March 2023 Concert: “Northwest Gems”

Recorded March 11 & 12, 2023; premiering Sunday March 26, 2023.

(Playlist of “Northwest Gems” performances)

(Bellevue Chamber Chorus Official Channel:

Program Order and Notes:

“Psalm 121” – Imant Raminsh

Imant Raminsh (b. 1943) was born in Ventspils, Latvia and emigrated to Canada at age five. He studied violin and earned degrees at both The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and the University of Toronto. He then spent two years studying composition at the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg. He continued to play violin and served as conductor and founder of several groups in British Columbia where he resides today. Raminsh also studied biology and geology in his spare time and worked for many summers as a naturalist in the provincial parks in British Columbia; his love of the natural world is evident in many of his compositions. His “Psalm 121” was originally set for orchestra and treble choir, and the composer also created a piano and mixed voice arrangement that remains one of his most performed sacred compositions. The psalm expresses a sense of hope throughout, and Raminsh uses the wide range of the voice to create a dynamic journey of rising spirits: each of the piece’s three main sections have one clear melodic high point, and he employs a low vocal range at the beginning of each section in order to climb to an appropriate apex on words such as “heaven and earth” and “He shall preserve the soul.” Raminsh changes keys frequently, as each pair of poetic lines receives a different harmonic treatment. Each section flows seamlessly into the next without a clear conclusion, and thus the final cadence of the work is incredibly impactful as the music eases into its final resting point.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth,
and even for evermore.

“Wake, Love, Wake!” – Joan Szymko

Joan Szymko (b. 1957) is perhaps the best-known and mostly widely performed living American composer of works for treble chorus. She composes for ensembles at all levels – from professional to children’s chorus – and with her many works for mixed voices, she has composed over one hundred pieces for choirs in total. In 2010 she was selected as recipient of the American Choral Directors Association’s prestigious Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission. Szymko lived in Seattle in the 1980’s, but in 1994 she left for Portland to direct The Aurora Chorus, a 100-voice treble choir. Recently retiring from full-time directing, she lives in Portland but is an active composer and continues to travel around the country teaching and presenting new music. Her piece “Wake, Love, Wake!” is unique among her output as one of
the few short, lyrical vignettes for mixed-voice a cappella choir. Symko’s expressive power in this lament comes from her carefully selected harmonies and plaintive melodies. For example, the expressive passage “the silence is heavy,” employs a transparent harmony and falling melody befitting the text. In contrast, the bright major sonority on “wake” stirs with desperation and climbs to an apex on “fill my empty cup.” The dissonant final chord of the work offers no respite or clarity amid the pain and silence.

The night is dark and your slumber is deep in the hush of my being.
Wake, O Pain of Love, for I know not how to open the door, and I stand outside.
The hours wait, the stars watch, the wind is still, the silence is heavy in my heart.
Wake, Love, wake! brim my empty cup, and with a breath of song ruffle the night.

        – Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

“Soneto de la Noche” from Nocturnes – Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) is one of the most popularly performed living American choral composers. For seven years he was the composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and he recently retired after forty-three years of teaching at University of Southern California. In 2006 he was named an American Choral Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 he received the National Medal of Arts from former President George W. Bush. Today Lauridsen spends much of his time at his home in the San Juan Islands. Some of his most popular choral works include his Lux Aeterna for choir and small chamber orchestra and his O Magnum Mysterium, as well as two sets of a cappella pieces: his Les Chansons des Roses, and his set of four Nocturnes, of which “Soneto de la Noche” is the second number. All these pieces – including “Soneto de la Noche” – contain his quintessential style: chant-like melodic contours, patterned and steady rhythms, and first inversion major chords with an added non-chord tone. If you have heard any choral music by Morten Lauridsen, just the opening phrase of “Soneto de la Noche” is sure to signal this characteristic style for which the composer is well-known. His neo-romantic language has been mimicked by countless modern composers and few of them can match his warm affect and ability to effectively couple melody, harmony, and text.

Cuando yo muero quiero tus manos en mis ojos:
quiero la luz y el trigo de tus manos amadas
pasar una vez m´as sobre m´ı su frescura:
sentir la suavidad que cambi´o mi destino.

Quiero que vivas mientras yo, dormido, te espero
quiero que tus odos sigan oyendo el viento
que huelas el aroma del mar que amamos juntos
y que sigas pisando la arena que pisamos

Quiero que lo que amo siga vivo 
y a ti te am´e y cant´e sobre todas las cosas
por eso sigue t´u floreciendo florida,

para que alcances todo lo que mi amor te ordena
para que se pasee mi sombra por tu pelo
para que as´ı conozcan la raz´on de mi canto.

        – Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
When I die I want your hands on my eyes:
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me one more time:
to feel the gentleness that changed my destiny.

I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep,
I want for your ears to go on hearing the wind,
for you to smell the sea that we loved together,
and for you to go on walking the sand where we walked.

I want all that I love to go on living
and you whom I loved and sang above all things
to keep flowering in to full bloom,

so that you can touch all that my love provides for you,
so that my shadow may pass over your hair,
so that all may know the reason for my song.

“Only the Heart Will Hear” from The Seasons – Donald M. Skirvin

Donald Skirvin is a Seattle-based composer, conductor, pianist, and singer. In 2020, he had the honor of winning the American Prize in Composition as part of the shorter choral works professional composer division. He wrote dozens of new commissioned works for The Esoterics which were recorded and are available through Naxos of America, and Skirvin remains Resident Composer Emeritus after serving for fifteen years. While he has composed instrumental works, most of Skirvin’s output is choral. About composition, Skirvin says, “I want to create choral pieces whose music is deeply imbued with the voice of the poet. For such pieces to be successful and effective, I think the music must appear to arise almost effortlessly and inevitably from the words themselves.” “Only the Heart Will Hear” is the fourth movement (“Winter”) in his piece The Seasons for choir and chamber orchestra. Skirvin sets the first stanza of text with dance-like rhythms and articulations, yet each line of text receives its own characteristic features: the lighter opening gives way to forceful bravado, as Skirvin captures the power of the winter wind. In the second stanza of the text, the light dance-like texture is jettisoned, and Skirvin employs comparatively even rhythms, a narrow vocal range, and connected articulations that serve to illustrate the image of heavy snow and the ice’s magnificent yet austere effect on the land. Just before the reprise of the opening dance, a glimmer of light breaks through: Skirvin increases the melodic movement as the ice cascades to the ground and the silver tree branches gently sway in the light.

Soft morning dances on the hills to the melody of snow.
Light follows each path as Lady Winter weaves,
Where she will it,
A dove-shroud for the dark earth.
Our dance-master at noon:
The wind
Shapes the flakes tight in time
With its gusty discipline;
Space becomes bright with a tune
Only the heart will hear.

Evening ice:
Frozen-finger’d rain
Reaches for every branch and future bud.
Even the tallest trees bow
In patient homage.
To their own honor
The crystal cloak grows great.
The slate roof, steep-weighted with snow:
Ice groans and shifts
Crumbles and splits, falling,
Calling its own name
Cascades to the waiting ground.

A crystal chorus chimes in the wind
As the once green limbs now silver,
Gently in the light do move

        – Gordon E. Abshire

“Sweet Rivers” – Reginald Unterseher

Born in Walla Walla and currently living in Richland, Washington, Reginald Unterseher (b. 1956) is one of the few Pacific Northwest composers in our program who lives east of the Cascades. He currently works as composer-in-residence at Shalom United Church of Christ, and his music has been published by Oxford University Press, Walton Music, and In his piece “Sweet Rivers”, the sacred text speaks of leaving the pain of this world and joyfully crossing over into the next. The tune comes from William Moore (1825), and Unterseher’s arrangement is an incredible achievement, particularly the piano accompaniment. The tune is presented plainly against an independent accompaniment of swirling triplets and quintuplets. Unterseher repeats the single stanza of text but modulates up one
step and fully harmonizes the title text, “Sweet rivers of redeeming love.” In this second reading, the voices create their own parallel waves, and the long notes at the end of each poetic line seem to represent the faithful holding fast amidst the relentless current. The tumultuous piano reaches top speed as the voices elatedly climb and exclaim, “with joy outstrip the wind.” Unterseher closes the piece with a final modulation up another step and he reprises the unison singing that opened the work in a profound statement of readiness for whatever lies ahead.

Sweet rivers of redeeming love lie just before mine eyes.
Had I the pinions of a dove, I’d to those rivers fly.
I’d rise superior to my pain, with joy outstrip the wind.
I’d cross over Jordan’s stormy wave and leave this world behind.

        – John Adam Granade (1763-1807)

“After the Winter” – Giselle Wyers

Giselle Wyers (b. 1969) is a professor of music at University of Washington where she conducts the University Chorale and teaches courses in choral music, conducting, and voice. As a frequent guest clinician, Wyers has conducted countless high school honor choirs and all-state choruses across the entire country. She is the director of the Concord Chamber Choir, as well as the conductor of a professional project choir, Solaris. Along with James Jordan of Westminster Choir College, Wyers is a leading scholar applying Laban movement theory for conductors. Her music has been published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing as part of the “Giselle Wyers Choral Series,” and she is frequently commissioned to write new works by college and community choruses around the globe. “After the Winter”, with text by Claude McKay, has two equal length stanzas, each built of two rhyming quatrains. Wyers embraces the poetic form with a modified strophic setting in which the second stanza repeats much of the same music. For example, in the first stanza’s third line, we hear the shivering birds shake the snow off their feathers, and similarly, in the third line of the second stanza, the laughing stream leaps with a similar crisp trill. At the same time, Wyers incorporates some clever changes in the second half of the piece: most notably, the final line of the poem is extended with several repetitions, capturing the idea of an evergreen forest whose greenery lives through the winter and beyond. This final melody circles back on itself as it climbs in a highly structured but organic way.

Someday, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.
And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee,
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed bluebells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.

        – Claude McKay (1890-1948)

“Prayer of Black Elk” – Karen Thomas

Karen P. Thomas (b. 1957) is the Artistic Director of Seattle Pro Musica. Her compositions have been performed all over the world, with performances by many wonderful choirs including the Hilliard Ensemble and NOTUS of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. She has been commissioned to write works for many notable groups and organizations, including the Harvard/Radcliffe Choirs, the American Guild of Organists, and the Washington National Cathedral. She has produced many critically acclaimed recordings and received the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, and the ASCAP Chorus America Award. Her piece “Prayer of Black Elk” sets a translation of words spoken by Sioux leader, Black Elk. Thomas employs three primary textures that make this an incredibly dynamic prayer for peace. First, the choir’s opening fanfare and the piano’s rising scales effectively capture the earnest directive, “hear me.” However, the tone changes with colorful harmonies and plaintive melodies that seem to be crying out for relief as the choir sings, “give me the eyes to see.” Finally, Thomas captures the last desperate request, “Look upon these faces of children without number,” setting it as if rage has taken over, as the punchy chords in the piano articulate each statement.

Hear me four quarters of the world.
A relative I am!
Give me the strength to walk the soft earth.
Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand.
Look upon these faces of children without number,
that they may face the winds
and walk the good road till the day of quiet.
This is my prayer; hear me.

        – Black Elk (1863-1950)

“Voice of the Rain” from Nature Songs – Stephen Chatman

Stephen Chatman (b. 1950) is likely the most widely published composer on this program with over seventy pieces for choir as well as a wealth of instrumental works including orchestral, band, chamber, and keyboard genres, in addition to other vocal genres (including an opera). He has served as Professor of Composition at University of British Columbia, Vancouver since 1976, and he has received numerous awards over the course of his career as well as dozens of commissions by choirs and orchestras all over the globe. His orchestral music has been performed by the BBC
Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Radio Orchestra, as well as the San Francisco and Montreal Symphonies, among others. “The Voice of the Rain” comes from a set of Nature Songs commissioned in 2006 by the Acadia Choral Society in Bar Harbor, Maine. The entire poem is from the perspective of the rain, and Chatman employs pairs of duets that climb “upward to heaven” and then descend together “to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe.” This natural cycle repeats itself, as Chatman imposes a strophic form on Whitman’s text, dividing the piece into two sections where the music recycles itself with minimal changes until the final climactic phrase.

And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed, and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,

And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, Wandering,
Reck’d or unreck’d, duly with love returns.)

        – Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

“Language of the Stars” – Katerina Gimon

Katerina Gimon (b. 1993) completed a Master of Music in composition from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. She lives and works as a freelance musician in Vancouver, and serves as the composer-in-residence for the Myriad Ensemble, and she is a founding member of Chroma Mixed Media, a new music and technology collective. She describes her own compositions as drawing inspiration from her Ukrainian heritage, as well as from her formative years with both indie rock and songwriting. In her piece, “Language of the Stars”, she employs a “twinkling” motive in the piano that seeks to emulate the glistening night sky. This cosmic motive is juxtaposed against a contrasting vocal melody that feels more “down to Earth” with its Copland-like buoyancy and charm, with yet a touch of gravitas.

Ye brilliant orbs that deck the sky,
Shrouded in deepest mystery,
To thee my song I sing!
I long to know of what thou art,
Of this great universe a part,
I feel thy glory in my heart
While to the earth I cling!

I long to traverse thy bright spheres,
To stand above the flight of years
Remembering earth’s dark sod;
Who formed thy glittering, gilded gems,
Who framed thy starry diadems,
Who all the golden glory bends
Of the resplendent sun!

Mysterious questions, answered not,
With deepest meaning ever fraught,
Flooding this life below,
When rolling years no more shall be,
When we shall find our destiny,
When time unveils eternity;
Perhaps, we then shall know.

        – Martha Lavinia Hoffman (1865-

~ program notes by Ben Luedcke


Bellevue Chamber Chorus Personnel:

Artistic Director Ben Luedcke is in his fourth season with the Bellevue Chamber Chorus, as he began as Artistic Director in 2019. Ben is also the Minister of Music at Seattle First Baptist Church in downtown Seattle. He is currently finishing his Doctorate of Musical Arts at University of Washington and he has held teaching positions in the choral, musicology, and English departments. Before moving to Washington, Ben was
a Visiting Assistant Professor at Monmouth College where he conducted the Monmouth Chorale and chamber choir. Ben has also served as faculty at Grinnell College, where he conducted both the Grinnell Singers and the Grinnell Oratorio Society. Ben is known in Madison, Wisconsin for several of his startup organizations: he was the co-founder and director of Voces Aestatis, a Wisconsin-based professional choir that specialized in the a cappella repertoire of the sixteenth century. Likewise, Ben was the founder and artistic director of Madison Summer Choir, a community chorus that performed large orchestral works. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Vanessa, and their two dogs, Luthor and Oona.

Kristine Anderson, piano:  Kristine Anderson graduated with a music performance degree from the University of Montana at Missoula.  She is well-known in the Puget Sound region for her artistic and sensitive work with singers as well as instrumentalists ranging from tuba to piccolo. Equally at home with jazz, pop, and classical, she can adjust her style from Sondheim to Gershwin to Strauss. Her clients include winners in local and national competitions, including the Seattle Young ArtistMusic Festival, Metropolitan Opera semifinals, and concerto contests. Kristine has also served as accompanist for the Flute and Piccolo Forum, hosted by Seattle Symphony flutist Zart Dombourian Eby. From 2012 to 2020 she was a staff accompanist in the University of Washington Music Department, and she has been the accompanist for Bellevue Chamber Chorus for the past fourteen seasons. She is also the pianist at Christ the King, Assumption, and Journey Christian churches in Seattle.

Bellevue Chamber Chorus

Soprano: Maria Bayer, Kristine Bryan, Debra Defotis, Tori Force, Sarah Shrieves, Gloria Tzuang *, Jane Wasell
Alto: Arisha Kulshrestha, Sonja Handeland *, Ziqi Ma, Rachel Macias, Pratha Muthiah, Dale Schlotzhauer, Karin Swenson-Moore, Kristen Wright
Tenor: Bill Baxter, Melanie Grube, Michael Grube, Jim Leininger, Mark Liebendorfer, Larry Richardson, David Varner
Bass: Dennis Defotis *, Fabien Mousseau, James McTernan, Eric Mullen, Curtis Nilsen, John Schleg, Trevor Tsang, Marc Zeale *

(* = on hiatus)