Archive for the “Choral” Category

Svend Nielsen


DaCapo Records

Ars Nova Copenhagen, Tamí¡s Vetō director. Text by Inger Christensen

This requiem in two parts is a complete setting of Inger Christensen’s Sommerfugledalen or Butterfly Valley for twelve voices. Svend Nielsen commands an excellent lyric style and mixes in intriguing vocal effects for an engaging and captivating 45 minutes of music.

The opening triad arpeggiation quickly dissolves away into fresh diatonic and chromatic textures. Cadences on major chords happen at wondrous times. Non-singing vocal effects are used sparingly and are always an integral part of the musical fabric instead of being thrown around willy-nilly. Each of the fifteen movements floats gracefully and elegantly in space and time and maintains a small dramatic scope. A few gestures build to intense moments but these moments are never sustained for long. They drift away on the wind like butterflies. How apt.

The final track on the disc is the poet reading the text used for this piece. While I do not understand the Danish language, hearing the poet speak her own works proved to further elucidate the choral writing. Mr. Nielsen’s pitch language is rather slippery and mercurial. Hearing the natural glissandi and inflections of the language when plainly spoken reinforces the masterful text setting by the composer.

Ars Nova Copenhagen is one of those great groups that specializes in early music and contemporary music. Their performance is exquisite. They glide along with great ease while navigating some rather difficult passages. They truly sing with a single voice and have a great dramatic focus to their sound.

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Firebird Motel
Firebird Motel
Music by David Conte
Libretto by David Yezzi
Scenario by David Yezzi and Tony Kelly

Thick Description Theatre Company
San Francisco Conservatory Chorus & Chamber Ensemble
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
Arsis Label

The story of Firebird Motel is, in its essence, a perfectly normal opera story. The setting, which provides the title of the opera, is the center for a traditional “boy meets hooker” love story which we as opera-goers have come to expect (gross generalization, of course, with all apologies to Mr. Yezzi). Our tenor is Ivan, the night clerk of the motel. Our hooker is Corina. It should go without saying that Corina is a soprano, but I say it anyway. Other characters include Nova, a longtime resident of the Firebird (mezzo), the Trooper (baritone) who dogs (quite literally) Corina, and Julie the original romantic interest of Ivan who disappeared in the desert as appears as a disembodied voice. Corina wants to get away from the Trooper, falls for Ivan, has a confrontation with the Trooper, and hilarity ensues. I won’t give away the ending, but you can probably guess what happens.

Mr. Conte pays great attention to melodic vocal writing and that is the main reason we listen to opera. A bad libretto is like bone disease and Mr. Yezzi’s libretto provides sufficient interest and detail to what could be a stock opera plot. The motivations of the characters seem justified and the emotional outburts of arias happen at the right times.

Listening to this makes me think of Copland, Rorem, and Floyd (Carlisle, not Pink). The action and plot-churning portions of the libretto are effectively handled without seeming too removed from the meaty arias. I have found myself whistling the tune to Corina’s first aria “Hear the wind tonight” on more than one occasion recently. I also laud the implementation of the chorus, used to sing hymn tunes whenever Ivan turns on the radio. It is a great way to use a chorus while maintaining the small cast (fitting with the desolate desert setting). Any other use of the chorus would have felt forced.

The instrumental group of violin, cello, bass, clarinet, and piano supports the singers well without overpowering and does not grow stagnant to my ears as the hour is up. The instruments get their own moments in the sun but, as it should be, the voices are the prominent sounds.

My only quibble come from the impression I get from the CD artwork. Firebird Motel contains expressionistic-inspired stills which led me to certain expectations of the musical language. I originally thought that the piece would be more surreal and dark and was surprised at its rather conservative musical vocabulary. My expectations were mistaken and in a good way. The lyricism of Firebird Motel provides just the right balance between the desolate setting and the hopes and dreams of the characters. Is it as dark as, say, Jenufa? The answer is no. But drowning a newborn child in a frozen lake is a heckuva lot darker than shooting a cop (oops, I gave away the ending). At the end of the day, Firebird Motel is a solidly constructed one-act opera that singers should enjoy singing and audience should enjoy hearing.

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Daniel Pinkham operasThe Cask of Amontillado and Garden Party
The Chorus and Orchestra of the Boston Academy of Music
John Finney, conductor.

Arsis Record Label

Opera on recording is always a little tricky. How much of the visual event affects how we process the music? It is similar with movie soundtracks. Hearing a movie soundtrack without seeing the film leads to an incomplete picture of the whole work. I find that, in the case of these two operas, the missing visual elements leave me rather flat and empty. Simply as disembodied music, these pieces are not entirely successful.

The Cask of Amontillado was adapted from the Poe by the composer and commissioned by Richard Conrad and the Boston Academy of Music. Mr. Conrad also sings the role of Montresor, which illustrates the nice thing about commissions: you get to be the bad ass. I’m sure that wasn’t a stipulation of the commission but it certainly didn’t hurt anything.

Cask is a simple enough story and Mr. Pinkham’s libretto is just fine. My main complaint with the libretto is that it is too literal. I submit that most people will know this story. The psychological aspects of the tale are set aside for a cardboard description of a simple revenge story. I wanted a revenge-flavored version of Erwartung but instead get a storyline that reads a bit too much like SparkNotes. The insertion of a reveller’s scene is heavy handed and seems to come about due to a predefined need for a choral part. It is not dramatically nor musically necessary.

Musically, the piece hangs together well. Single ideas are used to articulate large formal sections just as one would expect. The language is vocal-friendly without a lot of dissonance and a good attention to smooth melodic contours. One peculiarity is that the instruments and the singers are rarely performing at the same time. There are instrumental interludes between scenes that allow the orchestra a chance to flex their muscles but I did not find a satisfactory peak in the drama that brought the singers and instrumentalists together.

Similarly, the vocal writing is a basic alternation between Montresor and Fortunato. There are several missed opportunities. Fortunato’s coughing is just coughing. No instrumental exploration, no rhythmic use of the quirk to give the character any particular…you know…character. And Fortunato is extremely well mannered as he is being chained up and walled in. He let’s Montresor finish his melodies before singing a feeble protest. I would think that if I were in Fortunato’s shoes I would interrupt a time or two and probably wail a bit. The whole opera suffers from a series of missed musical and emotional opportunities.

Garden Party is a comic opera about Adam and Eve, once again with the composer as the librettist. This opera is an earlier work, dating from the late 70s, and is musically a bit more satisfying. The general affect of the singers is better than in Cask simply because of the funny dialog. The score is much spryer and rhythmic, even though most of the opera really isn’t THAT funny. There are some chuckle moments and a nice celebration of sin at the end. The story line is a much more creative adaptation than in Cask and I think this work would be fun to watch. The timing and inflection of the vocalists on the recording is rather flat but, in a live concert, I bet it would work nicely (give the proper cast).

The whole opera could be called Candide Lite for the basic character/musical similarities: simple people getting duped by others and then reflecting, often with some rhythmic spunkiness. The Snake’s voice is not sung (of course) but rather sounds like an unfortunate Trumate Capote impersonation. God’s final scolding is completely straight, which is a shame. It could have been funny. Nay, it SHOULD have been funny.

The pairing of dark/light one-act operas is a great way to spend an evening. The pairing of Menotti’s The Telephone with The Medium is an excellent model. Mr. Pinkham’s pieces seem to reflect this model except the dark story isn’t very disturbing and the light story isn’t all that funny. At the end of it all, I have to drop the F-bomb: fine.

These pieces are fine. They could have been so much more.

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B000F6YWR6-01-_AA240_SCLZZZZZZZ_V54317174_.jpeHAMERIK: Choral-Symphony 7; Requiem. Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano; Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo 8.226033 79 minutes

It is normally a fool’s errand to analyze the work of an artist through his biography. Or worse, it’s shallow. But it the case of Danish composer Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) the facts that he studied with Berlioz, was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler, and lived in the United States for much of his career illuminate a great deal about his music.

At least the two pieces on this disc. The Choral-Symphony (his Seventh, Op. 40, 1906) has much in common with Mahler’s symphonies besides the use of a chorus. The composer’s text concerns life, death, and resurrection. Hamerik composes melodies with a folk quality to them in addition to melodies with a more “classical” sound. Many of them have a distinctly American sound. The work is cyclical, with the slow theme that opens the symphony appearing near the end in a new guise. Also like many of Mahler’s symphonies, the Choral-Symphony is not in four movements (it’s in three) and has a “progressive” tonality; it begins in d minor and ends triumphantly in C Major.

Hamerik’s music is not an echo of Mahler’s, however. His harmony is fresh, personal, and convincing. His study under Berlioz left him with a rhythmic style more French than German, and his use of syncopation is distinctive. His mastery of tonal architecture is thorough, and his climaxes are satisfying. This symphony is well worth hearing and performing.

Hamerik’s Requiem (1886-87) is in the tradition of his teacher’s. It is dramatic and symphonic. Like the Symphony, it’s theme’s are clearly constructed, memorable, and often folk-influenced. There is a striking fanfaree motive that recurs throughout the “Dies Irae” and in the “Sanctus” that holds the piece together. Like Berlioz’ and Mozart’s Requiem masses, the opening music returns at the end with the repetition of the text. It works beautifully here as an organic part of Hamerik’s style.

The performances are very good indeed, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir, under Thomas Dausgaard perform with passion and commitment. Mezzo Randi Stene solos in both pieces and has a clear, warm voice. Dacapo’s sound is quite good; everything sounds clear and with a natural presence.

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