Whitacre’s Watery Night

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

At this point Eric Whitacre could lend his name to a line of spaghetti sauce, frozen dinners, clothing—hey, why not a video game?—and his enormous world-wide popularity and positive name recognition would guarantee a virtual emptying of the shelves in record time. And speaking of “virtual”, his hugely successful Virtual Choir project has literally invented a new internet-age genre while bringing together in a way never before imagined thousands of choral singers from all over the world. And the guy looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, or Jesus, or at least one of those fashionably unshaven movie actors.

While I have applauded Whitacre’s work so far, for its striking originality, for the composer’s knowing use of performing forces, and, in the choral works,  for its affecting and effective realization of very well-chosen texts, this collection of nine works, many of them world premieres, made me take a step back, trying to find in this veritable hodgepodge of works some unifying conceptual perspective, or at the very least, something memorable for the longer term. If I heard these pieces six months from now, would I remember that I’d heard them before? Or who wrote them? Maybe the lavish and lovely yet too-long-for-its-material cello work for Julian Lloyd Webber, The River Cam,  or perhaps the sweetly sung (by Whitacre’s wife, soprano Hila Plitmann) but melodically meandering Goodnight Moon.

But there’s just something about this program that feels and sounds like a catch-all collection assembled from whatever the composer had lying around in his desk drawer. Most importantly—and fascinatingly—these pieces reveal little of a distinctly personal creative voice, except for the fact that Whitacre is adept at writing for various instrumental or vocal groups.

Whitacre makes a point of the fact that he’s “not a Christian”, but embraces the single word “Alleluia” as a way to write “religious” music without acknowledging any religious platform. The only problem is, at nine and one-half minutes, Alleluia—among the disc’s most vital and, yes, memorable entries—simply demands more  text (Randall Thompson’s famous setting of the word, at four and one-half minutes, stretched the idea about as far as it should go)—or perhaps less music (the piece actually sounds as if it should end just around the six-minute mark, which would be just right). This sense of music too long for its material is a recurring one on this program.

Equus was a wind ensemble piece that Whitacre recently transcribed for full orchestra—and it works very well. Described by the composer as “dynamic minimalism”, it certainly is dynamic, and its repetitive, insistent rhythm and catchy melodic riffs make a strong visceral and visual impression (horses running?). It’s just that we’ve heard this sort of thing before, especially in film music, and indeed, this would make a fine opening sequence for a movie (although the orchestral playing could be more cleanly articulated). Water Night is Whitacre’s popular choral work adapted here for string orchestra, and again, the conversion proves not only successful but truly transforms it into a completely different piece. It would make a nice pairing on a program of some of those gorgeous pastoral string orchestra works by Butterworth, Parry, and Gibbs.

I wonder if Whitacre was familiar with the many other versions of the famously set text “When David heard…” before creating his own—not for musical ideas but to appreciate the power and concision achieved by, say, the Renaissance composers Tomkins or Weelkes. Again, length is an issue: after about the nine and one-half minute mark the piece just seems belabored, forcing ideas already exhausted (it goes on for another eight minutes).

It’s impossible not to be a fan of Whitacre, if only for those early choral masterpieces and for the sheer enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism he brings to his work. And his Virtual Choir easily could lay the groundwork for a Nobel Prize some day, for the way it’s brought people around the world together, and for its greater potential. (You can check out Virtual Choir 3, just released April 2, by clicking here.) But as far as this new recording goes—already a big hit on the charts—it’s a strange program, a collection of this and that—a choral work here, a former choral work/now instrumental piece there, a solo instrument with orchestra piece here, a song there, an orchestral/formerly wind-ensemble/movie-music piece, another choral piece. Whitacre’s name and fame may be able to sell anything these days, but this uneven and oddly-chosen assortment of works just feels like a kind of musical yard sale: you’ll be entertained, you’ll find some gems, but don’t expect inspiration or enlightenment.



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Recording Details:

ERIC WHITACRE: Alleluia; Equus; Oculi Omnium; The River Cam; Her Sacred Spirit Soars; Water Night; Goodnight Moon; When David Heard; Sleep, my Child


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