August 08, 2019
Jake Runestad: Choral Music—Waves; American Triptych; Why the Caged Bird Sings; Spirited Light; Let My Love Be Heard; And So I Go On; The Hope of Loving; Flower into Kindness. Conspirare conducted by Craig Hella Johnson, with Stephen Redfield and Caleb Polashek, violins; Bruce Williams, viola; Douglas Harvey, cello; Carla McElhaney, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Kile Smith: The Arc in the Sky. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $14.99.
Extended works for chorus a cappella or with minimal accompaniment are very much an acquired taste, one more likely to come from church than from the concert hall. Indeed, the form is one of the oldest in Western music, and for many years it was very strictly religious in purpose and use. It does remain attractive to some composers today, however, and certainly to some performers and, by extension, some audiences. And much brand-new choral music has a distinctly old-fashioned sound that positions it very much in the age-old compositional line of which it is a part. This is certainly the case with the works of Jake Runestad heard on a new Delos CD in performances by the very fine choral ensemble Conspirare under Craig Hella Johnson’s direction. Runestad (born 1986) is very much text-driven in all the works here, creating settings through which the words and the sentiments underlying them can be displayed as clearly as possible. Those sentiments tend to involve social issues and reflections on human nature, but they also, sometimes almost in spite of themselves, reach beyond the mundanity of daily life toward something higher. Waves, to words by Runestad’s frequent collaborator, Todd Boss, oddly mixes cliché (“My sadness is enormous as the sea”) with originality (“Birds are made of bones of air,” the immediately following line). American Triptych uses words by Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and John Muir to celebrate natural scenes. Why the Caged Bird Sings is a rather straightforward setting of the familiar words by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Spirited Light is overtly religious, using words by Hildegard von Bingen, while Let My Love Be Heard invokes religious imagery as well, in the words of Alfred Noyes. These two songs speak of love and loss, and the one that follows, And So I Go On (words by Boss), does so in strictly contemporary language that again mixes commonplace expression with poetically effective metaphor. Next on the CD is the disc’s most-elaborate material, a six-song cycle called The Hope of Loving that crystallizes much of Runestad’s thinking and many of his interests through music that includes a string quartet and uses words by mystics Rabia and Hafiz as well as ones from St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, and – at the end – Meister Eckhart, whose concluding line (“My soul has a purpose, it is to love”) sums up all that has gone before. The CD ends with Flower into Kindness, one part of a longer work called Into the Light, and again here the words (by Mechthild von Magdeburg, Peter the Apostle, and Rabindranath Tagore) focus on love and its intermingling with nature and spirituality. There is a certain sameness to all Runestad’s music on this disc, which is appropriate in light of its focus on essentially the same topics throughout but which makes the rather long CD (nearly 80 minutes) a bit wearing as it goes on, despite the many beauties of individual tracks. Runestad does, however, show skill not only in choral writing but also in the way he includes individual voices and weaves pieces around them: the tenor solo in Waves, tenor and bass in Spirited Light, soprano and tenor in And So I Go On, soprano and baritone in one part of The Hope of Loving, and so on. Runestad’s music does not always have the uplift for which he clearly strives – much of it is pretty rather than profound – but it is well-constructed and has many appealing elements for choral-music fanciers.
The Arc in the Sky by Kile Smith (born 1956) is more ambitious than anything on the Runestad disc: it is a more-than-hour-long, nine-part setting of texts by a single poet, everything sung a cappella. The new Navona CD featuring The Crossing under Donald Nally is not a disc to be listened to lightly. Everything on it was written by Robert Lax (1915-2000), best known for his association with mystic theologian, Trappist monk and social activist Thomas Merton (1915-1968). The words of Lax set by Smith convey some of the same feelings and desires as many of the words set by Runestad, but their presentation and effect are quite different. Lax wrote what was essentially minimalist and deliberately simplistic poetry, and often tried to connect mundane experience with the spiritual through meditations on topics as varied as the work of sponge divers and the experience of jazz. Smith’s settings, which are more an extended memorial tribute to Lax than an attempt to reach out to people unfamiliar with Lax’s work, are divided into three groups of three. The groupings are decidedly thematic: “Jazz,” “Praise,” and “Arc,” with the third “Arc” song concluding the entire work through a very extended 12-minute setting. It is extremely helpful, if not absolutely necessary, to be familiar with all Lax’s references in order to absorb both his poetry and Smith’s settings of it. For example, the very first piece, “why did they all shout,” repeats those five words for almost a full minute before revealing what is being shouted, which is “louie is de lawd.” The poem turns out to be all about Louis Armstrong, and anyone who does not know that – and does not also know Armstrong’s style – will get little from the words and nothing more from Smith’s choral setting. Other poetry here also requires an understanding of the people in Lax’s orbit – for example, “Cherubim & Palm-Trees for Jean-Louis Kerouac.” The best words, though, are those that seem most to reach out rather than focus on Lax’s inner circle – for example, “Psalm,” which opens, “It is you yourself/ who urges me/ to find you,” and never quite clarifies whether the “you” is another human being or a divine presence. Smith treats Lax’s poetry with great respect, and his settings allow the words to come through clearly so their analytical meaning and emotional impact can reach the audience directly and often effectively. Still, Lax’s work is not so distinctive or imaginative as to sustain well for more than an hour, and while Smith’s music handles the verbiage gingerly, there is nothing in it that makes these poems seem like important expressions of sentiment or meaning never felt before or never expressed so well. Choruses seeking contemporary music to perform will find sections of The Arc in the Sky useful for that purpose, and audiences familiar with Lax and the jazz and “beat” scenes will discover much here that is congenial. The totality of this extended work, though, will likely be a bit too much for listeners who are not among the “in crowd” members who will be familiar with and comfortable with its context.