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Programme Notes: A Winter Festival, December 10, 2023

Landmarks of Note

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

 The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

So begins Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells (1863). Written at the height of the American Civil War (1861-1865), its narrator hears the church bells at Christmas ringing out, & drowning out the sounds of battle. The bells are a defiant reminder of brighter times of peace & good-will, & bring hope to those who hear them. On this day, we’ll also be hearing carols. Some are old, some will be familiar, & some you’ll not have heard before. And a great many bells.

Keep an eye on the percussionists. Always good advice, but at our concert, they’ll be kept rather busy. They’ll be playing many instruments which sound like bells, but the choir & other instruments will be imitating bells, too. Our concert opens with a novel arrangement of a familiar carol, in which everyone onstage is meant to sound like bells.

Ukrainian Bell Carol           Mykola Leontovych (arr. Andrew Wainwright)

Have you ever walked arm in arm with a shorter person? Let’s say that you take only two steps, for every three steps the shorter person takes. The sound of your footsteps would be this rhythm. Two against three.

Hark! How the bells,

Sweet silver bells,

All seem to say,

“Throw cares away.”

That repeated polyrhythm runs through the whole of Carol of the Bells (1936), an English Christmas carol based on a Ukrainian New Year’s song called Shchedryk (Bountiful Evening) (1914).

Now, imagine that these bells are ringing out merrily, up in an old church’s steeple. The sound echoes across the snow covered hills, on a crisp Winter’s night. And the bells are out of synch.

Some are ringing more quickly than others. The large, low bells are heavier. Pulling down on their rope takes more effort, to get them ringing, & they swing more slowly. Andrew Wainwright’s clever 2016 arrangement incorporates this disordered rhythm of church bells. He takes apart the carol & puts it back together in unexpected ways. Sometimes, beats are dropped. Sometimes parts of the music overlap & repeat, creating new patterns. Through fragmenting & layering, his version is even more bell-like than the original. 

Snowflakes by the Hearth             Anthony Gunadi

This is a World Premiere performance of the winning entry in Orchestra Toronto’s 2023 Composition Competition for composers under the age of 25.

“I imagined people gathering by a warm fire on the longest night of the year, while the cold wind is blowing & snowflakes are falling.” That’s how Mississauga composer, Anthony Gunadi, describes his wonderfully evocative new work. 

He has the orchestra play their instruments in some unusual ways, to depict the wind & cold. To make the vibraphone sound blizzard-like, the percussionist sets the tuned metal bars vibrating with a violin bow, creating a haunting ringing. Also, aluminum foil, sitting directly on top of the metal bars, vibrates & makes an unusual rustling sound. The cold wind’s howling is imitated by the French horns blowing breathily into their instruments. And wind chimes (a row of suspended metal rods) are combined with the flutes playing quarter tones. Those are the notes which would be between the keys on a piano; not quite one note or the other, but halfway between them. With the shifting colours of the orchestra, he paints for us a musical picture of an icy & dark Winter Solstice night. Surrounded by the warmth of family & friends, the orchestra swells & the Christmas bells ring out, reassuring us that longer & brighter days are drawing near.

Selections from The Nutcracker                     Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Miniature Overture, March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Russian Dance (Trepak), Arabian Dance, Dance of the Mirlitons, Waltz of the Flowers, Waltz of the Snowflakes

Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker (1892), is a Christmas Eve fairy tale. The full ballet was scheduled to premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December of 1892. Nine months earlier, in March of that year, Tchaikovsky himself conducted a selection of music from his upcoming ballet, The Fir Tree. The title changed & that hugely popular sampling became known as The Nutcracker Suite. The entire suite even appears in Disney’s animated film, Fantasia (1940).

While in Paris, the previous year, Tchaikovsky had been greatly impressed by a newly invented instrument called a celesta. It’s something like a glockenspiel inside of a miniature piano. He had his publisher buy a celesta, but keep it secret, so that he’d be the first Russian to compose music for it. It was in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, that he unveiled this new sound. The heartwrenching Arabian Dance is Tchaikovsky features the sweet sounding English horn playing a tune which is actually based on a cradle song from Georgia (at that time, a Russian republic). Dance of the Mirlitons is sometimes called Dance of the Reed Flutes. Mirlitons are 16th century kazoo-like instruments which are also known as eunuch flutes. At our concert, the suite is followed by a sort of bonus track, which includes the choir: the elegant Waltz of the Snowflakes, from Act I of the ballet.

~~~~~   INTERMISSION   ~~~~~

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons – Winter           Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the folk songs of England. He & his friends had collected hundreds of them, 40 years before being commissioned to write this new work, to be premiered at Royal Albert Hall in 1950. He selected 15 songs, from his extensive collection, & sorted them by season. These are the four Winter themed songs which end the piece. Originally written for women’s choir, the range of voices also suits a Children’s choir, as on our concert.

In Children’s Christmas Song (based on Yorkshire Wassail), children are Wassailing, singing door to door, in exchange for food & gifts. The Wassail Song (based on a Gloucestershire drinking song) which follows, includes the tradition of offering a drink from their Wassail Bowl, filled with spiced ale. The belief was that Wassailing would help to ensure that the next year’s crop would be plentiful. The choir then sings In Bethlehem City (based on A Virgin Most Pure) on their own, unaccompanied by the orchestra. And we finally get our bells in God Bless the Master of this House (based on The Sussex Mummers Carol). Towards the end, listen for the flutes & tubular bells, sounding like, you guessed it, church bells.

Hanukkah! Hanukkah!             Charles Heller

Toronto composer Charles Heller is also a former violist with Orchestra Toronto. He dedicated this piece to Orchestra Toronto & its former Music Director, Kevin Mallon, when it had its premiere performance, in 2017.

This suite of popular Hanukkah songs brings together the music of many eras. We begin with a celebratory chorus from the final act of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus (1747): See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes, followed by a boisterous early 20th century Yiddish song, Hanukkah O Hanukkah. The violas & English horn play the lovely & gentle melody of another Yiddish song, O Ir Kleyne Likhtelekh (You Little Lights), until the trumpet begins the traditional Hebrew round, Mi Yemalel (Who Can Retell?). Next, the tuba saunters in, playing a slow solo tune. Sevivon, sov sov, sov (Dreidel, spin, spin, spin) begins slowly, but the tempo increases, as the dreidel spins faster & faster, only to be interrupted by the flutes & violins, with the lively song, Hanukkah, Hanukkah. The rest of the orchestra joins in, until we hear, rising from the background, the 16th century hymn, Ma’oz Tzur (O Mighty Stronghold (of my Salvation)).

Lullaby for the Christ Child         Ruth Watson Henderson

Two weeks ago, Ruth Watson Henderson celebrated her 91st birthday. This prolific Toronto composer has won awards internationally. In addition to music for organ, piano, string orchestra, trumpet, & violin, she’s written over 200 choral works. She is especially known for her numerous pieces for children’s choir, which continue to be popular with choruses worldwide. 

As is typical of lullabies, the lilting, ebbing & flowing, back & forth motion of the music is like a cradle gently rocking, lulling a baby to sleep. Each verse ends with “Lullay, Lullay, Lullay, but is left unresolved, with a feeling of uncertainty & open-endedness. It’s almost as though the singers of the lullaby are wondering if the baby has fallen asleep yet, or if they’ll need to sing another verse. As the piece draws to a close (&, presumably, the Christ Child has been successfully lulled to sleep), the accompaniment begins to sound decidedly bell-like. The choir switches from English to Latin, singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo. With this statement of the opening lyric of the Hymn of the Angels, at last, this final verse ends with decisive chords, & a feeling of triumphant finality.

It’s Christmastime!             Calvin Custer

Calvin Custer’ suite weaves together four classic World War II era Christmas songs.

For John Frederick Coots (composer) & Haven Gillespie (lyricist), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1934) was, by far, their biggest hit. When Eddie “Banjo Eyes” Cantor (the highest paid radio star, at the time) performed it on his show, in November of 1934, the public’s reaction was instantaneous. In the 24 hours after the broadcast, they placed orders for 100,000 copies of the sheet music. By Christmas, sales were over 400,000.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1944) was first sung by Judy Garland, in the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but the original lyrics were so sad, that Garland refused to sing them. Hugh Martin & Ralph Blaine dutifully rewrote some of their song’s lyrics, to make them more upbeat. This sad sounding Christmas song, with such hopeful lyrics as, “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight, quickly became a hit among the troops serving overseas.

And, of course, we must have some bells. Silver Bells (1950) was also introduced to the world in a film, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), where it was sung as a duet by Bob Hope & Marilyn Maxwell. This songwriting team, Jay Livingston & Ray Evans, originally called it Tinkle Bells. That changed quickly, when Livingston’s wife asked, “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word ‘tinkle’ is?”

The sense of nostalgia is especially poignant with the last song, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943), by Walter Kent (composer) & Kim Gannon (lyricist). First recorded by Bing Crosby, it quickly rose to No. 3 on the record charts. Overseas troops also loved this song, as they longed to be home for Christmas, even “if only in my dreams.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas           Albert Hague & James Horner (arr. Jerry Brubaker)

Dr. Seuss’s book caused something of a sensation, So, they added, for TV, hand-drawn animation, And melodies jaunty, which Grinches can’t stand. Music jazzy & bouncy, with hints of big band. As a medley goes, really, it’s simple how Jerry. Brubaker’s arrangement’s both Grinchy & merry. Just a couple or three Fahoo Forays, then You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch. Then surprise is in store. You may think, “That next song. It’s not in the cartoon. I’ve watched it every year, but I don’t know this tune.” If you’ve seen the Grinch film with Jim Carrey, you do. It’s the song from that film, sung by Cindy-Lou Who. She sings, “Where are you, Christmas?” & this is that song. Was it in the cartoon? It was not, all along. Welcome Christmas wraps up this suite. That’s how it ends. Just like in the cartoon, Grinch & Whos are all friends. Like his heart growing larger, the orchestra swells. How will we know it’s over? Just listen. More bells.

Elf Suite from the Motion Picture         John Debney (arr. V. Pesavento)

The film Elf (2003) is filled well-known Christmas melodies, including several which are on our concert: The Nutcracker Suite, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, & even Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. But when John Debney revisited his soundtrack for the film, to create The Elf Suite from the Motion Picture, he decided that he’d only include his own original music. We hear Santa’s Elves in their busy North Pole workshop, merrily making toys for Christmas. As they’re working away, they’re singing a cheery song without words. And, if you listen closely, you may even hear our own Elf choir whistling. Their wordless singing then takes on an ethereal quality, at times shimmering above the orchestra, almost like the aurora borealis dancing gracefully in the Arctic skies. Debney went on to collaborate with Elf director Jon Favreau on three more films, & his whimsical score is a huge part of what made the film such a hit, quickly establishing itself as a Christmas classic.

Sleigh Ride           Leroy Anderson

Leroy Anderson was the first composer to ever have an orchestral piece reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop music chart, for Blue Tango (1952). It was while he was sweltering, in a 1946 heat wave, that Anderson decided to compose a musical depiction of a nice cool ride through the snow, on a horse-drawn sleigh. The Boston Pops Orchestra often played Anderson’s music, & premiered Sleigh Ride two years later, then quickly released a recording. It had rapidly become one of their most requested pieces. And this is even before lyrics were added, in 1950, & The Andrews Sisters & Ella Fitzgerald 

Anderson is known for using unusual effects (& even odd ‘instruments’ like typewriters & sandpaper), to create unique orchestral colours. Here, you’ll see percussionists playing sleigh bells, of course, but they also create the steady clip clop of the horse’s hooves with temple blocks. As for the cracking of the whip, to spur the horse along, that’s done with a percussion instrument called a slap stick. It’s two long planks of wood which are hinged together. Snapping them together makes a loud & sharp clack, which sounds very much like a whip cracking.

And then, the horse speaks. Listen for the unmistakable whinnying of a horse, at the very end of the piece. That’s played by a solo trumpet. These horsey shenanigans, & the fact that The Boston Pops were so frequently performing the piece, led to a running joke. Rather than being presented with bouquets of roses, at the performance’s end, they were sometimes given bunches of carrots, instead.

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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