Pax Christi Chorale is putting the finishing touches on our Spring concert “Passion and Peace” coming up on April 26 in Kitchener and April 27 in Toronto. We’re performing Jean Langlais’ Missa Salve Regina, Faure’s Messe Basse and Randall Thompson’s Peaceable KIngdom. Here’s a short interview with Susan Mahoney about the repertoire.
Q – All of the music in this concert was composed in the 20th century. Why did you want to move away from the Bach-Mozart-Handel canon?
There’s room on the dance floor for everyone. Not every choir will take musical chances like Pax Christi does. That’s why I love this choir! One of the pieces is from the current century – that’s my own piece “Now the Queen of Seasons.”
Q – Why did you decide to invite a brass quintet to perform with the choir in this concert?
The brass was the first piece of the programming puzzle. They are an important part of the texture for the Langlais “Missa Salve Regina,”a work I have wanted to perform for a very long time after hearing a recording by Westminster Cathedral choir. I also heard it live in Paris, and I’m so glad we can give it a go in Toronto. True North Brass are the best brass group in town and they add a wonderful depth to our sound. They will also perform on their own, and we can learn from their musicianship and professionalism.
Q – Randall Thompson is not all that well-known as a composer; how would you describe his style?
Thompson is better known for small scale choral works, like his popular “Alleluia”, which is in the repertoire of many smaller choirs. He writes perfectly for the choral voice, and sets the text so effectively. His harmonic and textural language owes a lot to the Russian school, and you will probably hear some Rachmaninoff in his writing, as well as a fair dose of Vaughan Williams.
Q – Because “The Peaceable Kingdom” is a cappella — there is no instrumental accompaniment — it can be difficult to stay in tune. Pax Christi is a community choir made up of enthusiastic amateurs; what gave you the confidence to go ahead with this piece? (there’s nowhere to hide!)
Musicians must always be honing their craft, and it was time for Pax to step up and sing a big a cappella work. It would be nice one day to sing the Rachmaninoff “Vespers”. This is a first step, and much more accessible since it’s in our own language.
Q – Why did you choose the “Messe Basse” by Gabriel Fauré?
It seemed the right balance with Langlais, which is so angular in contrast to Fauré’s gentle style. Faure and Langlais were both organist/composers in Paris. Langlais was the organist at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. One of his famous pupils was Marie Bernadette Dufourcet-Hakim, with whom Bruce and I studied for two weeks in Paris many years ago. Langlais wrote a great deal of organ music, despite being blind from an early age.
Q – You said in a previous interview that your composition, “Now the Queen of Seasons”, was a happy piece — you felt you had done enough composing of sad pieces for the time being. What has made you feel this?
When I worked at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, there was always lots of scope for introspective, reverent music. The liturgy calls for that. But Easter Day is an ecstatic celebration of life, so it needs joyful music.
Q – The choir has been working on a video of “Now the Queen..” Why was this an important project for Pax Christi?
Visual media on the internet is now a very important way of disseminating our work to a wider audience, so we wanted to put this out there into the ether. Also, I wanted to capture Pax as we are now. The choir looks and sounds great, and none of us are getting any younger.We’ll be able to look at this video decades down the road and be proud of what we did in 2014.
Susan also interviewed Dan Norman, our assistant conductor who will be conducting Faure’s Messe Basse.
Q and A with Assistant Conductor, Daniel Norman
Q – What can you tell us about Gabriel Fauré’s choral music, and why this particular piece was chosen for the Pax Christi women to sing?
Fauré’s long sweeping phrases and well-crafted melodies are littered throughout all of his vocal repertoire. This piece was chosen because it compliments the Langlais piece so well; it’s a tenor-bass mass setting with brass, versus the soprano-alto setting with a soft organ accompaniment.
Q – As assistant conductor, you are a bit of a “jack-of-all-trades” – conducting some pieces in rehearsal and at the concert, filling in for Stephanie if she has to be away for any reason, and singing yourself in big works like “The Peaceable Kingdom”. What’s it like to wear so many different hats?
The need to do a lot of different things simply goes with the territory. I don’t really notice the changes between conducting, singing, or other administrative work, as they all have the same aim; contributing to a strong and healthy performance and musical growth within the group.
You have been with Pax Christi for three years now; what’s your perspective on the choir, and its evolution?
I’ve watched the choir take on many challenging and large scale works over these past years, and I’ve watched lots of changes in the makeup of the choir. Through it all, I’ve witnessed a group with a strong work ethic, and a great sound, that above all, loves to have fun together!
More on Randall Thompson and “The Peaceable Kingdom”, excerpted from notes by the late conductor and musicologist, Elliot Forbes
In 1935, Randall Thompson was commissioned to write a work for the combined Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. That summer, the Worcester Art Museum had acquired a version of The Peaceable Kingdom by the American primitive painter Edward Hicks.
Thompson went to view the painting and became aglow not only with what he saw but also with the biblical passage portrayed (Isaiah, 11:6-9), which ends: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Like Hicks, Thompson was drawn to the theme that the wicked will be destroyed and the good will go to heaven. Thompson next read all 60 chapters of Isaiah and copied out passages that appealed especially. Thompson’s dream of composing a cycle based on sacred texts was realized for the first time.