Archive for the “Choral” Category


William Ferris Chorale
Paul French, conductor

Cedille Records

In what are said to be all recordings premieres, the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation presents the excellent William Ferris Chorale under conductor Paul French in new works that show the centuries-old art of a capella choral music is far from dead – at least in Chicago. The featured works are Four Motets (1973) by Alan Hovhaness, Stabat Mater (2006) by Egon Cohen, Velum Templi (1998) by Paul Nicholson, Who Am I? (2007) by French himself, A King James Magnificat (2004) by Easley Blackwood, Scapulis Suis (1960) by Robert Kreutz, three pieces entitled Lyrica Sacra (1962) by William Ferris, Nunc Dimittis (2007) by William White, and Behold, My Servant (1973) by George Rochberg.

Rather than write an interminable review with a lot of technical terms that would bore both you and mef, I’ll just hit the high points. Hovhaness’ Motets are based on Biblical texts proclaiming the joy of trusting God and walking in His way. The first, “Blessed is the man” (Jeremiah 17:7) sets the tone for the others, which include “Help, Lord (Psalms 12), “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? (Psalms 15) and “The fool hath said in his heart” (Psalms 15). Beautiful harmonization and adherence to tradition make these brief works memorable. Cohen’s Stabat Mater refurbished this medieval affirmation of faith describing Mary’s sorrows as she beheld the Crucifixion. This setting of the canticle expresses grief in a moving way by having some of the voice parts hum quietly or vocalize an expressive “Ah” as a backdrop and contrast to the noble simplicity of the verses. Nicholson’s setting of Velum Templi (The veil of the Temple was torn), one of the traditional canticles for Holy Week, effectively uses clashing harmonies and a notable forte to dramatize the Gospel accounts of the shaking of the Temple and the opening of the tombs after the Crucifixion.

French’s setting of “Who am I?” taken from the posthumous papers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed by the Nazis, uses a plain declamatory style with all voices coming together at the end to present this remarkable affirmation of one’s personal faith in bold relief. Blackwood’s King James Magnificat, the joyous hymn of praise attributed to the Virgin Mary in the Gospel of Luke, casts each of the ten verses in a different key and uses soft and loud phrasing and chordal harmony to emphasize the meaning of the words beginning with “My soul doth Magnify the Lord.” The work ends in a satisfying way with an exalted setting of the words often used as a coda to the Magnificat: “Glory Be to the Father, Son, and holy Spirit.” Kreutz’ Scapulis Suis uses slowly unfolding harmonies and mid-level dynamics to emphasize the words of Psalm 91, translated “He shall cover thee with his wings.” Ferris’ Lyrica Sacra (Sacred Lyrics), a grouping of three Latin motets utilizing Psalm and Gospel verses, use a variety of phrasings, speeds and dynamics to convey the meanings of the texts, which translate “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live in me, “”He who would follow me, let him deny himself,” and “As a lily is among thorns, so are you, my beloved” (Song of Solomon 2: 2).

Finally, we have White’s Nunc Dimittis (Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace), which tells the whole story of Simeon and his taking the infant Jesus in his arms in Luke 2: 25-35, not just the sentence beginning the old man’s declaration of joyous belief. White uses key, metre and tempo shifts to boldly convey the drama of the text. And Rochberg’s “Behold, Thy Servant,” commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, uses a fabric of echo effects between solo voices and the whole choir, hushed and loud tones, and chromatic and diatonic scales, to build an impressive climax to three affirmative texts from Isaiah that the composer prefaces significantly with the words of William Blake, “Ev’ry thing that lives is holy.” It concludes a program of testimony to faith that literally stretches cross the centuries.

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Dylan Thomas TrilogyJohn Corigliano

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy


Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Ty Jackson, boy soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Nashville Symphony Chorus; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor

This is the first large-scale composition that I have heard from John Corigliano in quite some time. Back in the mid-90s, I was really taken with his music. My favorite works were his Clarinet Concerto, Three Hallucinations, parts of his Symphony #1, and the opera Ghosts of Versailles. What I enjoyed most about his music were his vibrant colors and wild textures. His music used, to my ears, contemporary techniques in a very approachable emotional package. This was my perspective as a grad student over a decade ago, please do not substitute it as “the truth.”

All that being said, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy contains precious little of the materials that initially drew me to Corigliano’s music. This sound is much more conservative from just about every aspect and, to my ears, it loses a great amount of personality because of it. Each movement of the 5-part trilogy (two prologues surround the first “real” movement, Fern Hill) is pure Romanticism without any of the techniques, style, or personality that made Corigliano stand out in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, the whole disc is well performed and the music is lovely. Corigliano knows what he is doing and how to write the music that he wants to hear. It Just sounds as though it could have been written by anyone. Few of the traits that I enjoyed from earlier Corigliano works are present. The second prologue is vibrant and hints at some of the playful moments from Ghosts, as does the opening of the Poem from October movement. It doesn’t take long, though, until the music transitions back to the fairly pedestrian Romanticism that makes up the bulk of this piece.

Is it unfair for me to judge Corigliano’s music this way because I haven’t kept speed with his stylistic evolution? Perhaps. No need to blast me in the Comments section for this. It is merely my opinion, substitute your own as needed. I’ll say it again: the music is very pretty and well performed. I just don’t take anything special from it. I identify the music as attractive, but not memorable. If you are a fan of Romanticism (no neo- prefix needed here), then you will most likely enjoy this disc. If you, like me, still enjoy doing impersonations of his Clarinet Concerto even though I haven’t heard the work in over 12 years, you might want to check out something else.

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McCartney.jpgMcCARTNEY: Ecce Cor Meum. Kate Royal, soprano. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Gavin Greenaway. EMI DVD 5099950073399. 67 minutes.

It probably counts as a truism to say that Paul McCartney is one of the finest melodists popular music has produced. Popular music is often largely about melody, with the other parameters of the art usually playing a secondary rí´le.

The melodies in McCartney’s hour-long Ecce Cor Meum (“Behold My Heart”, for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra; text by the composer) are not nearly as memorable as those in his best songs. It seems as though he had a preconceived notion about what “classical” melodies should sound like and how they should be shaped. He wrote accordingly, and the result is somewhat forced and artificial.

As to the other niceties of “classical” composition, McCartney falls back on the standard tools of the inexperienced composer””pedals, sequences, and ostinatos. In this way his melodies are given the means to play out into a lengthy composition. The harmony, rhythm, and orchestration of the piece are pretty standard late 20th-century neo-tonal, with a hint of English pastoralism.

At the beginning of the film, before the performance begins, the composer enters the Royal Albert Hall and is greeted like, well, a rock star. (I wonder if he gets as tired of that happening at his concerts as I do at mine.)

Soprano Kate Royal has a fine, full voice and a winning stage presence. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra, led by Gavin Greenaway, does its usual bang up job, as do the massed choruses involved. A brief documentary on the creation of Ecce Cor Meum, in which the composer discusses his limitations as a composer (as opposed to a songwriter), dramatically illustrates just how well one can get by with a little help from their friends.

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product149462image.jpgBRYARS: And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world; Pí„RT: The Beatitudes; LOMON: “Transport”, from Testimony of Witnesses; DUCKWORTH: Selections from Southern Harmony; WALKER: Selections from The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank. Brave 720. 52 minutes.
The house of minimalism has many mansions. In fact, minimalism itself moved out (probably in order to sublet) around the time of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece whose relatively spritely harmonic rhythm (the pace at which the chords change) indicates a break with “pure” minimalism. Since then, the label of “minimalist” has been accepted and rejected by composers of a wide range of musical attitudes and attributes.
The music on Surprised by Beauty: Minimalism in Choral Music shows that the choral and instrumental group Boston Secession takes a broad view of minimalism. The common characteristic among the pieces is a certain level of simplicity on the surface and a commitment to tonality in one form or another.

Gavin Bryars’ And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is a meditative setting of a brief prose description of the last, minor occurrence in the philosopher’s life. The text is from Thomas de Quincey’s biography, and Bryars sets it in straightforward speech rhythms, with no counterpoint and only occasional harmony. The expressive power in the piece comes from Bryars’ use of melodic dissonances, which usually consist in lowering scale degrees and lengthening the syllable. And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is an almost perfect match of subject/text and technique.
Arvo Pí¤rt’s Beatitudes is even more austere than the Bryars, in some ways. It is scored for chorus and organ, and the organ supplies volume, counterpoint, and drama. On the other hand, the text is given a ritualistic setting, letting the words speak for themselves free of expressive ornament. The result is a piece both lean and haunting.
Ruth Lomon’s Testimony of Witnesses is an evening-long oratorio based on poetry by victims of the Holocaust. The “Transport” section is a setting of short verses about the trains that carried people to the concentration camps. Lomon uses the considerable resources of the Boston Secession instrumental contingent (Testimony of Witnesses was written for them) to paint a harrowing sound picture of these events. The music is tonal and directly expressive. It’s powerful and deeply moving.
The program proper concludes with selections from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony, a reworking of hymn-tunes from William Walker’s 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Duckworth is one of the founders of post-minimalism, which employs minimalist techniques (repetition of notes, motives, or phrases and clear, usually relatively fast pulsation) along with techniques from both more traditional and more Modernist techniques. Walker’s original hymn-tunes provide excellent grist for Duckworth’s mill. The result is an exultant updating and deepening of music that already was part of America’s artistic DNA when Duckworth got hold of it. The disc closes with “bonus tracks”, lively readings of some of Walker’s hymn-tunes that Duckworth used as source material.
The performances, led by Boston Secession Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank, are uniformly outstanding and sound very good””you can hear everything. Highly recommended for those interested in recent trends in choral writing and performing.

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Elgar Songs.gifELGAR: Part-Songs. Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Christopher Robinson; Iain Farrington, piano. Naxos 8.570541. 76 minutes.

This lovely album highlights one of the many great things about the Naxos label””the release of collections of specific slices of literature at popular prices. Edward Elgar’s music for small, usually unaccompanied, choir makes a great addition to the Naxos catalog.

If I don’t have much to say about this collection, and I don’t, it’s not as dismissal or an indication of disapproval or aesthetic rejection, but only that the music is purely pleasurable to me in a way that makes analysis completely beside the point. Some of my favorite pieces and moments are the whole of “There is a Sweet Music” (No. 1 of Four Choral Songs, Op. 53) and the ravishing upward sweep at the beginning of “The Shower” (No. 1 of Two Choral Songs, Op. 71).

The performances here are expert and expressive, as one would expect of performances of English music by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. There sound is warm and balanced, and their diction excellent.

Highly recommended to fans of Elgar and to fans choral music.

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Works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus

Azica Records

The two large-scale works on this disc are Tracing Mississippi, a four movement concerto for flute and orchestra, and Iholba’ for solo flute, orchestra, and chorus. Both works are inspired and influenced by the composer’s Chickasaw heritage. Tate has an uncanny ability to synthesize his nationalistic ideas into his musical language instead of smearing nationalistic touches onto the music like icing on a cake. Also, Tate has strong communicative powers in his music and a keen structural sense that makes the Chicasaw connections almost unimportant to the listener. These are solid, engaging, and powerful pieces which can be understood without any knowledge of the composer’s culture or inspiration.

The flute concerto is my favorite piece of the two. Tracing Mississippi is colorful, emotional (being based on the Trail of Tears), and well-paced. Each movement does well to evoke the imagery of their respective titles (I especially like the title meaning “Sun Thunder”). The soloist, Chirstine Bailey Davis, performs beautifully. She maintains a commanding tone and presence even in the face of thick orchestrations. Iholba’, with Thomas Robertello on the solo flute and the addition of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, works well to reflect the vivid imagery of the composer’s poetry. Again, the music is emotionally powerful and colorful.

With the endless barrage of “East meets West” compositions, I found this cultural mash-up much more appealing and effective. Tate’s language resonated with me much more than pan-Asian sound worlds tend to. He has clearly taken the Western musical tradition and found a compelling voice that integrates his native culture. Tate is a talented composer able to express a wide spectrum of sorrow and joy in a colorful, engaging, and creative manner.

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CantusCD.jpeIntroit: Benedicta sit Sancta Trinitas; POULENC: Quatre Petit Prií¨res de Saint Franí§ois d’Assise; LAURIDSEN: Ave Dulcissima Maria; CHESNOKOV (arr. Timothy C. Takach): Salvation is Created; HOIBY: Last Letter Home; JOEL (arr. Erick Lichte): Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel); Indian Raga (arr. Ethan Sperry): Ramkali; Japanese Folk Song (arr. Osamu Shimizu): Mogamigawa funa uta; ROBINSON (arr. Timothy C. Takach): Who’s Loving You; Mí„NTYJí„RVI: Pseudo Yoik NT; PAAKKUNAINEN: Dí¡lvi duoddar luohti; HAMLIN: Casey at the Bat: African-American Spiritual (arr. David Morrow): I Can’t Tarry. Cantus; Dave Hagedorn, vibraphone. Cantus 1207. 63 minutes.

Cantus is a small (nine voice) men’s chorus celebrating its tenth season with this release. They are a talented group””the voices are fine, they blend together well, and have impeccable diction and intonation.

As is often the case, this celebratory program includes selections spanning Cantus’ widely eclectic repertoire. There’s something for everyone here, as well as something that will cause most to thank God for Her invention of the “skip” button. My cringe reflex was triggered by the inclusion of jazzish vibraphone licks in the Gregorian chant number (Introit), but that has subsided somewhat on subsequent hearings.

It’s all beautifully performed and recorded. But there are three pieces that really stand out for me (and make the disc well worth having). Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Petit Prií¨res de Saint Franí§ois d’Assise are gemlike devotionals, communicating humanity and brotherhood. Morten Lauridsen’s Ave Dulcissima Maria is an expressive setting of a text celebrating Mary .Lee Hoiby’s Last Letter Home is a heartbreaking setting of Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens’ final communication with his family before his death in Iraq in 2003. Hoiby’s clean, unadorned setting is a perfect match for Pfc. Givens’ message of love and hope.

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101.jpeFERRIS: Selected Christmas Carols; Snowcarols. William Ferris Chorale; Composer Festival Orchestra/Paul French; Paul Nicholson, organ. Cedille 90000 101. 70 minutes.

William Ferris’ Christmas music is directly appealing, well-written and orchestrated, and definitely on the serious, religious side of Christmas music.

The cycle Snowcarols anchors the program, and would be a welcome addition to the Holiday Concert repertoire. It’s an introspective piece, on texts from a number of sources, including Christina Rosetti and John Vorrasi (who wrote the informative liner notes for the present disc) on the subject of Christmas time snow. The texts are set clearly, with the words always understandable, and the writing for both chorus and orchestra is warm and inviting, against the chill of the subject and the season.

The other carols on the disc are in a similar vein, expressive, serious, and appealing. The performances are uniformly strong, with the William Ferris Chorale and the Composer Festival Orchestra (led by Paul French and sometimes accompanied by Paul Nicholson on organ) deeply committed to the music and steeped in its style.

Cedille’s sumptuous sound is well matched to the music. This is a timely release, and I look forward to listening to it again, along with a cup of holiday cheer.

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ferneyhough.jpgBrian Ferneyhough

Choral Music


One might not readily associate “new complexity” composer Brian Ferneyhough with the choral idiom: but as this CD release by MSV demonstrates, even very challenging fare is eminently performable, given the right choir. The BBC Singers are one of the best singing groups on the planet, and prove it time and again by meeting the many thorny difficulties found in Ferneyhough’s scores. What’s more, with the technical concerns surmounted, the pieces contained herein prove to be most attractive indeed.

Both The Doctrine of Similarity and Stelae for Failed Time, excerpts from the composer’s recent (and quite successful) opera Shadowtime, weave instruments, voices, and, on the latter work, electronics into fascinating textures which combine a wide range of textual references with multifaceted, at times surprisingly lush, musical surfaces. The Missa Brevis and Two Marian Motets, liturgical works composed in the sixties (although the motets were recently revised), are perhaps too formidable for liturgical use, but are sensitive and dramatically compelling settings of these venerable texts. While it’s certainly adventurous listening, Ferneyhough’s Choral Music is surprisingly singable.

-Christian Carey

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cds-ARScover.jpgROREM: After Reading Shakespeare; MORAVEC: Mark Twain Sez:; SPRATLAN: Shadow. Matt Haimovitz, cello. Oxingale 2012. 72 minutes.



HENDRIX/Haimovitz: Machine Gun; MACHOVER: VinylCello; WOOLF: Apres Moi, Le Deluge; SANFORD: Scherzo Grosso. Matt Haimovitz, cello; Uccello; DJ Olive; University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir/Beverly Taylor; Pittsburgh Collective/David Sanford. Oxingale 2011. 77 minutes.

Matt Haimovitz is an outstanding cellist. He has a big, rich sound, a strong rhythmic sense, and a keen feel for musical structure, both on the local and global levels. His playing is marked by passion and musicality.

And he’s committed to modern and contemporary music.

Ned Rorem’s After Reading Shakespeare leads off a disc of pieces for solo cello. It’s one of the best works of the composer that I have heard. It is a suite of sharply-etched character pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. It makes a convincing whole as well, and Haimovitz plays it with authority.

Mark Twain Sez, by Paul Moravec, inspired by Twain aphorisms, is naturally in a somewhat lighter vein than Rorem’s work, and in a more immediately accessiable idiom. It provides many technical challenges for the cellist, and Haimovitz handles them with seeming ease.

The program closes with Lewis Spratlan’s Shadow, which is cast in four large movements, in contrast to the shorter forms of Rorem and Moravec. Spratlan’s rhetoric is more expansive than in the other pieces as well, and the forms unfold at a more leisurely pace, with highly characterized gestures recurring throughout, holding the piece together. These three works are in contrasting styles and take very different approaches to musical material and how it is structured. Haimovitz is in tune with all three approaches and delivers a strong case for all three works, as well as for the unaccompanied cello itself.

The other disc contains the first fruits of Buck the Concerto, Haimovitz’ commissioning program, whose mission is to create a body of literature for cello and unusual ensembles. The evidence on this disc is that the program will be a rousing artistic success. The program opens with Haimovitz’ own arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ anti-war “Machine Gun”, for cello and cello ensemble. It is by far the best example of an arrangement of a rock song for concert music performers I have heard. It is nearly thirteen minutes of hard-driving rhythm, noise, wildly expressive melody, and passion.

Tod Machover has long been an innovator in the area of combining instruments and live electronics. His VinylCello, for cello, DJ, and live electronics, is inspired by the cello’s ability to sound like the human voice and the scratching of a DJ. The sounds of the cello are processed by the DJ (DJ Olive) and the cellist responds to them in real-time. The result is a sonic dreamscape that moves seamlessly between melody and pure sound.

Luna Pearl Woolf’s Apres Moi, Le Deluge, for cello and chorus, is a searing requiem for New Orleans, to a text by Eleanor Wilner. The words and music move through fear, anger, mourning, and finally, resolve. Woolf’s eclecticism is born of a rich set of associations in the poem’s subject. We hear gospel and jazz along modernist harmonies and effects. Under, around, and above it all is Haimovitz’ cello, now singing, now moaning in lament. The piece ends with a lone soprano, singing her hope of someday returning home.

Scherzo Grosso is a four-movement concerto for cello and big band by David Sanford. It is mostly notated, though there is some improvisation. Sanford uses the full timbral resources of the big band to great effect, with the cello line sometimes doubling the saxes, sometimes the electric guitar, and so on. The style is similar to that of the Don Ellis big band or Orange Then Blue. Haimovitz is as at home here as he is in the other sonic environments of the disc.

This would be  an important release if only because of the work of Haimovitz’ Buck the Concerto program. But it is also a great listen.

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