Holyoke for the Holidays Program Notes

Program Notes
by Jane Rausch

As the familiar song observes, “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” and this afternoon the Holyoke Civic Symphony invites its audience to stay close to home and celebrate “Holyoke for the Holydays.” This special concert blends new and old holiday favorites, some of which have a distinctly local connection.

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FRANCIS JEAN MARCEL POULENC was a French composer and virtuoso pianist whose compositions include solo piano works, chamber music, choral pieces, operas, ballets, and orchestral concert music. As the only son of a prosperous manufacturer, he was expected to follow his father into the family firm and was not allowed to enroll at a music college. Largely self-educated musically, Poulenc studied with the pianist Ricardo Viñes who became his mentor after the composer’s parents died. He also made the acquaintance of Erik Satie under whose tutelage he became one of a group of young composers referred to collectively as Les Six. In his early works, Poulenc was known for his high spirits and irreverence. Among the first composers to see the importance of the gramophone, he recorded extensively from 1928 onwards.

After the sudden death in 1936 of his good friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Poulenc embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Back Virgin at Rocamadour, France, where he experienced a renewal of his suspended Catholicism. Princess Edmond de Polignac (a.k.a. Winaretta Singer), heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and a patron of the arts with considerable wealth, had already commissioned the Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani in 1934. Poulenc worked on it for two years, and while the composition is secular, he considered it the first of his faith-inspired works. The work was premiered at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on June 21, 1939 with Maurice Duruflé as the soloist and Roger D’esormièr conducting.

The Organ Concerto was Poulenc’s first foray into writing for the organ, and in preparation he studied the masters of the past – Bach and Buxtehude – and enlisted the help of the accomplished organist Maurice Duruflé with registration and voicing.

The work is in one continuous movement but divided into seven clearly separated sections. The opening measures sound for all the world like a fantasy by Johann Sebastian Bach. A somewhat intense dialogue unfolds between the organ and the orchestra, eventually making way for an Allegro giocoso section where Bach begins to recede into the distance and a half-playful, half-agitated theme emerges in the strings. An extended, lyrical Andante follows that eventually ends with a huge crescendo leading into the third section – a varied recapitulation of the first Allegro that is more dramatic and less playful than the original. After a second Andante episode, the fast tempo resumes in a more lighthearted vein, yet the concerto is not allowed to end this way. Instead, Poulenc brings back the initial Bach-fantasy motif, and appends to it a melancholy theme in which the organ is joined by a solo viola and a solo cello. The final measures are startling in the stark simplicity and the abruptness with the arrival of the concluding unison G.

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The CANADIAN BRASS is a brass quintet founded in 1970 consisting of two trumpets, trombone, French horn and tuba. Now in its fifth decade the group members (known for their unique performance attire of formal black suits with white running shoes) has played in concert halls all over the world. They have commissioned, performed, and recorded hundreds of transcriptions and original works for brass quintet. A Canadian Brass Christmas, as arranged and adapted here for orchestra by LUTHER HENDERSON, is a medley of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “I saw Three Ships,” The Huron Carol,” and “Here We come A-Wassailing” – four of the quintet’s favorites woven into a unique holiday tapestry.

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JUDITH MARGARET BAILEY is an English clarinetist, composer, and conductor. She was born in Camborne, Cornwall, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1959 to 1963. Since 1971 she has been working as a composer and conductor. She conducted the Southampton (U.K.) Concert Orchestra and the Petersfield Orchestra for almost 30 years before returning to her native Cornwall around 2001 where she has been conducting the Cornwall Chamber Orchestra and the Penzance Orchestral Society. In 2001 she was honored as an “Associate of the Royal Academy of Music” for her contributions to music in Cornwall.

Noel is a Christmas fantasia scored for full orchestra and based on four well-known English carols: “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Past Three o’clock,” “In Dulci Jubilo,” and “Sussex Carol.”

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MAK’HELA, whose name means “chorus” in Hebrew, is a Jewish choral group dedicated to performing works from all facets of the Jewish world. Founded in 2003, the chorus has performed in many New England venues, and in 2010 participated in the Zimriya international choral festival in Israel. An integral part of Mak’hela’s mandate is to break down the artificial barriers among the Jewish and secular communities and differences within Jewish communities. The chorus plays an educational role in promoting Jewish music of all types and eras, as well as Jewish values, by building sacred bridges to understanding and respect, using the most universal of languages: music.

For sixteen years Mak’hela has inspired hundreds of people with its affirmative, inclusive idea of Jewish culture and has demonstrated its ability to connect, nourish and educate its members and the community at large through choral music. The group is open to all singers regardless of musical expertise or cultural background. It is led by Musical Director ELAINE BROAD GINSBERG and is accompanied on piano by Rafael Tacaki.

For our concert today, Mak’hela will perform alone, “Festival of Light,” by Dr. Ginsberg and “Al Hanissim” by Dov Frimer, as arranged by Joshua Jacobson and Hankus Netsky.

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Guitarist, composer, and singer-songwriter JONAH DRATFIELD is a graduate of both the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and UMass Amherst. He wrote A Light That Is Blessed, sung by tenor soloist Bill Squires, specifically for this performance by Mak’hela and the Holyoke Civic Symphony. The song relates details of the Hanukkah story to progressive Jewish values and universal human aspirations. In composing the music and lyrics, Dratfield attempted to capture the essence and philosophy of Jewish music and culture. Composer, saxophonist, and educator Frank Newton arranged and orchestrated A Light That Is Blessed also drawing on elements of traditional Jewish music and choral writing. Both Jonah and Frank hope that the piece captures the spirit of the holiday season and communicates a meaningful, inspiring message.

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Cambridge-born composer and arranger LEROY ANDERSON studied at Harvard and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger and orchestrator. He wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms, and striking effects. Today the orchestra plays two of his best-known works. The first, A Christmas Festival (composed in 1957), is a sparkling arrangement of “Joy to the World,” “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Adeste Fideles.”

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Musician, composer, and vocalist MEL TORMÉ and BOB WELLS wrote The Christmas Song (commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) in 1944 supposedly during a blistering hot summer in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.” The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song early in 1946, and at Cole’s behest, a second recording was made the same year utilizing a small string section that soon became a massive hit. Although it has been re-recorded many times, Cole’s 1961 version is generally regarded as definitive. According to BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), a music licensing company, it is the Christmas song most often performed.

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Leroy Anderson composed Sleigh Ride in 1946, inspired much like Tormé and Wells, while enduring a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that tell of a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949 and provides a rollicking end for our Holyoke-inspired concert.

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