Archive for the “Choral” Category
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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William Ferris Chorale
Paul French, conductor
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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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: 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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BRYARS: 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: 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
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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Introit: 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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FERRIS: 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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