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18 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Reincarnations, A Century of American Choral Music (Seraphic Fire)

by Joseph Newsome (Voix des Arts)

SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981), COLIN BRITT (born 1985), PAUL CRABTREE (born 1960), SHAWN CROUCH (born 1977), DOMINICK DiORIO (born 1984), DAN FORREST (born 1978), MORTEN LAURIDSEN (born 1943) NICO MUHLY (born 1981), JAKE RUNESTAD (born 1986), and FRANK TICHELI (born 1958): Reincarnations – A Century of American Choral MusicSeraphic Fire (James K. Bass, chorus master); Anna Fateeva, piano; Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor [Recorded at Bower Chapel at Moorings Park, Naples, Florida, USA, 21 – 23 May 2014; Seraphic Fire Media SFMCD13; 1 CD, 77:05; Available from AmazonClassicsOnlineiTunes, and major music retailers]

To adapt a clichéd colloquialism to the heady world of the contemporary Performing Arts, Patrick Dupré Quigley and Seraphic Fire are among the rarefied few in the realm of choral music who ‘get it.’ This is to say that Seraphic Fire and Maestro Quigley, the ensemble’s conductor, founder, and Artistic Director, consistently exhibit an innate understanding of the qualities necessary to ensuring not only their own artistic survival but the broader success of Classical Music in general, as well. Foremost, emphasis must always be on maintaining the highest possible musical standards, and whether the music at hand is the work of Monteverdi, Brahms, Barber, or Muhly the artists who comprise Seraphic Fire adopt as their task performing with style, eloquence, and humanity expressed through song. In these politically-correct times, too many performances of choral repertory are the musical equivalents of embalming corpses: the lifeblood is drained and replaced with numbing antiseptic, ensembles too frightened of being accused of having ulterior motives to sing with true passion. Everyone involved with Seraphic Fire proves more than ever in their performances of the selections on Reincarnations that, whether singing of God or goblins, the only viable agendum in the interpretation of choral music is the unapologetic realization of composers’ intentions. This seems such a simple, puerile concept, but it is one that is as elusive as important new compositions for choir. There is some very good music on Reincarnations, but there are also several instances in which Seraphic Fire’s performances are far stronger than the material before them. This is the uncommon sort of singing of which this wonderful group of musicians is capable, and the dedication of the singing on Reincarnations is never diluted, dissipated, or diverted. 

Seraphic Fire’s exploration of a century of American choral music via Reincarnations is a perfect storm in which musical fronts collide in vibrant artistic displays worthy of the canvases of El Greco. Pivotal in the stylistic unity of the ensemble’s approaches to the divergent idioms of the selections on the disc is the superb playing of Russian-born pianist Anna Fateeva. She may have been born into the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, but she inhabits the musical environs of Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century American music with unmistakable comfort. Any pianist with a modicum of talent can spend an afternoon at the keyboard mastering the details of a particular piece, but the unerring ease with which Ms. Fateeva’s playing captures the differing spirits of Shawn Crouch’s Light of Common Day and Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs is evidence of deeply personal refinement. Playing of quality less than what Ms. Fateeva provides would be a disservice to the singing of Seraphic Fire. Sopranos Megan ChartrandLianne P. CobleSara Guttenberg, and Molly Quinn, altos Amanda CriderReginald L. Mobley, and Virginia Warnken, tenors Steven BradshawBrad Diamond, and Patrick Muehleise, and basses James K. BassCameron Beauchamp, and Charles Wesley Evans form an ensemble of impeccable balance and tonal blend. Remarkably, these thirteen singers can both summon the robust sounds of much larger choirs and concentrate their sound into a captivating whisper. The singers, Ms. Fateeva, and Maestro Quigley all consort with the spontaneous discernment of chamber musicians. Their performances on Reincarnations define excellence in the execution of choral music of any musical style or era, but as a journey through the traditions that ushered American choral music into the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries they establish new standards by which the success of future presentations of similar repertory will be judged. 

Nico Muhly’s I Cannot Attain Unto It, a setting of verses six and seven of Psalm 139, is a gorgeous, astutely-constructed piece, the ‘stuttering’ effects in the vocal lines movingly conveying the psalmist’s wonder. The power of Muhly’s music is intensified by the forthright probity of Seraphic Fire’s singing, and the vocalists’ lucid but unstilted diction heightens appreciation of the shrewdness of the treatment of the text; indeed, in I Cannot Attain Unto It and all of the pieces on Reincarnations. The combination of Ms. Fateeva’s pianism and Seraphic Fire’s singing makes a stunning effect in Shawn Crouch’s setting of lines by William Wordsworth, Light of Common Day, a poignant homage to the composer’s late mother-in-law and, on a broader scale, to three centuries of American choral customs. The composer’s subtle manipulations of rhythm and tempo, reflected in the piano accompaniment, provide continuity as the nuances of the text lure the vocal lines into unexpected tonalities, and this performance shimmers with the simple beauty of the poet’s language. Heard in succession, there is an intriguing kinship among Wordsworth’s earthy verses and the texts of the Shaker hymns that serve as companions to Paul Crabtree’s setting of words by Mother Ann Lee. ‘Give good gifts one to another’ from the 1893 Mount Lebanon Hymnal is stirringly sung, and the energy that the singers—not least Ms. Quinn, Ms. Crider, Mr. Muehleise, and Mr. Beauchamp in quartet—devote to their performance of Philip R. Dietterich’s arrangement of ‘Followers of the Lamb’ lends the hymn meaning that goes far beyond didactic rhetoric. Ending with Mother Ann Lee’s words ‘Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow,’ the opening texts of Crabtree's Death and Resurrection from The Valley of Delight are drawn from traditional American verses and ‘Dedication’ in Lynn Emanuel's Noose and Hook. Here, too, Seraphic Fire’s performance is augmented by a solo quartet, and the voices of Ms. Quinn, Mr. Mobley, Mr. Diamond, and Mr. Bass emerge from the choir hauntingly. 

Samuel Barber's Opus 6 Reincarnations is a cornerstone of the American choral repertory but one that is more frequently cited as a musical treasure than substantiated accordingly in performance. Though credited in the liner notes as the original work of James Stephens, the texts with which Barber’s music is entwined are, in fact, Stephens’s translations of Irish poetry by Antoine Ó Raifteiri. The subject of ‘Mary Hynes' is known in Irish lore as ‘the shining flower of Ballylea,’ and Barber’s setting of the text coruscates with the legendary young wan’s pulchritude. So, too, does Seraphic Fire’s singing of the piece. The world of ‘Anthony O'Daly,’ a historical Whiteboy activist hanged in 1820, is understandably darker, but the choir’s singing never sags under the emotional weight of the words. The sentiments of ‘The Coolin’ are bizarrely touching, and the unforced grace of Seraphic Fire’s articulation of the text lends the piece a singularly American spirit of resilience despite the provenance of the verse. 

The starkly comforting text of Dan Forrest’s Good Night, Dear Heart is taken from Australian poet Robert Richardson's 1893 poem ‘Annette,’ long misattributed to Mark Twain because of the famous verse’s appearance as the epitaph on his daughter Susy’s tombstone. Forrest’s music imparts both the sting of loss and the burdened blessing of carrying on with greater fluency than even Twain’s words might have done, and the spareness of the vocal lines inspires the singers to special intelligibility. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘To Kathleen’ provides the poetic conceit for Colin Britt’s As there are flowers, and his setting of the exquisite lines ‘Beauty that may not die as long / As there are flowers and you and song’ luxuriates in the simple efficacy of the text. Seraphic Fire’s rendering of Britt’s music reflects the ethos of both music and words, and the firmness of the choir’s singing at the top and bottom of the compass creates a foundation upon which the ingeniously-sculpted harmonies are built with razor-sharp accuracy. 

The sheen of Ms. Quinn’s soprano is put to radiant use in I Am, Dominick DiOrio’s setting of Baltimore-born Mary Elizabeth Frye's 'Do not stand at my grave and weep,' one of the most familiar poems in the American popular canon despite never having been published or copyrighted by its author. Employing recurrent melodic figures almost in the manner of the Flemish masters of Renaissance polyphony, DiOrio’s music conjures an atmosphere of unsettling serenity in which Seraphic Fire’s tonal vividness reveals every harmonic metamorphosis. Ms. Chartrand’s singing is no less lustrous in Fear Not, Dear Friend, Jake Runestad’s tranquil adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated poem, to which the choristers devote linguistically-flawless singing that suffuses their performance with the conviction of the closing lines, ‘And we, who have learned greatness from you, we, / Your lovers, with a still, contented mind, / See you well anchored in some port of rest.’ This mood persists in their singing of Frank Ticheli's Earth Song, and the singers’ voicing of the composer’s subdued entreaty for peace is overwhelming. 

The work of one of the icons of Twentieth-Century American choral music, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs is an arena in which novelty and praxis converge revealingly. The carillon-like fanfare with which ‘Lament for Pasiphaë’ opens gives way to suspended harmonies reminiscent of Debussy and the generation of American composers influenced by his music. Shadows of Gershwin and Stravinsky flutter through ‘Like Snow,’ and the tonal ambiguity of ‘She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep’ injects the piece with a disquieting aura of uncertainty. ‘Mid-Winter Waking’ tingles with the ebullience of a madrigal written for a collegiate glee club, but the dissonant unease underlined by the pedal point-like bass notes in the piano part in ‘Intercession in Late October’ closes the cycle, the texts of which are by Robert Graves, with vague suggestions of malaise. Lauridsen’s way with the final couplet of the cycle, ‘Spare him a little longer, Crone, / For his clean hands and love-submissive heart,’ is schemingly duplicitous: both desolation and jubilation emerge from the musical textures. The same notion applies to Seraphic Fire’s singing of Mid-Winter Songs: the occasional bleakness of the music does not prohibit total enjoyment of the performance. Like all of the selections on Reincarnations, Lauridsen’s music makes formidable demands on the singers, and they rise to the occasion unflinchingly. Therein lies the core of what makes Reincarnations such a gratifying disc: every performance is a genuine occasion, and every note is not merely sung but completely ‘sold.’ 

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words perfectly express the impact of Reincarnations. The future of American choral music is the ‘Beauty that may not die as long / As there are flowers and you and song.’ The recent compositions on this disc affirm that America’s choral tradition, though an upstart in comparison with the millennium-old groves of European music for voices in ensemble, remains a viable garden in its own right. As long as there are flowers like the best pieces on Reincarnations and song like that of Seraphic Fire, the beauties of America’s choral heritage will never fade.