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Symphony Hall Once Again Hosts BU’s Symphonic Chorus, Symphony Orchestra

Tonight’s program to feature sacred choral works

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In what has become a celebrated tradition, the BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus return to Boston’s Symphony Hall tonight, with a program of powerful, poetic works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Francis Poulenc, and Charles Ives. Ann Howard Jones, a College of Fine Arts professor of music and director of choral activities, will conduct the concert of what are believed to be the greatest sacred choral works of each of the three early 20th-century composers.

The program, the first of this school year’s two annual CFA performances on the stage of one of the world’s finest concert halls, features two faculty soloists, soprano Lynn Eustis, a CFA associate professor of music and chair of the voice department, and baritone James Demler, a CFA assistant professor of music. “It’s fantastic for students to see their teachers perform,” says Jones, who will lead 150 voices in demanding works that display an extraordinary versatility—from the dark, mysterious minor key passages in Poulenc’s Gloria to the tense, explosive, and ultimately chant-like verses of Ives’ Psalm 90, arranged by David Hoose, a CFA professor of music and director of orchestral activities.

An innovative, demanding composer who explored new tonal forms and radical instrumentation, Ives was born in 1874 in Connecticut, where he worked as a businessman while composing his often controversial works. Psalm 90 is “the composition with which Ives was most satisfied,” says Hoose, who altered the composer’s orchestration so the piece could appear on a program of other choral-orchestral music. Hoose’s orchestration “has made Psalm 90 more performable,” says Jones of the richly textured, haunting work characterized by chants and tone clusters. “The orchestration makes no attempt to imitate Ives’ extraordinary use of the orchestra, partly because it would be too difficult, but also because this unusual composition does not suggest a kaleidoscopic orchestral palette,” says Hoose, adding that Psalm 90 embodies a “sturdy clarity befitting the powerful words.”

Boston University BU, Symphony Orchestra, College of Fine Arts, composer Ann Howard Jones

Prolific British composer Vaughan Williams, born in 1872, drew inspiration from folk songs and carols collected from his travels. He composed in every genre, from symphonies, opera, and ballet to church music and sacred choral masterpieces like Dona Nobis Pacem, the third piece on tonight’s program. First performed in 1936 as fears of war pervaded Europe, Dona Nobis Pacem (“Grant us peace”) is a cantata that weaves together text from the Latin Mass, biblical verse, a political speech by British Quaker, radical orator, and statesman John Bright, and Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as well as his poems “Reconciliation,” and “Dirge for Two Veterans.” Opening with a movement that “exemplifies the journey of the soul and the nature of the spirit,” says Jones, the piece embodies the composer’s belief “that war is pathos, not glory.” Comprising six parts that range from rousing and percussive to quiet and meditative, the cantata reflects Vaughan Williams’ passion for the quintessential American poet. “I just can’t get him out of my mind,” the composer was quoted as saying.

Born in Paris in 1899, Poulenc began composing religious music later in life, when his rediscovery of his Catholic faith inspired the stirring, somber choral works Stabat Mater and Gloria, which was premiered in 1961 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Poulenc, who died two years later, orchestrated the Gloria with a score rich in brass and woodwinds. (The composer is also well known for sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn.) The Gloria draws from the early Latin Mass, beginning with the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the savior, and concluding with joyful prayers for salvation. “In referring to the Gloria, Poulenc spoke of its symphonic character,” Jones says. “The words are treated more like poetry than like something sacred unto themselves, suggesting rhythmic ideas and melodic motives.”

Tonight’s concert will be webcast live on the School of Music’s website and rebroadcast on the Virtual Concert Hall site. Since its launch in December 2011, the Virtual Concert Hall has offered high-definition video of concerts of students and faculty. CFA’s Symphony Hall performances have been viewed more than 100,000 times in 130 different countries on the site.

The Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus concert, presented by the CFA School of Music, is tonight, Monday, November 18, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Seating is general admission. Tickets are $25; student rush tickets are $10, available at the door today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Members of the BU community receive one free ticket at the door on the day of the performance. Purchase tickets here or call 617-266-1200.

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Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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