Requiem - We are So Lightly Here
* Herbert Howells: Requiem
* Eric Whitacre: 3 Songs of Faith
* Donald Grantham: We Remember Them
* Bradley Ellingboe: Be Music, Night
* Ildebrando Pizzetti: Requiem
* Stephen Paulus: The Road Home
* Eliza Gilkyson (arr. Johnson): Requiem
Conspirare Company of Voices/Craig Hella Johnson
Clarion CLR917 SACD Hybrid Total time: 79:45 (2 CDs)
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
In Austin, Conspirare has become a thriving artistic enterprise.
Austinites take as much pride in the group as other cities do in 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's 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's 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's 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
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
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's 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's "The Road Home" and
Eliza Gilkyson's "Requiem." I've gone hot and cold over Paulus's 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.
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