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Posts Tagged 'new choral music'

Sander/Lapaev, As Far as the East is from the West now available

I said I’d post an update when this happened, and I’m probably a little late on doing so, but nonetheless, As Far as the East is from the West, featuring the choral music of Kurt Sander and Gennadiy Lapaev, is now available for purchase from several outlets, both as a CD and as a download. Buy early, buy often — it’s good stuff.

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The Sander/Lapaev sessions, a year later

I got home from the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village on Sunday evening (which will be worthy of its own blog post eventually) to find six copies waiting for me of the CD that represents the fruits of the four days of recording on the Northern Kentucky University campus last August. As Far as the East is from the West is not yet available for purchase — that will probably be in September; keep an eye on this page for details, and I’ll certainly post an update when it happens — but all of us who sang have our copies, as well as a handful of extras to give away.

Since I’m on the recording, I don’t think I can ethically review it, but I will say that having listened to it, much as was the case when I drove home from the sessions, it’s a project of which I’m very grateful to have been a part. The recording sounds very much how I expected it to sound based on the sessions, and my only real disappointment is that the liner notes (written by one Sergey Furmanov) mention that the choir included “church musicians from parishes in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Montreal, and Philadelphia,” but, alas, leaves off Bloomington. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

In any event, my sincere hope is that this CD helps to kindle a more general interest in both Kurt Sander’s and Gennady Lapaev’s music in this country, and one way or the other it is a document of some wonderful examples of current Orthodox liturgical music, as well as a reminder of treasured memories.

End-of-fiscal-year appeal from Cappella Romana

I thought it important to pass on that Cappella Romana is doing a last-minute fundraising push before 30 June, the end of their fiscal year.

You can give to their general operating fund, and/or you can designate gifts toward one of the four recordings they are working on releasing in the near future:

  • Byzantine Chant from Mt. Sinai (hopefully to be released in April of 2011 in time for Cappella’s 20th anniversary)
  • Tikey Zes Divine Liturgy
  • Robert Kyr: A Time for Life
  • Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

For my part, I believe that CR deserves a lot of support; they are pretty much the only ensemble in this country representing the repertoire they sing. Besides that, music was certainly a huge factor, a “gateway drug” if you will, with regard to my eventual conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith, and Cappella Romana was a big part of that in several respects. The evangelical value of what they do should not be underestimated, at least in my view.

Please consider making a gift. You can do so online here, or you can also send a check to Cappella Romana, 3131 NE Glisan St, Portland, OR 97232 USA.

Richard Toensing on NPR’s Performance Today

Just so people are aware, an excerpt from Cappella Romana‘s recording of Richard Toensing‘s Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ (reviewed here) is being played as part of today’s program on NPR’s Performance Today, complete with a mini-interview with Toensing as a lead-in. You can find today’s show online here.

(As a side — but still related — note, somebody whom I’ve known since seventh grade and who happened to go on to be a grad student of Toensing’s at UC-Boulder e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that they’re being blessed as a catechumen on Sunday. This is still stunning me for any number of reasons.)

Review — Cappella Romana The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and Ensemble Organum: Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles

My copies of The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and the latest installment of Ensemble Organum’s Chant de l’Eglise de Rome arrived while I was traveling for Thanksgiving, and upon my return I was neck deep in finishing things up for the semester. Now that fall term of 2009/2010 is in the books, time to give these recordings its due attention.

My experience with a lot of the four-part Orthodox liturgical music that’s out there is that, frankly, it’s either terrible or plain mediocre. I have sometimes heard it said that Western ears are too used to harmony to like unison singing, so we have to add parts to chant melodies, and this attitude seems to be borne out in much of what we sing in our churches today. A lot of what I’ve encountered consists of Byzantine melodies harmonized very badly, as though somebody said suddenly, “Oh! I need a four-part arrangement of this hymn for tomorrow!”, proceeded to bang the melody out on some keyboard instruments, and wrote down whatever progression underneath it that was simplest and most tonal (and which also typically produced part-writing errors). A related problem is an overabundance, at least in some scenarios, of simplistic utility music. At the other end of the spectrum is really overblown, self-consciously polyphonic music — I can think of one example (which I decline to name) that seems to essentially ask the question, “What if Palestrina wrote a Divine Liturgy?” There are, of course, exceptions; Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music is very nice and singable, for example, and I’ve expressed my appreciation for Kurt Sander before.

I am very happy to add Peter Michaelides’ Divine Liturgy to the list of exceptions. Michaelides’ choral music is certainly prayerful, and while it is certainly not an exercise in compositional excess (like, say, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy), neither is it so restrained as to simply be an unnecessary sheen over the text. The character of the music is evocative enough of the Byzantine tradition that it is identifiably Orthodox music; some of the melodies of Sakellarides are used as a jumping-off point, but then the medium of the mixed choir is used to its advantage, always sounding like a completion of, rather than an addition to, the melody. That is to say, the music actually needs the harmonies — the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music are complementary rather than one being tacked on. The Cherubic Hymn of the setting is perfect example of this balance; the different voices intertwine and interlock beautifully but never gratuitously.

The recording strikes a very nice aural balance of clarity of text and resonance of the room, and it is a credit to Cappella Romana that they have the flexibility to sing this kind of choral music and the Byzantine repertoire as beautifully as they consistently do. One thing I am very appreciative of is that the setting is presented practically, as a real Divine Liturgy, with the Very Rev. Archpriest George A. Gray III singing the priest’s parts (including the Gospel reading) and Alexander Lingas chanting the Epistle. This is music that should be presented in a liturgical, rather than a concert, setting. As an additional “realistic” detail, parts of the setting are alternated between Greek, English and Arabic — both a nice touch and a nod towards the pastoral reality in many parishes. It is exactly because of this attention to liturgical authenticity, however, that Lingas speaking the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by himself, rather than these parts being said by the entire choir, comes off as a bit jarring.

It has been said that, in terms of how Orthodox liturgical music might develop in this country, what the Byzantine repertoire has to offer is a richness of melody, and what the Western idiom has to offer is a richness of harmony. Along these lines, while acknowledging that the Sakellarides material does not necessarily represent the best of what the Byzantine tradition has to offer, Michaelides’ music nonetheless suggests what could be a way forward. Rather than haphazardly forcing modal melodies into a tonal box with sloppy part writing that’s little more than a sop to “that guy” in the congregation who instinctively sings parallel thirds to everything, with the result sounding neither like good chant or good four part music, it is possible for these melodies to serve as a springboard into something more carefully crafted and more, dare I say it, iconographic in quality.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Ensemble Organum’s recording? Hang on for a second and I’ll explain.

Over the last twenty years, Ensemble Organum has put out a series of recordings of Western liturgical music off of manuscripts that represent the so-called “Old Roman” repertoire. I’m probably the wrong guy, at least at this stage of the game, to try to go into all the issues surrounding this music; suffice it to say that the liner notes of these recordings present this is as the older, pre-Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

Now, these recordings are, essentially, reconstructions of what they think the chants sounded like; knowing what notes the signs represent are only half the battle, of course, there are also the questions of rhythm, tuning, ornamentation, and overall vocal approach. Working with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Ensemble Organum has taken the approach of interpreting these manuscripts more like Byzantine chant than Gregorian chant, complete with isokratema (drone) and very Greek ornamentation. Are they right? I don’t know — it sure sounds convincing enough. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is no shortage of counterarguments. Maybe something like this: how convenient for Byzantine psaltai that the Old Roman repertoire, which may or may not date from before the sixth century, sounds exactly the same as their music (which of course isn’t really Byzantine at all, but Ottoman, per the “narrative of decline” which I’ve discussed earlier). I’m not a musicologist, so I can’t really argue one way or the other for Ensemble Organum’s performance practice, but I do think that seeing the diversity of liturgical practice within the context of a unified Roman Christian identity is a fascinating idea.

What I can say is that these recordings sound really beautiful. For that reason alone, whatever their musicological merit might be, I find them quite compelling.

The latest in the series is hymnody from Christmas; the Vigil Mass, the Midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass of the day itself. If you’re used to the Gregorian repertoire, something like “Puer natus est nobis,” the introit for the Mass of Christmas day, is going to be quite foreign to you. It’s over twice as long as presented by EO (almost six minutes, as opposed to the two and a half minutes the Gregorian version typically takes), it’s a much more elaborate melody, it’s in a different mode, and the earthy, rich Byzantine approach is very different from the austerity employed by the typical Gregorian schola.

I suppose the value of a recording like this is that it gets people thinking differently about the context in which the Gregorian repertoire emerged and what that might imply for how it should be approached. It also suggests a way we might aurally frame the united Christendom of the Roman world, and how could have been both alike and different from the modern received chant traditions inherited from that world.

In the case of both of these recordings — told you I’d get to this eventually — you have a suggested musical ethos that draws from both the Christian East and West. Michaelides uses Western harmonic vocabulary to elaborate Eastern melodies and does so in a way that creates something new; Ensemble Organum uses Eastern stylistic practice to interpret Western melodies in order to suggest something very old.

These recordings share a common problem, too — essentially, what is the impact either of these recordings could potentially have on modern parish practice? Is there a Catholic church out there that is going to be rushing out to incorporate the Old Roman repertoire in their Christmas festivities? Despite Cappella Romana’s presentation of the Michaelides setting as music for practical use in worship rather than as a concert piece, is it likely to find a place in a church culture that sees the Liturgy as a sing-along and defines “participation” as “everybody sings everything”? Are people going to hear the recording and say, “Wow, our choir should sing this!” or are they going to say, “Boy, that sounds like it would be too hard for the congregation to be able to sing along with.” One thing about bad part-writing that caters to parts people are improvising anyway — it makes congregational singing very easy, if that’s the goal.

At any rate, I would love for the answer for both recordings to be “yes”. I would love to think that this kind of music could find a place in the venue for which it was written, the church, and not be treated as concert pieces best appreciated at arm’s length. I would love for Catholic and Orthodox churches to be striving for musical excellence, and to be incorporating music like this as a way to pursue that excellence. Time will tell.

In any case, both recordings would make excellent stocking stuffers, and consider them recommended.

New release from Cappella Romana: The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides

I don’t have my review copy yet (it is on the way), but be aware that this is now available; I’m looking forward to giving it a listen.

(UPDATE, 25 Nov. 8:53am MST: The sound samples the “Post to WordPress” button on my toolbar picked up were for the Toensing Kontakion of the Nativity, not the Michaelides. I think I’ve fixed this. I also added a link to the Cappella Romana site so that people can, y’know, actually buy it. Dangers of blogging when still tired from travelling…)

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more about “Cappella Romana“, posted with vodpod

 

Review: Richard Toensing: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ, by Cappella Romana

About four years ago, I was lucky enough to get to sing in concert performances of both the Gretchaninoff and Rachmaninoff settings of the Vigil (more commonly, and incompletely, known as “Vespers” to Western audiences because they don’t know what a Vigil is). Something that was very difficult about the experiences of singing them, however, was knowing that we English-speaking Orthodox Christians do not yet have equivalent works, and that to sing such things in translation would be to largely destroy much what makes the settings so beautiful, since they’re so tied to the Slavonic texts. Subsequent conversations about this with friends of mine who are composers and Orthodox Christians revealed a very real reluctance to become “Orthodox composers” — and I’m still not sure I totally get why, but there we are. Since then, I’ve discovered the music of people like Kurt Sander, whose setting of the Nunc dimittis in English is itself a mini-masterwork, and Ivan Moody, to say nothing of Fr. Sergei Glagolev — and while as a whole we are miles from maturity, it would not be at all fair to say that there are no English-language Orthodox composers attempting to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by some of their old-world counterparts.

Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a large-scale work by a fully mature composer which picks up that gauntlet and throws it down again, quite honestly. The intended scope of the piece is indicated by its subtitle, “A Choral Concerto,” and one important point to make before we get any further — this is not, repeat not, a liturgical work. I suppose there might be, hypothetically speaking, a cathedral somewhere with an absolutely amazing choir who could pull it off liturgically, but who actually does the full Nativity kontakion liturgically anyway, these days?

(You might be thinking to yourself one of three things right now. If either 1 — “What’s a kontakion and why do I care?” — or 2 — “Don’t we sing different kontakia for various liturgical seasons?” — then I can tell you that a kontakion in its original form was a very lengthy kind of hymn with many stanzas and a refrain, and the proper kontakia we sing now are only the first stanzas of the applicable full-length versions. If 3 — “Well, we do sing a kontakion every time we do an Akathist” — then please pat yourself on the head and have a cookie.)

As a work intended explicitly for the concert stage rather than the parish choir, much like the Rachmaninoff Vigil setting, Toensing is free to paint on a vast, expansive canvas, and does he ever. He liberally employs text painting, use of soloists and small ensembles, an extensive harmonic vocabulary, adept counterpoint, tone clusters, and so on. Great — but does it sound like music? Yes, most definitely — glorious, lush, beautiful, dramatic, and demanding music. The press materials state that Toensing is “indebted to Slavic traditions,” and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but what I also hear is a master composer, fully on top of his game, synthesizing many of the best influences of 20th century choral writing, including Francis Poulenc, William Harris, Ralph Vaughan Williams, even Lloyd Pfautsch. The wordy text is set in a very sensitive but expressive manner often evocative of the deftness which made Benjamin Britten such a master with English. At some points I found myself thinking, “This is what Morten Lauridsen would sound like if he had more than one trick up his sleeve.” At the same time, the way Toensing uses the music to support the text is strongly suggestive, not just of well-trained artistic sensibility, but also of a deep faith informing his compositional choices, much like Bach.

Toensing shifts from one color to another with ease and control, and is as much an expert with different choral textures. For example, the first stanza begins with a solo cantor on a chant melody, joined gradually by the rest of the ensemble, building until finally the choir is all together on the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”). One stanza transitions smoothly into another, no matter how stark the contrast — in Movement III, Stanza IX (“Receive then, O Holy Lady”) he renders the refrain (“He who from eternity is God”) as a heart-stopping, everybody singing out, vocal-folds-to-the-wall climax, only to begin the next movement immediately with a simple, peaceful melody introduced by the women, without it ever feeling like any kind of a disconnect.

The members of Cappella Romana bring their usual high standard into the game, delivering Toensing’s “poeticized” version of St. Romanos the Melodist’s text with crispness and clarity. Too often choirs sing modern choral works like they’re just trying to get the notes right and they’ll let somebody else figure out how to make music with it later; in this premiere recording of Toensing’s work, Alexander Lingas refuses to take that route, and the ensemble makes music with it now, taking Toensing’s sonic palette firmly in hand and detailing the peaks and valleys rather than just sketching them in. Soprano LeeAnne DenBeste sings the Theotokos’ lines (I really hesitate to call “the part of the Theotokos”) with a crystal clear timbre and laserlike accuracy, and the other soloists acquit themselves admirably as well.

All of that said, I am not convinced that the depths of Toensing’s piece are fully plumbed, and the disc is not flawless. In the case of the former — well, no, of course not. A recording like this is hopefully the beginning of a conversation, rather than just a monologue. It would a rarity indeed for a premiere to be both the first and last word on a given piece (expressively speaking, at least — it is quite common for such recordings to be the first and last word from a commercial standpoint). This recording is without doubt a very strong opening statement to the conversation, but I would be very curious to know what the Kontakion might sound like using boys and men (with boys singing the solo soprano parts as well, not just the choral sections), and I would also love to hear, just for the sake of knowing the difference, what kind of nuances an English conductor might discover in the piece.

My criticisms of the disc itself center around one particular technical point — the acoustic is on the dry side, and there are times where the singers are clearly not loving the dryness of the room as much as they might — which I can well understand, singing services every week as I do in a church where the ceiling of acoustic tiles is inches from my head. My guess is that they chose the less-reverberant approach to clarify the text as much as possible, which I can also appreciate, but there are times where the vocal writing sounds like some reverberation of the chord has been assumed by the composer to be there, so when it doesn’t happen it sounds like something is missing. With nothing but admiration and respect for the effort as presented here, this is another reason why I’d be interested in a performance by somebody native to the English choral tradition — I would like to hear their solution.

One thing I am obliged to mention — something we forget sometimes in a world where we hear music in every kind of room and venue and in every medium imaginable except live in the hall is that music like this is intended to be heard, well, live in the hall. That’s really where the Kontakion needs to be heard, not on an iPod or in the car. It is difficult, therefore, to fairly judge this recording without knowing firsthand what it should sound like in person. I don’t say that to qualify my criticisms or to de-emphasize the praise; I’m just saying that to have a premiere recording three months before the premiere performance is putting the cart before the horse, particularly for somebody wanting to write as honest a review of the music as possible — it is unavoidable in the music landscape of today, unfortunately, but I sincerely hope I can have the chance at some point to experience Toensing’s music as it was intended rather than an electronic simulation of same. It would be akin to writing a review of The Dark Knight based on a pan-and-scan DVD screener watched on a 20″ TV. It doesn’t change the plot, the dialogue, the performances, or anything like that, but it is clear enough from the smaller-scale experience that “there’s a lot more ‘there’ there,” if you know what I mean, and without actually seeing it in IMAX to catch everything, you don’t know exactly what it is.

Besides the Kontakion are several “Orthodox Christmas carols,” Toensing’s settings of Fr. Jack Sparks’ metrical translations of Nativity hymnody. These are all positively delightful and inventive, surprisingly so, and good luck getting them out of your head once you’re familiar with them (particularly “What Shall We Call You,” from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, and “O Let Creation All Rejoice,” from the First Canon of Nativity Eve Matins). I could easily see these settings as having a place within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as possibly being adopted as anthems by church choirs in other communions. As with parts of the Kontakion, many of these are particularly evocative of the best of English choral writing, but there are also clearly some American folk influences (“Now Christ is Born Upon the Earth,” from the Canon of Nativity Matins, particularly has shapenote-esque things going on) suggesting that elements of both sung traditions may ultimately be useful as “American Orthodox music,” whatever it winds up being, coalesces.

In summary, Toensing’s Kontakion is an epic choral masterwork by a composer who is both American and Orthodox, and as a result it is perhaps the first such piece we might dub “American Orthodox.” If it is not quite on par with the best of its Russian Orthodox counterparts, it is only because it does not have the centuries of native Orthodox Christian tradition upon which to draw, not because of anything lacking in Toensing’s abilities as a composer or in the piece itself. The performance itself is, despite a key technical choice which is probably arguable one way or the other, a very compelling case for the work to have a life beyond Cappella Romana’s advocacy and championing, and I very much hope this happens. Recommended.

(Kurt Sander, I think you’re next up at bat.)


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