If you are anything like me, your December may have been a rather hectic affair, perhaps filled with concerts, gatherings, or grading (or taking) final exams. As the days of seasonal gift-giving hurtle frighteningly closer (or further behind, if we are celebrating Hanukkah), the reasonable question has likely occurred to you:
What should I get the music lover in my life who is a fan of both traditional repertory and performance practice, as well as cutting-edge new music?
Though frequently ignored by some of the major marketing chains at Yuletide (where was the 16th-Century Choral Repertoire float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? The dancing Morton Feldmans presenting their famous choreographed Visual Score Kickline at the Radio City Holiday Spectacular? The John Luther Adams Alaskan Survival Kit and Adventure Pack, complete with a compass and this thing that tells time?), this demographic is one deserving of attention. And it just so happens there are two wonderful CD releases that run with this pairing of new-and-old in passionate ways. Here are a couple gift ideas for the musician-on-the-go:
Symphony Number One
Symphony Number One is Baltimore’s newest chamber orchestra and new-music collective. Founded in 2014 by conductor Jordan Randall Smith, the ensemble already has an impressive number of performances, commissions, and projects under its belt, and many more exciting things down the road, including a performance at Baltimore’s Light City Festival scheduled for 2016 and a substantial second Call-for-Scores in progress, the culmination of which is planned to yield multiple hour-long-works from emerging composers.
The concerto features two emerging soloists: Jordan Thomas (harp), who made his Carnegie Hall debut following a first-place win in the 2013 American Protégé International Concerto Competition, and Raoul Cho, who is currently in a performance residency program at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Cho and Thomas offer a crystalline performance of the beloved work, their high level of communication is revealed in the works’ cadenzas as they guide the listener through Mozart’s playful modulations by balancing a sense of improvisatory caprice with clarity and direction.
The orchestra provides a solid accompanimental backbone; its chamber-size-makeup combines with the cathedral-like acoustic of the Baltimore War Memorial (where the CD was recorded) to create both a feeling of intimacy and spaciousness. This creates for a lovely lushness in the Fauré, and a sense of an even larger ensemble in the Fromm.
Fromm’s work eschews movement divisions, spinning out in a half-hour long statement that feels neither terse nor overblown, but with a clear eye (and ear) to structure. It opens with an extended melody high in the bassoon register, paving the way for the reedy, complex timbres that proliferate in the first two-thirds of the work. These complex colors are matches with an equally complex and at times biting language that conjures a sense of rhetorical force and rigor—though non-tonal, it has a sense of propulsion and drive that pair nicely with the two other compositions on the recording. At the two-thirds point, following several compelling and groove-y passages, a shift in texture and color (a shimmering harp glissando and an upwards-rushing, reverse waterfall of flutes) reveals that there is more to be explored. A return to the opening material and harmonic language leads to an apotheosis of the opening melody in the alto sax (performed by Symphony Number 1 co-founder Sean Meyers) soaring through a sudden chasm of orchestral silence. This theme offers a thread that knits together the passages of sometimes disparate material, which in the last minutes of the work hints at a Neo-Romantic lushness juxtaposed with grooves and fractious whirlwinds of tones. The potent restatements of the melodic fragments honeycomb their way throughout the work, leaving one wondering if one is looking from the lush world into the dissonant, or the other way around, creating a compelling and expressive cognitive dissonance that leaves one yearning for a second listen.
The Thirteen: Snow on Snow
The Thirteen is one of the newest, tightest chamber choirs on the East Coast. Founded in 2012 and directed by Matthew Robertson (who is also Director of Music at Bradley Hills Church in Bethesda, Maryland—his predecessor was the renowned Donald Sutherland), the choir is redolent of the Anglican Cathedral sound, with richness supplied by exact tuning and exquisitely precise ensemble work rather than vibrato or size of ensemble. This is presented to great effect on their Winter/Holiday/Christmas Recording, Snow on Snow.
Christmas choral repertoire can be difficult to program. One must access the chestnuts that audiences desire, the classics that the ensemble desire, and also to further the development of new repertoire in the genre. Robertson strikes a marvelous balance between these three aspects on this recording. In the “chestnuts” camp, we have Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’, a fresh setting of O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Joseph Jennings, and Robertson’s own arrangement of Silent Night. Canonical works familiar to listeners of the Evensongs and Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge include a lovely performance of Howells’ A Spotless Rose (few works so compellingly bring to mind a blustery winter wind, blowing both out of the North and out of time), Gibbons’ sumptuous Magnificat setting from the Short Service, and Britten’s outstanding Hymn to the Virgin. One of my favorites, which is rarely performed or recorded (at least in Maryland) is William Byrd’s Lulla, Lullaby, cleanly and clearly realized and embedded at the heart of the CD.
New carol settings receive an impressive amount of time on this recording. Thomas LaVoy’s (b. 1990) setting of Adam Lay yBounden accesses the chant-like modality of the traditional settings of Boris Ord and Peter Warlock, with some wonderful modern snarls that create a wonderful and wintry feel. My Lord Has Come, by Will Todd (b. 1970) balances soaring lines reminiscent of Wilcocks descants with comfy, warm settlings on add-6 chords that give the work a jazzy touch. These, along with Stanford E. Scriven’s (b. 1988) setting of Christ the Appletree, offer new and worthy additions to the repertoire to give the inquiring listener (or music director) some Yuletide inspiration.
The work ends with a touching tribute to the late David Wilcocks: a beautifully rendered performance of the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace) is placed at the penultimate track, followed by the dearly departed choral director’s quietly jubilant setting of Ding, Dong! Merrily On High. A glowing tribute and worthy choral feast for the season.