Endangered Program Notes

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, musicologist and PhD candidate.

Today’s concert, “Endangered,” brings together three works from North American choral repertoire to ask and reflect on some of life’s most foundational questions. All three pieces on tonight’s program draw on well-known texts from the Christian faith tradition, but often engage them critically, bringing them into dialogue with secularism, or with numerous other faith traditions, to consider questions such as: what does it mean to be human? Why are we here? Who or what made the world, and what do we owe to the world in return?

Cree composer Andrew Balfour’s Mamachimowin (“the act of singing praises”) is likely familiar to much of the TMC’s audience, as it was commissioned and premiered in 2019 as part of the choir’s 125th anniversary season. Scored for SATB choir and orchestral strings, the piece features Balfour’s Cree translation of Psalm 67 (“God be merciful unto us, and bless us”). In the composer’s own words, Mamachimowin musically and textually explores “the difficult relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the impact of the Christian culture on First Nations people,” a major theme in Balfour’s work. In addition, the piece engages with the idea of earth itself as a sacred entity, as “instrumentation of violas, cellos and double basses…give the idea of the strings representing a foundation of the ground, or Mother Earth.” In this concert’s broader theme of ‘endangered,’ Mamachimowin stands out to me as a piece that points to beliefs, languages, and worldviews that colonialism sought to destroy, many of which have, for decades, been endangered – but which are now, happily, resurgent.

American composer Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning (1947) continues the concert’s theme of understanding nature and the earth as sacred, this time in a Judeo-Christian context. The piece sets Chapter 1 and the first seven verses of Chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis, narrating God’s creation of the world, animals, and humanity. Set for a cappella SATB choir and mezzo soprano soloist, In the Beginning is one of Copland’s few choral pieces, and is one of his lesser-known works. This is unfortunate, as the piece is incredibly insightful and rich, and brings together moments of stasis, rapidity, simplicity, and complexity to offer a vivid, original, and deeply moving version of the most well-known creation story in Western culture. Maestro Vallée has pointed out that the musical language of the piece stresses earth’s role in creation, as it musically emphasizes moments in the Book of Genesis when God asks the earth to create.

If Copland’s piece is in part a celebration of the earth’s creativity, then the centerpiece of tonight’s concert, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered, is a plea for earth to forgive humanity’s harming of its creation. Snider’s mass premiered in New York City in 2018, as part of the Trinity Church Wall Street’s Mass Re-Imaginings Project, which invited six composers to reconceptualize the Mass for a twenty-first century context. The TMC is honoured to be presenting the Canadian premiere of this work. Mass for the Endangered features a libretto by Nathaniel Bellows, and combines his text with the traditional Latin text. Snider’s original program note for the piece describes the work as “a voice for the voiceless and the discounted, a requiem for the not-yet-gone” which “embodies a prayer for endangered animals and the imperiled environments in which they live,” ultimately appealing “for parity, compassion, and protection, from a mindset…that threatens to destroy the planet we all are meant to share.” Drawing on the original commission’s goal of re-conceptualizing the traditional Mass, Snider has also shared that her goal was to “take the Mass’s musical modes of spiritual contemplation and apply them to concern for non-human life – animals, plants, and the environment. There is an appeal to a higher power – for mercy, forgiveness, and intervention – but that appeal is directed not to God but rather to nature itself.” Sadly, this appeal is even more relevant in 2022 than it was in 2018, as the impacts of climate change increase worldwide.

However, this is not a concert about despair: it is a concert about hope and opportunity. In a repertoire full of stories about creation, beginnings, and endangerment, there is an opportunity to reflect: How might we create a better world? How might we rise to the challenges of this particular historical moment? What and who is at risk of being endangered, and how might we avoid having to sing or hear their requiem? What new beginnings might we create together? There are, of course, no easy or singular answers to these questions. But thankfully, there is music like this to guide us along the way.

The concert takes place Saturday, May 28th at 3 pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and will also be streamed online. Visit the concert webpage for more details.