By Richard Knox
If you look back over the past four years of Master Chorale concerts, you’ll find a panoply of thought-provoking, universal themes. Women’s stories. The cycle of life. Healing a wounded world. The nature of time. Hate and the redemptive power of community. The need to hope in the face of despair.
And now: Voices of the Silenced.
It’s all part of the Chorale’s distinctive mission: To join a high level of choral art to social and spiritual themes not often grappled with in the concert hall.
The genesis of Voices was a substantial chunk of seed money from an anonymous donor to commission a new work. That’s both an opportunity and a responsibility. The challenge is not only to engage and edify you but to inspire performances for other far-flung audiences.
What choral works do, of course, is give voice – to emotions, yearnings, doubts, hopes, beliefs. At their best, they amplify and deepen the sung words through a kind of musical alchemy. But where to begin?
First came the choice of composer: The prolific 39-year-old Norwegian Kim André Arnesen. The donor had admired Arnesen’s The Wound in the Water when the Chorale sang it two years ago. (Our program notes called that piece “a lament for a damaged environment and humanity’s troubled psyche” which suggests healing can be found through connection and empathy.)
Once Arnesen was on board with the commission, Director Dan Perkins and a group of Chorale members worked with the composer to identify possible themes, settling on texts from “people whose stories and voices are not generally heard,” as Perkins puts it.
Candidate texts came from a variety of sources. One Chorale singer, a doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, proposed the poetry of a long-term patient who has survived AIDS. Selections also come from the father of a congenitally disabled son, a Saharawi refugee (from Western Sahara), an Iranian teacher jailed for her religious beliefs, a schizophrenic woman writing from a locked ward, and others.
Taken together, these lyrics say there are many reasons why voices are silenced, and countless ways to do it. And also: Through all these disparate stories runs a bright thread of common humanity. These voices reveal more resilience than defeat, more hope than despair.
“Even though many of these texts describe challenging situations,” Perkins says, “we were mindful of the need to keep the overall energy and tone of the work hopeful and positive.”
Arnesen’s settings sustain that uplifting tone. “Much of the time the music is lush and gorgeous,” Perkins says. “I think it represents the purity and honesty of the speaker’s voice – not asking for pity but just understanding, a desire to be heard.”
These particular voices
The texts of Voices of the Silenced stand on their own. But your appreciation will be deeper if you know something about the authors.
Rainer Maria Rilke, author of the opening movement poem, I Believe in All That Has Never Yet Been Spoken, was born in Prague in 1875. Rilke struggled to express the ineffable – that is, something just out of reach (“never yet been spoken”) and beyond words. Rilke’s poem captures how we’re all silenced by the awesome mystery of our existence, no matter how hard we try to express it.
Marjorie Moorhead, author of the second-movement poem Me, lives in Lebanon, New Hampshire. She discovered she was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus in the 1980s after her partner became ill and later died of AIDS. Her immune system didn’t crash until a decade later -- fortuitously, around the time effective HIV-suppressing drug regimens came on the scene.
HIV infection and AIDS effectively silenced Moorhead, isolated her socially, and required her to grow defenses she likens to a turtle’s hard shell to protect her vulnerable self. “The stigma was very strong and it lasted a long time,” she says. “I didn’t want people looking at me with death in their eyes. And when I had kids, I didn’t want them to be identified with the disease.” She only began to write poetry in her late 50s. “It’s an amazing thing to find your voice,” she says.
Janey Antoniou, author of To Lift Up My Voice in Song, our third movement, was a scientist, musician, artist, writer, singer and poet. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 30, plagued by voices in her head telling her she was evil, unclean and should harm or kill herself. Yet she became a prominent British crusader for public understanding of mental illness, training more than 10,000 police officers on how to deal with mentally ill people. She died alone in a mental institution in 2010 at the age of 53. An inquest found her strangling death was inadvertent “following self-harming due to ligature.”
John McLorinan’s son Joseph was born with an extra chromosome 21, a genetic accident that causes Down syndrome. The condition encompasses a wide range of physical and mental effects. McLorinan’s poem, A Father to His Son, implies that Joseph is on the more severe end of the spectrum. He is effectively silenced by the disorder but, at the same time, the son opens his father’s senses, restores his humanity and enables him to appreciate “the glorious gift of the verb ‘to be.’”
Children of the Sun and the Wind, the sixth movement, sets a text by Mohammed Ebnu of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara. He was seven years old when armed conflict broke out there and 23 when a ceasefire was reached. Ebnu writes about harsh desert life in the refugee camps of war-torn Sahara. He escaped to study Spanish language and literature in Cuba, become a poet, and make himself the exiled voice of the Saharawi.
Remember Me is a plea from Mahvash Sabet’s Prison Poems, written while she was jailed for her religious beliefs. She was released in 2017 after a decade behind bars. Sabet was a teacher and school principal in Iran persecuted for being a Baha’i, a monotheistic religion that emphasizes the oneness of humankind. Although Baha’is acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet of God and the Qur’an as God’s word, fundamental Islamists view them as apostates.
Karin Boye’s Evening Prayer may seem like anyone’s gentle bedtime meditation, but her story is one of unrelenting struggle. Born in Gotenburg in 1900, Boye became a leading Swedish modernist poet, novelist and short-story writer who wrote about the place of the individual in a sometimes-hostile society. That included her own difficulties of being lesbian in the early 20th century. At the age of 40 she took an overdose of sleeping pills and died on an isolated hillside. Evening Prayer, with its air of resignation and concluding plea (“Let me rest as I am sleeping”) prefigures her solitary death.
I Am More Than You See, the concluding movement, was written for this piece by Arnesen’s frequent collaborator, the librettist Euan Tait, a leader of religious retreats who lives in Wales. This poem is about the difficulty of being truly seen and heard – a summing-up of all the previous voices. “Our seeing is usually blocked by our anger and prejudice,” Tait writes in a recent email. “We prevent ourselves from receiving the gift of another person’s unique humanity.”
Rounding out our concert are four shorter works that explore other meanings and nuances of silence:
The Peace of Wild Things is American composer Michael Conley’s setting of farmer-poet Wendell Berry’s meditation on communing with creatures “who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” After the challenging words of the Arnesen piece, Berry prescribes natural beauty as an antidote to despair.
True Colors is a fresh 2015 arrangement of the 1986 Billy Steinberg/Tim Kelly pop tune first popularized by Cindy Lauper and covered by many others. This realization is by Saunder Choi, whose edgy setting of Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty poem our audiences heard last spring. True Colors has become an LGBTQ anthem, but it carries a universal message of acceptance. “I’m in the business of asking myself and those around me to show our true colors,” Perkins comments. “We do that through the way we live and speak and work.”
The Sound of Silence, reprises Paul Simon’s 1965 folk-pop hit in a jazzy arrangement by the contemporary British composer/arranger Alexander L’Estrange. Besides being fun to listen to (and to sing), this old favorite fits neatly into our theme. The lyric laments self-censorship. Silence “like a cancer grows,” it says, among throngs of
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
Finally, I Dream a World offers us Langston Hughes’ grand aspirational poem from 1941 in a 2012 setting by San Francisco-based composer David Conte. Writing from a world where racism silences so many, Hughes dreams of a place “where man no other man will scorn.” Perkins says the piece “leaves us with a sense of the possibilities for a world in which there are far fewer voices of the silenced.”
Richard Knox is a writer and Master Chorale baritone who lives in Sandwich, N.H.
Friday, November 22, 7:30 p.m.
First Congregational Church, 10 South Park St., Lebanon, NH
Saturday, November 23, 7:30 p.m.
First Congregational Church, 117 North Main St., Concord, NH
Sunday, November 24, 4 p.m.
Plymouth Congregational Church, 4 Post Office Sq., Plymouth, NH
Tickets are free for undergraduates and students in grades K through 12
$25 for seniors
$30 for general admission
Pay what you are able” tickets are available to ensure that anyone can attend regardless of financial ability.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale, led by Dr. Dan Perkins, is a non-profit choir established in the spring of 2003. This premier chamber ensemble is dedicated to excellence in the art of choral music performance. Members of the group are trained singers, auditioned from throughout New England, who have performed as soloists and in choral ensembles throughout the world. You can get a taste of the NHMC on our SoundCloud page: soundcloud.com/nh-master-chorale or find us on Facebook and twitter: www.facebook.com/NHMasterChorale and twitter.com/nhmasterchorale.