(From The Iowa City Press-Citizen)
The interplay between light and dark and the intertwining of music and poetry is this season’s theme for the Chamber Singers of Iowa City. The March 5 concert, “Eternal Light,” will center on Morten Lauridsen’s incomparable “Lux Aeterna,” and includes Franz Schubert’s “An die Sonne,” Herbert Howells’ “Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,” and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ “The Heavens’ Flock.”
Of these, likely the least known are Ešenvalds and his collaborator, Paulann Petersen. Ešenvalds was born in Latvia in 1977. He earned his master’s degree in composition in 2004 from the Latvian Academy of Music. From 2011-13 he was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is a three-time winner of the Latvian Grand Music Award (2005, 2007 and 2015). In 2006, the International Rostrum of Composers awarded him first prize for his work “The Legend of the Walled-in Woman.” He teaches at the Department of Composition of the Latvian Academy of Music.
Paulann Petersen is a native Oregonian. She was a Stegner Fellow in 1986-87 and has won the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Award and the Stewart Holbrook Award, given for contributions to Oregon literature. She has published several full-length collections of poems, “The Wild Awake,” “Blood-Silk,” “A Bride of Narrow Escape” and “Kindle.” Petersen was appointed as Oregon’s poet laureate in 2010 and reappointed in 2012.
Here’s a sample from the opening of “The Heavens’ Flock”:
Ah, Stars, you are the heavens’ flock, tangling your pale wool across the night sky.
Stars, you’re bits of oily fleece catching on barbs of darkness to swirl in black wind.
You appear, disappear by thousands, scattered wide to graze but never straying.
While I, a mere shepherd of these words, am lost.
Ēšenvalds’ work, though spare, is never gaunt. There is a richness to the chord structure and meter. He shifts at will from major to minor — including a few chords you may never have heard before — and spices it with meter changes that make the music soar. His music compels the singers to get “off of the page and into the music” as soon as possible. Each run-through of the music reveals more beauty, more substance, and creates a desire to go even deeper into the mystery of the work.
Herbert Howells is a familiar name to many concertgoers. His “Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,” written for the King’s College, Cambridge, interprets two of the prayers sung daily during the Divine Office: the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she might become the Mother of Jesus (“My soul magnifies the Lord”), and the less-known text, the prayer of Zachary (“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace”).
Upcoming columns will delve more deeply into Franz Schubert’s “An die Sonne” and Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna.”
–James Petersen sings with Chamber Singers of Iowa City