Just this last week I joined the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir in two performances of the B minor Mass by J.S. Bach under the astounding direction of Ton Koopman. I am ashamed to say that this all took place on the island group of Gran Canaria. I am not proud of joining the international fleet of musicians who hop from here to there to "do their thing," and yet this seemed to important and great an opportunity to miss.
Let's be real. Ton Koopman is a legend. At 78, he is still conducting with the energy of a 20 year old. On the day of the concert, he easily gives a lecture at a local university before rehearsing and finally conducting the concert. He is well organized, having written out a plan before rehearsing so that no musicians have to wait or tire themselves out with too much playing or singing. The music making in the concert is intense. There is no boring Bach. There is an intensity and energy needed which finally adheres to what Donington writes about in his book Performing Baroque Music, and that is that nothing in the baroque was small and weak. It is big and profound. The voices were well trained and were meant to carry.
When singing with Koopman, which I have experienced for two productions now, the intensity expected of the choir and orchestra is so great, that even I have to be careful of my voice. The risk is that sheer will to elevate the music to the level that Ton wants will easily surpass the physical ability of the vocal chords.
My colleagues are the best of the best. Young and old, everyone is a highly trained expert in their distinctive fields. Especially my colleague altos Iris Bouman, Sofia Eisen, whom I stood next to, were an inspiration.
I'm inspired and informed at a much higher level than before I left for Gran Canaria to conduct this piece in three weeks.
Premiere: June 10th 2023 in the Hartebrugkerk. Written for the Leiden English Choir in collaboration with the City of Oxford Choir, the Astrolabium Chamber Choir, organist Kirstin Gramlich, and cellist Willemijn Knödler.
In short the set-up of the piece is small soprano ensemble (6 sopranos) situated behind the large choir (choir 1) which sings primarily with the organ and smaller choir 2 opposite of choir 1. The cello has a very expressive role and accompanies both soprano choir and choir 1. This large choir, here sung by the Leiden English Choir and Astrolabium, represents humanity as a whole with all of it's messes, hopes, cyclical behaviour, business as usual, and power. The intervals of the 3rd and tritone are represented as an impure contrast with the "pure" data of the soprano choir. These “human” intervals are symbolic of several societal ideas. The interval of the third represents the Holy Trinity and thus Christian dominance. In certain circumstances it can be pure and majestic, for instance in the manifestation of a major chord, here represented at it’s greatest on the word Joy. At other times it is tonally impure and causes, in conjunction with the tritone, for example, harsh dissonance. The tritone is the interval which perfectly divides the octave. It is the most dissonant interval in Western tonal music. I use this to represent how perfectly divided our society is at the moment. While the data is clear that climate change is caused by human activity and fossil fuel consumption, most of society either refuses to believe it, or refuses to act on this knowledge. However, the 4th and 5th are the basis for this choir as well, as intentions are sometimes pure, even within the dissonance that we grapple with when it comes to climate change. We are, in fact, all victims and perpetrators alike.
The small soprano choir's function is to sing the data retrieved from the observatory on Moana Loa, which has been used since 1958 to gather data on atmospheric concentrations. The soprano choir uses pure intervals of the 4th and 5th stemming from A 440, and occasionally incorporate the interval of the major and minor second under insistence of the scientists. When I first started the piece I originally named those soprano parts the “angels of Moana Loa.” There is a set number of 6 sopranos which is a loose symbol for the 6 winged seraph Isaiah. However, in the final version I chose to drop those Christian religious connotations. The sopranos singing the Moana Loa data should sound like deities that are coaxed to life by the scientists who act in the same manner as man has for centuries. I.e., regarding profound manifestations in nature, such as the volcano Moana Loa, as God-like and therefore searching for profound wisdom within.
Choir 2 represents the scientists who extract and interpret the data. Their role is to seek out the pure data, but are definitely emotionally impacted by their findings. They are somewhat ritualistic in their search for data from Moana Loa. The become increasingly disturbed throughout, ending in monotony in repetitive despair. Their intervals are those of the 4th, 5th, and 1/2 step.
The text used for this piece, aside from the repetitious outbursts of “Moana Loa” and the data findings, comes from 8 lines from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. Written in 1803, this long poem puts into words the great contrasts inherent in humanity. It’s entirety can be read here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence
The lines used in my composition are:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine