Summary for the Busy Executive: Performances a composer might sell his soul for.
Born in London, trained at Oxford and Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, and now living in New York, Algerian-Irish Tarik O'Regan is a hard composer to classify. You hear all sorts of elements in his music. Minimalism probably stands out, although more as a matter of a technique appropriated for a specific moment than as an overriding principle. The music pulses with an energy I associate with Middle Eastern and gamelan music, and I'll be damned if I don't also hear something of heavy metal as well. Writers point out his vocal and choral scores, which sing wonderfully. I first heard his music in live concert, and, after a few seconds of strangeness, it won me over completely. Several contemporary choral composers have been brought forward as the next Great New Thing, but mostly they've struck me as having hooked on to some gimmick and ridden the thing to near-death. O'Regan may use some of their gadgets, but he has a wider range and his own flair. Even his ostinatos don't "read" as such, but rather as part of a rhythmic bubbling pot.
All the texts selected here share a uniformly excellent literary taste. Most of them touch on death. I'm not a huge Emily Dickinson fan, but I can't fault O'Regan's Dickinson choices. We also get poems by Kathleen Raine (a favorite), Blake, Hardy, Wordsworth, and Neruda, among others.
Written especially for Conspirare, the two Dickinson settings, "Had I Not Seen the Sun" and "I Had No Time to Hate," I would call "efficient" – a lot of bang for the note. As I say, I'm not really on Dickinson's wavelength, but there's no denying the intensity of the music.
Many poets think of poetry as a vehicle for expressing their inner life. Kathleen Raine, one of the few Modern exceptions to this, regarded poetry as a vehicle for wisdom, and she was honest enough with herself to recognize the difference between wisdom and wishful thinking. In clear language, she evokes complex states. Consequently, she didn't write a lot of poems, but those she did reach a consistently excellent level. I can't think of a weak poem by her. "Threshold of Night" pictures a storm and, standing at the door of a house, a child who asks to be let in and who is denied for all sorts of good reasons. It raises many questions. What's the relation between the child and the speaker? Is the child a literal child, the adult child of the speaker, a ghost, an image in the speaker's mind, or perhaps Christ himself? In many ways, the poem talks about loss and the impossibility of going back, but also about the awful, frightening power of love. O'Regan responds with a powerful setting. It begins with almost a contemporary choral cliché, chord clusters, but the composer's ear is so acute that instead of fuzz, you get something where every note is distinct, like stars on a clear night. It then moves to a lullaby – for me the heart of the setting. As fine as the piece was before that moment, O'Regan now shifts into a higher gear.
Nobel-winner Pablo Neruda wrote, among other things, some of the great political poetry of the past century. He had a gift for showing that the political was the personal. "Tal vez tenemos tiempo" (maybe we have time) tells us that "Yesterday, truth died." The statement, out of context, sounds melodramatic, although considering our current political climate, where fact means nothing and feeling is all, perhaps Neruda prophesied. The poem asks what we can do, how we can live, in such a world. O'Regan takes, I think, an unusual run at the poem, for he clothes the words in music of great tenderness. Indeed, although it doesn't eschew dissonance, this is the most consonant work on the program. For O'Regan, the words are paramount, and thus he creates a setting, largely homophonic (all parts moving together), although he does sometimes create simple counterpoint or the illusion of counterpoint. Toward the end, the piece works to a climax: a quick crisis with the most extreme dissonance on the word "violencia," appropriately, and climaxing with the verdict on the "war." It subsides back into consolation, as the poet tells us we now must simply be and must live as best we can. A gorgeous work, both poem and music. It amply demonstrates the lyricist Yip Harburg's observation: Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song "makes you feel a thought."
"Care charming sleepe" is probably Jacobean playwright John Fletcher's most famous lyric. Although it talks about sleep, it appears in a play after the title character has been poisoned. To the original for double choir O'Regan, for Conspirare, has added a string orchestra, largely separate from the chorus. This is a lot of texture. The words aren't always intelligible. In place of textual clarity, however, O'Regan offers in music an echo of the audible jumble in the head of someone going to sleep – the voices – clear, yet hallucinations – coming in an out, the great hum as the brain's dynamo moves to automatic. O'Regan responds to poetry and approaches music poetically.
The two big pieces, Triptych and The Ecstasies Above, for chorus and strings I think simultaneously the strongest and the most problematic works on the program.
Triptych, in three movements played without a break – "Threnody," "As We Remember Them," "From Heaven Distilled a Clemency" – is something of a grab-bag of texts, with the common thread of death, the after-life, and visionary command. Heavily influenced by Minimalist ostinatos, O'Regan's string writing impresses me as the real deal. It doesn't merely accompany. It adds to the musical argument. However, the ton of memorable ideas struck me the most. O'Regan has a knack, not for a hummable tune exactly, but for musical lines, vocal in character, that stick with you. At times, I thought Britten had come again. I hear a related approach to melismata.
"Threnody" begins with a declaration from the choir which leads to a bounding 3/4. It merges into what seems like (but isn't) pure stasis – a litany, as it turns out, where every line but the end has the same structure. "In the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them. A solo treble, singing the same basic line – gorgeous, incidentally – gives all the ways we remember the dead, while the choir remembers, trading entrances at the caesurae. O'Regan takes a huge risk. Music, after all, should move. Though the solo line remains essentially the same, the choir subtly varies its response. The choral textures shift as well. According to me, O'Regan has brought off a genuine compositional feat. In the third movement, Triptych pulses once more, this time to a rather jazzy rhythm. For me, the highlight occurs at the passage on Rumi's "Why then should I be afraid? I shall die once again to rise an angel blest." The tag is so infectious, I've remembered it from the first time I heard it, in the same way I remember the Big Theme from the finale of Brahms's First. The piece as a whole ends joyously.
My favorite work, The Ecstasies Above, sets most of "Israfel," by Edgar Allan Poe. O'Regan notes that Poe's reputation was always higher in Europe than in the U.S. This applies mainly to Poe's poetic reputation. His prose and fiction enjoy high regard. I always felt that the reason why Poe's poems made such a success in continental Europe was because they were read in translations made by far better poets, like Baudelaire. The jangly rhythms of such quaint horrors as "The Raven," "Ulalume," and "The Bells" (which reminds me of a Harold Hill number cut from The Music Man) disappear in the translations. Thinking of those poems, W.H. Auden remarked that had Poe been a better poet, he wouldn't have been as interesting.
Nevertheless, Poe isn't all-"Raven." Here and there, you actually come across decent lyrics. "Israfel" may be his best. I became reacquainted with this poem from Bernstein's virtuoso setting of it in Songfest. Unlike Poe's usual second-hand Romanticism ("To Helen," for example), it displays rather a modern sensibility.
O'Regan's setting – for choir, solo octet, and string quartet – bristles with performance problems, mostly balance. Not only that, but in many of the highly contrapuntal sections, the words get pureed into mush. At such times, a word or a phrase leaps out at you, divorced from its larger context. I couldn't follow the words a substantial portion of the time even with the poem in front of me. The fault lies not with the performers, but directly with O'Regan's layered writing. Despite that significant drawback, this is one amazing piece. The composer responds to the word "ecstasies" with radiant music, alive and electrifying. Here, the pulse reminded me both of North African and Celtic music – come to think of it, a musical emblem of O'Regan himself. At times, the music stops to let us catch our breath, but the intensity doesn't really let up. This music is "about" the concentrated consciousness of meditation, the elation of the visionary eye. It left me thrilled, but pooped.
If Conspirare's not the best choir in North America right now, I'd like you to show me a better. In fact, they operate internationally at the top level. This is choral royalty, committed to serious music-making. They not only have mastered the basics of blend, ensemble, tone, pitch, and diction, they communicate like gangbusters. I think them superior to such groups as the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Wilhelm Pitz groups in Great Britain, and the Swedish Radio Choir. The only ensembles I can compare them to are the Danish Radio Choir, Accentus, the Sixteen, and Marcus Creed's RIAS Kammerchor. The snares and minefields in O'Regan's scores are as nothing to them. They aren't performing as if they're solving a puzzle. They're fashioning stunning, elegant music. O'Regan should at least send them flowers or a nice ham. They recorded in the Troy Savings Bank, a difficult environment which yields splendid sonic results. The sound is yummy.
Craig Hella Johnson has built a gorgeous instrument and has turned technique to expressive ends. Like Robert Shaw, Johnson takes his emotional cues from words, and he's an artist in choral color without stooping to hokey "choirmaster" effects. He also has an exploratory turn of mind, both as regards repertory and program-building. After all, O'Regan's not exactly a household name even now, and Johnson contacted him years ago. Because of the time lag between a CD's appearance and my reviews, I actually won't be reviewing the next Conspirare CD (which I've heard) for about two years. Sing Freedom! on Harmonia Mundi presents a program of modern and classic Spiritual arrangements. I heard the concert which provided the basis for the CD. For heaven's sake, don't wait for me to tell you it's wonderful.
Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.