The featured work, Timothy Powell’s Appalachian Requiem “Consider the Lilies,” intends to capture the sounds and feelings of the North Georgia mountains where the composer grew up. It was a place where “rugged, unaccompanied voices…echo and filter down through the trees.” Filled with imagery from nature and infused with the innocence of childhood, “Consider the Lilies” was composed after a life-altering tragedy for Powell, providing a means for him to work through his grief. Singers and instrumentalists from Clayton State University join us for these two performances.
The fifteenth season of Griffin Choral Arts arrives full circle in its season-long exploration of themes of hopeful re-emergence from the Covid pandemic. The season began with the optimism of The Sun Also Rises and now concludes with even deeper hope and reflection. Also reaffirmed is the season-long commitment to collaboration, especially with singers and instrumentalists from Clayton State University, including joint concerts at Spivey Hall on May 1 and at the amphitheater of the Village at Indian Springs on May 5.
For the Beauty of the Earth, by John Rutter
This lively concert opener not only alludes to the outdoor setting of the May 5 concert but, more importantly, also anticipates the focus on the multiple, complex beauties of the “lilies of the field” considered so profoundly near the end of the program.
There is good reason for English composer John Rutter’s status as perhaps the world’s most popular choral composer. Throughout his career he has deliberately sought to compose music accessible to everyday listeners, not just trained musicians. In “For the Beauty of the Earth,” Rutter uses the traditional 1864 text by F. S. Pierpoint but sets it not to the familiar hymn tune DIX but to a new musical setting so catchy that its melismatic melodies often anticipate “Christian pop.”
Hands, by Benjamin Kornelis
The inclusion of this work represents an important piece of unfinished business for GCA. The work was commissioned to be performed in May 2020, for a concert titled With These Hands. After Covid forced the cancelation of that concert, by March 2021 the With These Hands theme was refocused into a tribute to the Covid-battling heroism of the healthcare professionals at Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital, presented in a simple outdoor performance on the hospital grounds in the summer of 2021.
But today’s concert provides an opportunity for a belated premiere of the work, in keeping with the recent “belated” 250th anniversary celebration of Beethoven’s music in the March 2022 concert in collaboration with the Carrrollton Symphony Orchestra.
The 2020 commissioning of the “Hands” work also invited poems from local elementary school students on the theme “With These Hands,” designated as the title for the March 2021 concert. The text chosen by the composer was “Hands,” by Henry Stover, then and still a student at St. George’s Episcopal School in Milner.
The “Hands” theme pervades the work not only in the text but also in using a set of hands playing each of two pianos and choristers providing rhythmic handclaps throughout.
Benjamin Kornelis, a native of Lynden, Washington, holds degrees from Calvin College, Western Washington University, and Michigan State University. After serving for more than twenty years as Director of Choral Activities at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa (GCA Director Stephen Mulder’s baccalaureate alma mater), he now lives in Minneapolis and serves as Director of Traditional Music at Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan, Minnesota.
We Are, by Ysaÿe Barnwell
The elemental depth of the composer’s empowering text is conveyed musically by the rhythmic ostinato sung by the male voices, suggesting the pulse of the body’s lifeblood.
From her online autobiography comes the following information about the composer:
Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, a native New Yorker now living in Washington, DC, is the only child and perfect blend of her mother, a registered nurse and her father, a classical violinist. Dr. Barnwell studied violin for 15 years beginning at age 2-½ and majored in music through high school. . . . She went on to earn the Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Speech Pathology (SUNY, Geneseo, 1967, 1968), Doctor of Philosophy in Speech Pathology (University of Pittsburgh, 1975), and the Master of Science in Public Health (Howard University, 1981). For over a decade, Dr. Barnwell was a professor at the College of Dentistry at Howard University, after which she conducted community-based projects in computer technology and the arts and administered health programs at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Dr. Barnwell joined [the all-female vocal group] Sweet Honey In The Rock in 1979, and her training as a Sign Language Interpreter led her to facilitate the group’s [inclusion of] a Sign Language Interpreter in the ensemble. After 34 years Barnwell retired from Sweet Honey In The Rock to pursue her other interests.
Dr. Barnwell appears as a vocalist and/or instrumentalist on more than thirty recordings with Sweet Honey In The Rock as well as other artists. She has . . . spent much of her time off stage working as a master teacher and choral clinician in African American cultural performance. Her workshop “Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition” has . . . been conducted on three continents, making her work in the field a significant source of inspiration for both singers and non-singers, a model of pedagogy for educators and for cultural activists and historians.
In addition to these endeavors, Dr. Barnwell is an actress whose credits include voice-over narration for film, video and radio productions including the NPR documentary W.C. Handy’s Blues; appearances in the film Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme; and the TV show A Man Called Hawk.
Four axioms have proven significant in Barnwell’s life: To whom much is given, much is required. As one door closes, another door opens. Everything matters. Say Yes!
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, arranged by Keith Hampton
Continuing the “hands” sub-theme is Keith Hampton’s arrangement of this well-known gospel song. From his online autobiography come the following details about the arranger:
After earning his Bachelor of Music from Westminster Choir College and his Master of Arts from Marywood University, Hampton received a Doctor of Music from Northwestern University with an emphasis on church music, conducting, theory, and organ performance.
He is best known for his arrangements of gospel songs and spirituals. In 2010, the North Central American Choral Directors Associations named [him] as one of the top twenty-five contemporary composers. His work is available through Hinshaw Music, Augsburg Fortress Press, Choristers Guild, Earthsongs Publications, and the Hal Leonard Corporation.
In addition to his accomplishments as a composer [he] is dedicated to bringing the joy of music to the public as an Artistic Director/Founder of the Chicago Community Chorus. . . . He has been a music teacher for students ranging from nursery school to college. . . [and] has also served in various roles as a Music Director, conductor, and organist for churches throughout Illinois.
Psalm 23 (dedicated to my mother), by Bobby McFerrin
In his 2012 interview with the Omega Institute published in the Huffington Post, innovative jazz singer and composer Bobby McFerrin described the inspiration for his highly original (though traditional-styled Anglican chant) setting of the best-known Psalm:
The 23rd Psalm is dedicated to my mother. She was the driving force in my religious and spiritual education, and I have so many memories of her singing in church. But I wrote it because I’d been reading the Bible one morning, and I was thinking about God’s unconditional love, about how we crave it but have so much trouble believing we can trust it, and how we can’t fully understand it. And then I left my reading and spent time with my wife and our children. Watching her with them, the way she loved them, I realized one of the ways we’re shown a glimpse of how God loves us is through our mothers. They cherish our spirits, they demand that we become our best selves, and they take care of us.
References to God as female will not surprise GCA and CSU audiences, who have both heard The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, with music by Carol Barnett and text by Marisha Chamberlain. The popularity of the 2007 novel (and 2017 feature film) The Shack, by Canadian novelist William P. Young, was yet another example of the appeal of this imaginative though still culturally startling image.
This setting of Psalm 23 dedicated to the composer’s mother is being sung only a few days before other settings of Psalm 23 will be recited or sung in many churches this coming Sunday, May 8. The date this year coincides with the Fourth Sunday after Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and is also Mother’s Day.
Consider the Lilies: An Appalachian Requiem, by Timothy Michael Powell
Yet another way in which Carol Barnett’s 2007 The World Beloved; A Bluegrass Mass opened new horizons for both CSU and GCA audiences was in illustrating how effectively the traditional Christian musical form of the mass could be infused by Appalachian folk traditions.
An even more touching example of such a blending of traditions is this concert’s featured work, a work published in 2019 and inspired by the tragic death of the composer’s 9-nine-old daughter, Cecelia “Lily Kate” Powell, in an auto accident two years prior in Gwinnett County GA.
The title repeats the famous admonition of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, best known in the “King James” translation: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matt. 6:28-29)
More literal biblical translations would name simply “the flowers of the field” rather than “lilies,” but poetic depth is in this case (if not in all cases) far more meaningful than botanical accuracy. For this performance, real lilies will add visual impact, inspiring us not just to “consider” but both to “hold” the “lilies” in our lives and to “behold” the “lilies” we may yet encounter.
The composer further describes the origins of the work in the preface to the score:
Consider the Lilies; An Appalachian Requiem is intended to capture the sounds and feelings of the north Georgia mountains where I grew up. One of my early memories is hearing the rugged, unaccompanied voices of an Appalachian congregation singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” echo and filter down through the trees from a mountain above my grandparents’ house in full, heartfelt, four-part harmony. However, the history, tradition, and beauty of the Latin requiem mass also permeate this work, . . . I chose the texts myself, approaching all these disparate inspirational parts very individually and freely. This work is inspired by shape-note singing, Appalachian/Celtic mystery, and liturgical beauty, but is not bound by either the rustic [or by] the elegant.
It is a personal work for me. I actually wrote some of the material years ago. However, after experiencing life-altering tragedy, I began to write and play through the old material and to add new melodies as a discipline of reflection and healing as I worked through my grief. I did not originally intend to create a formal, publically available work for performance, but as the music took shape, and as my family was blessed by performances of three other choral pieces by talented colleagues that were written as memorials to our loss, I was encouraged by friends to offer it as a personal statement.
At his website, composer Powell explains further:
This piece is a work of comfort for those who have lost loved ones. . . [using] portions of the traditional Requiem texts, as well as scriptures adapted from the Gospels and the Song of Solomon. Set for choir and a small instrumental ensemble, the work is intended to be accessible, yet profound, poignant, and celebratory–spiritual yet not formally liturgical, though ensembles could easily incorporate scripture readings between the movements.
While this deeply heartfelt yet artful music often speaks for itself, one small moment in the text bears special mention. In movement VI, “A Promise,” a refrain occurs near the middle of each of the three stanzas, with four iterations of the words “I am the storm’s eye.” The composer attributes these words to Lily herself, suggesting the reassurance that she is now the calm, peaceful “eye” of the storms of grief still being experienced by her loving survivors.
Until recently the Director of Choral Activities at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Timothy Michael Powell is a composer, conductor, and music educator, [whose] compositions eclectically span stylistic genres and include major works such as Wedding Mass, premiered at Carnegie Hall, Incarnatio Mysteria premiered at Lincoln Center in 2011, and St. George and the Dragon, a collaboration with renowned poet and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri, premiered in April 2014 at Lincoln Center to rave reviews. His bluegrass triptych Dear Appalachia: Songs For My Mountain Home received rotating world premiere performances in Ireland and throughout the U.S., culminating in a Carnegie Hall premiere in 2017. He won the American Prize in Choral Performance in 2012 and was one of only twenty-five educators in the United States to be named a Semi-finalist for the 2016 Grammy Music Educator Award. Previously he was the 1999 National Choristers Guild Scholar and a 2002 Fulbright Scholar to Bulgaria. He holds a DMA in Conducting from the University of South Carolina and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Belmont University in Nashville.
Unclouded Day (Holy Innocents), by J.K. Allwood, arr. Shawn Kirchner
The concert’s closing selection is both an extraordinarily close companion to the “Lilies” Requiem that immediately preceded it and an emotionally moving “bookend” for the collaboration of the GCA and CSU ensembles in this concert season of hopeful re-emergence from Covid.
The October 2021 concert, The Sun Also Rises, included composer Shawn Kirchner’s eight-part, bluegrass-styled setting of the gospel song “Unclouded Day,” by circuit-riding preacher
J. K. Allwood (1826-1909). Clayton State choral director Dr. Sean Vogt then later invited the composer to give a workshop at the church where he serves as music director, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, in north Atlanta. (Dr. Steve Mulder and several CSU singers also participated in that workshop.) Dr. Vogt also commissioned a new edition of the piece, this time for SATB and gospel-style piano, hence the addition of the church’s name—Holy Innocents—to the title.
But that new name also serves a more serious function, both for the piece itself and for its use at the “closer” for today’s concert. The local church name commemorates the “Holy Innocents”—the infants killed by the raging Herod in his pursuit of the newborn Jesus in the biblical story of the Nativity. Of course, in the context of this concert the “Innocents” title also touchingly alludes to the 9-year-old Lily of her father’s commemorative requiem. A similarly poignant connection between these two closing pieces is that for the Holy Innocents church commission Kirchner added a bit of new text. Near the middle of the piece, the new lines read “They tell me that He smiles on His children. . . . His smile drives their sorrow away.”
How such even deeper poignancy squares with the bouncy energy of the music may still give us pause. Even the text claims only that “They tell me,” suggesting the possibility that the preacher himself stops short of a sure citation of the specific source of absolute truth being sung. And yet perhaps the infectious vitality of the music—even beyond the words—expresses the possibility that song can transform grief into hope, and possibly even into joy.
Shawn Kirchner is a singer, composer, and pianist in the Los Angeles area. A member of the prestigious Los Angeles Master Chorale since 2001, he was named Composer in Residence of the Chorale for a three-year term in 2012. One of triplets born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa, he earned a BA in Peace Studies from Manchester College and an MA in Choral Conducting from the University of Iowa. His choral writing expresses his interest in folk traditions, as well as in gospel and jazz.
Program notes by Bill Pasch © 2022 except as otherwise noted, and with thanks to Dr. Stephen Mulder.