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CD Review

Fern Hill

  • Williametta Spencer: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners
  • John Corigliano:
  • Fern Hill
  • L'Invitation au Voyage
  • Jean Belmont:
  • The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
  • The Roadside Fire
  • Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier (arr.)
  • James Mulholland: A Red, Red Rose
  • Samuel Barber: Reincarnations
  • Conrad Susa (arr.): Shenandoah
  • Alice Parker (arr.): Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
  • Mack Wilberg (arr.): I'm Goin' Away
  • Roy Ringwald (arr.): Deep River
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
Nimbus NI5449
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A fine, ambitious program from one of North America's top ensembles.

This CD interests me on several grounds. First, the program itself nicely blends new work with an established American choral classic. Second, without apparent effort and no great fuss, Bruffy has presented women composers, one of them previously unknown (to me at least). I now have much less sympathy for the excuse that – beyond a few high-profile names like Tower, Zwillich, and Larsen – women composers writing vital music are tough to find.

Second, a bit more personal, the attitude that everything interesting happens on the left or right coast of the U.S. gets more than a little tired. I enjoy New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and even San Francisco and appreciate the great selection of concerts, lectures, and readings found there. But I can't think of a museum or orchestra in any of those cities that matches those in Chicago and Cleveland. I can't think of a writer living in New York as fine as Jared Carter (and I can hear you all saying, "Who?" Stop it) of Indianapolis. The Midwest has also had a very strong choral tradition, with knockout groups in Cleveland, Chicago, St. Paul, St. Louis, and now, it appears, Kansas City. The Kansas City Chorale consists of about twenty-five singers, larger than a vocal ensemble and smaller than a full-blown symphonic chorus. I've heard the term "choral ensemble" applied to groups of this type. Even among choral ensembles, however, the range of sound varies greatly, perhaps due to the types of singers that comprise it. For example, the Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner Chorales – the prototypes of these groups – were made up of professional solo singers (Florence Kopleff, Jon Humphreys, Marilyn Horn, and so on) and consequently had a certain clear, ringing sound without forcing, despite their small numbers. I suspect that Dale Warland recruits the same kind of singer. Another type is the "community" chorus, made up of volunteers. The name, of course, implies a mixed bag, but it tends to run to folks who like to face the challenge of great choral music, but haven't the training and, furthermore, don't make a living at it. This kind of chorus usually produces "game tries," if we judge from the highest standards – often a very muddy tone, slack rhythm, no diction to speak of, and a tendency to poop out in long phrases. Somewhere in the middle lies the "super-college" chorus – tending to run to singers who trained in college and went on to make livings doing something else. After all, you can easily starve to death as a full-time professional American choral singer. These groups yield nothing to the all-pro choir in terms of clarity, precision and discipline, or general artistry, but in general they do lack that last bit of ringing finish to the sound. The Kansas City Chorale tone belongs in this category, I think, even though their performances surpass those of many a professional group. At a time of considerable revitalization of American choral life, I consider them one of the best choirs in North America, standing in a crowded field behind the current front-runners, the Dale Warland Singers.

The program ranges from a bona fide classic – Samuel Barber's Reincarnations – to the very challenging works by Corigliano, to the expert, imaginative writing of the rest. Everything here pulls its weight. I'll mention some of the highpoints for me.

My heart skips lightly whenever I see Barber's Reincarnations. The work – to three poems by James Stephens – never fails to amaze and move me. I've only recently begun, however, to realize how odd a work it is. As far as I can tell, it doesn't really hang together thematically – text or music – and yet, when done well, it comes off like a little choral symphony, without resorting to standard symphonic forms. Barber sets each poem exquisitely. The first, "Mary Hynes," begins with rhythmic hairpin turns at near-warp speed, with brief touchdowns on richly-spaced major chords. I've yet to figure out how anyone hits those chords in tune. Obviously, it takes a top group. The old Gregg Smith Singers made a classic recording, and Kansas City's stands right with it. The middle part of the piece is a long, flowing, irregular line, lovely as a river, which may remind some listeners of Barber's own Music for a Scene from Shelley or even the Vaughan Williams fifth symphony. The second piece, "Anthony O'Daly," sings of O'Daly's death and how all nature has simply stopped, "for O'Daly is dead." Barber builds the work out of stark, simple materials: a pedal point in the basses, the same tune in the other voices. However, he also works variations of pure genius. The bass, for example, sings in five beats, while everybody else phrases in three. He also puts the tune through closer and closer canonic entries – sort of like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" but with voices coming in more and more quickly. The interpretive challenge lies in the long crescendo Barber writes into the piece. Some choirs fall into the trap of reaching their dynamic limit too soon and thus have nowhere to go when Barber asks them to reach near-frenzy of grief at the end of piece. Again, K. C. pulls it off, and credit has to go to Charles Bruffy for recognizing what seems to elude other conductors. The finale, "The Coolin" (the colleen, or fair one), is a long, gorgeous nocturne, recalling the rich choral textures of the late Brahms "Nachtwache I," from Op. 104. Barber seldom sang more beautifully than this. K. C. meets the challenges of intonation and maintaining forward impulse in a slow, quiet piece.

Corigliano's work generally leaves me cold. No work or even single idea from him has ever grabbed me. The two works here are no exceptions, although they're attractive enough. They have ambition, which is good, but they ultimately disappear into the ether of the recent past. In both, Corigliano wants to set the long lyric, and thus puts himself squarely in a tradition that includes Brahms, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Grieg, Elgar, Britten, Schoenberg, and Barber. I trace the line back to Brahms, with the Alt-Rhapsodie, Nanië, Gesang des Parzens, and the Schicksalslied, although I recognize that Brahms seems to be transforming the venerable concert aria from primarily a display piece to a vehicle for Romantic poetry and rumination. One can approach the setting of a long lyric poem in many ways. Brahms' way – finding a symphonic structure which mirrors the poem – satisfies me the most and has probably had the greatest influence on others. However, we can think of other ways. If the poem is strophic, the composer might consider a strophic setting, perhaps with variation. If the poem is free-form, the composer might simply "go with the moment," producing a setting close to the phrase and letting the larger structure take care of itself. Corigliano does the last and consequently seems to take the easy way. I admit the sounds are nice, but it's all rather uninvolving. The settings encourage a short attention span. No idea gets developed in a significant way, and thus no idea or part of the poem becomes more important than any other part. It's like listening to an eight-year-old telling you about the book he just read – all details, no perspective. Why people continue to link him and Barber as "the same kind" of composer continues to mystify me.

Jean Belmont, apparently a favorite composer of the Chorale, contributes two lovely settings. "The Roadside Fire" interested me more, mainly to see what someone other than Vaughan Williams has made of it. In his Songs of Travel, the British composer sets it almost like a Schubert Lied, with that kind of rapturous simplicity one finds in something like Die schöne Müllerin, particularly the song "Wohin." Belmont gives us something more harmonically sophisticated – the harmonies remind me of classic Hindemith in their dependence on fourths and fifths – and yet manages to retain the elation of Stevenson's text. James Mulholland's new tune to Burns's lyric I can pay no greater tribute to than to say it's as beautiful as the traditional one, and he doesn't mess it up by trying to get fancy.

Folk-song settings fill up the program. Conrad Susa faces the supreme challenge of "Shenandoah," one of the most beautiful tunes in the world and one I'm fiercely possessive about. It's a fine setting, if ultimately a failed one. He seems to me to make the mistake of burying the tune in "effects," mostly twists of harmony and melody that call attention to themselves rather than illuminated that glorious melody. "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" by Alice Parker, an old hand at folk-song arrangement, carries off a balance between a prominent tune and the choral depiction of a skeletal regiment.

Mack Wilberg, a national treasure more people should know, works with choirs at Utah's Brigham Young University (which houses at least three choruses that would give King's College a run for its money). He first came to my attention on a Thanksgiving special aired by my local PBS station. The program, titled "A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns," knocked my socks off, and I called the originating station KBYU to see if anyone had the brains to make a CD. Someone indeed had the brains, and I ordered the disc (I encourage you to do the same; this is one great choral album). Wilberg contributed several stunning arrangements, in a 1940s Americana vein. Well, there's nothing wrong with that, and I emphasize the word "stunning." "He's Gone Away" had never struck me as a great tune before Wilberg got hold of it. It does now.

The sound levels strike me as a bit low, but the choir comes through clearly, even if I have to nudge the volume knob up.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz