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More Recent Choral Music

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Various works, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, Norman Mackenzie (released on February 28, 2006)
One of the things that distinguished the Robert Shaw Chorale was not only the exceptionally high quality of its singing but also, probably not unrelated, the fact that its singers were all paid professionals. For some reason, choral singing is still dominated by amateur musicians, and it was inevitable that the new incarnation of the RSC, created by Norman Mackenzie as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Orchestra, would be a group of 40 to 60 volunteers. They sound good on their latest CD, but not as good as the Robert Shaw Chorale.

This CD is bookended by two very different settings of the text for Corpus Christi (celebrated yesterday) by Thomas Aquinas, O sacrum convivium, both sung by a reduced group with five or six singers per part. That by Olivier Messiaen is one of his most famous pieces, sung by many choruses, often badly. Its complicated harmonies are extremely difficult to tune well, and the ASOCC does a fairly good job. The Thomas Tallis setting is much less extraordinary, although there are a few interesting cross-relations to navigate. The sound of this disc is warm, capturing the choir in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta with some of the rich clothing of the space. The Messiaen is paired with John Tavener's Song for Athene, a funeral motet that was famously performed at the memorial service for Diana Windsor. It receives a lovely performance here, somber and mournful, but with an exultant final section ("Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you") with the sort of loud singing that volunteer choruses excel at.

The meat of the recording comes with two sets of motets, the Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, op. 10, by Maurice Duruflé, and Aaron Copland's Four Motets, op. 20. Any church singer worth his salt has sung the Duruflé pieces, probably quite often, and the ASOCC comes close to getting the right simplicity in its performance, although with some intonation problems, especially in the Tantum ergo. Duruflé's greatest achievement was to have created the best manner of setting chant melodies in modern harmonic textures, Gerald Near being a close contender for the title. The Copland motets are far less familiar, and while Duruflé wrote his four motets near the end of his life, the Copland pieces are juvenilia, composed as exercises for Nadia Boulanger. The performance here is much less polished. Finally, the Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams, while lovely (especially the Dona nobis pacem), hardly needs another recording at this point, and this performance does little to distinguish itself from the pack. In fact, the solo sections (as in the Christe eleison) are sometimes a drawback. Any church would be happy to have a group like the ASOCC performing in their chancel every Sunday, but as far as listening to this recording regularly at home, it is just not that extraordinary.

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Various works, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Hila Plitmann, Nancy Maultsby, Robert Spano (released on October 25, 2005)
Of greater interest is the live recording, released last fall, of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus premiering two recent choral works (mixed together from concerts on May 14 and 15, 2005). This recording would be worthier still if the new pieces were truly significant, "destined to become important additions to the choral repertoire" in the words of the liner notes. Neither piece thrilled me all that much after a second and third listening, and neither seemed to have a created a need in my ear for more hearing. The performances are no more extraordinary.

Composer Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967) drew the texts for his The Here and Now from the ecstatic poetry of the 13th-century Turkish philosopher Jelaluddin Rumi, in an English translation by Coleman Barks. The work, commissioned by Robert Spano for the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, grabbed me at first, with its insistent homophonic swells and iterations, especially in the frenetic first movement, Inside this new love, die ("Take an axe to the prison wall! Escape! Do it now!"). Over the course of its half-hour duration, however, the sameness of style wore thin. The chorus, often in homophonically united chords of greater or lesser dissonance, pronounces its text in speech-like Brittenesque rhythms ("half-heartedness" is not a word that lends itself easily to singing, for example). Three brief solos by baritone Brett Polegato and the penultimate duet with soprano Hila Plitmann and tenor Richard Clement do little to relieve the monochromatic nature of the piece. The final movement begins with the kitschy shout of Polegato ("His laughter was his freedom, and his gift to the eternal!") and only gets sillier after that, sounding like a Hollywood-style work appropriate to the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad.

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931Leonard Bernstein is one of those composers who knew his musical voice very early on, and the Lamentation movement from his "Jeremiah" Symphony, submitted for a student composition contest during the World War II years, is recognizably Bernstein. The glistening jazzy chords, the wind dyads, and the sensitive orchestration with soaring violin lines all make this enjoyable listening. In particular, the lengthy instrumental portions of this movement sound great. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby has enough heft in the Hebrew text, but perhaps too much vibrato and not enough cleanness at the ends of lines.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici (b. 1937) is up to his usual neo-Romantic tricks in his new work, a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Paul Revere's Ride. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Del Tredici was overtaken by a fit of patriotism: in the liner notes, he writes, "Flags also appeared in many windows, including my own, and I saw that it angered me to see windows without flags." All of the bombast one would expect from that sentiment can be found here, and then some. There is a musical battle between "Rule, Britannia" and "Yankee Doodle" in the fugue section, a siren that wails at several points, and every imaginable cliché used in settings for military choruses, for example. No doubt about it, Del Tredici loves the Red, White, and Blue, and he calls it macaroni. Fortunately for the listener, over about the same length as The Here and Now, the veteran Del Tredici gives us much greater diversity of sound and texture. The symphony and chorus are clearly having fun with the work and do a bang-up job, although soprano Hila Plitmann, miked closely to give her a chance against the orchestra, still sounds slightly pinched on some of the very high writing. This is a fun and wild ride, if not particularly musically nourishing. With the sounds of birds warbling (is that an instrumental effect or a taped sound?) in the postlude, ah, it's morning again in America.

Although inclined to disagree with my review, after downloading Paul Revere's Ride, the Fredösphere now thinks that I got it right. Thanks for reading, Fred!


Thomas Hogglestock said...

If you haven't seen it yet, you should check out the Grant Wood exhibit at the Renwick Gallery through July 11th. You can see Paul Revere's Ride in person. Alas, American Gothic has already returned to its home...Chicago I think.

Anonymous said...

Heads up! The recordings were made in non-live sessions during the weekend of the concerts. They are not "live".

Also: I don't want to burst your bubble, but the chorus really did enjoy singing the Theofanidis a *lot* more than the Del Tredici.