One of the first things Don Hinshaw did in the startup of Hinshaw Music was put together a Celebration Concert showcasing music the fledgling firm was publishing. That was forty years ago and this 41st Celebration Concert marked the end of this remarkable tradition. Over all these years, guest clinicians for the affiliated workshop and conductors for the concerts have included outstanding music masters but most frequently and most famously the esteemed British composer John Rutter.*

On this occasion, the gorgeous sanctuary at Edenton Street United Methodist Church was filled with Rutter admirers to hear his most recent extended work, The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation, to be performed in the second half of the concert – and to be a part of what had been announced as the last Hinshaw Celebration Concert.

Performing was the renowned professional chorus from Greensboro, Bel Canto Company, under the wand of Wellborn Young. Their singing lived up to their reputation with exquisite performances in a variety of styles, always with impeccable intonation, phrasing and ensemble.

The first half of the concert consisted of ten selections from Hinshaw’s shelves. The grand hymn “Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates” was given a majestic setting for organ, congregation, and choir by Robert Powell. Alice Parker‘s arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision.” with a gentle arpeggio accompaniment and a solo by the warm alto voice of Carolyn Hall, was a delight.

“The Jesus Gift” by Gilbert Martin sounded like a well-polished Broadway lullaby with wondrous alto solo work by Natalie Haven. The traditional spiritual “Keep Your Lamps” was given a dynamic performance with piano and percussion accompaniment as arranged by André Thomas.

“Come to Me, O My Love” by Allan Parker featured a gentle rustic melody nicely interwoven and developed. Mack Wilberg‘s setting of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” for choir, two flutes, and harp was beautiful in every sense. The magical hymn “How Can I  Keep From Singing?,” written by a Baptist minister, adapted by the Quakers, and claimed by all choristers, was heard in a beautiful unaccompanied arrangement by Ronald Staheli.

Howard Helvey‘s marvelous Latin motet “O Lux Beatissima” brought out the best of men of the Bel Canto Company. Rich modern harmonies with tones rubbing against each other and hints of light breaking through the surface made this piece stand out strikingly.

Also of note and admirable originality was Dan Forrest‘s “Good Night, Dear Heart,” a touching requiem sung by the women of the chorus with a subtle piano accompaniment. The first half of the concert concluded with another familiar old hymn – “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” in an updated arrangement by Robert Lau.

The second half began with Rutter taking great relish in conducting the audience in his arrangement of the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation is described by Rutter as “a celebration of life – the opposite of a Requiem.” It is in six movements, beginning with a setting of the “Canticle of the Three Holy Children,” from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It is a 26-line catalogue of all the elements of creation that are each invited to “bless ye the Lord; praise him, and magnify him for ever.” There is ample opportunity here of text painting which Rutter does with skill and imagination. For example, the music is a bit blustery on the line “O ye winds of God, bless ye the Lord,” and there is a chill in the open chords describing “O ye dews and frosts….”

The movement begins with a brief fanfare for organ, tubular bells and timpani and proceeds most of the way with piano and harp interplay accompanying the chorus and ending with a warm chorale setting of the traditional doxology.

The second movement, “The Tree of Life,” is a gentle lullaby carol – the kind of thing Rutter is well known for and does better than anyone else. The text is from the collection of Joshua Smith (New Hampshire, 1784).

The third movement, “Hymn to the Creator of Light,” is one of the most remarkable things to come from the pen of Rutter. Right off it makes you sit up and pay attention. The melody develops with unexpected steps and the harmony is enriched with delicious dissonances. The counterpoint develops tantalizing glimpses of light. This music comes from a place deep in the soul of the composer and communicates an experience that only music of this nature can convey. The text, drawn from Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626) and Johann Franck (1618-77) is realized superbly in Rutter’s setting.

The fourth movement, “O Lord, How Manifold are Thy Works,” uses text from Psalm 104 with a closing eight-line summation by the composer himself. Here we have again somewhat of a cataloguing of the creatures God called into being and opportunities for musical text painting. The line “The lions roaring after their prey; do seek their meat from God” caught my ear when I heard the men of Bel Canto doing a little bit of roaring. This movement ends with a glorious homophonic chorale.

Movements five and six, “The Gift of Each Day” and “Believe in Life,” are both settings of poems by Rutter. They speak of gratitude for life and belief and hope and are set to beautiful flowing melodies that touch the soul.

It was a glorious and fitting end to this treasured tradition. Thanks to Hinshaw, all of their officers, staff and all of the composers they represent.


A Tribute Article:

John Rutter – Sacred Music for the World

by Ken Hoover

August 7, 2015

If you have visited a house of worship – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish – it is highly probable that you have heard music composed by John Rutter. If you have attended a high school, college, or church choir concert, the odds are very high that you have heard music from the creative heart of John Rutter.

In the BBC television documentary on the history of sacred music, hosted by Simon Russell Beale, John Rutter is introduced in this way: “One of the most commanding contemporary figures is a man who has been described as the greatest living composer of choral music: John Rutter.”

Across his native England and the European continent, over the ocean from Canada to the tip of South America and in much of the Orient, the music of John Rutter has captured the hearts of multitudes who find it to be a meaningful expression of their deep inner feelings and beliefs.

Soon to celebrate his seventieth birthday, John Milford Rutter was born September 24, 1945, in London and spent his first nine years in an apartment over the Globe Pub on Marylebone Road which was run by his grandmother. Neither of his parents was musically inclined, but very early, young John became conscious of an affinity to the tones and rhythms of music. His parents were supportive and provided such opportunities as they could afford for his musical training. By his mid-teens he had a definite sense that his future would be in the making of music.

His formal education was through Highgate School where his classmates included John Tavener, Brian Chapple, and other notables. He further pursued his music studies at Clare College, Cambridge, where he sang in the choir (one of the first to include women singing the high treble and alto lines). He served as director of music at Clare from 1975 to 1979 and led the choir to international prominence.

It was in Cambridge that he met the outstanding choral conductor and scholar David Wilcox, and over the years their collegial relationship produced several volumes of collected Christmas carols and English choral music.

Rutter’s compositional career has been intimately integrated with America from early on. His first visit to the United States was in May 1974, for the premier of Gloria, commissioned by the chorus The Voices of Mel Olson, based in Omaha, Nebraska. The Latin text, drawn from the Ordinary of the Mass, is a centuries-old challenge taken up by many classical composers. It offers opportunities for music of exaltation, meditation, and jubilation and in Rutter’s realization it is masterfully set for chorus, brass ensemble, timpani and organ. It continues to be one of his most popular works.

Another element of Rutter’s relation with his American cousins began in 1975 when Don Hinshaw, searching for talented composers to publish through his fledgling firm, was advised by American choral music sage Erik Routley to seek out the still largely-unknown John Rutter.

Hinshaw flew to Cambridge where he and Rutter met and began what was to become a very mutually productive relationship characterized by great respect and deep affection between the two. When Don Hinshaw passed away in 1996, Rutter wrote and dedicated to his memory an ethereal piece entitled “Cantus” based on the word “alleluia.”  (There is a beautiful recording of it in an arrangement for brass ensemble and choir on the King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury recording of the Requiem.)

It was in those years, from 1975-1979 that Rutter’s choral music began to take wings. His publishers knew the markets that were hungering for his direct, clear line and singable style of music. He needed more time for composing and resigned his post at Clare College in 1979.

After leaving Clare he was invited to conduct and record a Christmas concert at Salisbury Cathedral. For this occasion, he gathered some of the singers from Clare to form a chorus. This was the beginning of The Cambridge Singers, and later, of the recording company Collegium. The two of them together have provided an astonishing legacy of music for the generations to come.

He is frequently invited to guest conduct, especially his own works. His compositional career has embraced both large and small-scale choral works, orchestral and instrumental pieces, a piano concerto, two children’s operas and music for television, but it’s the choral music of his early childhood that is at the heart of all he does. That music in the schools and churches where he sang was the well-spring of his magnificent career. Now as well as then, whatever activity the day brought, he always looked forward to the singing.

What would Christmas be without the dozens of lilting Christmas carols? The comforting and uplifting Requiem, and the unforgettable “The Lord is my Shepherd” which is part of it, has touched millions. To list just the most popular of Rutter’s works would require pages more.

At this year’s Music Celebration we heard for the first time a new work: The Gift of Life: Six Canticles of Creation. It has been announced that this will be the last of these concerts. As Rutter approaches his 70th birthday (September 24) he has declared he “feels 27 inside” and there is no indication he plans to stop composing. There will be international celebrations and tributes to this most remarkable composer of sacred music for the world.*

To hear this man talk about the satisfaction his work has given him, the joy of knowing that something he has created has enriched so many lives, young and old singers and audiences and worshipers, is to only hope that the love and affection they find in themselves through his music reaches back to the man who gifts so much to them.

For an inspiring commentary by John Rutter on the meaning and importance of music in our world today, go here.

*Edited/updated 8/11/15.