A choir, at heart, is a single but powerful voice, an alliance of individual contrasts honed to a fine-tuned unity.
That may seem a peculiar opening to a story on a Christmas program, but, then, Greenville, South Carolina-based composer Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo” isn’t your average Christmas program centerpiece.
The seven-movement, 40-minute-plus work opens the Corvallis Repertory Singers’ 19th “Candlelight & Carols” concert, which is scheduled for two performances this week. (See information box for details.)
Repertory Singers artistic director Steven Zielke admitted in a recent interview that “Jubilate Deo” wasn’t commissioned with the holidays — or any season, really — in mind. In fact, it premiered in non-wintry April 2016, brought to exuberant life by conductor Henry Leck and the Indianapolis Children’s Choirs.
No, Forrest had loftier ambitions: to evoke the message of Psalms 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” Translated from Latin to English, the composition’s very title is an invitation to rejoice, or shout, to God.
“Exultant” isn’t adequate enough to describe the ebullience of “Jubilate Deo”; it’s more of a rousing affirmation of multicultural solidarity. Seven languages are represented, each dressed in their respective region’s musical textures. This means the Corvallis Repertory Singers will perform the sacred text in English, Latin, Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Zulu and Mandarin, no small feat for any ensemble.
“The language part is maybe the most difficult part of this work,” Zielke said. “The Latin is not difficult at all for us; in fact, experienced singers sing Latin like English. The Hebrew and Aramaic are a little problematic, although most people have some experience singing those languages. Spanish is not too unusual. But the Mandarin is difficult. Just communicating it to us is difficult. We’re not reading Chinese characters. So that means they have to reduce the Chinese characters into some sort of transliteration. Then what the actual sound of that is quite a bit different to what it looks like on the page.”
Remarkably, “Jubilate Deo” is only Forrest’s second major work. Already regarded as a master arranger, he debuted in 2013 with “Requiem for the Living,” a five-movement piece he described in a 2016 interview with The E as a “prayer for rest. Maybe not so much for the souls of the departed, but for the rest of us. … We’re the ones who are around to hear it, right?”
Many people did, including Steven Zielke, who’s conducted it three times, most recently in February 2016. “I just loved it,” he said. “I thought it hit a chord, so to speak. So when ‘Jubilate’ came out, I was interested to see if he was able to hit the jackpot a second time.”
Forrest confessed to a similar curiosity in a 2018 conversation with Vienna Choral Society artistic director Mike Horanski. “There was so much pressure after the relative success of ‘Requiem’ that my next piece to prove that I could do this again, in a different way, and not just copy myself … or not just be a one-trick pony,” Forrest said. “It’s a huge relief that ‘Jubilate Deo’ is being received well, too.”
Zielke chucked at the revelation.
“That’s very, very true,” he said. “This is an incredibly small profession. We all know Dan. Of course, he makes his living by composing. That means he eats what he kills. It’s a tough business. Composers have to produce. I think Mozart and Beethoven felt the same way. In fact, Brahms didn’t want to write a symphony because he was so intimidated by Beethoven. He only wrote four because he was just terrified of having to follow Beethoven. It’s a longstanding thing that composers feel.”
Forrest has since completed two additional major pieces, “LUX: The Dawn from on High” (2018), which for five movements explores the concept of “light” as evoked over centuries and even in a single day; and “the breath of life” (2019), commissioned in remembrance of Bel Canto Company (Greensboro, South Carolina) supporter Suzanne Goddard. And, of course, he continues to arrange carols — within the last few weeks he unveiled a spellbinding version of “Silent Night” that Zielke immediately added to “Candlelight & Carols.”
“He keeps the character of the carol intact so that it’s not over-arranged,” Zielke said of Forrest’s approach. “He doesn’t mess with the carol. It’s very present. But he does things to it that make it new and fresh. Sometimes it’s a modulation. Sometimes he messes with the meter or the harmony. But there’s always something about it that makes you feel like it’s different from any arrangement of ‘Silent Night’ you’ve ever heard, yet it’s still the classic tune.”
“Silent Night” joins a host of holiday favorites for the Christmas program’s second half, including an “Away in a Manger” that Zielke describes as “quite beautiful”; Sir David Willcocks’ amusing take on “Jingle Bells”; a new arrangement of “Joy to the World”; and “The First Noel.”
“When we started this series about 20 years ago, the idea was to provide a concert fairly close to Christmas, a carols concert,” Zielke said. “Because the work we’re doing in the first half is unknown to the audience, I have doubled down on familiar carols in the second. If you created a top 10 list of most well-known and beloved carols, we probably have most of them.”
But this year’s “Candlelight & Carols” centerpiece occupies multiple levels, imparting a message tailor-made for the holidays that somehow also transcends them, those fleeting seasonal displays of goodwill. It’s timelier than ever — perhaps even timelier than it was minutes ago — a clarion call in myriad tongues for harmony.
“I think that Dan Forrest’s goal in ‘Jubilate Deo’ is based in the first line of text, in which he says, ‘Jubilate Deo, omnis terra,’” Zielke said. “’Omnis’ is ‘all’ and ‘terra’ is ‘Earth.’ He has a sense, I think, like many of us do, that what separates us right now is greater than it should be. The divisiveness cannot stand.
"It’s not just politics. It’s also the tendency to identify the other, whether it’s through class, income or race, or identity or nationality. He constantly uses the idea in his work: omnis terra, omnis terra. I think that this message of ‘all of the Earth’ is really a wonderful message for right now.”