The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The University of Wisconsin Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra unwrap welcome holiday gifts of contemporary music that is both accessible and enjoyable.

December 13, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are always a big season for music, especially for vocal music, as I recently commented in in another post.

Handel’s “Messiah” and J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are probably the most famous examples, to say nothing of instrumental works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Gabrieli and others. (Surely the prolific Telemann also wrote some kind of holiday music, though I do not know of specific titles.)

But that means that, musically,  this can also be The Silly Season.

By that, I mean it is the time when we start hearing string quartet arrangements of familiar Christmas carols and the like – as if classical music doesn’t have enough holiday-themed music to choose from.

So I offer a hearty holiday thanks to University of Wisconsin choral director Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and to the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra plus the two soloists she led.

This past weekend those combined forces (below), under Taylor’s capable leadership, offered a program that was unusual in several ways.

For one, it did not feature music normally associated with the holidays, but instead vocal music by four modern and contemporary composers three of whom are still living and working.

For another, it featured music that, to my knowledge, has never before been performed by the UW Choral Union, which usually ends up re-visiting more well-known Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern choral works.

Then too, the music offered shelter and sanctuary from the typical holiday atmosphere, which seems increasingly to combine frenetic festiveness, manic activity, established notions of how to celebrate and just plain old crass commercialism.

It was, in short, a risky strategy. But it paid off.

That is not to say that all of the four works – two long ones and two short ones – were equally successful. But the concert was nonetheless a welcome break from routine and a welcome departure from holiday predictability. The singing and instrumental playing overall were rich and captivating. 

The 90-minute concert opened with a very short brass and choral fanfare, “O Clap Your Hands” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below). It was a good and energetic curtain-raiser, done well and convincingly. And by contrast it set up the rest of the program.

The big work on the first half was “Evensong: Of Love and Angels” by Dominick Argento (below, born 1927). It was written as a tribute to his wife, who died in 2006, and was commissioned by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C, which gave the work its world premiere to mark the cathedral’s 100th anniversary.

Argento’s serious and even somber work is structured to include a little bit of everything, from a sermon and reading to the lighting of candles. It used texts in Latin and English, words from the Bible and from the Book of Common Prayer. It featured ensemble work, but also solos by the orchestra, choir and soloists.

In fact, the variety of the piece seemed to me to be one of its flaws. The work never quite made up its mind what it wanted to be or say – except for having too many banalities and clichés about the importance of love. It never seemed to develop a line or arc that carried the listener through it. The work constantly seemed to promise something moving and memorable, and then failed to deliver the goods. It had some beautiful moments coupled to some very long and boring stretches that seemed devoted to lateral drift rather than making a musical or textual point. I am not much one for angels, but much of this piece could have used the help of one.

Mind you, I don’t blame the chorus and orchestra. Both seemed to get into the piece and give it all they had. The soloists were quite good, but they seemed somewhat miscast. Against the 154-voice chorus and 41-piece orchestra, they simply seemed outclassed. The two soloists, Kyeol Lee and Natalie DeMaioribus, displayed fine enough voices and expressive tone, but scale was lacking. The singers needed more oomph – more volume and better diction– to be as expressive as they clearly wished to be and the piece wanted them to be. The narrator David Susan, however, did a fine job of projecting his recited reading.

The second half of the concert opened with “Water Night” by Eric Whitacre (below), a young American composer born in 1970 who is fast building a major reputation.

In this work, the chorus and orchestra were led by the graduate assistant conductor Russell Adrian (below), who seemed quite capable and clearly has a promising future ahead of him.

I have one major criticism. The engaging text is a translated poem by the Mexican Nobel Prize winning writer Octavio Paz (below). The poem is a lyrical poem or an elegy, not an epic. So it demanded more intimacy than it received. I found the combined forces a bit too overwhelming, and that mismatch was only heightened by the loudness and strong dynamic contrasts. The work needed to be quieter and more subtly textured to give the impression of a smaller group.

Clearly the stand-out of the concert was the concluding work, the famous and popular “Lux Aeterna” by the American composer Morten Lauridsen (below, b. 1943, receiving the National for the Arts from President George W. Bush).

In opposition to the Argento, this work had a constant arc or line of directed energy that captured the listener’s attention and held it until the end. Using Latin, it established a calming and soothing tone, an entrancing and beautiful elegy that embraced you, enfolded you in sound. It shared much of the historically backward-looking appeal of works by such popular contemporary composers as Arvo Part, John Tavener and John Rutter.

One wonders; Does working in vocal music keep contemporary composers closer to mainstream traditions, to melodies and harmonies that resonate more with the average listener?

Conductor Taylor has compared the Lauridsen work to the Requiem by Faure, and she is not wrong. Another listener compared it to Aaron Copland, and one could hear those similarities too, especially in the spacious open chords and close harmonies.

But at no point in the concert of contemporary music did one find the music inaccessible, perplexing or ugly. It reminded one that there are composers working today who want to be understood and appreciated by ordinary listeners, and not just by other musicians.

That lesson about modern and contemporary music is no small gift, holiday or otherwise, on the part of Taylor, the campus and community chorus and the instrumental players.

In fact, as a music critic I can hardly think of a more appropriate or welcome holiday gift than the notion that modern and contemporary music deserves the same kind of serious attention from performers and audiences that the more tried-and-true classics receive.  

If you want to see what another critic heard in this concert, visit this link to a review by John W. Barker (below) of Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=35429

Did you hear the UW Choral Union concert?

What did you think of the music?

Of the performance?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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