Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Keeping the Great British Tradition of Choral Music Alive

In these perilous times, what could be more appropriate than a spare, elegaic Ukrainian choral work titled Kontaktion of the Dead? Or a haunting suite for choir and organ dedicated to the millions murdered by Axis evil in World War II? That piece is Maurice Durufle’s Requiem: both appear on today’s album, Remembrance, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded six years ago and still streaning at Spotify.

This may be the work of a student ensemble, but they are no ordinary group of college kids. Under the leadership of Graham Ross, this rotating cast of young choral talent have released a series of awardwinning records. They sing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. Some group members go on to careers as professional singers, others take fond memories of their days as Cambridge choristers elsewhere.

Organist Matthew Jorysz provides delicately circling ambience as the men pulse amid the women’s lustre to introduce the requiem. This version is much more ghostly than the full symphonic arrangement (the New York Choral Society sang a rich, saturnine version at Carnegie Hall in February of 2017). The organ and women of the choir fuel the big crescendo in the second movement. The imploring intensity but also the lingering ghostliness of the third are stunning, with bass chorister Neal Davies taking a solo turn as the organ grows more ominous.

Hazy ambience turns blustery and bracing; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston hits anguished peaks and then fades down to Guy Johnston’s cello. The terseness of this arrangement is srriking, the composer often putting the women’s voices front and center in gently lilting, consoling melodies. Macabre echoes of the war linger in the organ melodies of the concluding movements: restraint, but also seething anger.

The album opens with the fleeting, stately Call to Remembrance, attributed to 16th century British composer Richard Farrant, followed by the somber, hypnotic waves of Thomas Tomkins’ early 17th century setting of the hymn When David Heard. A possibly earlier version, by Thomas Weelkes has much more of an upbeat sway.

Remaining in the 17th century, the group cut loose with symphonic intensity and dynamics in Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen. Ross’ world premiere arrangement of Abide with Me offers momentary calm and optimism. The other 20th century works here include John Tavener’s Song for Athene, a muted, brooding farewell for a friend and two William Harris pieces, the first with more lively, tricky changes.

October 2, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magical, Mystical, Profoundly Relevant New Hildegard Recording By Seraphic Fire

Seraphic Fire‘s new recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum – streaming at Spotify– couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s a parable of good versus evil. The Virtues and the Devil battle over a soul; eventually the Virtues win. At the most pivotal moment in world history, as the voices of reason struggle against a genocidal, needle-wielding cabal of tech oligarchs, this celestial, otherworldly, stark music offers considerable solace and inspiration.

The central riff in the introit is an aptly solemn, desolate, seven-note phrase in the blues scale. It occurs here and there in British folk music and has been appropriated by the occasional classical composer in the centuries since. The rich natural reverb in the space where this was recorded enhances the feeling of isolation – something the world has suffered in unprecedented proportions since March 16 of last year.

The choir take their time with the prologue, the syncopation livening its hypnotic melody. As Anima, the embattled soul, Luthien Brackett sings with understated drama and optimism. Clara Osowski portrays Humility, Queen of the Virtues with a calm tenacity. James K. Bass plays the role of the Devil, the lone male character in the narrative. Hildegard refuses to give him a melody, so all he can do is bluster and bellow: feminism, 12th century style.

The men and women of the choir sing the rest of the roles, conducted with masterful attention to detail by Patrick Dupre Quigley. After the devil makes his entrance, we get a tantalizing bit of close harmony from the women. Long, understatedly imploring solos interchange with a sneering, diabolical presence.

A whispery, sepulchral drone lingers beneath the women’s voices as the soul returns. The final two passages, where the devil gets tied up and then sent back to hell, are tidy and bright: if only salvation was this easy!

June 15, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jitro Czech Girls Choir Celebrate Owls, Mudpuddles, and the History of Western Music

Today’s album falls into the fun classical category. Czech composer Ilja Hurnik liked bright, singable melodies but also enigmatic harmonies. His music is picturesque to the extreme, deceptively playful and more complex than it might seem on the surface. The Jitro Czech Girls Choir’s new album Gratias, a Hurnik retrospective streaming at Spotify, contains two numbers about owls and more than one vignette of children having fun in the rain…alongside an improbably successful capsule history of western choral music. That speaks volumes. Jiří Skopal conducts these young women in an evocative performance of very serious unserious music.

Variations on a Mouse Theme are actually an ambitious attempt to trace the entire history of choral music, from the pre-Renaissance to the present, in less than ten minutes. After a coyly bustling bit of an intro, there’s a trio of leaping, Handel-ish miniatures followed by a more austere interlude punctuated by incisive bursts in the high harmonies. The false ending to the fourth segment is irresistibly funny, the group gamely tackling the thorny harmonies and tricky rhythms of the modernist coda.

June Night, for piano and choir, comes across as a more sober series of etudes: counterpoint, Romantically-tinged glitter with an affecting soprano solo, and a study in slowly shifting long tones are part of the picture. If the chromatics of the fifth segment are to be taken on face value, they’re a headache.

The Children’s Tercetta suite is more piano-centric. Icicles drip busily, a sparrow and swallow banter, a colt romps for a bit, a butterfly dips and lingers gracefully. Pianist Michal Chrobák’s poignancy alongside the voices in that second owl miniature make a strikingly somber contrast: it’s one of the album’s high points.

Water, Sweet Water is a triptych for choir and the most lushly enveloping piece here. The ensemble wind up the album with the brief, strikingly translucent six-part Missa Vinea Crucis for choir and organ. The opening kyrie is stunningly dark and chromatically bristling: organist František Vaníček brings to mind the great French composer Maurice Durufle, as he does again in the disquieting twinkle and gusts of the gloria. The lively counterpoint of the credo and ethereal agnus dei each make quite a contrast.

Much as all this music is essentially etudes, the fun Hurnik obviously had writing it translates vividly in the girls’ performance.

May 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

April 24, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. Quince Ensemble sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable recent work from the past decade.

April 18, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

April 3, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New York Polyphony Deliver a Timely World Premiere From 500 Years Ago

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!
Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium
Princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo

Those are the opening lines of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, set to music by Spanish composer Francisco de Peñalosa in the early 1500s. New York Polyphony sing the world premiere recording with radiance and gravitas on their most recent album Lamentationes, streaming at Spotify. Here’s a decent translation from the liner notes:

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she who was great among nations
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave

Sound familiar?

But all hope is not lost! The recent push in the New York State legislature to strip Andrew Cuomo of his authority and restore democracy could have game-changing implications for the state of the arts here, and ultimately, around the world. If all goes well we might actually be able to see this once-ubiquitous quartet sing their irrepressible mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge somewhere in this city this year.

The ensemble – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – bookend their Peñalosa premiere around a brief, rather somber stabat mater by his contemporary, Pedro de Escobar. They open the album’s centerpiece slowly and stately, rising to the daunting demands of the composer’s range throughout this requiem for Jerusalem in the wake of the attack by Babylonian forces in 568 BC. Their unswerving resonance builds a hypnotic ambience as the music and the exchanges of phrases between voices grow slower, rising with considerably greater angst as the first part winds out. The second half, referencing divine retribution, is slower. more tersely focused, and also more immersively haunting as it goes on. It is a shock this music hasn’t been recorded before.

There are a handful of other, shorter Peñalosa compositions and excerpts from masses here as well. Texts from his Missa L’homme armé, based on a folk melody popular at the time, offer warner, hypnotically circling harmonies, stirring plainchant-inflected cadences, and benedictory resolution.

The album also includes a pair of works by a somewhat later Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero: a wavelike 1555 setting from the Song of Songs and a brief, rousing vernacular work from 1598.

March 9, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Newberry Consort Unearth an Ultra-Rare, Thrilling Medieval Choral Suite

It never ceases to amaze how much interesting music has been gathering dust in archives for centuries and is only now reaching a mass audience. A prime example is the Newberry Consort’s joyous, often exhilarating new album Vespers – streaming at Spotify – a recording of early 17th century Mexican composer Juan de Lienas’ only known mass for treble choir. It has a very lively quality and a recurrent sense of triumph that prefigures Corelli. Christian liturgical music from that era seldom reaches the kind of peaks that the choir gather forces and then hit here. And with de Lienas’ demanding dynamics and range, this is not easy music to sing.

The composer’s use of uneven meters makes it all the more challenging: this is far more rhythmically sophisticated than the simple, swaying call-and-response of so much Renaissance choral music. It follows the order of a typical Catholic mass, in twelve parts. Meant to be sung in convents, an elegantly energetic ensemble with Frances Conover Fitch on organ, Katherine Shuldiner on viola da gamba and Rachel Begley on bajón handle the bass parts.

The choir begin with contrastingly upbeat and then solemn themes before launching into a series of long, intricately interwoven upward trajectories. Waltz time appears and then disappears just as unexpectedly. There’s a stunning proto-Mozartean crescendo of echo effects in the fourth movement. The eighth is a lilting organ prelude, utilizing mostly the flute stops: it wouldn’t be out of place in Sweelinck’s work.

The Magnificat is where everything comes together, with the mass’ most bracing harmonies and momentary introductions from solo organ. Interestingly, the choir wind it up with remarkable restraint: it’s as if de Lienas realized that this was a religious service, after all, and after all the fireworks he felt to conclude on a dignified note.

Beyond the composer’s small surviving output, we know next to nothing about him. Considering his command of the European choral traditions of his time, it would be astonishing if he hadn’t been born in Spain and trained somewhere on the continent. What he was doing in Mexico with the conquistadors is anybody’s guess. There has also been speculation that he was an Aztec determined to beat the invaders at their own game. He may have been a colorful and combative personality: the original manuscript for this piece is littered with invective scrawled in the margins. Whoever was responsible may have simply been jealous, given the originality and innovations of the music.

February 7, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Devious, Innuendo-Packed, Gorgeously Sung Italian Court Music From 1592

Concerto Italiano’s dynamic, lush, elegantly impassioned new album of Claudio Monteverdi madrigals – streaming at Spotify – celebrates the profane side of a composer best known for his sacred works. That’s not to imply that this music is obscene – though some of it is as devilishly suggestive as a court choir could realistically perform in 1592, when Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals was published. And as anyone who’s ever been swept away by his Vespers of 1610 knows, his religious works were no less radiantly melodic.

This album attest to the longstanding theory that people from a composer’s home turf are its best interpreters. Concerto Italiano sing this lavish collection in medieval Italian rather than the church Latin of Monteverdi’s masses. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts.

Some of the juiciest texts are from the world of folk music, others by the composer’s contemporaries Torquato Tasso and Gian Battista Guarini. Young maidens who seem perfectly demure turn out to be hotties once you get to know them. Unrequited love is a persistent if not ubiquitous theme – there’s plenty of innuendo in the happy endings. Monteverdi also includes a couple of somber, understatedly grisly, vengeful kiss-off anthems.

Several of these relatively short songs are rounds, some rambunctious, others woven in more expansive, concentric circles. The choir pass the baton from crescendo to crescendo innumerable times: the waves of harmony are no less lively for their precision.

A brooding song addressed to a nightingale and a salamander – the latter thought to be able to reincarnate through fire – is one of the album’s most haunting moments, as is the second track, a lost-love lament. Flames leap from the sopranos’ evocation of the fire of love, high above the men of the ensemble in the seventh madrigal. And the women’s imploring echo effects in the eighteenth track are breathtaking as well.

February 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Unintentionally Prophetic Choral Reflection on a Genuine Health Crisis From a Century Ago

The irony in renowned new-music choir the Crossing’s recording of David Lang’s Protect Yourself From Infection – streaming at Bandcamp – is crushing. In September 2019, about a month before the lockdowners got together for their first rehearsal for their planned global takeover the following year, Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum sponsored a parade in memory of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. This calmly pulsing, subtly funny, roughly six-minute chorale was commissioned for the event. It’s safe to say that at the time, neither the composer, choir or museum staff had the slightest idea that a cabal springboarded by the World Economic Forum would succeed in rebranding the 2019-20 seasonal flu as a terrifying plague, and a pretext for turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

The choir steadily punch in and out, harmonizing on a single chord, voicing a series of commonsense ways to stay healthy which are just as useful today as they would have been in 1918, had the general public been aware of how disease spreads. Meanwhile, individual voices from the ensemble sing a litany of names, presumably people who perished in the outbreak just over a hundred years ago. With choral performances on ice in most parts of the world, the Crossing have been releasing a series of videos over the past year, and this is the most compelling of the bunch.

January 29, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment