Orpheus Choir – Cloudburst


ERIC WHITACRE – Three Songs of Faith / Cloudburst
DANIEL LEVITAN – Marimba Quartet

Barbara Graham (soprano)
Handbell Ringers from Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul
Members of the Vector Wellington Orchestra
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Richard Apperley (organ)
Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Wednesday 24th June 2009

Considering that this concert was subtitled “Contemporary American Choral Classics” one could be forgiven for anticipating with great interest and perhaps some caution the kind of musical fare which was to be served up by the Orpheus Choir and their conductor Michael Fulcher. Would the music be esoteric, austere, remote and dissonant, in a ‘modern” manner, as opposed to the use a more traditional language and tonal idiom? Or would the result be something of an amalgam of old and new? I’ll risk a certain amount of derision by admitting that I had never heard of Eric Whitacre, nor Morten Lauridsen, before this concert, which enabled me to come to their music freshly and without preconception. I thought Whitacre’s music the more interesting of the evening’s two vocal composers, with his opening Three Songs of Faith (settings of poetry by ee cummings) filled with wholehearted responses to the musicality of the poet’s texts, the wonderfully arching lines and the delicious rhythmic delineations of the phrases and words most surely matched by the composer’s musical imagination.

The first one I will wade out was marked by its wonderfully leaping opening, whose buoyancy was splendidly conveyed by the choir and further glorified by the church’s reverberant acoustic. That same angular muscularity returned at the words “I will rise” after a haunting ostinato-like treatment of “alive with closed eyes” and with the full “organum” of the voices giving expressive weight to “the sleeping curves of my body”. The music fused without a break into the second poem I hope via atmospheric cluster harmonies, each individual word treated like a variation on a tolling bell with the sounds rolling over each other, until with the word “soul” the voices come to rest, suggesting an eternity in each phrase-breath of the music. The last poem  I thank You God for most this amazing  began from these same ethereal regions, swelling and growing upwards, the soprano soloist Barbara Graham adding her voice to the words “which is yes”, and reaching a point of transcendence at “I who have died am alive again today”, with quietly ecstatic modulations, and repeated clustered-chords.

As with the voices in quieter choral passages, the dulcet tones of the marimba in Daniel Levitan’s Marimba Quartet took on a more-than-usually unworldly aspect in the cathedral acoustic, the sounds almost disconcertingly disembodied, apart from the occasional szforzando. The instrumental timbres made a pleasing change as a foil for the choral items, though the effect was perhaps a bit generalised in such an environment, even if the rolling chords that linked the two movements certainly took us to distant realms of enchantment, almost a “Prospero’s Island” of sounds rich and strange. Jeremy Fitzsimons and the rest of the group from the Vector Wellington Orchestra handled their instruments with the expected flair and finesse, their contribution making a mellifluous impression as an interlude of musical abstraction.

Eric Whitacre’s work Cloudburst, which gave the concert its name, has brought its composer considerable success, winning an American Choral Directors’ Award, and being frequently performed world-wide. Intriguingly scored for a twelve-part choir and forces such as handbells, piano and percussion, it combined conventional and aleatoric techniques to produce an evocative pre-thunderstorm ambience, whose textures seemed to merge and overlap constantly, setting off the words of the Spanish-text poem by Mexican Octavio Paz which were variously sung (by both soloists and choir) and spoken. Speaker Linda Van Milligan’s nicely-focused delivery of “We must sleep with open eyes” worked magically against a choral backdrop, as did both Barbara Graham’s and Kieran Rayner’s singing voices, with Barbara Graham’s warm, rich tones at “…and return to the point of departure” in particular beautifully augmenting the flow of mystical radiance engendered by the choral and instrumental sounds . In places David Hamilton’s The Moon is Silently Singing came to mind, though the use of percussion gave Whitacre’s work more of a volatility in places, splendid drum rolls whose percussive impact filed the cathedral with sound.

Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna  is a kind of requiem, without following the normal liturgical sequences – more a meditation on the theme of “light” as employed in various medieval and renaissance texts. Written in 1997 for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the work doesn’t seek to explore any avant-garde harmonies or melodic contourings, preferring instead to speak simply and directly, a world of musical language not dissimilar to that of Durufle, or even Faure. The Orpheus responded with firm lines and blooming tones, all beautifully balanced by Michael Fulcher, in the opening “Introitus” reaching towards ecstatic realms at the words “et lux perpetua” then with the reprise of “Requiem aeternum” building once again from a hushed,“experienced” viewpoint towards a sonorous fusion with the following “In te Domine, speravi”, where a rather more angular, somewhat questioning tone occasionally gave the music an unexpected twist, though the mood remained firmly grounded in the hushed tones of “Miserere nostri, Domine”. Warm, rich harmonies banished all dissent in “O nata lux de lumine”, the choir beautifully realising the tonal surgings towards “…nos membra confer effici”, the words delineating physical union with the blessed body of Christ.

Lauridsen’s setting of the well-known “Veni Sancte Spiritus” brought forth resplendent organ tones (Richard Apperley bestriding the organ console) with beseeching utterances from the choir, the whole swift-moving, celebratory and all-embracing, the organ breaking out with a final flourish at the end, leaving the voices to drift the music downwards and into the hushed, reverential depths of the “Agnus Dei”, a series of three varied choral recitatives repeating the opening words and augmenting the last of the three with the echoed word “sempiternam”. After this, the fugal treatment of “Cum sanctis tuis” begun by the tenors gave rise to a “many-tongues” effect, the final alleluias resplendent at first, then serene and rapt right at the end, with the organ softly joining in at the richly-deep-throated “Amen”. Not, I think, a great work, but an eminently approachable one; and here given every chance to make its full effect with some richly mellifluous and  strongly committed work from the Orpheus Choir under Michael Fulcher’s expert direction.

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