June 26, 2014
(+++) VOCALS AND VARIATIONS
Out of Darkness. Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Sarah Larsen, mezzo-soprano; Morgan Smith, baritone; Music of Remembrance conducted by Mina Miller. Naxos. $9.99.
Eric Whitacre: Choral Works, Volume 1. BYU Singers conducted by Ronald Staheli. BYU Records. $16.99.
Eric Whitacre: Choral Works, Volume 2. BYU Singers conducted by Ronald Staheli; BYU Concert Choir conducted by Rosalind Hall; BYU Women’s Chorus conducted by David M. Thomas. BYU Records. $16.99.
Jean-Philippe Grégoire: Sounds from the Delta. Big Round Records. $14.99.
The multifaceted uses of the human voice allow it to be employed not only in varied vocal styles and with varied intensity but also in a multiplicity of musical forms – with contemporary composers not only utilizing and adapting approaches of the past but also finding new ways to create music centered on vocal expression. Out of Darkness by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, for example, is a collection of three works related to the Holocaust; and the works, singly and together, are something akin to an opera, something like a song cycle, and something along the lines of a cantata. The subject matter is well-worn and quite heavy, and may be a turnoff for potential listeners, given the frequency with which the Holocaust has in recent years been addressed with tremendous seriousness in music of all sorts and in many media. The pieces that make up Out of Darkness personalize the monumentality of one of the 20th century’s defining events by making it into a story of individuals affected by the horrors – a common technique of synecdoche that, when as well done as it is here, makes the larger story more comprehensible than statistics and overviews ever can. Another Sunrise (2012) opens Out of Darkness with the story of a composer and Polish Resistance member named Krystyna Żywulska, who was captured and sent to Auschwitz – where she created songs that circulated clandestinely and helped maintain some semblance of defiance among the prisoners. Farewell, Auschwitz (2013) actually uses some of Żywulska’s lyrics, adapting them into a generalized set of proclamations urging listeners to focus on their own humanity even when trapped in a place where bestial behavior is the norm. Finally, For a Look or a Touch (2007/2013), a song cycle within this larger cycle, looks at Nazi persecution of homosexuals, returning to the personalization of Another Sunrise by telling its own story of loss and intimacy. The overall effect of Out of Darkness is intended to be uplifting and to provide some sense of closure, and the performers bring sensitivity and musicality to the entire project. But it feels like a project, a work conceived in and executed for extramusical purposes and using music as a conduit for social and political feelings and statements. Very well recorded by Naxos, and certainly heartfelt and emotive, Out of Darkness is also manipulative of its audience, which needs to be predisposed to engage in and ultimately transcend the horror of long-ago brutality in order to get the full effect of the work.
To get the full effect of Eric Whitacre’s choral music, or at least a great deal of the effect, the two Brigham Young University CDs on the university’s own BYU Records will be plenty, if not more than enough. The primary element of Whitacre’s choral music is its density, which increases or decreases depending on the effect that Whitacre wants at any given time. Using poetry by Octavio Paz, Federico García Lorca, E.E. Cummings, Charles Anthony Silvestri, Emily Dickinson, Edmund Waller, Edward Esch, Hila Plitmann, and Jalal al-Din Rumi – with a little James Joyce, Ogden Nash, Leonardo da Vinci and Old Testament thrown in – Whitacre’s works on these CDs show how adept he is at choral writing that frequently divides voices into a very large number of parts. There is a great deal of calculated dissonance in this music, with plenty of seventh and ninth chords (some of them augmented or expanded) arranged in unusual progressions. The rhythms of many of these pieces are often unusual and quite complex, and they change frequently. Whitacre is also enamored of aleatoric sections and unusual instructions to the singers – to use hand actions or props, for example, although those of course do not come through on CD. If all these elements make Whitacre’s music sound dry or academic, though, that is only the case part of the time. When Whitacre chooses to be amusing, as in the three little Ogden Nash poems on the second BYU disc, his techniques accentuate the humor and piquancy of the words. When he chooses to be highly serious, as in Lux Aurumque on the first CD, here too his studied approach to choral writing produces a surprisingly moving effect. And in the one piece here with James Joyce words, She Weeps over Rahoon on the second disc, Whitacre’s techniques effectively bring out the sentiments of the girl weeping at the grave of her lover. However, while Whitacre’s music is affecting in small doses, and individual pieces come across quite well, the effect of a full disc of his choral works – not to mention two – is rather less successful. Techniques that elucidate specific words are applied so often to other, emotionally different words that the pieces tend to blend and clump, interfering with each other’s meaningfulness. Despite (or perhaps because of) the elaborate use of complex compositional elements, handled differently for the varying purposes of the music, there is something wearing about extended listening to Whitacre’s music – possibly for singers as well as listeners, although the BYU choruses handle the music with sensitivity and a sense of considerable involvement. There are certainly plenty of high points on these two CDs. But there are also long stretches of what sounds like sameness, even though an academic analysis would show the differences among the selections.
The mixture of sameness and difference is a large part of what jazz is all about, and composer-guitarist Jean-Philippe Grégoire – who studied classical guitar before moving into the jazz realm – fully understands the medium’s hybrid elements. He understands how to create stylistic hybrids, too, mixing French and American jazz styles on a Big Round Records release called Sounds from the Delta. The 10 tracks here have some classical influence – some rock and blues elements, too, for that matter – but all ultimately fit within the jazz milieu. Some are rhythmically intense, driven and highly syncopated in ways that look back past jazz classics all the way to ragtime. Others are slow in tempo and sinuous in sound, but tend to turn into speedier improvisational tours de force before they conclude. Grégoire is joined on this CD by Baptiste Herbin (saxophone), Martin Guimbellot (bass), and Nicolas Charlier (drums); the disc also includes guest appearances by guitarist Manu Codija, saxophonist Jean-Charles Richard, and pianist Laurent Fikelson. The performers work well together and seem to enjoy the variations and back-and-forths that permeate Grégoire’s music, which has an attractive vibrancy that contrasts nicely with passages of some delicacy and intimacy. No single track, however, is really a standout: Grégoire has a style that asserts itself in similar ways throughout the disc. Listeners who find that style congenial will enjoy hearing 50 minutes of it with an ensemble as comfortable with it as this one appears to be.