A favorite maxim of the Master Singers conductor Gary R. Schwartzhoff shines through the major work the choir is performing Sunday: Beauty exists in the art of contrasts.
“That’s been one of my anchors, if you would, of my professional career,” he said, “Certainly I think that is true here.”
Schwartzhoff was referring to composer Dan Forrest’s “Lux: The Dawn From on High,” a five-movement work for which the choir will be joined by organist Christopher Stroh and members of Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra.
Taking its title from the Latin word for light, “Lux” illustrates a calendar day.
“That is, from the dawn in the morning through the sun’s high point in the sky, and then to the setting of the sun or the horizon at the end of the day,” Schwartzhoff said.
Diversity can be found in the texts as well, including liturgical chant, multiple Scriptures and a modern secular love poem. “That’s quite the art of contrast there,” Schwartzhoff said.
Premiering in 2018, “Lux” is Forrest’s third major work, and the Master Singers have performed the other two as well: “Jubilate Deo,” which premiered in 2016, and “Requiem for the Living,” 2013.
Choir member Aaron Athas noted there are subtle as well as stark contrasts in the piece.
“It’s hard to think of something more contrasting than light and dark, but there are a lot of shades and nuances in between those two harsh values,” he wrote via email in response to written questions. “That’s what I believe Dan Forrest captured in his piece ... which does the difficult task of contrasting variety in music. The audience will hear this in the combination of instruments and voices that result in such a well-rounded piece of music.”
Athas also pointed out that “Lux” also describes “the multi-faceted nature of light throughout a day.”
“From the rising of the sun with light scattering throughout the earth to the setting at day’s end and hope of return each day, there’s a moment of beauty that each day brings and different moments that each audience member will resonate with,” he said.
For choir member Patty Marsnik, “Lux” prompted thoughts of seasonal as well as musical contrasts.
“Simply going from winter to spring, I think we can all appreciate the contrast of the dark winter season departing us and making way for the season of increased sunlight and warmth,” she wrote.
Marsnik cited the third movement as a favorite, noting that Forrest dedicated that section to his wife.
“It offers a unique metaphor of the sun giving to the earth light and warmth thus facilitating inevitable life, but never saying ‘you owe me,’” she wrote. “This idea is new to us, and the poetry and word painting within this movement is exceptional.”
The second half of the program features six works. Among them:
• “Still With Thee,” with music by Elaine Hagenberg, based on a Mendelssohn hymn, and text by Harriet Beecher Stowe (best known for the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”).
Schwartzhoff chose the piece to reintroduce her music to the group, as plans are for the Master Singers’ 2020-21 season to include a five-movement work that Hagenberg is writing for choir with strings and keyboards.
Marsnik called the piece one of her favorites.
“Stowe used to awaken at 4:30 a.m. every morning and walk,” Marsnik wrote. “She wrote this piece on one of those early outings. While the majority of the concert is filled with references and metaphors surrounding sun, and light, skies, etc., this reflection speaks of loyalty and consistency. There is such warmth in the chords. To quote one of our tenors regarding the piece, ‘the color is magnificent.’ Hagenberg writes and arranges in such a way that you can tell her piece, when performed, is a choir favorite.”
• “The Old Church” by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), a Grammy Award-winning composer who lived in Minneapolis.
Nancy Schwartzhoff, Gary’s wife and a soprano in the Master Singers as well as the group’s executive assistant, said that while the song creates a specific portrait, it can spark personal memories in listeners.
“I think it speaks to you about the church you grew up in,” she said. “It kind of captures your heart from the beginning and makes you think of your roots and everything that it means to you.”
Gary Schwartzhoff said he shared a similar message with the choir, explaining that, for him, the song brings to mind the church in which he grew up.
“I was talking about the fact the Master Singers should go to Dorchester, Iowa, and perform this piece at St. Mary’s Catholic Church,” he said. “Dorchester has a population of about 45, 50 people depending on the day. … But it’s a pillar in my life.”
Athas elaborated on the song’s musical qualities.
“Many choral songs follow predictable patterns or imitate one line of music after another, which is very comforting to sing,” he wrote. “This song is one of the more deceptive at first with what sounds like the first few seconds of any church hymn or folk song you’ve sung a thousand times, but becomes musically distinct and complex with each verse; testing your ear as you wait to eventually come back to that comforting return. It’s like an old familiar room that seems unassuming until you take time to study and appreciate the fine intricate details in the wood floors or the crown molding on the ceiling. There’s beauty in the simple things.”
• “Tonight, Eternity Alone” by René Clausen, which sets a modified verse of the poem “Dusk at Sea” by Thomas S. Jones and captures a feeling of contented solitude in a vast empty space.
This work, Marsnik explained, represents another place where contrast highlights beauty.
“Complexity of chords, harmonies, and rhythms contrast with the lexical simplicity — it isn’t a lengthy poem,” she wrote. “But the depth of darkening skies is multidimensional here. I love the feeling evoked in the line regarding the darkening blue at dusk: ‘there is no space for fear, only the wonder of its truth.’”
Schwartzhoff chose the piece because, like “Lux,” it fits into the concept of the sun. He also noted the meaning in the lyric Marsnik cited.
“I think that says a lot about our crazy world today and where we live,” he said.
• “Danny Boy,” whose formal title is “Londonderry Air.”
Schwartzhoff decided to close the Sunday program with the beloved Irish folk song after it was requested for the group’s concert Saturday at Minneapolis’ Basilica of St. Mary. The concert is part of the church’s Missa Choralis Series, for which the Master Singers have appeared frequently.
Perhaps not coincidentally, St. Patrick’s Day is Tuesday.
“There must be a number of good Irishmen there, so they requested that we do that,” Schwartzhoff said.