Vespers for a New Dark Age

vespers_sFeel like listening to something different?  Then I can recommend Missy Mazzoli’s 2014 genre defying Vespers for a New Dark Age.  Conceptually it reimagines the traditional vespers prayer service with its, perhaps, archaic formality to explore he way we confront technology, ghosts, death, doubt and God in our “new dark age”.

Structurally there are eight movements run together which set fragments of poems by Matthew Zapruder.  The setting uses vocals, amplified strings, winds, organs, synthesizers and lots of electronics to create a weird and disturbing soundscape of many moods though the overall tone is very dark.

The performance is created by Mazzoli’s ensemble Victoire, Glenn Kotche (of Wilco) and vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Martha Cluver and Virginia Warnken (of Roomful of Teeth).  Electronic production is by synth producer Lorna Dune, who plays a crucial role, and is also responsible for the bonus track; an electronic remix of Mazzoli’s A Thousand Tongues.

The only criticism I have of the disk is that I couldn’t find the texts anywhere.  Sometimes they are clear enough on the recording, sometimes not so much.

Words Adorned

wordsadornedI’ve been listening to another new CD release by American choir The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally.  It’s called Words Adorned and contains two cycles by contemporary Arab-American composers setting really beautiful 11th century Andalusian texts.

The first piece is by Kareem Roustom.  It’s titled Embroidered Verses; Songs on Andalusian Poetry.  The 24 voice choir is accompanied by the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble (Hanna Khoury violin and music director, Wassim Odeh oud, Hicham Chami qanun, Kinan Abou-afach cello andHafez Kotain percussion).  The composition blends western and Arabic influences so there are complex harmonies, long meandering vocal lines and quarter tones combining to make something really very interesting.  The texts too are varied ranging from a boisterous drinking song to evocative nature poetry and a slightly sinister challenge to war.  I really enjoyed it.

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Old & New Poetry

nv6342-old_and_new_poetry-album_front_cover xs517x517_2xNavona have just produced an interesting album of art song by Alabama based composer Carl Vollrath.  Old & New Poetry consists of three cycles setting texts by William Blake, Sara Teasdale and John Gracen Brown.

The disk opens with five short Blake settings for mezzo-soprano and piano.  The songs are accomplished and playful and Yoko Hagino on piano is highly competent.  Mezzo Aliana de la Guardia sings clearly and expressively but seems challenged by the higher sections of some pieces.

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A Native Hill

anativehillGavin Bryars’ A Native Hill is a setting of sections from Wendell Berry’s 1968 essay of that title.  It was written for, and recorded by, Philadelphia based choir The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally.  The essay was written by Berry shortly after moving back to Kentucky to farm.  It deals mainly with how landscapes and the humans in them are shaped by each other in profound ways.  It’s very local and specific and reminded me in a curious sort of way of WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape that came out a few years before the Berry essay.

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Red anger, red death

murderedsistersSongs for Murdered Sisters is a new song cycle by Jake Heggie setting poems by Margaret Atwood.  It came about as a result of an initiative by Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins ,whose own sister was murdered by her ex in 2015, to raise awareness about violence against women.  It’s now been recorded by Heggie and Hopkins and will be released by Pentatone in digital format tomorrow.   It’s also available as a free video stream on the Houston Grand Opera website until March 21st.  (ETA March 18th – extended to April 30th)

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The Travelled Road

thetravelledroadThe Travelled Road is a new recording of songs by Saratoga Springs based composer Evan Mack.  Mack sets a rather eclectic set of texts and his musical style is varied.  His roots in opera are evident and I enjoyed these songs much more than most American art song that comes my way.

The first piece is A Little More Perfect and it sets Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges; the case that effectively legalised same sex marriage in the United States.  It’s scored for mezzo-soprano, piano and cello.  It starts out quite sparely, though the cello is quite lush from the beginning and then builds to a much more operatic climax.  Megan Marino has the heft to carry the louder bits and she has near perfect diction.  She’s well supported by John Arida on piano and Jameson Platte on cello.
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Music to wallow in?

verklartenachtNo, not Flanders and Swann but rather a well constructed new recording from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  It contains music by four composers exemplifying that lush territory that lies emotionally, if not always temporally, between Wagner and the Second Vienna School.  The two central works were both inspired by Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht.  The first is a 1901 setting of the text for mezzo, tenor and orchestra by Oskar Fried.  It’s lushly scored and rather beautiful.  The sound world is not dissimilar to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.  Gardner gets a lovely sound from his players and some really gorgeous singing from Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton.  The second Verklärte Nacht is the more familiar Schoenberg piece for string orchestra.  It’s curious how without voices and with only strings it manages to sound almost as lush as the Fried.

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Poppies are monocarpic

crean, rossa -the priestess of morphine - front cover xs517x517_2xThe Priestess of Morphine is a new short opera with music by Rosśa Crean to a libretto by Aiden K. Feltkamp.  It deals, allusively, with the life of German writer Gertrud Günther who, under the name of Marie-Madeleine was a best selling author of erotic fiction and poetry.  She was also Jewish, a lesbian and an opium addict.  She died rather mysteriously at a sanatorium in Katzenelnbogen in 1944; her work having been denounced as degenerate and banned by the Nazis.

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Rod Williams sings Winterreise

winterreisewilliamsPresto Classical lists over 100 recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise for (almost) every voice type accompanied on pianoforte, fortepiano, string quartet and probably more.  It’s also frequently performed live and I’ve certainly seen it done multiple times in settings ranging from the most formal of Liederabend to staged with projections and all manner of things.  So why bother with another new recording?  Well it’s largely because I’m a fan of English baritone Roderick Williams who has just had a Winterreise recording, with Iain Burnside at the piano, released on the Chandos label.

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The Tower and the Garden

The Crossing must be one of North America’s most interesting and accomplished choirs.  They specialise in difficult contemporary music that is a million miles away from most of the new music that is being composed for the (lucrative) amateur choir market.  Their latest CD; The Tower and the Garden, is due for release on the Navona label on February 12th.  I really like it.

There are three pieces on the disk.  The first is an a cappella setting of Walt Whitman’s A Child Said, What is the Grass? by Tolvo Tuley.  It’s worth reading the text in advance because this piece builds up in layers like renaissance polyphony or, perhaps more aptly, a piece by John Tavener.  There are certainly echoes of the Greek Orthodox tradition here but only echoes.  What really strikes is that the tension that keeps building and really doesn’t resolve.  It’s as uncomfortable and enigmatic as Whitman’s answer to the child’s question; “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”. Throughout the choir display an astonishing control of textures and dynamics.

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