May 26, 2022


Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Supplice; Gabriel Jackson: Zero Point Reflection; Spring; Bruno Bettinelli: Madrigali a cinque voci miste—Excerpts; Jeremy Gill: Six Pensées de Pascal; Joanne Metcalf: The Sea’s Wash in the Hollow of the Heart. Variant 6 (Jessica Beebe and Rebecca Myers, sopranos; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Steven Bradshaw and James Reese, tenors; Daniel Schwartz, bass). Open G Records. $15.

Jeffrey Derus: From Wilderness—A Meditation on the Pacific Crest Trail. Choral Arts Initiative conducted by Brandon Elliott; Kevin Mills, cello. Navona. $14.99.

     Vocal works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries tend to be self-limited where audiences are concerned: they are for listeners who are especially attracted to the human voice as an instrument and not averse to hearing it stretched, augmented and otherwise modified in accordance with the taste of today’s composers. There can, however, be more beauty in today’s sung works than uninitiated listeners realize, with composers who focus strongly on voices (rather than voices complemented by instruments) often being especially concerned with the sonic quality their works possess. Thus, the sheer sound of the ensemble Variant 6 is often of more interest on a new release from Open G Records than are the specific pieces the singers perform. Three of the composers heard on the CD – Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Jeremy Gill and Joanne Metcalf – composed or arranged these pieces for Variant 6, and all pay special attention to the balance of a six-member vocal group and the differentiation of ensemble passages from solos. Boyle’s Supplice (2019) is based on a Paul Éluard poem that sounds more evocative in French than in English – the third of the work’s three portions, for example, is Couchons-nous, mon vieux, il est tard, which simply means, “Let’s go to bed, my friend: it’s late.” The music is well-blended and does not overdo its use of dissonance, although portions for the higher voices tend to get screechy. Gill’s Six Pensées de Pascal (2017) also draws on a French-language work: Pensées is Blaise Pascal’s defense of Christianity. All six pieces are based on a rising scale contrasted with a falling one – a technique that is inherently tiresome, but that Gill uses in a variety of ways that make it more interesting than might be expected. The second piece, Il faut se tenir en silence, is especially effective in its use of vocal leaps and its contrast of sung passages with silence. Metcalf’s The Sea’s Wash in the Hollow of the Heart (2020) gets its title from the Denise Levertov poem that Metcalf sets. The setting does not offer any particular clarity of the words, with Metcalf opting to emphasize vocal mixing and blending over attentiveness to narrative. The remaining works on the disc are not tailored to Variant 6 but are nevertheless well-handled by the ensemble. The three excerpts from Madrigali a cinque voci miste (1993) by Bruno Bettinelli are especially attractive in their vocal straightforwardness (not to be confused with simplicity) and the composer’s care to differentiate the voices in such a way as to emphasize the words and their messages. Gabriel Jackson’s Spring (2005) sets Gerard Manley Hopkins in a way that seems to try too hard to communicate a sense of growth and life without varying the tempo appreciably – a sense of genuine brightness is missing. And Jackson’s Zero Point Reflection (2014) comes across as the most avowedly “contemporary” work on the disc, stretching vocal lines – sung only by the ensemble’s three female voices – and including bits of melisma, vocalise, whispers, and other sounds that a listener would not necessarily identify as being “sung” (as opposed to “vocalized”). The work goes on for quite some time (12 minutes) and is the most narrowly tailored piece on the disc, being most likely to appeal only to an audience already steeped in and appreciative of modern vocal music in general.

     A different sort of appreciation is needed for Jeffrey Derus’ From Wilderness, performed by the Choral Arts Initiative under Brandon Elliott on a new Navona CD. Here one must be interested both in vocal material and in a travelogue – a long one, lasting more than an hour. And this is a very specific travelogue, the work being devoted to travel along a single route, the Pacific Crest Trail, and including vocal portraits of and responses to numerous highly specific sites along the way. Derus calls the work a “meditation,” and although it is mostly a cappella, he opens it with extended use of crystal singing bowls (sounding like temple bells) for a segment called Survival Chakra & Journey into Yourself – a very slow-moving, minimalist piece (the voices enter after two-and-a-half minutes) that will either represent highly effective scene-setting (for listeners already interested in this specific trail and in the inward-looking approach that Derus seeks) or will come across as pretentious rather than evocative (for those not kindly disposed to Derus’ approach). Derus follows this opening with more of the same, a section called Sacral: Emotions Chakra, before getting into the location-specific material that makes up the bulk of From Wilderness until, near the end, he inevitably proffers an element called Crown: Cosmic Chakra. Listeners really need to know the landscapes and landmarks along this specific trail to make sense of the communication that Derus seeks – which means being familiar with Cajon Pass and Kennedy Meadows in southern California (among other places in that region), Sonora Pass and Echo Lake (and others) in the Sierras, Donner Summit and Seiad Valley (and elsewhere) in northern California, Diamond Peak Wilderness and Cascade Locks in Oregon (plus other locations in the state), and so forth into Washington state and British Columbia. The use of the cello – very well-played by Kevin Mills – is the most-intriguing part of the work, allowing listeners to hear the cello as an “everyman” figure, or as a guide, or as a spirit guide to the meaning behind the vistas. It is all very mystical and transcendental and achingly meaningful, imploring rather than inviting listeners to be inspired and transformed through appreciation of this specific trail and these specific nature scenes. Although the choral singing is very fine throughout, the self-limiting aspects of From Wilderness in its geographical focus and its insistence on a certain type of meditative engagement mean that this very extended journey is one that only a small subset of the potential audience for modern vocal music is likely to stay with from start to finish.

No comments:

Post a Comment