Summary for the Busy Executive: Hoping for the Kingdom.
This year, the Austin-based Conspirare was the only American choral group nominated for a Grammy. Actually, it received two Grammy nominations. It so happens that I had heard all the nominees – never happened before – and even had reviewed some of them, all high-profile groups except for Conspirare. According to me, too new to Austin to consider myself a booster, Conspirare should have won. It didn't, of course, since neither the group nor its director have much name recognition beyond the choral community and most Grammy members know damn-all about classical music. That Conspirare got nominated in the first place counts as a small miracle.
In Austin, Conspirare has become a thriving artistic enterprise. Austinites take as much pride in the group as other cities do to their symphony orchestras. It gets lots of private money from many donors. Conspirare choirs have proliferated, from the original 25-40 chamber group to the large symphonic choir and the children's chorus. They tour all over the United States, and their concerts sell out. With the disbanding of the Dale Warland Singers, Conspirare stands in the front of American choral groups, a world-class ensemble and the latest in the line of American choral royalty that began with the Robert Shaw Chorale.
Craig Hella Johnson, the founder and artistic director, began in the sturdy Minnesota choral tradition. He began his studies St. Olaf College (the Harvard, you should pardon the expression, of American choristers) and then on to Juilliard and Yale. He also took over Chanticleer for a season, during Joseph Jennings' illness. Artistically, he has a foot in both the classical and the pop camps. He commits to difficult and contemporary repertoire, but he also does spectacular arrangements of pop. This CD contains both strains.
As a result, Conspirare has a core tone comparable to Scandinavian groups: clear and so in tune that this in itself becomes exciting. However, it doesn't make just one sound. It can also put out a warmth that hugs you. In general, it finds a particular sound to serve expression and text. One also notes a detailed subtlety of phrasing, going beyond simply observing marks in the score (although most choirs don't manage even that). The choir becomes in effect a Lieder singer, with that loving obsession with the shape and color of a musical line and its relation to the meaning of text. As a result, Conspirare communicates like gangbusters, comparable to a great pop singer. It grabs you, like no other choir I've heard.
The program here seeks to comfort the living and remember the dead. Why we expect music to do this, why we turn to music at such times, is a mystery. That music so often meets our demands is a miracle. After all, music by itself means nothing other than itself. You may think of fate knocking at the door when you listen to Beethoven's Fifth, but the music literally says little more than c-minor. Perhaps it consoles because it says so little, like Kosinski's Chauncey Gardner, because it doesn't limit its meaning by words or pictures. It can get inside and fill many more spaces than words alone can.
Herbert Howells' mini-Requiem comes from the Thirties but wasn't performed until the Eighties. The composer wrote it on the death of his nine-year-old son. He reworked some of the ideas as a large-scale oratorio for chorus and orchestra, the Hymnus Paradisi, and showed it to friends, although this too he did not intend to put in public performance. At Vaughan Williams' urging, he let the oratorio out into the world. But the oratorio, as fine as it is, nevertheless put a great deal of padding, a great big bandage, around the music's raw, heartrending core. The original a cappella Requiem is pure musical grief. One can well sympathize with the composer's keeping it in his desk drawer for fifty years. It is, to me, his masterpiece. The music blends a bit of Vaughan Williams with a solid base of Edwardian choral writing, just to give you some general idea. The text combines the traditional "Requiem aeternam" with psalms and prayers from the book of common worship. Howells, a master of choral writing and especially of choral orchestration, has created a difficult score, one that can trip up even professional ensembles. Even old hands David Willcocks, Paul Spicer, and Matthew Best have foundered. Dale Warland and his Singers gave for me the first great reading of the work, incredibly intense throughout. Technically, Conspirare's performance easily inhabits the same rarified level. However, it's not the same sort of account. Warland concentrates on a near-abstract beauty, or at least exhibits an emotional reserve. Curiously, the distance itself becomes quite affecting. Johnson more openly acknowledges loss and more openly consoles. He gets the Requiem to sing of tragic fragility.
Eric Whitacre, a youngish West Coast composer, is a current hot ticket in choral circles. Some of his stuff I like (especially his settings of Octavio Paz). Others I can leave alone. Often I detect a trendiness in his writing that puts me off, and, like Morten Lauridsen, I don't find him free of the charge of repeating himself. The 3 Songs of Faith represent Whitacre at his best, however. He takes three poems by E. E. Cummings as his texts. The music consists of Whitacre's favorite devices – thick block chords and chord clusters alternating with spare, two-part counterpoint. Having sung some of this work myself, I can tell you that it can get pretty monotonous. The Brigham Young University Singers, a fine American ensemble, do a good job under Ronald Staheli's direction. However, Johnson raises these pieces to an extraordinary height. For example, he turns the middle movement, "hope, faith, life, love" – a list of "big words" – into a drama carried out by choral color. What Conspirare does on the word "love" gives me chills. In the finale, "I thank You God for most this amazing day," the clusters sound lean and mean, rather than fat and flat, giving the usual harmonic amorphousness tension and intention. A brilliant performance, most of which comes from Johnson's imagination, rather than from Whitacre's.
Donald Grantham, a faculty composer at the University of Texas, wrote "We Remember Them" to commemorate the victims of the Tower shootings in the Sixties. It's a neo-Romantic gem. The text, from the Hebrew Union Prayer Book, itemizes the many ways we remember the dead, each one ending with the refrain "We remember them." Grantham manages to build to a climax and to find a resolution – not as easy as it sounds. Bradley Ellingboe, another St. Olaf alum, also studied composition with Samuel Adler, among others, at Eastman. His setting of Kenneth Patchen's gorgeous "Be Music, Night" has a pop, Ray Charles Singers' prettiness that will immediately appeal to some and makes a serious bid to seduce others.
Along with Respighi and Malipiero, Pizzetti made his name in genres other than opera. Respighi is pretty much sui generis. Malipiero stands the closest of the three to classic Modernism. Pizzetti is essentially a late Romantic. The Requiem of 1922 shows a symphonic mind, although Pizzetti wrote only one actual symphony. Movements contain true development, rather necessary in the 11-minute "Dies irae," perhaps the most architecturally impressive movement in the score. The composer uses modes and chant (particularly the "Dies irae" as the thematic basis of that movement), and the liner notes try and fail to draw a parallel to Vaughan Williams' slightly later Mass in g. Vaughan Williams created something new and unique, a modal music that wedded Tudor practice and Modern Twenties experimentalism. Pizzetti essentially uses modes as a late Nineteenth-Century composer like Stanford. Modal writing was, after all, nothing all that novel in 1922. It goes back to at least Rockstro and Terry in Britain. Edwardian and Georgian composers, like Ethel Smyth or Howells in his early Mass in the Dorian Mode, wrote in the modes. Where Pizzetti impresses is with his ability to erect long spans of musical argument and with his ear for choral sonority. The Requiem is a fine work, but compared with the Howells Requiem, the emotion comes across as conventional, rather than truly felt.
Johnson closes the program with Stephen Paulus' "The Road Home" and Eliza Gilkyson's "Requiem." I've gone hot and cold over Paulus' work over the years, but "The Road Home" strikes me as one of his best pieces. It puts a shape-note tune to modern harmonies, and though sophisticated as blazes, doesn't betray the bedrock simplicity of the melody. I reviewed Dale Warland leading the same piece on the album Harvest Home. Warland's reading is beautiful, but Johnson's will wring your heart. And he yields nothing to Warland in unearthly, superb choral technique.
Paulus plays with the vernacular in "The Road Home," but Eliza Gilkyson is the genuine article. She's a folkie songwriter and singer based in Austin. She wrote her "Requiem" in response to the tsunami victims. More recently and just as unfortunately, the song has had as much point to the death by drowning (and government) of New Orleans, an historic American city. Johnson arranged the tune. Craig Johnson has an ear for complex harmony, but he keeps it at bay for this work. I'd describe the arrangement as stripped-down. It's not the complexity of the chords that matters, but the right chords. Indeed, it sounds a little like Russian Orthodox choral music, deep like the tolling of massive bells.
A disclaimer: I have sung with Conspirare, but not on this CD. I will also say that in a fit of enthusiasm, I bought several other Conspirare recordings, none of them up to this one. The choir was wonderful, but the engineering and programming left a lot to be desired. The sound here is not only professional quality, but ravishing. I can't recommend this album highly enough.
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz