Summary for the Busy Executive: Valediction.
Dale Warland succeeded Robert Shaw as the great American choral conductor. The Dale Warland Singers of St. Paul, Minnesota, were that rare commodity, the world-class American choral group. It specialized in serious, difficult repertoire. It commissioned new work, and thus – like the St. Olaf Choir before it – set the repertory that other groups of similarly high ambition tackled. In 2004, Warland finally disbanded the group as he took retirement, and the country lost something. We still have the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Desert Chorale of Santa Fe, the Kansas City Singers, and Cantori di New York. In addition, the level of college and university choir has risen quite high, all because of such models in addition to clinics, festivals, and a growing enthusiasm for choral music, even as music in public schools (and probably private as well) has been eliminated, except of course for marching band. Fortunately, the Austin-based Conspirare, under Craig Hella Johnson (another Minnesotan), has – in its own way and with its own sound – stepped into and comfortably filled the Warland Singers' shoes.
The Dale Warland Singers combined the clarity and ethos of the great Scandinavian choirs – like Eric Ericson's enormously influential Swedish Radio Choir and Stockholm Chamber Choir – with the richer American sound. Each section seemed to blend into one voice, and the sections together sounded like a single organ stop. Almost eerily-precise intonation generated its own excitement. Diction, so sharp you could understand texts without resorting to liner notes, mixed with a shared rhythmic pulse and a sense of inexorable momentum. It mastered dynamics, one of the few choirs that could get softer without stumbling, wheezing, slowing down, or breaking. Overall, it had a "cool" sound, rather than a warm one, and some criticized it on that score. The sound didn't wrap the listener in a blanket, but refreshed the listener like a glass of water.
This CD, recorded in 2003 and 2004 issued in 2005, is likely the group's farewell. It collects hymns, folk-tunes, and songs burrowed deep in our national consciousness. While not as difficult as the Howells Requiem or the Martin Mass for Two 4-Part Choirs, the arrangements generally require a crack group. A group that can conquer Schoenberg and Brahms encounters no difficulty so great as singing a folk song. Clearing the low technical hurdles means little in itself. This is not about hitting the notes, but about making them come alive.
As with most collections, I like some cuts much better than others. I've never been fond of guitarist Jeffrey Van's arrangements, but he was a Warland favorite. His setting of "The Water is Wide" shows off his major flaws, mostly structural. A strophic text (and most folk songs are strophic) poses problems of getting from one verse to the next. Van's transitions strike me as clumsy. By contrast, Edwin Fissinger's arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie," not my favorite song to begin with, nevertheless succeeds. The chorus-with-guitar accompaniment evokes not only folk song, but also the Victorian parlor.
Two arrangements by the prolific Norman Luboff fall into the category of Thoroughly Professional, Commercially-Viable Piece of Work, but they're not special, despite some deft touches. William Hawley contributes two arrangements in his patented "sweet haze of harmony" – tone clusters turned to flowers rather than to thorns.
Emma Lou Diemer provides a devilish arrangement of the old chestnut "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." Again, it's not a song for which I have great affection, but Diemer's setting gives you the fun of hearing virtuosos executing vocal pirouettes. That she could do anything with the song at all, let alone turn it into something genuinely interesting, amazes me.
Carol Barnett, Kevin Siegfried, and Stephen Paulus contribute my favorite tracks to the disc. Paulus gives us a range of mood. This is a real composer, folks. I wasn't especially fond of much of his early work. He moved from the dissonant lingua franca of the Seventies to something more consonant, and I believe it took him a while to find himself in his new style (or styles; he's got more than one). Dissonance still doesn't scare Paulus – he gets away with some hair-raising ones – but he has found ways for dissonance to serve the expressive qualities of the melodies he arranges. "We Gather Together" and "The Old Church" serve as lessons in effective voice-leading and choral sonority. "We Gather Together" throws in some mixed meters to leaven the four-squaredness of the song. Again, the effect is deeply expressive as opposed to cute, as if the meaning of the text had struck the singers at that moment. "The Old Church," according to the liner notes one of Paulus's hits, successfully crosses a thin tightrope over the chasm of sentimentality. I found some Aaron-Coplandish chords in it. It interests me that Paulus put them in, but he may have done so unconsciously, Copland having by this time sunk deep into the composing souls of American composers. "The Road Home," a hymn-tune from the Southern Harmony, treats a bone-simple pentatonic air with roots in folk song to what seems a simple harmonic treatment. I guess for Paulus it is, but here and there chords more complex than anything you'd find in a hymnal subtly punctuate the text.
Kevin Siegfried, a name new to me, provides two selections from his Shaker Songs. Befitting Shaker texts, the arrangements are incredibly spare, mostly unison and two-part writing. "Lay Me Low" is beautiful, but "Peace" will wring your heart out.
I consider Carol Barnett the foremost choral arranger of the day. Her settings fly so high above everyone else's, she's the new Alice Parker. The CD gives us three – "McKay," "Cindy," and "By and By." When you hear any one of them, your jaw should drop in astonishment. The classic folk song "Cindy" shows Barnett's lighter side. In fact, it's hilarious, although some of the joke is listening to the choir flirting with a train-wreck performance. Sin isn't so difficult. From The Sacred Harp, "McKay" daringly holds to a single chord for much of its length, as lines of the hymn-text weave in and around one another. Brian Newhouse's liner notes describe the effect beautifully:
"McKay"… begins with a tenor solo; more voices join him until that single stream of sound grows into a big eight-part cataract depicting "the rivers of delight."
Actually, the piece, at least in this performance, begins with the entire tenor section, but the rest of the passage is dead on. The old spiritual "By and By," after a relatively straightforward opening, gets taken on a ride among the fun-house mirrors. Barnett trips up our sense of time and stretches our harmonic ears. It's a bit like the jolt one would get opening a door that leads to a sheer drop. Yet she easily pulls us back. This is virtuoso composing, and no mistake.
As for the performances, come on. This is the Dale Warland Singers – during its run, the greatest chorus in North America. The difficulties in the music, of course, mean nothing to this bunch, and the music lives like gangbusters. If you're not weeping at the end of the final cut, you've sold your soul to the devil or you're just plain dead. God, I'll miss these guys.
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz