Conspirare is a 30-voice professional choir that performs a wide range of repertoire, including many works by contemporary composers. The title of this CD, “Through the green fuse”, comes not from any of the music but from a Dylan Thomas poem, and while no explanation is offered for this choice–in fact, there are virtually no notes on the music, even though many of the works will be unfamiliar to nearly every listener–we can assume that it’s there to set a sort of aesthetic tone. The music covers such themes as peace and rest and spirituality and remembrance, flowers, homeland, and hope.
A fine set of four pieces by Donald Skirvin titled Alchemy–individual titles are Living Gold, Cups of Fire, Jewelled Blaze, and O Beauty–is rich in imagery wrought by imaginative use of harmony and apt, sensitive text-setting. And it’s also just plain gorgeous music that speaks well for this composer’s facility with voices; I only wish I knew more about him and about this work. (Actually I checked the Yelton Rhodes website–yrmusic.com–and found a very interesting catalog of Skirvin’s choral music that revealed Alchemy was composed in 2002, and that indeed the texts are all by Sara Teasdale, not just the last one, as suggested by the booklet layout.) Another excellent work is Feet o’ Jesus, a poignant a cappella expression full of vibrant, sometimes pungent harmonies, part of a set of three Afro American Fragments by William Averitt (another composer new to me). The other two in the set have very effectively written piano accompaniments–and this is one of the best-sounding and best-recorded pianos I’ve ever heard on CD, particularly in a choir-accompaniment role.
Conductor Craig Hella Johnson’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More is another highlight, perfectly capturing both the somber mood and sobering theme of the text (“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, While we all sup sorrow with the poor…”), combining more modern harmonies and choral “effects” with a kind of “19th-century American” sensibility–and it works pretty well over the course of six minutes, building to a big climax toward the end before returning to the quiet mood of the beginning. Listeners used to the Harry Burleigh setting of Deep River will find a new and enlivening experience in Anders Paulsson’s version, with its rich-textured, sometimes “spacey”, jazz-like harmonies–and there’s even a cool soprano saxophone’s plaintive, improvisatory wail thrown in at certain moments.
There’s much more here, including Sibelius’ Finlandia hymn (with Lloyd Stone’s English text), scored for a cappella male choir, Gordon Binkerd’s prickly Autumn Flowers, Jon Nordal’s tender Smávinir fagrir (Fair little friends), sung in Icelandic, Eric Whitacre’s evocative setting of Charles Silvestri’s poem Sleep, with its delightfully spooky ending, and Frank Ticheli’s beautiful and now-ubiquitous There will be rest (also from Sara Teasdale). The choir truly lives up to its professional credentials, with a consistently high standard of ensemble coordination, expression, and mastery of detail, especially impressive for singers who come together from all over the U.S. to rehearse. The sound is generally excellent, with only some saturation at higher volumes in full-ensemble sections. A genuine treat for choral fans, containing some really first rate discoveries in a thoughtfully organized program that would have been even better if information regarding the music and publishers had been included. Warmly recommended! [1/17/2005]