Psalms & Requiems for Hope, Healing and Heroes

      "Everyone was floating at the end of this beautiful experience" was Dean Doss' reaction to the Candlelight Concert at the Great Bridge Presbyterian Church on September 29, 2002. John Dixon commented: "From the first note of Dolf Hailstork's anguished As Falling Leaves to the final triumphant chord of Lloyd Pfautsch's I'll Praise My Maker, this was a program of inspired music-making."

      The opening piece, a tone poem for flute (Debra Wendells Cross), viola (Beverly Kane Baker) and harp (Barbara Chapman) by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork, As Falling Leaves grew out of his respose to the people who leaped to their death rather than be incinerated in the inferno that the World Trade Center had become. "It was a final life choice. They were already dead - and they knew it." The Prelude opens with a French chamber sound which is at first static, moves onward but seems to go nowhere. The harp is struck with an open hand. This section resolves finally as memories of a happy time intrude into the horrors of this present moment. Life Dances and A child will ask "Where is ... ?" The dance begins but the melody deconstructs and it becomes painful to hear the shrill cry of this child flute. The tune of the Postlude has a beauty, a sad beauty underlayered by pain. This listener was left in the presence of this unresolved pain.

      John Dixon's piece for viola and harp, Prière, brought a sense of soothing. Richard Walters arrangement of the spiritual How Can I Keep from Singing was sung a cappella. As the song begins, Lisa Relaford Coston was at the back of the church and Billye Brown Youmans was in the chancel, each singing solo. As Ms. Coston moves forward to the chancel the song is transformed into a lovely duet.

      John Dixon's powerful a cappella mass Requiem 9/11/2001 was sung by the combined choirs of Great Bridge and Providence Presbyterian Churches in its premiere performance with a quartet of soloists joined by several guest singers, all well-known in Hampton Roads. The composer was so moved by the events of September 11, 2001 that he spontaneously started the piece by arranging Requiem Aeternam (Grant to them eternal rest ...). "By the weekend my sorrow had been overwhelmed by anger ... these feelings emerged in the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). "Music I could not have written without a compelling force."

      This listener found the music frightening in its intensity, reminiscent of my emotional response to Berlioz' Dies Irae from his Requiem. Dixon continues "As the days passed, the music continued to flow until, within two weeks of that infamous day, I had nothing left inside." By then this creative encounter with death and destruction was on paper, music of passion and later in the piece, a coming to terms with the horror, sadness, anger and finally acceptance of the reality of the event. The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God ... grant them thy peace) begins with an intensity that resolves into an deep sense of peace.

      Candles were "lit in memory and in honor of" the deceased as George Corbett (English horn), and Barbara Chapman (harp) played Franz Strauss Nocturno. The beautiful line of the English horn created a perfect mood for this healing ritual.

      The rest of the program consisted of "Psalms of Healing" and included John Rutter's Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd from Requiem which engages the emotions but leaves the mind free, Johannes Brahms' Psalm 84: How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place from his Requiem, a rich experience of beautiful choral singing. The program closed with Lloyd Pfautsch's Psalm 146 I'll Praise My Maker. The choir was accompanied by three trumpets and an exuberant organ. "This triumphal ending took us out of our seats. Everyone was floating afterwards," to quote Dean Doss.

      Unfortunately this writer was not able to attend the performance but did attend the final rehearsal and saw a master choral director at work. This was the first time I have observed Billye Brown Youmans shaping a choral performance. John Dixon told us ""Billye Brown Youmans is one of the very best directors I have worked with. She never loses sight of how the overall sound is shaped to bring forth the inherent excitement of the music, any music."

      It was interesting to see how she moved from being a scolding mother making a correction to focus on another section that was "done to perfection." This ability to create an overall energy pattern is always apparent in the solo singing of Ms. Youmans, but here she used it to influence the choir to bring forth music of great drama and depth.

      Choir members were in no way intimidated but gave feedback freely and this led to the fine tuning of vocal production within choir sections. Billye often uses humor, exaggerating an error to make corrections. This keeps an arduous task from becoming too heavy. The energy remained light and flowing throughout the long rehearsal and the results were wonderful to hear. When you understand that none of the singers were paid for this performance and that many guest singers were some of Tidewater's best, you get a measure of just how Billye Brown Youmans is loved and respected in the community.

For more on John Dixon and his music, see his website: http://www.johnsdixon.com/

An American Christmas

      It was a bright, cold, sunny morning and the church was filled with handsome adults of all ages and sweet-faced children, some brimming with energy - an ordinary Sunday morning at Providence Presbyterian Church. We were here for John Dixon's An American Christmas, his fourth Christmas Cantata in as many years, which was performed twice on Sunday, December 7, 2003 at the Virginia Beach church. The chancel choir was joined by Sherie Lake Aguirre, oboe, Patti Ferrell Carlson, clarinet, Rebecca Gilmore Shoup, cello, and Carole Stockmeier, flute. Our composer, John Dixon, played the organ and Valetta Fellenbaum, the choir director, conducted.

      The church bulletin, with its original drawing of Mother and Child by Norfolk artist Lee Shepherd, contained information researched by Mr. Dixon as he arranged fifteen familiar and not-so-familiar American Christmas songs into this year's cantata.

      The melody of the instrumental prelude, Babe of Bethlehem, was from a popular music book from 1835 which sold 600,000 copies but was new to this listener. He followed this by an a capella A Virgin Unspotted by William Billings, an outstanding American composer in the 18th century. Dixon's arrangements were interesting throughout the program. Using the text of Joy to the World, he composed new music, a catchy, lilting dance tune that trips along, demonstrating how joy feels. The unusual combination of instruments added wonderful color to pieces like We Three Kings which came from the church's hymnals, so the congregation could sing also. In Poor Little Jesus, a spiritual collected in Louisiana, he added musical spice by placing a shout of exaltation at the beginning of the second verse. I love the way he set this song which foreshadows the pain that Jesus' life to redeem humankind would bring.

      The offertory was I Wonder as I Wander. The program notes here are interesting: "John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), the famed American collector of folk song, claimed to have found this carol in Cherokee County, North Carolina in 1933." It was first published in Songs of the Hill Folks in 1934. Since no other source has been found for this melody, scholars now believe that Niles wrote it himself. Some recordings list it as "traditional" but most list him as composer. It is a beautiful tune and is often recorded. In The Song Index of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, he is listed as the composer. As early as 1946, the book Gladys Swarthout Album of Concert Songs and Arias includes this songs with Niles listed as composer. Using all four instrumentalists to wonderful effect, Dixon's setting enhanced this intriguing melody.

      Go Tell it on the Mountain was the closing song and the third spiritual in the cantata, pointing up how important the African-American contribution has been to American Christmas music. It is good to know that America has so many wonderful Christmas songs and John Dixon's settings made this an altogether enriching experience.

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