NY Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary

When a musical omnivore such as Harold Rosenbaum declares that the concert you are about to hear is “the most diverse program I have conducted in my forty year career,” hang on to your seat! On Sunday March 3rd, Rosenbaum led the New York Virtuoso Singers in the aforementioned amply diverse program in a concert at Merkin Hall. A baker’s dozen of new pieces, part of an ambitious commissioning project: 25 pieces to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary.

While the selections were stylistically diverse, there was a unifying thread. All of the composers had done their homework, and composed with the formidable capabilities of NYVS in mind. The ensemble lived up to its reputation for peerless preparation, assaying all of the pieces with fortitude and an almost intimidating level of technical skill. Intonation and rhythm, regular pitfalls for mortal choirs, proved scarcely to be hurdles for the singers, even in the thorniest of passages. And there were plenty of those provided to them on Sunday afternoon.

Particularly impressive were works by David Felder and Augusta Read Thomas, which pushed at both the harmonic fabric with daring chromatic writing and at the capacities of the voices with parts written in punishingly high tessitura. Others, such as Roger Davidson, opted to revel in the group’s sound and suave divisi in a more straightforward setting.

One of the challenges in being part of a bouquet of occasional works: how expansive should one’s piece be? Both Thea Musgrave and Richard Danielpour opted for aphoristic yet attractive tributes, while Richard Wernick and Joseph Schwantner created evocatively atmospheric works that probably overstayed their welcome a bit. David Lang created a slowed down spiritual for the singers, poking fun at the perky arrangements of doleful texts by choral mainstays such as Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. For all of her protestations that setting text doesn’t suit her, Joan Tower’s memorial tribute to her recently departed sister was eloquent and unforced.

Sadly, I found another of the memorial works on the program, Memorial by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, more problematic. In the midst of snatches of the requiem mass’ text, the use of children’s choir intoning the names of Sandy Hook victims is heavy handed and borderline exploitative. No doubt, some will argue that the work’s topicality and pacifistic message is moving. Indeed, it was moving, but, to me, manipulatively so. One could have gotten the subtext from a more subtle use of forces and an approach to the topic that was sensitive and less opportunistic.

Most of the works hewed to the celebratory mood of the occasion. William Bolcom provided a puckish setting of a Blake poem about Cupid; a footnote to his mammoth Songs of Innocence and Experience project, but a savory and supple one. Mark Adamo contributed the only work with piano accompaniment, in which the singers and instrument nimbly dance around the subtext of a grimly jocular Stoic postmortem. Aaron Kernis was on hand not only to introduce his piece (as did several of the other composers) but also to substitute as a “clapper” (hand percussionist) for his jubilant setting of the translation of a Hebrew spiritual poem.

All in all, it was a fine afternoon of singing. The commissions are being recorded for release on Soundbrush Records. Hopefully more choirs will hear them and want to program them.


Best of 2012: Aaron Cassidy on NMC (Recording Review)

Aaron Cassidy
A painter of figures in rooms
NMC Recordings (digital EP)

American-born and UK-based composer Aaron Cassidy created the vocal ensemble work A painter of figures in rooms for Ex Audi as part of the New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad.  It continues his research into extended tablature notation. Using this approach, details of the physicality of performance are specifically addressed, perhaps even more so than more traditional musical features. In a vocal ensemble work, this means that issues such as vowel space, approach to breathing, mouth and lip position, and gesture feature prominently.

While this notational approach would, at first glance, seem to leave room for significant variances between performances, Cassidy’s body of work occupies a distinctive and recognizable sound world that suggests a clarity of utterance conveyed by the tablature. When comparing his vocal music alongside Crutch of Memory, a recent disc of instrumental works recorded by the Elision Ensemble for Neos, certain qualities of sound surface as stylistic touchstones. Cassidy’s notation allows for an exploration of sliding between pitches, timbral adjustments, and fine gradations of microtones that would likely be cumbersome to notate in traditional Western fashion. Thus, while extremely complex and requiring a great deal from the performers, the resulting music takes on elemental concerns in organic fashion. The visceral vocalisms and muscularly effusive gestural profile of A painter of figures in rooms belie the notion that music in the “new complexity” or “second modern” vein is primarily an intellectual exercise. Instead, it often suggests uninhibited sensuality.

“Joseph, lieber, Joseph mein” (Video)

What a choral tag team! New York Polyphony joins forces with Anonymous 4 in a perfect performance of Praetorius (video below).

One of the best choral CDs of 2012: EndBeginning, a release by New York Polyphony. With a program preponderantly built from sixteenth century polyphonic treasures – alongside a work from the 14th century by Machaut and one by living composer Jackson Hill – the CD charts a moving trajectory from grief to hope to transcendence. All of the works are sumptuously sung. It is particularly fortunate the ensemble has turned their attentions to Crecquillon and Brumel, who deserve wider currency. One is glad also for the inclusion of the mid-Renaissance gem “Absalon Fili Mi,” which again is performed movingly. A little musicological caveat: many scholars now attribute the piece to Pierre de la Rue, not Josquin, as the CD’s booklet avers.

Saturday: Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s (Concerts)

Tonight I’m covering the Tallis Scholars, who are performing “Masterpieces for Double Choir” at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin as part of Miller Theatre’s early music series. Selections include works by Lassus, Vivanco, Arvo Pärt (I’m interested to hear the Tallis Scholars sing this composer’s work!), and Praetorius. Below here a sample of their rendition of the latter’s “In Dulci Jubilo.”


Event Details
Saturday, December 1, 2012
8:00 PM
Church of St. Mary the Virgin (145 W. 46th Street)

To order tickets online: click here

Stile Antico Explore Holy Week (CD Review)

Passion and Resurrection
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi CD

November might seem like an unusual time to release a CD titled Passion and Resurrection. But Stile Antico’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi is a welcome addition to their catalogue regardless of any dissonance with the liturgical calendar.

With one notable exception, the disc presents a mixed program of Continental and English Renaissance music. There is one 21st century piece – a setting of “Woefully Arrayed” by English composer John McCabe (b. 1939). Commissioned for Stile Antico, this first recording of McCabe’s piece is nearly as scintillating as the performance I heard of it in New York in 2011. That’s saying something, as I then found the work a gripping, even wrenching, depiction of Christ’s agony. Reiterated pileups of dissonant polychords create a visceral imitation of hammer blows, while sinuous lines offset the more rhythmically charged passages with a plaintive keening. It’s instructive to hear another setting of the poem by William Cornysh (1465-1523), in which paired imitations and melismas provide an entirely different, yet in its own way quite moving, musical outpouring of grief.

There are lively selections on the CD as well. Particularly fine is Stile Antico’s rousing renditions of Orlando Gibbons’s Hosanna to the Son of David and William Byrd’s In Resurrectione Tua. And one would be remiss not to mention the delicacy of Stile Antico’s version of O Crux Ave by Christobal de Morales as well as the sumptuous sound that the singers display in Thomas Tallis’s O Sacrum Convivium and Jean Lheritier’s Surrexit Pastor Bonus. What about the goose bump inducing purity of their intonation on  Dum Transisset by John Taverner? This is one of those few recordings that makes it exceedingly difficult to zero in on the standout moments. While one does wonder if their use of  ”hairpins” as a means of dynamic contrast is always stylistically correct – it seems perhaps a bit overdone on Orlando de Lassus’s De Monte Oliveti, this is a little quibble; one is certainly glad to hear the thoughtfulness and desire to make meaningful contrasts that are evidently part of their interpretative process. Even in the Advent and Christmas season, there’s room for listening to Passion and Resurrection.

Friday and Saturday: C4 Ensemble

C4. Photo: Keith Goldstein.

For those of us here in New York and New Jersey, the past few weeks have been challenging. In the wake of Storm Sandy, we trust that better days are yet to come, but the present’s outlook is a bit dodgy. Some forward thinking optimism, particularly of the musical variety, is keenly welcome.

This weekend, C4 Ensemble, a collective of composers, conductors, and singers committed to new music (most wearing multiple hats in terms of their respective roles in the group), presents Music for People Who Like the Future.

Spotlighting the North American premiere of Andrew Hamilton’s Music for People Who Love the Future (hmm… I wonder if this title gave them the idea for the name of the show …), the program also features music by Chen Yi, Michael McGlynn, Sven-David Sandström, Phillipe Hersant, and Ted Hearne along with C4’s own Jonathan David, Mario Gullo, David Harris, and Karen Siegel.

Event Details 
Friday, November 16, 2012
The Church of St. Luke in the Fields
487 Hudson Street, NYC 10014
8 P.M.
$15 advance / $25 day of event/ 10 $4 “Rush” admissions 30 minutes advance at the door
Closest Subway:  1 to Christopher Street/Sheridan Square

Saturday, November 17, 2012
Mary Flagler Cary Hall at The DiMenna Center
450 W. 37th Street, NYC 10018
8 P.M.
$15 advance / $25 day of event / 10 $4 “Rush” admissions 30 minutes advance at the door
Closest Subways:  A/C/E to 34th Street/Penn Station
Reception to follow

Hilliard Ensemble Sings Gesualdo (CD Review)

Carlo Gesualdo

Quinto Libro di Madrigali

Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series CD

It’s tempting, yet often misleading, to create direct parallels between life and art. The music of Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613), effusively expressive and, at times, wildly chromatic to many 21st century listeners, has likely become inextricably linked to the scandalous facets of his biography. But the musical traits which made Gesualdo’s madrigals so memorable needn’t be treated as isolated phenomena perpetrated by an unbalanced individual. Gesualdo was not the only composer in his circle who experimented with what are now considered unusual musical practices: unprepared modulations, colorfully chromatic melodic embellishments, and audacious text-painting devices. He’s just the Neopolitan madrigalist who did so most memorably.

For this ECM recording of Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals, Hilliard Ensemble members countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor Steven Harrold, and bass Gordon Jones join forces with guest artists soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould: both singers who have appeared with the ensemble, in concert and on record, in the past. Their intonation, throughout the wending and widely diverging chromatic pathways found in these pieces, is flawless. In addition, one senses a forward momentum and particularization of articulation that impels us to savor as well the considerably intricate rhythmic dimensions of this music.

Another joy in hearing this recording is noting that, despite attention to these various details, the Hilliard Ensemble never exaggerates them. With such rich and evocative repertoire at their disposal, all too frequently, one hears vocal groups overplay their hand. Balancing passion with restraint is too rarely found in Gesualdo recordings; negotiating the correct calculus for this makes the Hilliard Ensemble’s rendition a benchmark one. Recommended.