Learning the Repertoire

By Concentus Alto Maggie Symington

In college (pre-CD, let alone personal computers, cell-phones, and internet), I took a music history class from an amazing music professor. It was rumored that he didn’t have records or a record player, but could sit down with an orchestral score and hear the whole thing in his head as he read it. It didn’t surprise me, since through the entire course, he lectured with absolutely no notes.

Despite years of practice, and being relatively good at reading music, I have barely achieved the proficiency to read one line of music at a time, and even then, only if there aren’t too many accidentals or annoying time signatures (5/4, 7/4…). Like many of my Concentus sister-singers, I first learn the notes, then the rhythms, then the lyrics, and finally the dynamics and expression of a piece.

For our upcoming concerts in December, conductor Gwen Gassler has chosen an exceptionally challenging repertoire, harmonically and rhythmically. I was immediately drawn to Persichetti’s Winter Cantata (not just because it’s the only secular piece on the program), a beautiful setting of 11 of the 320 Haiku verses in “A Net of Fireflies,” translated by Harold Stewart. The short poems are wonderfully evocative, e.g., “One umbrella, as snowy dusk draws on, has come, and passes by, and now is gone.” Satisfyingly for the musicians and audience, many passages are repeated to help set the mood, and ensure the piece runs longer than 3 minutes! Persichetti cleverly created a 12th song in the cycle—“Epilogue”—that weaves together snippets of the preceding poems to complete the winter scene.

 Score with colored annotations

The above single system, from the third movement, demonstrates all of my music phobias:

  • Accidentals (green)
  • Rapidly changing time signatures (blue)
  • Descending 4ths and 5ths (purple circles)
  • The dreaded triplet (red)

And yet, when we put it all together, it not only makes sense, but it is incredibly stirring. I can’t wait till dress rehearsal, when we put it together with the real instruments—flute and marimba!

We hope that you will come hear this piece (and the rest of our concert) when we present it in our Star of Winter Holiday Concert this December. It’s always bittersweet for us to spend all fall learning and mastering a program, and then perform it only once or twice. But new music always beckons…

Posted: October 22, 2018

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