaring, lyrical theme, continues in a gentle dialogue between the soloist and orchestra. The harmonies are lush and reminiscent of the Romantic period, but rhythmic insistency and occasional jarring dissonance of the twentieth century. This is particularly true of the second theme, introduced by the clarinet, which is slightly more disjointed. The movement moves toward a grand Romantic climax toward the end, punctuated by dissonant clashes, but concludes quietly and serenely.

Fantasia on “Greensleeves”………...………………………….Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) arr. Ralph Greaves

    Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves represents the composer’s love of early English music and Folksong, a fascination that informs all of his later works.  Coming from an affluent family, he was able to musically mature relatively slowly while conducting research on the Tudor Era composers that so influenced his style.  Vaughan Williams used the Fantasia as atmospheric music for his 1924-28 opera Sir John in Love, which is based on William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Vaughan Williams used the popular sixteenth-century folk tune “The Ballad of My Lady Greensleeves,” which Shakespeare references in the play, and a folk song from Norfolk to create a musical backdrop for the Elizabethan setting.  In this context, Vaughan Williams was not consciously suggesting Christmas, but rather making a textual and historical reference.  In fact, “The Ballad of My Lady Greensleeves” was not set with the more familiar lyrics “What Child is This?” until the nineteenth century by William Chatterton Dix.  However, the composer’s ethereal scoring for strings flutes and harp, coupled with the gentle rocking motion of the tune, is perfectly befitting of the image of the nativity.

The Holly and The Ivy………………….……………………………………….arr. Chip Davis (1947 – )

Stille Nacht…………………………..…………………………………….…Franz Gruber (1787 – 1863)
arr. Chip Davis

Christmas Sweet……………………………………….…………………..…............….arr. Chip Davis

Wassail, Wassail
Carol of the Birds
I Saw Three Ships
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

   The group Mannheim Steamroller was formed in the 1970s by musician, composer, and entrepreneur Louis (Chip) Davis. The name comes from a technique employed by the Mannheim school of composition in the eighteenth century that employed a number of expressive nuances in their writing.  Notably was a crescendo that progressively added instruments, enriching the texture while growing in volume.  The effect was quite powerful that it could be equated with a steamroller, hence the name. Chip Davis’ settings of Christmas classics for Mannheim Steamroller are known for their interesting blend of acoustic and electronic sound.  His albums featuring Christmas music are particularly popular, selling over 20 million albums. The band’s 1984 album Mannheim Steamroller Christmas was their first recording to crack the Billboard charts, and remains one of the best-selling Christmas albums in the United States. This program features selections from that very successful album. Davis chose particularly lyrical Christmas melodies, setting them with attractive harmonies and countermelodies, and altering them with fun and unexpected rhythmic twists.

“A Canadian Brass Christmas”…...…….………………………….........….arr. Luther Henderson
adapted for orchestra by Calvin Custer

Ding Dong Merrily on High
I Saw Three Ships
The Huron Carol
Here We Come A-Wassailing

Bach   The Canadian Brass quintet was formed in the 1970s by friends Chuck Daellenbach and Gene Watts. Since then, the group has had one of the most successful performance careers of almost any chamber ensemble, emphasizing musical education and diversity in their repertory. Since the repertory for brass quintet was somewhat limited when the group was formed, the Canadian Brass has transcribed, arranged, and commissioned more than 200 works that remain standards for bands and orchestras throughout North America. These works include arrangements of Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical pieces, but also marches, jazz standards, broadway hits, and, of course, holiday favorites.

   The medley performed on this program features, buoyant, joyous Christmas melodies that immediately connote a brass ensemble. The piece opens with clock chimes, suggesting the dawn of Christmas morning, and sets a tone that is joyous but stately for “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” The piece later transitions into a bouncier 6/8 time for “I Saw Three Ships.” This contrasts the more serene “Huron Carol,” a song of Canadian origin. The medley moves back into a jubilant 6/8 for the concluding “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”


Written and compiled by M.K. Ables

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