Whitacre: Light & Gold/Whitacre

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

In the interest of full disclosure: I have been a fan of Eric Whitacre’s music ever since the spring of 2001 when I heard a couple of his pieces featured at an ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) convention. There’s no question that works like A Boy and A Girl, Lux aurumque, i thank You God for most this amazing day, Cloudburst (not on this CD), and Sleep are masterful, original creations deserving of their current acclaim and repertoire status. Whitacre has developed some signature techniques and forged what might be called a personal style and applied it to well-chosen texts in a manner that excites the imagination of choral singers and pricks up the ears of their audiences.

But let’s not get carried away: references in the press to the 40-year-old Whitacre as a “rock star” or choral “god” (fueled, not accidentally, by his J.Crew/GQ/A&F-like publicity shots) are just a distraction, saying nothing whatever regarding the substance of his work, its integrity, or its durability beyond the next year or next decade. The fact that his compositions so far have sold more than a million copies shows Whitacre’s doing something right!; and there’s no doubt that his brand of poetic musical expression has come at a time when choirs seem especially open to this sort of close-stitched dissonance where melody is secondary–it tends to be expressed in bits and bursts–and harmony, in its many forms and extensions, is foremost.

The larger share of Whitacre’s choral work could be described as “effects” music–sound pieces that make an effect without dependence on a tune or an easily discernible structure. While he does have his signature “moves”–for instance, a unison or a basic harmony washing into a dissonant chord; the use of augmented intervals–many of his techniques, especially on the harmonic front, are long familiar from 20th-century composers such as Messiaen or Ligeti, Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt, or even going back to Ives (major/minor coexistence, for example). Although Whitacre cites Britten as a favorite composer, it’s hard to find any direct influence in his choral music so far.

In addition to this recording’s wonderful performances of Lux Aurumque, A Boy and a Girl, Water Night, i thank You God, and Sleep (Whitacre says he’s never been satisfied with earlier performances of his works, so we presume that these–which just seem slightly more fussy in the details–are the definitive ones), we discover some really fine new things, such as the Five Hebrew Love Songs, with texts by the composer’s wife, the choir accompanied by string quartet; the fabulously tuneful (Whitacre calls it “Disney-esque”) The Seal Lullaby, written in 2007 to a Rudyard Kipling text for a never-completed animated film (arrangements of this are certain to be a huge hit in the school-music world!); and Nox Aurumque (Night and Gold), an almost too-clever “companion piece” to Lux Aurumque.

The liner notes by Whitacre provide very interesting insight into the works, their origins, and into the composer’s creative process. And anyone who’s been following his career must concede that Whitacre himself is a work in progress, his music continuing to evolve, if ever so slightly, while anchored by some fundamentally sound techniques and spiced by his penchant for unusual harmonic juxtapositions and abrupt color shifts.

There’s much to savor here–and while you may not be the slightest bit interested in the stubbly beard, greasy hair, leather jacket, or meditative stares that confront you in the disc packaging, you can’t help but be intrigued and impressed by Whitacre’s compositional craftsmanship, which–and this is everything to the choral musician–always understands and respects the voice and its special expressive qualities. Also, through his various activities–workshops, guest conducting, commissions–Whitacre is making a huge and positive impact on choral music throughout the world. While it would be difficult to find anything wrong with that(!), we also have to remember to hold our standing ovation a little while longer. [11/5/2010]

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Polyphony (Hyperion), This one

ERIC WHITACRE - Lux Aurumque; Five Hebrew Love Songs; The Seal Lullaby; A Boy and a Girl; Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine; Three songs of Faith; The Stolen Child; Water Night; Nox Aurumque; Sleep

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