Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest blog by Chicago a cappella's Jonathan Miller

I am thrilled to have a guest blogger today-- Jonathan Miller, the founder and artistic director of the innovative nine-voice professional choir Chicago a cappella. They're performing an exciting program of spirituals in four performances over the next two weeekends, including the premiere of a commission by Chanticleer founder Joseph Jennings, who will be in town. Oh, yes, there's a piece of mine on the program too, by the way.

One of the things I like about Jonathan and Chicago a cappella is that the spiritual tradition has always been a big part of their repertoire and mission. In a day when many choirs are underprogramming this genre (perhaps a reaction to when it has at times been programmed in boring, predictable ways) Jonathan has kept it alive in very creative ways. CAC has performed the truly great standard spiritual arrangements but also seeks to present new ones by a number of excellent composer/arrangers.

Here is a short version of Jonathan's impressive bio and then I'll let him take it away as he speaks about the Jennings commission and also his own commissioned piece which will be premiered this weekend as well.

Since founding Chicago a cappella in 1993, Jonathan Miller has guided the ensemble through more than 130 concerts, seven commercial CD releases, and thirty choral-music demo CDs. His international accolades include the 2008 Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal from Chorus America. He was a founding member of His Majestie’s Clerkes (now Bella Voce). Eager to learn research tools for repertoire, Jonathan pursued musicology, earning his doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since returning to the Chicago area, Jonathan has expanded his role as a conductor and composer. He has written more than fifty choral works; his music has been sung at venues including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Pentagon. He conducted his piece The Lincoln Memorial at the Lincoln Memorial on the 200th anniversary weekend of Lincoln’s birth. Since 1998, Jonathan has taken a growing leadership role in Chicago-area Jewish music. He holds as a great honor his role as publisher of the late Max Janowski’s catalogue. Jonathan enjoys the blessings of family and neighbors in the woods of Downers Grove, where he loves helping to maintain two shared vegetable gardens.

JM: This weekend (Feb. 3-4) marks the first pair of 4 performances of “Wade in the Water,” a concert of spirituals by Chicago a cappella. On the concert are two premieres: a new setting commissioned from Joseph Jennings, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and a newly commissioned two-movement piece by yours truly called “Old Testament Spirituals.”

I have known Joe Jennings for more than twenty years. I was tempted to sing for Chanticleer in 1990, when I was just starting to dig in on my dissertation in musicology at UNC-Chapel Hill. I did not end up joining the ensemble, partly because I knew that joining the ensemble would mean I would never finish grad school. By the time my dissertation was done I was already back in the Midwest, and the birth of Chicago a cappella came not long after that. However, Joe and I have remained connected and friendly over the years, partly because CAC has championed his music literally from our very first concert. That show featured his “Steal Away,” which we eventually recorded on our “Go Down, Moses” album from the year 2000. We have regularly performed his two spiritual medleys, which always bring down the house. This year, it has been a thrill to actually commission a piece from Joe, one that is perfectly tailored to our voices and sound.

(Joseph Jennings)

Along with the new piece by Joe Jennings, we will also do his wonderful setting of “Way over in Beulah-Lan’,” which appears in the recent collection of spirituals for mixed voices from Oxford. The two pieces couldn’t be more different. “Nobody Knows” is slow, brooding, moaning, and has much alternation between “choirs” of men’s and women’s voices. The piece, as you might expect, has a total of nine voice parts, to fit our ensemble. There is also a glorious solo baritone line in the last chorus, over which a three-part women’s quasi-gospel chord line cascades in reply to the word “nobody.” The tempo ranges from quite slow to extremely slow; if you’ve ever sung at a quarter note = 33, you know it takes a great deal of breath control and emotional intensity to sustain a line at that tempo. By contrast, “Beulah-Lan’” is very fast, excited and exciting, and full of hope for a better life to come. The chords are likewise thickly layered, although more of the singing in “Beulah-Lan’” is in block chords for the whole group.

For my “Old Testament Spirituals” commission, I chose spirituals about characters of the Old Testament: King David, Daniel, Moses, and Joshua. The cycle is in two movements. The first, short movement is “Little David, Play On Your Harp,” which uses a pentatonic scale throughout – even all the chords use only the same five pitches that are in the melody! The much longer second movement – about six and a half minutes – is a layered combination of three tunes: “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”; “Go Down, Moses”; and “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho.” This piece uses a layering technique that I learned from the great Gunnar Eriksson (who works in Sweden). The layering owed much to the structural similarities of the three melodies. All three tunes—“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Go “Down, Moses,” and “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho”—are often sung in the key of D minor. (This is sort of funny to me, because D minor is also a key often found in Jewish folksong, and these are Jewish characters in the songs.) The spirituals are usually associated with definite harmonies; the more I looked at them, the more it seemed in particular that the refrains to “Daniel” and “Joshua,” although they tell different stories, are in truth almost the same melody! As the action intensified, I threw in a reference to blowing the shofar at the end, just as the tenor soloist sings of Daniel commanding the “ram’ lam’ sheep-horns” to blow. It is one of my very best pieces, with an atmospheric, slow beginning and an powerful, driving energy at the end; in that sense it’s a nice kind of mirror for the energy of the two Jennings pieces.

Look forward to seeing you at the concerts!

-- Jonathan Miller

Chicago a cappella's performances will be at the following Chicago area venues on dates listed- for more detailed information visit this page of their excellent website

Chicago: Friday, February 3 (8 pm)
Naperville: Saturday, February 4 (8 pm)
Evanston: Saturday, February 11 (8 pm)
Oak Park: Sunday, February 12 (4 pm)


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