Programme Notes - Musical Director (The Music of Eastern Europe)

Posted: 26th May 2018

For the concert on 2 June 2018:

It is a privilege to welcome you to our final concert of the 2017/18 season: ‘The Music of Eastern Europe’. After the disappointment of having to cancel the St Matthew Passion due to snow back in March, the members have responded brilliantly and tonight’s repertoire has been an exciting new challenge which has refreshed us all.

I first came across the choral music of Eastern Europe as a teenager in the Taplow Youth Choir on a tour to Tallinn, Estonia. It was only the second choir tour I had been on and the choir took part in an international choral competition. Whilst we didn’t end up winning, the experience was life changing. To hear the choirs of Latvia, Estonia and Russia singing challenging 20th century repertoire by composers such as Arvo Pärt, Vaclovas Augustinas and Pēteris Plakidis changed my perception of what choral music was and how it can sound. There is a specific sound associated with choirs from these countries which many English choirs have tried to capture and replicate when singing this repertoire.

2018 is the 90th anniversary of the death of Czech composer Leoš Janáček and I particularly wanted to celebrate some of his lesser known masterpieces. We are all familiar with his seminal work – the gargantuan Glagolitic Mass – and we will hear the Postludium organ solo from this tonight. However, his output of chamber music was immense and includes some lesser known gems. He sets the text of The Lord’s Prayer (Otče náš) in an intriguing compartmental way and this interesting compositional style turns out to be due to the nature of the commission; surprisingly this setting was not written for the church but instead for what was essentially an amateur theatre group that wished to perform a tableaux-vivant of each line of the text to music. Janáček also wrote beautifully for violin and piano and we will hear his Romance and Dumka for these forces this evening. Like many compositional geniuses, Janáček had a tumultuous life losing two children to illness, the trauma of which led to eventual divorce from his wife. The second of these children, Olga, died at the age of 21, was particularly special to him and forms the subject matter of his poignant and tragic Elegy on the death of my daughter Olga.

However, the music of Janáček and his contemporaries is very different to the music of Arvo Pärt and this partly reflects the differing historical contexts. Janacek’s music often took inspiration from folk melodies of his home in Moravia and this reflects the nationalistic tendencies at the end of the nineteenth century and the pride he felt in the culture of Czechoslovakia and the wider Austro-Hungarian Empire. His choral arrangement of Dvořák’s Moravian Duets is the perfect way to end the concert as it transports us close to his homeland and the city of Brno – the place of his burial. Folk music was also a key influence for Bartók and Kodály who were composing at a similar time to Janáček across the border in Hungary and who also wrote considerably for the violin. The similarities and contrasts in styles are fascinating to observe in Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Kodály’s The Kallo Double Dance.

In contrast, the music of Pärt, Górecki, Petr Eben and Sergiu Natra came around 50 years later and explores a new sound world post the movement of the Second Viennese School; Pärt and Górecki specifically exploring the concept of minimalism. This change in sound and style is significant but comparing works such as Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel with Janacek’s Elegy is a perfect example of how a sombre atmosphere can be expressed in two entirely different compositional styles and both be equally moving. I wanted to begin tonight’s concert with a statement and Górecki’s Totus Tuus is a statement unlike any other in modern choral music. It is a complete affirmation of faith to the Virgin Mary and offers eleven minutes of sheer beauty entirely a cappella – I hope you enjoy it.

For our concerts we are always blessed with exciting soloists and today is no exception. It is an absolute pleasure to welcome back former Musical Director David Davies to the society. Any concert is enhanced by his playing whether it be on piano or organ and he is the lynchpin of tonight’s concert as both soloist and accompanist. It is also exciting to have Michael Graham with the society again as our Tenor soloist. Michael and I arrived in Exeter around the same time in 2012 and we have worked closely together for many years. It is always a joy to work with him and this repertoire is particularly suited to his voice. Anna Cockroft will be a name familiar to many of you as Leader of the Exeter Bach Society Orchestra and it is fabulous to have her as a soloist this evening. Finally, it is brilliant to have Sally Jenkins back with the society after she last appeared as a part of the orchestra for the Duruflé Requiem in Spring 2018. The harp is such a beautiful instrument with a rich culture of music from Eastern Europe and it offers a different soundscape to our other instruments this evening.

I am extremely grateful to all the soloists and I would particularly like to thank the committee for their help in the preparation of this concert. I look forward to meeting you following the performance.

Musical Director

Jonathan Lucas Wood