Skylark: Crossing Over, bringing the chamber choir to the mainstream


skylark

Sono Luminus continues their dedication to high quality performances and recordings of a wide variety of music from the 20th and 21st centuries.  In this lovely  disc we are treated to a great deal of interesting and very listenable a capella choral music from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

It is this reviewer’s perception that a capella choral music is somewhat of an outlier in the classical music field and is generally not as well known as solo instrumental, orchestral, chamber music and such. (Band music is a similarly neglected area which is not frequently explored by many composers and not as familiar to audiences.)   It is not an area very familiar to me but this recording appears to be one that can expand this niche considerably by virtue of the sheer beauty of these recordings.

There are eight pieces by seven composers of varying levels of familiarity.  The most familiar names here are those of the late John Tavener (1944-2013) and William Schuman (1910-1992).  (Schuman was also no stranger to writing for band music.)  Some listeners may have heard of Jon Leifs (1899-1968), an Icelandic composer who should definitely be better known.  (Curiously the only comprehensive information available in English on this composer is in Wikipedia.)

The remaining composers, Daniel Elder (1986- ), Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940), Robert Vuichard (1985- ) and (fellow Icelander) Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Thorvaldsdottir may be familiar to listeners via her earlier Sono Luminus release (reviewed here) as well as numerous other releases which definitely mark her as a rising star.

The disc opens with Elegy (2013) by Daniel Elder.  It is the only piece which features soloists and is a touching piece which demonstrates the composer’s skill with this specialized genre.

Butterfly Dreams (2002) by John Tavener is a series of eight choral meditations based on Chuang Tse known for his “…Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”.  Tavener’s work has pushed the solo choral genre more to the mainstream than nearly any composer of the last 50 years and this piece is a good example of how he has managed to do this.  Tavener’s inspiration comes in part from the choral styles of eastern rite church music, a rich and sonorous sound.

Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov is apparently a classic in sacred music circles.  In Latin this would be Pater Noster and in English, Our Father.  This is a beautiful setting of the classic Christian Prayer.

Requiem (1947) by Jon Leifs is based on Icelandic folk poetry.  It was written in response to his grief at the loss of his daughter who drowned at the age of 18.  While not exactly representative of Leifs’ modern style it is a good example of the power of his invention in this heartfelt homage.  This is perhaps the composer’s best known work.

Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard is another example of the deep knowledge of the specialized techniques available to composers in this genre.  Vuichard appears to be a niche choral composer and one who has considerable skill.  There is a rather modernist feel to this powerful meditation.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death (1958) is a sort of modern classic which has been recorded many times.  There are three movements, each on a separate track.  It is curious how well these pieces fit in style with the rest of the disc given the date of composition.

Beyond the Veil (2005) is a setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of an old Icelandic psalm.  It is a prayer which is, in part, a meditation on death.  The composer has a mystical/impressionistic style that suits this music particularly well.

Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener is definitely a modern classic.  This piece pretty much marks the beginning of the change from his early modernist style to the sort of “holy minimalist” (if you will) style that followed his conversion to and immersion in eastern rite sacred music.

Skylark is a chamber choir (five voices to each part, SATB) and this is their second album.  They were formed in 2011 and are under the direction of Matthew Guard.

This review is basically about the music but I have to say that this is also one of the most beautiful booklets I have seen.  It is short on info about the music but the photography and graphic design by Collin J. Rae and Caleb Nei deserve special recognition as well.  Each page features a photograph and texts of these pieces are tastefully printed across the photos.  This really enhances the experience and seems to be in harmony with the overall production.

Dan Mercurio, producer, has definitely made something special here and one hopes that this will help promote this compositional and performance niche to a more common experience and will encourage composers to write for a capella choir as well.  Daniel Shores is the recording and mastering engineer.  I am unable to assess the DVD audio and can only imagine how it must sound.  The CD itself is amazing to hear.

For an album ostensibly about death there is great joy and beauty to be found here.  Highly recommended, and not just to fans of choral music.

 

 

 

New Cello Music: Michael Nicolas’ Transitions


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Michael Nicolas is the new cellist of Brooklyn Rider as well as member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and numerous other affiliations.  This French Canadian/Taiwanese young man now residing in New York is definitely an emerging artist to watch and his debut album does much to demonstrate why he deserves serious attention.

This selection of mid/late twentieth and twenty first century cello pieces comprises an intelligent survey of this repertoire introducing new music and providing a younger performer’s take on some classics of solo cello with electronics as well some more recent works.  As he says in his liner notes this survey is concerned with the dichotomy between the solo instrument and the attendant electronics in various guises (even the quasi-Max Headroom cover art seems to reflect this).  Erin Baiano did the photography and Caleb Nei did the graphic design.  If I have a criticism of this fine album it is perhaps that the liner notes provide less detail than this listener prefers so I have tried to provide a few details here.

Beginning with Mario Davidovsky‘s classic Synchronisms No. 3 (1964) for cello and electronic sounds (one of twelve such works for solo instrument with electronics) and continuing with Steve Reich‘s Cello Counterpoint (2003) Nicolas begins his survey with two relatively well-known pieces in this genre and he certainly does them justice.  These pieces serve as Nicolas’ sort of homage to the past which he follows with some very current compositions.

He introduces some pieces unfamiliar to this writer.  David Fulmer‘s Speak of the Spring (2015) is a piece for solo cello with electronics.  Fulmer is a composer/performer apparently worth watching from a quick read of his web site.  As I was unable to determine the date of composition I contacted the composer who graciously responded despite his busy travel schedule: “The work was written last year, in 2015 specifically for Michael Nicolas and this particular project (cello and electronics). Michael had asked me for a piece for his recording project, and having known him (we went to school together) for many years, and admiring his playing so much, I was very interested in writing this piece for him. As for perspective…as a string player, I always enjoy writing string works. I’m interested in the beautiful timbres that the strings have. Tuning is also an important concept for me; at the end of the work, the cello electronics (pre-recorded cello) is scordatura.All of the prerecorded lines are recorded by Michael. I see this as a work written for Michael, played by Michael, and many versions of Michael.”

Next are two pieces by Annie Gosfield for cello and sampler.  Four Roses (1997) and “…and a Five Spot” (2015, commissioned by Nicolas as a companion to the former).  Both pieces are basically lyrical with spectral effects, microtonal passages, extended techniques and the samples of course.  The first piece is more assertive and direct while the second seems more introspective.  Both appear to be typical of Gosfield’s fully developed style.

Next up is a piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir whose album length “In the Light of Air” performed by ICE was reviewed here.  Her piece on this disc for solo cello and electronics Transitions (2015) has a similarly ethereal character but one gets the impression that her approachable style belies complexities that underlie her work.

The last piece is flexura (2015) by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, a Peruvian born composer now working in New York.  This piece functions almost like a bookend with the Davidovsky piece that opens this disc (Davidovsky also comes from South America having been born in Argentina).  La Rosa holds a PhD. in computer music from the University of California San Diego and is developing open source software (and hardware) for live performance.  His MANO controller can be seen in the video on his website.  This last piece inhabits a similar sound world to that of the Davidovsky.  It is thorny and modern sounding and works as a showcase for the cellist.  Strictly speaking I suppose this piece is more of a duet in that there are two musicians required to perform it.

As always the impeccable production by Sono Luminus makes for a wonderful listening experience and this is quite an impressive debut for this interesting young musician. Kudos to producer Dan Mercurio recording technician David Angell  and executive producer Collin J. Rae.

Perhaps I am premature in saying this but this release has the earmarks of a being classic survey of the current status of this genre.  One of the joys of such a project is to hear new interpretations of established works and to hear an intelligent selection of new pieces.  Definitely want to hear more from Mr. Nicolas as well as from the composers represented.