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Saturday, May 7, 2011

new CD by Stephen Layton of American (and Canadian) music

Stephen Layton is one of the best British choral conductors and I've long admired his work.

At one point I got a nice email from him about my Scandinavian Christmas CD with Choral Arts:
 Dear Richard Sparks,

I have greatly enjoyed listening to your CD A Scandinavian Christmas. It is beautifully sung and there are some beautiful tracks.
 I have been trying to locate some of the music so that I can perform it but am not having much luck.
I hate to be irritating and bother you, but I wonder whether might be able to point me in the right direction of at least one copy to get an idea.

I particularly like :

HENRIK ØDEGAARD: Den yndigste rose
BROR SAMUELSON: Ave Maris Stella
HAROLD SVENTELIUS: O makalösa stjärna
GUSTAF NORDQVIST: Jul, jul, strålande jul!

All good wishes and admiration of your CD,

Stephen Layton
Very flattering, of course!

If you don't know his group Polyphony, you should! He also conducts the Holst Singers in London and has been Principal Guest Conductor for the Danish Radio Choir (and, for a period, the Netherlands Chamber Choir). He has lots of recordings.

Certainly his Britten CD with Polyphony is stunning, with fantastic performances of both AMDG and Sacred and Profane, both challenging pieces.

In addition he's now at Trinity College Cambridge and this is a new CD of American (and Canadian) music on Hyperion:

Beyond all mortal dreams
American a cappella
Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)

1 Tonight eternity alone  René Clausen (b. 1953)
Three New Motets 'in memoriam Thomas Tallis'  Steven Stucky (b. 1949)
2 No 1: O admirabile commercium 
3 No 2: O sacrum convivium 
4 No 3: O vos omnes 
5 Sanctus   Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
Hildegard Triptych  Frank Ferko (b. 1950)
6 No 1: O vis aeternitatis
7 No 2: Caritas abundat 
8 No 3: O virtus sapientiae 
9 Lux aeterna   Edwin Fissinger (1920-1990)
10 Fair in face   Healey Willan (1880-1968)
11 I beheld her, beautiful as a dove    Healey Willan
12 Rise up, my love, my fair one   Healey Willan
13 How they so softly rest   Healey Willan
14 The day is done    Stephen Paulus (b. 1949)
15 Pilgrims' Hymn   Even before we call on your name   (Excerpt from The Three Hermits)   Stephen Paulus (b. 1949)
16 Hymn to the Eternal Flame   Ev'ry face is in you, ev'ry voice, ev'ry sorrow in you   (Excerpt from To be Certain of the Dawn)  Stephen Paulus
Two Motets  William Hawley (b. 1950)
17 No 1: Mosella  Quis color ille vadis, seras cum propulit umbras
18 No 2: Te vigilans oculis
19 Phoenix  Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi   Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)

And some nice notes on the pieces:
Stephen Layton and his acclaimed Trinity College Choir perform a stunning disc of American a cappella choral works.

The recording is a showcase of little-known American composers unearthed by Layton during his travels. These distinctive and luminous compositions illustrate the context in which better-known composers such as Lauridsen and Whitacre—already championed by Layton—learnt their craft.

The choir is in perfect voice. Their purity of tone, flawless intonation and depth of feeling are truly exceptional. This wonderful disc is a must for all choral fanatics.

Introduction 
American choral music travelled far in the twentieth century. At its inception, the ‘Second New England School’ of Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach and others was wedded to the aesthetics of German Romanticism, and it wasn’t until Charles Ives arrived to claim America for the Modernists (not that anyone took much notice to begin with) that a more distinctive sound began to emerge. His adventurous nature, mocking the conservatism of his colleagues, spawned the mid-century flowering of American music in Copland, Barber and Bernstein. Founded upon the teaching of Nadia Boulanger and others, and fermented within the newly established conservatories of music, these years saw the emergence of American choral music as a vibrant force; and whilst their European counterparts received commissions principally from Cathedral foundations, with their attendant liturgical requirements, the Americans enjoyed a broader reach of listeners and performers, serving the secular choral bodies of collegiate campuses and metropolitan music societies.

Nowadays, choral libraries up and down the USA are stuffed full of twentieth-century American music, and music publishers will freely acknowledge that this vast body of work keeps their businesses flourishing. The outputs of Randall Thompson, Norman Dello Joio, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti and others have established an ‘American sound’ which, though difficult to define precisely, is predominantly tonal and broadly accessible; yet with the exception of Thompson’s ‘Alleluia’ and a handful of other works, it was not until the century closed that this music crossed the Atlantic and entered the repertoire of British choirs to any great degree. One of Stephen Layton’s other choral groups—Polyphony—produced two definitive recordings of the music of Morten Lauridsen in 2005 and 2007 (CDA67449 and CDA67580), and in between these came a recording of works by the current darling of the American choral scene, Eric Whitacre (CDA67543). This new recording casts light on another eight composers who have illuminated the last half-century, and who now take their place on the international stage.

The regional flavours of the American choral scene are every bit as distinct as Europe’s, and whilst great efforts are made to build unity through popular annual choral conventions, these disparities are entrenched by historical patterns of migration and settlement. Traditionally a destination for Scandinavian immigrants, the northern state of Minnesota is home to generations of choir-loving Lutherans and it contains some of the best university choirs in the country, none more notable than that of Concordia College directed by René Clausen, one of a number of prominent composer-conductors in American academia. Tonight eternity alone sets a modified verse of the poem ‘Dusk at Sea’ by Thomas S Jones in the composer’s trademark neo-romantic language, and captures a feeling of contented solitude in a vast empty space.

Just a few dozen miles away at the University of North Dakota, Edwin Fissinger occupied a similar role until his retirement in 1985, at the helm of another great north Midwestern choir. Lux aeterna was composed in 1982, and is dedicated to the memory of one of Fissinger’s composition students and his wife, who were killed in a car accident. The composer combines familiar Gregorian motifs with cluster-chord harmonies, and introduces the work by assembling chords from the bottom upwards in a manner strongly reminiscent of Gustav Holst’s Nunc dimittis. The female and male soloists, perhaps in representation of the ascended souls of the departed, fly free of the clustered choral textures.

Although he died more than twenty years ago, Fissinger’s compositional language places him among the newer generation of American composers represented here. The same cannot be said for Healey Willan, whose music flourished in the earlier part of the century and who, by virtue of his British extraction and Canadian, rather than American residency, retained strong ties to the Edwardian style of Stanford, Parry and Finzi in the country of his birth. Like his British counterparts, Willan admired and parodied the music of the Tudors (he founded a choir in Toronto bearing the name) and in the style of the Renaissance masters he proclaimed plainchant to be the backbone of his work. An immense force in the growth of twentieth-century Canadian church music, his place in the establishment was secured thanks to a commission from the Queen to compose a work for her coronation in 1953. The first three pieces represented here are from his sequence of eleven Liturgical Motets, set to texts drawn from eighth-century ‘Office of Our Lady’ responsories, and the Song of Songs. This is followed by a lavish setting of Longfellow’s ‘The Dead’ (How they so softly rest), whose sense of unbridled longing brings to mind Parry’s Songs of Farewell—composed, like this work, during the final months of the Great War. Willan’s own choir at St Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto, for whom this work was written, must have enjoyed the services of an excellent low bass section.

Aside from Willan, the four composers most prominently represented on this recording (Paulus, Hawley, Ferko and Stucky) were born within sixteen months of each other, between August 1949 and November 1950, and have together done much to shape the American musical landscape for the new millennium. As the first American to be commissioned to write for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, and as the composer of the only American opera production to be staged at the Edinburgh Festival, Stephen Paulus has already gained a strong foothold among foreign audiences. Back home he co-founded the American Composers’ Forum in 1973, and subsequently built a reputation as a leader among American choral composers thanks to a fruitful collaboration with Robert Shaw and his eponymous choir. There are now an astonishing number of titles in his choral output, only three of which can find room on this recording. Composed between 1997 and 2006, these works are separate compositions, but they are united in their strophic approach to the text, their homophonic compositional style and their accessible harmonic language. The sweeping melody and relatively static harmony of The day is done (2006) reflect the peacefully romantic mood of the text (once again by Longfellow), whilst Pilgrims’ Hymn, a sacred poem full of innocence and devotion, is drawn from Paulus’s one-act opera The Three Hermits, composed some years earlier with a libretto by Michael Dennis Browne. The same collaboration of composer and author created the oratorio To be Certain of the Dawn in 2005 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of death camps in Europe; Hymn to the Eternal Flame, featuring a soaring soprano solo, is drawn from this work.

The New York composer William Hawley, after an early career dominated by instrumental music, is now recognized as an important voice in the choral world. In rejecting the avant-garde methods of his teachers, he has created a language which revels in suspended harmony, in his own words ‘reintegrating the emotional and spiritual elements of pre-twentieth-century Western classical music with the technical and conceptual acquisitions of Modernism’. The Two Motets of 1981 were composed for the Gregg Smith Singers, and are conceived of very similar material. Unusually for choral music, the Latin texts are poetic rather than biblical, and contain no sacred elements at all. Mosella is a fragment of a longer work by the fourth-century poet Ausonius—a celebrated evocation of the scenery experienced along the course of the river Moselle—and in this stanza we are treated to the soothing sight of water reflecting the light of dusk. For the second poem, Te vigilans oculis by Petronius, the scene shifts to an anguished poet lying sleepless in bed, longing for his lover. The contrasts in thematic material from the first motet are magnified by their very similarity, as Hawley shifts to a darker mode in reflection of the text. Both motets end with prolonged and unresolved suspensions to sharply differing effect: unending beauty in the first instance, and ceaseless torment in the second.

Frank Ferko is an important musicologist as well as a composer, and is one of the leading American experts on the music of Olivier Messiaen; but his music on this recording reflects another of his passions—the work of Hildegard von Bingen. The Hildegard Triptych is a challenging set of works set for double choir, and represents just one part of a significant body of choral and organ works inspired by the great medieval mystic. O virtus sapientiae recalls the music of Hildegard as well as the text, opening with an exchange of organum duplum phrases which rapidly expands to encompass the whole choir, decorated with florid melisma. The extraordinary pan-tonal opening of Caritas abundat brings the meditative works of Messiaen immediately to mind, invoking a tantalizing vision of a thousand years of mysticism squeezed into three minutes of music; and O vis aeternitatis, announcing itself with a prolonged bare fifth, opens the set in a medieval idiom, this time with the homophony of the conductus style.

Steven Stucky is a much-fêted composer whose orchestral music has been performed by many of the leading orchestras of the world, and whose Second Concerto for Orchestra earned him a Pulitzer Prize. A prominent lecturer and teacher, he is considered one of America’s leading commentators on its contemporary music scene, and was recently appointed Chairman of the Board of the American Music Center. Like Frank Ferko, he has devoted part of his working life to the study of a great twentieth-century European composer, publishing his acclaimed biography of Witold Lutoslawski in 1981; and with his Three New Motets ‘in memoriam Thomas Tallis’, composed in 2005 for the Seattle Pro Musica as part of Tallis’s 500th birthday celebrations, Stucky pays tribute to another luminary from the world of ancient music, albeit half a millennium younger than Hildegard. Of the three texts chosen by Stucky, only O sacrum convivium was definitely set by the old Elizabethan master, and the connections to the musical language of Tallis are looser than those which bind Ferko’s music to Hildegard. Alongside the rhythmic urgency of O sacrum convivium, O admirabile commercium and O vos omnes, both predominantly homophonic, are quiet and respectful, much like Tallis’s own shorter four-part motets. For all their adventurous harmonic language they engender a modest yet powerful feeling of homage to their dedicatee.

The youngest composer amongst this group is the Norwegian-born composer-pianist Ola Gjeilo, who completed his studies at the Juilliard School in 2006 and has been based in Manhattan ever since. Gjeilo has enjoyed startling success in both choral and commercial music, deploying musicians in innovative combinations and incorporating improvisatory techniques. His music is represented twice on this recording, in works using texts drawn from the Mass. The majestic Sanctus, whose rich texture divides into as many as twelve parts at times, was composed for the Uranienborg Vokalensemble soon after his graduation, whilst Phoenix, a setting of the final movement of the Mass (‘Agnus Dei’) and the concluding work on this recording, was composed in 2008 for the Phoenix Chorale, with whom Gjeilo has enjoyed a fruitful association. The piece employs chant-like melodic phrases in a gradually thickening texture, building up to the final prayer for peace which is expressed in both extremes of the dynamic range—first ffff, and, at the conclusion, ppp.
I'll certainly get the CD. Perhaps Mr. Layton should listen to my Randall Thompson CD to get some additional ideas for American music (!): the two George Herbert settings, The Last Invocation, and his Odes of Horace are almost unknown, but wonderful music.

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