Archive for the “Choral” Category
Kimberly Cole Luevano (Clarinet), Midori Koga (Piano), Lindsay Kesselman (Soprano)
Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano
Fleur De Son
Fleur De Son’s recently released “Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano” is an album that does right by new music in this country. It champions important composers who currently enjoy a range of notoriety through amazingly performed works that are strong and indicative of contemporary styles without sacrificing their reverence for tradition. There are two offerings by current big-namers Joan Tower and Libby Larsen and two more by accomplished and ascending Roshanne Etezady and Abbie Betinis whose path to dominance in new music’s near future will only be eased by their triumphant representation on this CD.
Of course, at the heart of any recording’s success or faaiure is the tremendous quality of its performers, and “Bright Angel” features three of today’s most fabulously gifted interpreters of contemporary music. Clarinetist Kimberly Cole Luevano and pianist Midori Koga appear throughout the disc, and Soprano Lindsay Kesselman joins them for Ms. Betinis’ song cycle Nattsanger. Their performances are exquisite as is their ensemble chemistry, which is demonstrated in moments like the opening of Ms. Etezady’s Bright Angel, when Ms. Luevano draws her sound out of a high, quartal or quintal harmony in the piano, or in the last movement of Nattsanger, when Ms. Kesselman’s scream of madness emerges from a high, screeching clarinet line.
As I alluded before, the pieces on “Bright Angel” are fairly centrist in their style, that is, they are certainly not aesthetically anachronistic, but are also not highly experimental or aggressive. Frankly, every work is extremely appealing, and represents the kind of music I wish could more frequently act as an ambassador of contemporary music to broad audiences. For example, Roshanne Etezady’s Bright Angel (which receives its recording world premiere on this CD) opens the album with warm lyricism and enthralling moments of virtuosity. Inspired by the architectural drawings of nineteenth century American architect Mary Jane Colter, Bright Angel possesses clear musical images of the West, which are conveyed clearly and thoughtfully through the grand tenderness of Ms. Etezady’s musical language.
Next up is Abbie Betinis’ Nattsanger (also a world premiere recording), which is a dramatic yet approachable song cycle on Norwegian texts depicting various stages of the night. Nattsanger presents dark, beautiful music that is skillfully orchestrated, namely in the way the clarinet and soprano play off each other’s similar colors and range. The performers are used conventionally with the exception of the fourth and eighth movements, where the texts’ underlying surrealism is most apparent. Here we find the clarinet and soprano used by themselves in a nervous duet (the fourth movement), and the aforementioned scream, which essentially ends the piece (the eighth movement). These are anchors of extremity, both in terms of the music’s expressive force, but also in the work’s symmetrical structure.
Joan Tower’s Fantasy (…those harbor lights) and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick further underscore the skill and craft of the composers and performers featured on “Bright Angel”. Fantasy is appropriately impulsive in character and mysterious in its expression. The prominence of the clarinet and piano’s roles are constantly shifting as they trade off prominence and, at times, share it – particularly when the musical explodes with energy about a third of the way through, rollicking through winding scales and arpeggios for most of the remaining music. Licorice Stick is less expansive an endeavor as Fantasy but nonetheless powerful. The most extensively aggressive work on the disc, Licorice Stick shows off the clarinet’s flare for bombast by drawing on its heritage as a jazz instrument (I’m about 90% sure there’s a Rhapsody In Blue quote) with pitch bends, trills and screaming altissimo lines. Throughout the shredding clarinet solos, the piano punches through with driving bass lines that make the piece stagger along the way to its loud, stumbling conclusion.
“Bright Angel” is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and from Fleur De Son’s website.
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A Good Understanding
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Before he became a Juilliard graduate, a session musician for stars such as Jonsi and Philip Glass, and then a famous composer with a pile of prominent performances and a bright future with lots of commissions, Nico Muhly was first a boy soprano. A Good Understanding, his latest Decca CD, one of two on the imprint more or less released simultaneously, demonstrates a strong connection to these musical roots and the choral music tradition. He’s also fortunate to have found ardent and well-prepared advocates in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor Grant Gershon. It’s a winning combination.
Bright Mass with Canons is a surprising and fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and postmodern elements. Its Kyrie is a good example of this. Underneath soaring vocal counterpoint, which often embodies the Anglican sound world of composers such as Whitbourne and Bennett is an underpinning of nervously skittering organ licks. The Sanctus thickens the broth further, its dense organ chords eliciting intriguing polychords from the voices.
The mass, as well as the cinematically swept Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings which follow, attractively wed these varied elements into well-crafted works. The Christmas anthem Senex Puerum Portabat is equally imaginative. It starts with long stretches of moody sostenuto cluster chords, but these give way to jubilant singing as well as bright flourishes and ebullient sliding passages for brass ensemble.
The title track, with its long legato lines for the voice somewhat curiously punctuated by boisterous percussion and a busy organ part, feels a bit more diffusely ordered, but there are a lot of very attractive moments. The LA Children’s Chorus provides a supple and affecting rendition. Expecting the Main Things from You, a triptych of Whitman settings, employs a kaleidoscope of textures circulating through the music, including pitched percussion and a prominent solo violin part. Muhly seems to favor interruptive accompaniments, and perhaps is responding to the digressive nature of the source texts with effusive variety, but the piece never quite settles in. The use of a “morse code” vocal accompaniment adds a fragmentary quality to some of the music. But again, it features affecting moments of skillful writing for both voices and instruments.
Thus, while its second half is uneven, all told the CD contains some of Muhly’s best work to date.
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CARTER: Horn Concerto; Mad Regales; Tintinnabulation; Wind Rose; Sound Fields; On Conversing with Paradise; Retracing I, II, III; Clarinet Quintet; Figment III, IV, V; La Musique; Due Duetti; Poems of Louis Zukofsky. Martin Owen, horn; BBC Symphony/Oliver Knussen; BBC Singers; New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble/Frank Epstein; Leigh Melrose, baritone, Birmingham Conteporary Music Group/ Oliver Knussen; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Juilliard String Quartet; Simon Boyar, marimba; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Jon Nelson, trumpet; Rolf Schulte, violin; Fred Sherry, violoncello; Donald Palma, contrabass; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; William Purvis, horn. Bridge 9314 A/B [2CD]. 103 minutes.
Anyone who has read my blog or my reviews here knows that Elliott Carter’s music means a lot to me. I’ve learned so much from his music it would be hard to list everything. Most important, though, is that I love how it sounds and its expressive depth. I’m not surprised then, when people ask me what pieces would be a good introduction.
With this new set of pieces, most of which were written between 2007 and 2009, I have my answer. This album includes virtually every kind of piece Carter has composed during his long career as well as a few that venture into what are, for him, very new areas.
The Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet are major instrumental works, the kinds of piece Carter is best known for. The Concerto (like most of Carter’s concertos for solo instruments) explores and extends several aspects of the expressive nature of the instrument, in this case the horn’s lyrical and majestic sides in a series of short episodes with shifting orchestral accompaniment. Martin Owen’s performance of the solo part is expressive and assured.
The Quintet has a different formal approach, though one that Carter has used in the past. The piece is one continuous stream of music (14 minutes long) that is divided into five clearly recognizable movements. The majority of the piece is lyrical nature, but the occasional outburst, usually from the strings, provides the dramatic contrast that animates most of Carter’s music. Carter regulars Charles Neidich and the Juilliard Quartet play this piece with style and understanding.
Carter wrote a good deal of choral and vocal music in the early part of his career. As he developed his characteristic style he concentrated on instrumental music until returning to the voice in earnest in the 1970s. This program includes a piece for unaccompanied voice, a cycle of songs for voice and clarinet, a cycle of songs for voice and small orchestra, and piece for a choir of six voices. These pieces are settings of texts by Modern poets of a variety of backgrounds. On Conversing with Paradise, is a setting of excerpts of some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and an excellent example of the composer’s dramatic settings, with its somewhat menacing percussion in contrast to the stark support of the strings and winds.
The three Figments and three Retracings are part of Carter’s tendency in recent years to write very short pieces for performance in solo recitals. The Retracings are reworkings of significant solo lines from larger compositions, like the trumpet solo that opens A Symphony of Three Orchestras, here given a vivid performance by Jon Nelson as Retracing III. In addition to providing solo instrumentalists with short, substantial pieces to play, these miniatures are demonstrations of the composer’s interest in and ability to write strong, if not exactly tuneful, melodies.
Due Duetti is a two-movement piece for violin and cello. In this performance by Carter veterans Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry, Due Duetti comes across like a miniature (both in instrumentation and scale) version of one of Carter’s string quartets. The transparent texture and condensed scale are both characteristic of Carter’s recent music.
The revelations on this disc (as least for me) are three pieces for large, homogeneous ensembles, the first such pieces of his career. Tintinnabulation (percussion ensemble), Wind Rose (wind ensemble), and Sound Fields (string orchestra) are studies in color and texture. Tintinnabulation is restricted in its being made entirely of non-pitched percussion; its musical argument, then, is made almost entirely through changes of color. Wind Rose and Sound Fields make theirs through contrasts in thickness and subtle shifts in color. These pieces are reminiscent of middle period Morton Feldman in their insistence on finding musical expression in their limited resources.
Listeners with an interest in this composer will find something of value in this collection. The performances are outstanding and the sound is very good. Longtime Carter annotator Bayan Northcott’s notes are informative and insightful.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Choral, Jay Batzner, minimalism, tags: CD Review, chorus, glass, Jay Batzner, Los Angeles, orange mountain, Vocal
Itaipu and Three Songs
music of Philip Glass
Orange Mountain Music
I used to be somewhat dismissive of the music of Philip Glass. I was big into Elliott Carter and it isn’t hard to see Glass as being diametrically opposed to everything that I was listening to. I always respected that Glass was writing the music that was genuine for him and I never thought of him as a fraud or a sellout. Glass’ voice is so distinct and confined that, popular or not, this is the music he is going to compose. Over the last decade, I’ve softened my stance on Glass and I do enjoy more of his music than I did in the past. The respect of his style is still there even if I don’t always enjoy the end result.
Inspired by the hydro-electric dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil, Itaipu is Glass at his most obvious. Glass does nothing to strain his limited choice of harmonic progressions and textures. The performing forces of chorus and orchestra are treated as fairly blunt instruments (pun partially intended). The four movements are mildly different from each other but none of the sections are particularly memorable. The differences lie in simple changes such as block chords in one movement and arpeggios in another. The words of the chorus seem unimportant to the piece and the voices are used as another timbre for Glass’ harmonic repetitions. These choices tie somewhat programmatically into the work’s inspiration (a giant concrete slab is probably best described through block chords, after all) but I haven’t found that repeated listenings to this work provide anything deeper than a cursory once-over. The piece is, to my ears at least, a work without surprises.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the orchestra “made up of the best studio players in Los Angeles” sound excellent under the leadership of Grant Gershon. The performance is austere and detached, well blended and mixed, letting the music do what it does. If you enjoy the music of Philip Glass already, I don’t think this particular piece is going to bring you much that you haven’t already heard. If you are new to Glass, then Itaipu is a worthy place to begin. Joking that Itaipu is “the best dam piece Glass ever wrote” is fun, too.
The sleeper-hit on this disc is the Three Songs for choir a cappella performed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia, conducted by David Temple. Glass’ treatment of the chorus, without any of his usual instrumental accompaniment tricks, reveals the clever and insightful craft that good Glass can possess. The harmonic skeleton of all of Glass-dom is present but revisited and made more potent by obvious text painting. The music is not complex but I find each of the three movements much more listenable and enjoyable than Itaipu. Where Itaipu is a summer blockbuster with a big budget, thin plot, and forgettable characters, Three Songs is a lean and tight flick with a killer ensemble cast.
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PACCIONE: Rhapsody; Stations–To Morton Feldman; Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Page for Will; Three Motets: Arabesques; Five Songs from Christina Rossetti; “Postlude,” from Planxty Cage. Molly Paccione, cl; Jenny Perron, p; Michael Campbell, p; Western Illinois University Singers/James Stegall; Nurit Tilles, p; Terry Chasteen, tenor; Moisés Molina, vcl; Andrea Molina, p. New World 80706-2. 57 minues.
[DISCLAIMER: I’ve known Paul Paccione and his music for many, many years. The following may be read with this in mind.]
Paul Paccione’s music has always been concerned with the manipulation of musical space/time. That is, Paccione reconceives musical geometry (x=time, y-space) as a canvas on which musical objects are placed, like figures or brushstrokes in an abstract painting or drawing. These objects—chords and/or melodic gestures—retain their identity through repetition rather than development. Structure is projected through placement of objects at different coordinates on the musical canvas.
The result is a musical abstract expressionism that has developed over the years in surprising and gratifying ways. I first learned of Paccione and his music in the late ‘70s, when he was coming into his own as a disciple of Morton Feldman. His music at that time was quiet and sparse, with subtle melodic threads. His sense of color was (and is) so keen that a performance of his music gave a feeling of voluptuous austerity. In early pieces like Stations–To Morton Feldman (1987) the music is extremely spare—splashes of color on a blank temporal field, with a great deal of expressive silence.
In more recent years Paccione has embraced tonality, but his music still sounds like him. The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2005) is a good example. A lean piano part limns out a slow, non-dramatic chord progression in triplet eighth-note arpeggios while the clarinet plays lyrical melodic lines mostly above it. It’s as if the gentle triplets in the piano have replaced the blank canvas as a surface to be painted on.
The vocal or choral music Paccione composed early in his career was either wordless or was a setting of a short text that moved so slowly it may as well have been textless. In the pieces offered here, Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins (2007) and Five Songs from Christina Rossetti (2003), the non-dramatic but lyrical presentation of the texts serves as a vehicle for the composer’s characteristic tone explorations.
My favorite piece on this recording is the Three Motets: Arabesques (1999), for four prerecorded clarinets. These motets are simple—contrapuntal in the extreme, they are made of short, tonally-enigmatic melodic gestures that are imitated by subsequent instrumental entrances. The result is a haunting, subtly and constantly changing soundscape.
The performances and recording here are of the highest quality. Paccione teaches at Western Illinois University, and most of the performers are his colleagues there. Several pieces were written for clarinetist Molly Paccione, the composer’s wife, and her readings show deep understanding of the music.
Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.
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Rose Garden Songs, Choral Songs, Motets and Hymn Melodies
Tamás Vetö, Ars Nova Copenhagen
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a man clearly out of step with his time. Reportedly, audiences shunned him in his native Denmark, where he had to promote the premieres of most of his 16 symphonies himself for lack of interest. The trouble was in his sometimes-hysterical arch romanticism that flowed against the stream of the progressive trend in 20th century Danish music represented by Carl Neilsen, with whom he had actually studied counterpoint for about a month. He later had a falling out with Neilsen, whom he came to regard as the epitome of all that was wrong in modern music, and he was quite outspoken on the matter. A contemporary wag described Langgaard as “the white duckling who grew up to be an ugly swan,” and the unfortunate label stuck.
Posterity has been kinder to Rued Langgaard, particularly since the recording explosion that was ushered in first by the stereo LP and then the compact disc. “Neglected” romantics became a passion in the industry, and Langgaard was the beneficiary. Also, his fellow countrymen, who often used to laugh at his premieres, have had a change of heart towards his music, and most of his 400+ works have subsequently been published and performed.
The current program of choral songs by Langgaard reveals the less eccentric, more purely lyrical side of this enigmatic figure. The texts are simple-hearted and straightforward in their emotion, particularly in the Psalm and hymn arrangements of contemporary Danish poets. Langgaard set these to music distinguished by harmonic warmth and gentle expressiveness that has been largely absent from a capella music since Brahms. The three choral songs with secular texts reflect a genuine, refreshing love of nature, as in the following: “A bird flew over the fir-clad moon; / it sings forgotten songs. / It enticed me away from the beaten track; / and onto shadowy paths. / I came to hidden springs and ponds / where the elk slakes its thirst; / but the birdsong sounded still far away / like a hum midst the sighs of the wind; / Tirilil Tove, Tirilil Tove, / far away in the forest!” (Alluring Sounds, J.S. Welhaven)
The 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen under Tamás Vetö is a premiere vocal ensemble, distinguished for its perfect blend, flawless intonation and expressiveness. This recording was originally released by Marco Polo in 1997, when Dacapo’s catalog was still being issued on that label. Dacapo thought highly enough of this offering to reissue it in luminous hybrid SACD sonics, making it even more attractive. Listeners who treasure great a capella singing will find this offering irresistible.
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The Key Masterpieces
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt;
Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Hannu Koivula;
Athleas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Giordano Bellincampi;
Morten Zeuthen, cello; Trio Ondine; Kontra String Quartet
I must admit total ignorance as far as prior experience of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), and I’m probably far from alone in that respect. His fellow countrymen regard him as the successor to his mentor Carl Neilsen as Denmark’s greatest composer. But while Neilsen has gradually achieved world fame, thanks in large part to the untiring efforts of his admirers among conductors and critics, Holmboe remains little known outside his native land. Of the 33 recordings of his music currently listed on Arkivmusic.com, only one is on a label that is not Danish (Dacapo, Danacord, or Classico). Like that of Nielsen, Holmboe’s music is uncompromisingly honest and direct, solidly structured, very personal and very intense (“Controlled ecstasy” is the way he described it). There is little in it that is superficially colorful or pretty. His use of the strings is notable for its extremes, from the darkest stratum of the lowest strings to the most brilliant high register of the violins, a sound so intensely brilliant it hurts.
In keeping with the aim of Dacapo’s Perspectives series, this 2-CD set is described as comprising the composer’s “Key Masterpieces,” as culled from that label’s discography. Actually, it’s a fairly representative sampling of the range of Holmboe’s writing, considering the fact that it comprised more than 200 opus numbers. None of his 13 symphonies is represented, but we do have Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 20 (1940) and Sinfonia 1, Op. 73a (1957). The former is distinguished by the interweaving lines of violin and flute soloists and by a strikingly original use of the percussion as an integral part of the texture and not just for accents or special effects. The latter is notable for its tight structure and economy of means. The Sonata for Solo Cello (1969), which makes exceptional technical demands of the performer, is also highly expressive, illustrating what Holmboe meant by “controlled ecstasy.” It calls for the excellent performance it receives here from cellist Morten Zeuthen. Nuigen (1976) was Holmboe’s own pet name for his Second Piano Trio. The title could be translated “What, again?” It, too, represents the composer’s attempt to extract the essence of folk music in its outer movements, to which he contrasts an intermezzo “in sacred style.” His Fourth String Quartet and his tone poem “To the Seagulls and the Cormorants,” Op. 174 (both completed 1987) show that his rigorous approach and the rugged expressive power of his music were far from diminished in his later years.
That leaves us with his oratorio Requiem for Nietzsche (1963-64), based on sonnets by the Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig describing Nietzsche’s journey toward both enlightenment and madness. It is an almost indescribable work, making heavy demands on the tenor and bass soloists (particularly the latter, sung here by Johan Reuter) and calling on the chorus for a number of surprising aleatoric effects that include speaking in a hubbub of voices, whispering, and shouting in addition to plain old-fashioned singing. Even if it didn’t include some controversial notions in its libretto – such as that the voice of Jesus’ tempter in the wilderness was the voice of truth, corresponding to Nietzsche’s idea of man as a limitless, self-contained god – this avant-garde work makes such demands on the listener that it is clearly not for everyday listening.
The performances on this program are universally fine. The recordings, made at different times and in different venues, have been mastered in clear, transparent sonics that give the listner the feeling of a coherent program.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Choral, DaCapo, Jay Batzner, Symphony, tags: CD Review, da capo, Jay Batzner, Nørgård, String quartet, Symphony
Symphonies 3 and 7
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir
Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
DaCapo has released a new recording of Per Nørgård’s Symphony #3, a masterpiece of color and structure to say the least. The only other recording of this work that I have ever encountered (and perhaps the only other recording) is the Chandos release paired with Nørgård’s piano concerto. The Chandos recording has served me well over the years and was a major contributor to me becoming a fan of Nørgård’s music. This new recording, however, is sonically superior in almost every respect. The sounds are sharper, crisper, and more detailed.
From the opening piano notes, through the glistening high-pitch descending lines, to the rich full brass and vibrant flexatone in the first three minutes, I felt like I was hearing this work for the first time again. The sonic clarity and crispness of the performance is perfectly stunning. The orchestra and voices perform with an infectious sense of joy and tranquility. I can’t listen to the piece without my stomach fluttering.
There are moments in the piece that I think are best left to recording, dare I say, instead of a live performance. This symphony is a work in which anything can and will happen. The organ’s entrance is a moment of musical perfection, especially when you don’t know it is going to happen (sorry to spoil the surprise). The same goes for the choir’s entrance 10 minutes into the second movement. You didn’t know that you wanted to hear voices until they emerge. Ulla Munch’s solo is buttery and lovely.
The disc also presents the world premiere recording of Nørgård’s Symphony #7. This composition is an excellent pairing to Nørgård’s Symphony #3 as there are many similar sonic elements but the overall tone is much darker with more drive. Instead of languishing in transcendant lush harmonies and colors from the symphony from the 70s, Nørgård’s most recent symphony (completed 2006) is full of agitation and motoric contraptions. The first movement’s molto agitato looses its steam for just a moment in the middle before winding back up again. Simple melodic paths and sprawling chords form the second movement but still placed together in a disquieted way. The ending movement is a jagged and dance-like romp that sounds like it could serve as a contemporary Petrouchka ballet. The same high-quality recording and performance holds true in this symphony. You hear everything that happens and everyone is performing on their highest level.
String Quartets 7, 8, 9, 10
The Kroger Quartet
The same coloristic worlds that are explored in Nørgård’s symphonies are still at work in the more intimate genre of the string quartet and the Kroger Quartet sounds to be the perfect vessel for these four works. Each of the quartets on this recording were written in collaboration with the Kroger Quartet and these later quartets span the early 90s to the mid 2000s (Quartet 10 is from 2005).
Quartet 7 is a very extroverted display of Nørgård’s colorful style in an approachable harmonic and gestural language. Quartet 8, subtitled Night Descending Like Smoke, spans 5 short movements and captures moods and materials from Nørgård’s chamber opera Nuit des Hommes. The Kroger quartet nails the tense sound, terse language, and microtonality. This quartet is my personal favorite on the disc, even though all four quartets are given rich and nuanced performances and once again display DaCapo’s knack for a transparent capturing of sound.
Quartet 9, Into the Source, tracks the notion of moving against the flow of things. The gestures are energetic and driving throughout, even in the calmer second movement. There is a sense of disquiet that I find foreshadows much of what I hear in the depths of Nørgård’s Symphony #7.
Quartet 10, Harvest Timeless, is the only quartet in a single movement and the long lyrical line that laces the whole movement together feels deeply personal. This might sound strange, but I feel like this quartet is like eavesdropping. I hear the joy and serenity from Nørgård’s Symphony #3 doing battle with the darker tone of Symphony #7 throughout this quartet. Throughout it all, The Kroger Quartet has chameleon-like powers of color shifting and timbral transformation. If you are into Nørgård in any capacity, neither of these discs should escape your ears.
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Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop
By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.
Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.
What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.
And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.
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Soloists, Valley Festival Orchestra and Amherst College Concert Choir
Lewis Spratlin conducting
Streaming: Quartet for Piano and Strings
Yvonne Lam. Violin; David Kim, viola; Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Xiang Zou, piano
“Sun, Sun, you bring us light. Never can we pay for the blessings that you give to us.” Thus begins a Mayan prayer to the Sun that calls forth an appropriately rhythmical choral setting by American composer Lewis Spratlan, concluding Part IV of In Memoriam. Earlier, in the course of the Mexican Serenade portion of Spratlan’s ambitious choral work, the composer waxes lyrical in a soprano/tenor duet: “And when I close my eyes at night / I hear the threadbare music / of your streets / and I fall asleep as if adrift / in the air of Sinaloa.” Here, the unmistakable echoes of Mexican popular song add to the enchantment of the nocturnal images in the poetry by Pablo Neruda.
Unfortunately, there are precious few instances of such perfect melding of poetic inspiration and musical setting in the 50-minutes length of In Memoriam, based on translations of Spanish language poetry by Neruda and César Vallejo. Spratlan’s professed aim is to celebrate the resilient spirit of the people of Mexico and Central America in their journey from pre-Columbian times to the present, in spite of an often tragic and bloody history, just as the land itself seems to be endlessly renewed by luxuriant foliage. That’s all well and good, although just how much a Miami, Florida native like Spratlan can be expected to understand an alien culture – to which he is not, unlike Neruda and Vallejo, an inheritor – could be debated. True, the Mayans made impressive achievements in art, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy, but they also practiced very bloody human sacrifice. That’s not so easy for a modern person to relate to! And future generations will require historical footnotes for references to “Trujillo” and “Somoza” in the revolutionary theme of Neruda’s “The Hero.”
The greater problem is that Spratlan basically employs a style of heightened declamation, a sort of tortured sprechstimme in American English, for the great majority of his settings. One hears this all too often in contemporary choral and vocal settings, and the effect is tedious in the extreme when carried over a long work such as In Memoriam. Free, unrhymed verse explodes in a spectacular profusion of imagery such as “The peace, the wasp, the shoe heels, the slopes / the dead, the deciliters, the owl, / the places, the ringworm, the sarcophagi, the glass, the brunettes, / the ignorance, the kettle, / the altar boy, the drops, the oblivion / the potentate, the cousins, the archangels, / the needle, the priests, the ebony, the rebuff, / the part, the type, the stupor, the soul”¦” (Vallejo). These things, to Vallejo, are part of the stored common memories that a poet must not forget, but how do you set them to music?
The sad truism that second-rate poets – the Wilhelm Müllers rather than the Pablo Nerudas – are more likely to inspire great music than the truly great ones would seem to apply here. Also, the live recording of In Memoriam, made in April 1993 in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College, is less than optimal in the clarity with which it registers the large forces employed here, 5 solo vocalists plus a chorus of 110 singers and 70 instrumentalists. There’s too much bleed-through in the moments of heightened intensity. The recording sounds as if it were intended for archival purposes, rather than commercial release.
“Streaming” for Piano and Strings (2004) benefits from a better recording, which is essential since so much of the effectiveness of the music is in its details. Spratlan claims to have aspired to something analogous to a stream of consciousness in literature, in which “ideas and images appear, merge, retreat, reappear changed, [and] jostle for place” (Spratlan), much as in the state in we emerge from sleep but are not yet fully conscious. With repeated auditions, the 16-minute piece appears less aleatoric (i.e., by random chance) than we might have at first imagined. A principle of form begins to emerge from the “buzz of consciousness” (Spratlan) that employs vivid contrasts between a beautiful, languid theme in the strings, like a slowly drifting cloud tinted by the colors of sunset, and bumptious, scrambling frenetic figures that threaten to overwhelm it.
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