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24 September 2015

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

by James A. Altena (Fanfare Magazine)

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

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

This disc provides a superb cross-section of contemporary choral music by American composers. While there is a certain kinship between them that makes them well-matched discmates--for example, all are firmly and unabashedly both tonal in basis and melodic in content--they also all have distinctive personal voices that readily differentiate one from another. The opening cycle, The Blue Estuaries, by David Ashley White (b. 1944), a professor at the Moores School of Music of the University of Houston, comprises five poems from the eponymous anthology by Louise Bogan (1897-1970), the poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1931 to 1969. These five meditations upon the passage of time and on eternity--the first, third, and fourth calm and slow moving, the second and fifth more energetic and assertive--are given settings that to my ears suggest a degree of kinship with Herbert Howells, a point all to the good in my book. 

In soft blink of amber light, Jocelyn Hagen (b. 1980) sets a text by the young contemporary American writer Julia Klatt Singer that suggests contemplating firefies in the woods as a respite from hectic urban life. A bit ironically, perhaps, this title-track work (8:38 in length) is the one item here about which I have some reservations. First, I intensely dislike this type of contemporary "poetry," with its eschewing of all capitals and most punctuation a la E. E. Cummings (who did capitalize his own name), and its similar dispensation with rhyme, meter, assonance, consonance, and all other devices that would distinguish it from badly written prose arbitrarily broken into separate lines. Second, while Hagen's musical setting has considerable strengths--her use of an eight-part choir and four instrumentalists displays great deftness in voice-leading and counterpoint, and she has an acute ear for beautiful blending and contrast of vocal and instrumental color--she unfortunately also uses some of the musical techniques of Minimalism, another aesthetic school for which I have no sympathy. The monotonous repetition throughout of the two-word phrase "forget about" as a binding motif drives me to distraction and ultimately makes this piece one I'd really just like to ... well ... forget about. But these are matters of subjective taste; certainly, this work shows Hagen is a rising musical talent of no small promise. 

Matters get back on track with the four-poem cycle Messages to Myself by Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967), a Texas native and alumnus of the University of Houston who is now a music professor at Yale. Here the quartet of texts, by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), Amy Beth Kirsten (b. 1972), and William Butler Years (1865-1939), are thematically more disparate, but in various ways touch upon themes of love and what might be termed personal integrity and authenticity of voice. Here the aural vocabulary is polystylistic, more chromatic and spiced with dissonance, with the Rumi poem drawing upon elements (harmonies, melodic contours, and a supporting drone) distinctively characteristic of music from the Middle East.

Also a Texan by birth, Wayne Oquin (b. 1977) is now a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He certainly cannot be accused of lacking courage, as anyone who currently contemplates composing a setting of the Nativity canticle O Magnum Mysterium inevitably faces comparison with the mega-hit version by Morten Lauridsen. If not quite matching the miraculous ethereality of Lauridsen's setting, Oquin's is truly lovely and superbly crafted, fully deserving the title of "masterpiece" and an immediate niche in the standard sacred chorale repertoire. This works grows on me each time I hear it, and has become my favorite selection on this disc. 

Finally, music of Dominick DiOrio (b. 1984), a faculty member at Indiana University with a Ph.D. from Yale, closes this program with a cycle of four poems by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) on spiritual aspects of nature. Despite his being the youngest composer here, his music is the most overtly tonal, unapologetically diatonic at times and always unfailingly lyrical in its long-spun lines. The second poem, "At Night," features an extended solo soprano part with dauntingly high tessitura. If Stacey Weber does not have quite the sheer sweetness of tone this music ideally requires, she is excellent in every other way, with crystal-clear diction, dead-on intonation, and fearless fluency in the numerous treacherous turns of her lines. Unlike in the Hagen piece, I do not always find the virtuosic solo marimba part (expertly performed by Scott Simpson, brother of conductor Robert) to blend well with the chorus, and would just as soon hear these pieces simply sung a cappella instead, but the whole is thoroughly enjoyable and brings the recital to a close on a decidedly upbeat note. 

The singing of the Houston Chamber Choir throughout is absolutely splendid. Even at a time where many choral ensembles have achieved enviable standards of precision that were only wishful dreams a couple of generations ago, this group stands out for sheer excellence in its beauty of tone, clarity of diction, seamless blending of divisions, dynamic shadings, and ability to project the meaning of texts. And, despite a couple of secondary caveats on my part which others may not share, this is likewise an equally remarkable collection of present-day music that is both high in quality of technical craftsmanship and truly pleasurable for listening. MSR provides a rich and spacious but unoccluded recorded acoustic and a booklet with full texts, composer bios, and notes on the works and performing artists. This release is an unabashed winner on every count, and deserves to be part of your music collection; urgently recommended.

James A. Altena