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22 September 2015

CD Review: Houston Chamber Choir "soft blink of amber light"

by Colin Clarke (Fanfare Magazine)

SOFT BLINK OF AMBER LIGHT 
Robert Simpson, cond; Houston Chamber Choir; 
Lisa Nickl (fl); Eric Chi (cl); Scott Simpson (marimba); Joseph Li (pn) 
MSR CLASSICS 1499 (56:13)

D. A. WHITE The Blue Estuaries 
HAGEN soft blink of amber light1
THEOFANIDIS Messages to Myself 
OQUIN O Magnum Mysterium
DIORIO A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass 

Fans of recent American choral music will find much to enjoy here. A number of pieces by David Ashley White have been reviewed previously in the pages of Fanfare. Taking poems by Louise Bogan, his 1998 piece The Blue Estuaries is impeccably approachable: the first “Evening Star sounds a little like a Christmas carol, but one exquisitely conceived and executed. The thicker scoring of the more dissonant second, “I saw eternity”, points out the excellence of the choir for lines are never obscured. White takes five poems and sets them in tender fashion, none more so than the final “Night”, where the superb sopranos of the Houston Chamber Choir sustain the line impeccably. The end is truly lovely. 

The piece by Jocelyn Hagen is accompanied by an ensemble of flute, clarinet, piano and marimba to create her shimmering opening for soft blink of amber light (2014, text Julia Klatt Singer). This is a simply magical setting; performance and recording are superb. Hagen’s ear is clearly expert and she conjures up by what appears to be minimal means a hazy, mysterious atmosphere (although it is a lighter shade of mystery, perhaps, than the Oquin discussed below). Of all the pieces on this disc, it is perhaps this that rewards repeated listening most. Each rehearing has brought to light new subtleties, now tinges of expression.

Christopher Theofanidis’ Messages to Myself (2007) sets poems by four poets, each of which becomes the title of the relevant movement: Whitman, Rūmī, Kirsten and Yeats. Each one, also, is considered by the composer to be a “mantra” in his own life. There is a flow to the Rūmī that is magnetic, in the sense it draws the listener inexorably in. The harmonies used by Theofanidis are magical, particularly so in the third, “Kirsten” (referring to Amy Beth Kirsten, born 1972). Again, there is nothing massively dissonant here, but there is an expert hand at work. Theofanidis displays exemplary attention to the text; the crepuscular beauty of “Yeats” is particularly marked.

Not much by Wayne Oquin on the Fanfare Archive (a mere handful of pieces). In the booklet, Oquin describes the humbling nature of the text O Magnum Mysterium, and how he approached it: “I want the listener to have the feeling of being on a journey; being held in the moment, allowing little sense of what lies ahead or where the piece may lead until the final chord”. Oquin’s recent (2013) setting has the timeless nature of the choral music of Victoria (not a comparison I would make lightly, incidentally). A carefully considered mass of choral sound shifts kaleidoscopically around until, as promised, it finds rest in a place where a low bass foundation seems once more to refer to Victoria.

Finally, Dominick DiOrio’s A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (2012), which sets a text by Amy Lowell. Described as a “cantata-concerto”, the piece is scored for choir and marimba, whose gorgeous sound adds a sense of magic to the setting. Written with the Houston Chamber Choir in mind, the four-movement A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is wonderfully evocative. The first movement, “Listening”, culminates in ecstatic cries at the line “So is this One music with a thousand cadences”. A soprano from the choir, Stacey Weber, features in “At Night”, negotiating the tricky, disjunct line with apparent ease; the choir’s entrance acts as a counter-balancing balm. The rather more advanced writing of “Hora Stellatrix”, with its references to “starfire”, seems to touch the transcendental and it is here that the performance seems to approach the power of a live performance (the disc was actually recorded in The Church of St John the Divine, Houston, Texas over a period of four days in June 2014). The final movement, “A Winter Ride” again touches on ecstasy in a gloriously vigorous performance.

All pieces appear herein their World Premiere recordings. Strongly recommended. Colin Clarke