February 15, 2018


Music in the Listening Place: Contemporary Choral Works. Vanderbilt Chorale conducted by Tucker Biddlecombe. Navona. $14.99.

Lionel Sainsbury: Time of the Comet; Clive Muncaster: Reflective Thought Patterns; Patricia Julien: Among the Hidden; J.A. Kawarsky: Fastidious Notes. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronsk√Ĺ (Sainsbury, Julien); Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin (Muncaster); Jonathan Helton, alto saxophone; Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier Mendoza (Kawarsky). Navona. $14.99.

     Anthology discs have an inherent weakness for listeners primarily interested in what music is being performed on a CD: even when the recordings are carefully curated and assembled with an eye (or an ear) toward an integrated presentation, the differences among the compositions increase the likelihood that the audience will enjoy some of the material but not all of it. This reality can be turned to advantage when introducing unfamiliar music, by coupling something well-known and likely to be attractive to listeners with something unknown but complementary. In fact, this is a frequent approach for introducing contemporary music into recitals and concert programs. However, when an entire anthology release consists of contemporary works, matters become more problematic. So one way to handle things is to make the focus not on the music but on the performers – and that is what Music in the Listening Place, a new Navona release, does. The CD is really a showcase for the Vanderbilt Chorale, some individual singers within it, and the ensemble’s conductor, Tucker Biddlecombe, rather than a recording designed for listeners primarily interested in composers Daniel Read, Eric Whitacre, Michael Slayton, Maurice Ravel, Alf Houkum, Eliza Gilkyson, Jonathan Dove and David Dickau, or in the traditional African song Indodana. The music of Ravel, far and away the best-known composer here, takes up only six of the disc’s 66 minutes for a nicely harmonized Trois Chansons. Far more extensive is Dove’s The Passing of the Year, and this is an exceptionally interesting work: its seven songs are in three sections rather than the expected four that would correspond to seasons, and the seasonal focus itself is interesting, with the first section looking forward to summer, the second looking back at its departure and the coming of autumn, and the third focusing on winter. Dove’s choice of poets is intriguing as well: he combines William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The music is heartfelt if somewhat less compelling than the words and the overall arrangement of the work – but this is nevertheless a high point of the CD. Whitacre’s Three Songs of Faith, to words by e.e. cummings, is also intriguing, with music that effectively expands upon the poet’s texts. The other pieces on the disc are of less interest: Read’s Windham, Slayton’s Three Settings of Ezra Pound, Gilkyson’s Requiem, and Dickau’s If Music Be the Food of Love. But all the pieces are well-crafted, including the Indodana arrangement by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt (which includes the African goblet drum called the djembe). Nevertheless, the primary attraction here is not so much the music or the poetry, some of it very fine, that underlies it – the main reason listeners will be attracted to this CD is the quality of the performances, and the chance to hear some very fine vocalists, as soloists and in chorus, offering well-constructed, mostly contemporary music.

     Another approach to the limitations integral to anthology discs is, in effect, to ignore them and hope that the selected works will have enough in common – and in contrast – to intrigue a potential audience. This is what happens on a Navona recording of music by Lionel Sainsbury, Clive Muncaster, Patricia Julien, and J. A. Kawarsky. In truth, there is more contrast than commonality among the four works here, and while it would not be surprising if a listener new to these composers found something or several somethings to enjoy, it is unlikely that he or she would find all four pieces on the recording equally worthy. Sainsbury’s Time of the Comet, despite a title that could be portentous, is essentially celebratory, having been composed in 1987 in connection with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. Its essentially bright and optimistic sound partakes of some of the feelings of old-fashioned science-fictional predictions of a grand future in space. Muncaster’s Reflective Thought Patterns is, again, not exactly what one might expect from its title: it refers not to inward contemplation and reflection, but to a literal reflection in the music – the opening progresses toward a central section and then reverses so that the conclusion repeats the start. Effective enough as an intellectual exercise, and featuring some nice writing for brass and percussion instruments, the work is nevertheless emotionally rather vapid. Julien’s Among the Hidden is a quieter, darker piece with some of the repetitiveness of minimalist music, relieved in the middle by lighter material that soon subsides back into a kind of crepuscular mood. Kawarsky’s Fastidious Notes, unlike the other music here, is a set of variations – on a folk song called “Goodbye Old Paint.” There is considerable cleverness here in the instrumentation, and the grounding in folk music, although it perhaps inevitably recalls Copland, has a style of its own, especially in the jazzlike alto saxophone riffs with which some of the material is decorated. Each of these four works is, of course, a matter of taste, and the taste required for each of them is quite different. Many listeners who enjoy the sound of contemporary music will find parts of the disc quite pleasurable, but as in so many other anthology releases with little genuine connection among the pieces offered, the whole ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

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