TWO NEW CHORAL-MUSIC RECORDINGS
By Russell Platt March 24, 2017
Many choral ensembles are firmly centered on performing the music of the past: either the early-music repertory prized by such groups as New York’s Tenet or Boston’s Blue Heron, or else the big masterworks that come from what might be called the choral long nineteenth century, from the capacious Baroque of Handel’s “Messiah” to the mid-twentieth-century Impressionism of Duruflé’s Requiem. But, over the past decade, cutting-edge choral music seems more important than ever, and two choruses that New Yorkers love have new releases showing it off.
The first comes from the Crossing, a youthful Philadelphia group conducted by Donald Nally, which makes regular visits to such Gotham venues as the Metropolitan Museum and Trinity Church Wall Street. Now they’ve shepherded a new work by the notable British composer Gavin Bryars, “The Fifth Century,” onto the ECM label. Bryars, who is seventy-four, is a senior British minimalist whose work has sprung from his early experiences as a jazz improviser and from his close involvement with the rather recondite experimentalist movement that flowered in Britain in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. More recent associations with such groups as the superb Hilliard Ensemble have kept him busy as a choral composer, and the absolute security of his style is the strongest selling point of this new album.
Written for the Crossing and the saxophone quartet Prism, “The Fifth Century” offers seven settings of poems by the seventeenth-century English clergyman and mystic Thomas Traherne. As Traherne’s soft-grained but ecstatic verses balance the scholarly with the emotional, Bryars’s music mixes melancholy and joy to an almost too perfect degree. All of the music is slow, and very seldom loud; the saxophones sing out long, doleful tunes, or gurgle softly and sympathetically while the chorus intones Traherne’s words in ravishing but ethereal timbres. Harmonic surprises are exceedingly rare, as the gently cantering train of vowels and consonants runs on into the distance. It’s deeply meditative music, but with a certain New Age tinge. It’s tautology time: if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like. (A pair of Petrarch settings, in Italian, closes the disk on a lighter, but stylistically similar, note.)
Variety, however, is the hallmark of “Black Mountain Songs,” a release on New Amsterdam Records that celebrates the extraordinary creativity at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where the postwar American avant-garde was incubated through the transformative genius of figures such as the composer John Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artist-pedagogue Josef Albers. The project was designed by the composer (and rock musician) Bryce Dessner and Dianne Berkun Menaker, who is the inspired leader of the extraordinary Brooklyn Youth Chorus, an ensemble of teen-age girls and boys for whom contemporary music is daily bread.
Originally staged as a choreographed pageant at bam’s Harvey Theatre, in 2014 (the late Harvey Lichtenstein, bam’s dynamic director, was a Black Mountain alumnus), “Black Mountain Songs” earned a rave review in the Times—and when you hear the astonishingly secure performance of the young singers, who have been tasked with executing some formidably complex choral textures, you immediately understand why. But when divorced from the production the unevenness of the selections is inevitably apparent. Amid much pleasant but meandering music by Dessner and Richard Reed Parry, the contributions of Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw immediately stand out. Muhly takes the cake with “Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline’s Studio,” a febrile account of artistic ferment that shivers with deftly controlled excitement; Shaw’s “Its Motion Keeps,” based on words from the nineteenth-century hymn book “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” sets a prim, plain text (“My days / My weeks / My months . . .”) against the clock-like plucking of a solo viola that soon brakes out into lustrous arpeggios. Dessner fills time; Muhly and Shaw shape it as a force. But Parry’s “Spaceship Earth” (inspired by Buckminster Fuller) has a dogged sort of poignance to it, and Jherek Bischoff’s “Childhood’s Retreat” (which sets to music a poem by Robert Duncan) is a blast of merry fun.
Russell Platt is the classical-music editor of Goings On About Town.