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New York Polyphony: Songs of Hope

Salme 55

Salme 55 – Psalm 55 – is a sequence of verses set for four male voices a cappella. The work is an adaptation of a set of pieces composed for the concert work Notes for a Requiem that also included readings of specially written texts from events in the life of the Italian Carlo Gesualdo and a selection of Gesualdo’s motets, with a dance elegantly choreographed to reinforce the dramatic and tragic events of Gesualdo’s life. Notes for a Requiem was commissioned by the Vestfoldfestspillene festival in Norway and was premiered in 2011 by New York Polyphony with mezzo-soprano Ebba Rydh, and actor Svein Tindberg.

The present sequence combines the short motets, each with its own material, with chanted sections to create a single, unified whole. Psalm 55 will be familiar to many in Mendelssohn’s setting, “Hear my prayer.” Psalm 55 is a lament in which the psalmist prays to God for deliverance from the enemies that surround him and the friend who has betrayed him (a situation similar to that in which Gesualdo seemed to have found himself ). Nevertheless, the psalm closes with the psalmist’s confidence that God’s justice will prevail. The music for the first section “Exaudi Domine,” which was written first and thus influenced the rest of the sequence, was inspired by the main theme from the movie Stone (2010) starring Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich and Robert De Niro. The imploring quality of the music and the film’s subtext of betrayal and human weakness seemed a perfect match for those words: “Hear my prayer.” Not the humble offering of a prayer uttered kneeling by the bed at night, but the anguished, desperate plea of a man in a crisis of life.

Program Note by Andrew Smith

Officium de Cruce

The Officium de Cruce by the Franco-Flemish composer Loyset Compère (c. 1445- 1518) reflects the late-medieval practice of contemplating the Passion and the Dead Christ. Most of the cycle is based on the short Hours of the Cross, which appears in books of hours. Thus, although the first part sets the text of the Introit for Mass on Holy Wednesday—In nomine Jesu omne genuflectatur (from Philippians 2:10)—the second part is based on the text of an antiphon for the short Hours, and the remainder is set to the hymn Patris sapientia. The composer may have assembled these texts himself, perhaps for a commission from his patron in the 1470s, Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan. Although the motet cycle omits the final strophe of the hymn (which refers to the observance of the canonical hours as a devotion), it ends with a turn to reflection; the final words of Compère’s composition are “May this death be perpetually in my memory.”

Program Note by Susan Boynton

Lamentations I & II

Of the Spanish composers writing in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Francisco de Peñalosa stands out for his incorporation of non-native melodic material in his works and for his elaborate use of imitative counterpoint. Although Peñalosa’s career was limited mainly to Spain with a brief period in Rome, musicologists have often compared him more to Franco-Flemish composers than to his Iberian contemporaries. During an era in which composers’ manuscripts are preserved in sources throughout Europe, Peñalosa’s oeuvre’s transmission is surprisingly rare; his works are only to be found in Iberian and New World sources. The similarity between Peñalosa’s style and that of Franco-Flemish composers is likely to trace its roots to a specific event. On May 22, 1502, Juana, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, was wed to Philip I of the house of Hapsburg. Peñalosa was present at the ceremonies and likely met several of Philip’s court composers, including Agricola and LaRue. Peñalosa’s Lamentations of Jeremiah were written in three sets (of which we present two), for Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. The composition follows alternating texts of biblical prose and Hebrew letters. While the Latin texts are mostly set with imitative points of entry (perhaps due to the influence of LaRue), the Hebrew letters are composed with more homophonic texture. Overall, the polyphony is lean in texture, albeit intensely charged in points of dissonance.

Program Note by Christopher Herbert