Conductor’s Corner – I Can See the Light

When difficult days lie in front of us, how are we to move forward? What drives us on to see the brighter days ahead? Our world is afflicted with violence, hate, racism, disease, environmental harms, and so much more. After all this, how do we refrain from giving up hope? Every one of us has lived through our worst fears and made it through to see a new future – one that we built for ourselves.

“I Can See the Light” does not give answers, but encourages us all to move forward in the wake of tragedy. The program is divided into four sections: Tragedy, Joy, Love, and Healing. When we suffer from insurmountable pain, our body tries to rationalize the events and understand their meaning.

Eliza Gilkyson’s “Requiem” was written in the wake of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami – the deadliest tsunami ever recorded. Her plea for meaning, understanding and grace resonate with our experience of the current COVID pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives from our midst. Craig Hella Johnson arranged Gilkyson’s solo song into a simple, yet immeasurably powerful piece which opens our performance.

Following tragedy, we search for solace and look to the future for hope. Some turn to faith, others to nature, and some to music. “Cantate Domino,” “Ballade to the Moon,” and “When Music Sounds” speak to the joys of life still left to experience. Of course, there is no greater joy than love. The following three pieces offer a journey that experiences true love, marriage, and living out our final days with loved ones.

Finally, we turn to healing, the last step in moving past tragedy. Our performance culminates in the singing of a choral arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” This piece accepts the past and moves forward to find a brand-new day dawning. After we find joy and love, we heal and say, “I Can See the Light.”

–Ryan Phillips

ARS Presents “I Can See the Light”

DATE: March 8, 2021

[TUCSON, AZ]This April, Arizona Repertory Singers offers its second virtual choral concert to the community.

“Our Spring concert, I Can See the Light, celebrates resilience,” said ARS music director Ryan Phillips.

“Our world is full of grief and loss right now. And, at the same time, life continues to also offer us the gifts of music and nature, love and hope. This is why we keep singing,” Phillips said, “to be reminded of the beauty of life and the solace of music.”

The virtual concert will open with “Requiem,” arranged by Craig Hella Johnson. Texas singer, songwriter, Eliza Gilkyson wrote “Requiem” in response to the devastating 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

“It’s a gorgeous and powerful song to acknowledge the grief of the pandemic,” Phillips said.

“We will end the concert with Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” which is where our concert title comes from,” Phillips said. 

In between the ensemble will perform songs to celebrate nature, music, singing, and love.

“Ballade to the Moon” is about finding joy in nature,” Phillips said. “When Music Sounds” celebrates the inspiration and joy of music; and a sacred piece, sung in Basque, called “Cantate Domino” is about the joy of singing and it is a spiritual song of praise.”

Three songs will celebrate the journey of love. “I am Loved,” composed by Christopher H. Harris, “This Marriage,” by Eric Whitacre, and “My Companion,” by Elaine Hagenberg.

“This collection of music will hold us, lift us to see the beauty of life even in the sorrow, and give us a quiet glimmer of hope for the days ahead,” Phillips said. “It’s going to be a beautiful and deeply meaningful concert for right now.”

Like the ensemble’s Winter concert, the videos will be presented within an online flipping book, much like an interactive concert program. Director’s notes, along with art and photos will accompany the videos of the singers. For instance, on the song “This Marriage,” Phillips arranged wedding photos of ensemble members in the video.

Since the ensemble can’t meet to rehearse safely in person, Phillips and his wife sing and record practice tracks for each part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Each choral member records a video of themselves while watching a prerecorded video of Phillips conducting. Phillips takes the recordings each member sends him and carefully matches up the voices to create the virtual ensemble. Each video he produces takes about 20 to 30 hours.

The spring concert will include eight choral videos, a piano piece by ARS accompanist Trissina Kear, and a guitar piece in four parts by Phillips.

“I’m very proud of this community of singers,” Phillips said. “The Arizona Repertory Singers have never stopped singing, even when it seemed impossible.”

Tickets for the virtual concert are $20 per household, available at Ticket holders will be sent a link to access the concert online on April 30. The link will be accessible through May 15.

The Arizona Repertory Singers is an auditioned ensemble of singers from greater Tucson. Since 1984 this choir has developed an extensive repertory and prides itself on presenting high quality performances of the standard repertoire and new music. Our community of singers, selected through a rigorous audition process, represent a variety of work life careers in business, education, engineering, information technology, law, medicine, social service, science, and the arts.


A Ceremony of Carols

“A Ceremony of Carols—Wolcum Yule” by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) (Notes by Jeffry A. Jahn)

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, was a native of Suffolk, England. Britten was an outstanding pianist, conductor and a prolific composer of hymns, song cycles, choral works, orchestral pieces and operas – including the well-known Peter Grimes. He is considered a giant of 20th century British classical music. Britten was influenced by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and was a close friend of Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. He wrote many pieces for his musical collaborator and lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears. A Ceremony of Carols, composed in 1942 during a sea voyage from the United States to England, contains text from a Middle English work entitled ‘An English Galaxy of Shorter Poems’ by Gerald Bullett. Although Britten originally wrote the pieces as a series of unrelated songs, he later framed them as one work with unifying motifs played by solo harp and other motifs from Wolcum Yule.

Brightest and Best

“Brightest and Best” by Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) (Notes by Ryan Phillips)

The well-known melody to Brightest and Best is drawn from William Walker’s 1835 compilation “The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion.” This shape-note hymn and tune book was made up of 335 songs to be learned on solfège; a triangle represented ‘fa’, a circle ‘sol’, a square ‘la’, and a diamond ‘mi’. Together, these syllables were part of a system that helped bring music literacy and a new singing tradition to the Americas. Songs in “The Southern Harmony” were meant for all singers who wanted to sing. Tone was harsh and bright while conducting was simple; a jagged up and down motion strictly meant for tempo.

Shawn Kirchner’s contemporary arrangement maintains the original melody of the song while including a bluegrass-style instrumentation. In blending bluegrass and southern harmony, he emboldens the musical roots of North America. He also applies compositional techniques, such as canon, that would also have been used nearly two centuries prior. Novice choral singers would have utilized this technique to create harmonies without the need to learn different parts. Finally, Kirchner’s theme and variations arrangement of this old hymn-tune provides harmonic interest to sustain the listener through the ‘strophic’ verses.

Sweeter Still

“Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” by Eric William Barnum (b. 1979) (Notes by Thomas E. Lerew)

Barnum’s 2007, “Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” exhibits his mature mastery over the tools of the musical trade as well as a text from his own hand. A truly modern American carol, “Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” is illuminated by a nostalgic melody that pilots us over and around the outdoor aura that surrounds softly falling snow, gently blowing wind, brightly shining lights, and ringing Christmas bells. The carol then hones in on the indoor spectacle of children silently dreaming, and being awakened by what they think could be Saint Nick’s footsteps on the housetop: “They rush down the stairs hoping to see the bright smile of Santa before he disappears.” But, for Barnum and for us, what is even sweeter is the singing of a carol, the glow from a fire, and the family gathered together around the Christmas tree. What joy! What “sweet joy it brings to me.”