Choral Music, American Style

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

There are no less than four recording premieres on this program, an aspect of many of Cedille’s projects over the years that perhaps doesn’t get enough attention, but for which those of us who look forward to and even depend on the creation and promotion of new works are always grateful. The disc’s title comes from Abbie Betinis’ set of three “songs of smaller creatures”, specifically bees, a spider, and butterflies, the texts respectively from Walter de la Mare, Walt Whitman, and Charles Swinburne. The opener, “the bees’ song”, is a riotous—perhaps I should say “zzzintillating”—tribute to de la Mare’s onomatopoeic lines: “Thousandz of thornz there be/On the Rozez where gozez/The Zebra of Zee…” (Pay attention throughout the song’s 71 seconds, and you’ll notice the fleeting quote from “Flight of the Bumblebee”!) The other two songs are similarly attentive to creating a sound representation of their texts and subjects, with only the final one, about butterflies, seeming a bit labored at the end. The style of these, and of most of the works on the disc, is in the modern tradition of choral composition that’s fundamentally tonal but whose extensive use of dissonant harmony renders any firmly discernible tonality ambiguous, often unconfirmed until a final cadence.

Illinois-based composer Lee Kesselman contributes his own take on the subject of bees (and as a beekeeper, I certainly approve!), with Three Pieces about Bees, texts by Emily Dickinson. The last song, “Bee! I’m expecting you!”, is a delightful monologue, full of humor and clever vocal writing that’s more like speech than song. The Grant Park Chorus proves here and throughout this program of very challenging works (listen to a brief passage from Stacy Garrop’s “I shall forget you presently, my dear” in the sound clip below) its world-class ensemble stature, and any fan of choral music interested in the more-or-less contemporary “scene” should enjoy not only the singing, but the manner in which these composers handle text and expressive vocal technique.

Not all of the music is recently contemporary: the Kesselman pieces, as well as works by David del Tredici and Ned Rorem date from the 1970s; Paul Crabtree’s Five Romantic Miniatures (based on “texts” from, of all things, the television show The Simpsons!) are from 1999; and even the two Eric Whitacre works are more than 10 years old.  Tredici’s beautiful song from his Final Alice is of course the most solidly tonal on the program, but it still somehow remains fresh-sounding, its last phrase (which is identical to that in the hymn-tune “Madrid”) remaining long and not unpleasantly in your ear. Unlike the other works on the disc, the Whitacre pieces have been recorded so many times by now—I for one would have loved to hear some other contemporary but less-familiar music. However, since this repertoire was designed for a concert (recorded at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, Chicago), I can understand the reasoning for programing these works by one of today’s most popular choral composers. Finally, a detail that all choral directors will appreciate—and one that all producers of choral recordings should emulate—is the inclusion of publisher information for the compositions. Strongly recommended!

Stacy Garrop: "I shall forget you presently, my dear"


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Recording Details:

Album Title: Songs of Smaller Creatures--and Other American Choral Works

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