Reviews

NYTimes Critics Pick of our new CD (though love be a day)

Sure, you could just play Handel’s “Messiah” between now and Christmas. Or for a fresh-yet-almost-ancient-sounding alternative, dip into this quietly mesmerizing recording of choral works — some with subtle instrumental accompaniment — by Matthew Brown. Using texts by Donne, Byron, Burns and Cummings, as well as the Wintu people, a native Californian tribe now extinct, Mr. Brown spins delicate harmonies that build up like gentle snowdrifts. (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim)”

NYTimes Review of our Gesualdo Reflections Concert

MUSIC REVIEW

In Dense Madrigals, What You Hear Is Whatever You Can See

‘Gesualdo Reflections’ at Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian

By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Published: April 7, 2013

The two things that come most readily to mind about Carlo Gesualdo are that he butchered his wife and her lover, and that he wrote extraordinary music. The complex harmonies and extreme chromaticism of his madrigals, written at the turn of the 17th century, are so viscerally unsettling that people tend to grasp for familiar points of reference to make sense of them. Aldous Huxley thought he heard Schoenberg in them. The composer and critic Philip Arnold Heseltine saw in them a prefiguration of Wagner. Stravinsky saw Picasso.

The specter of Gesualdo, who died 400 years ago in September, continues to haunt the imagination of composers. On Thursday evening the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented “Gesualdo Reflections,” a program that contrasted performances of his madrigals with works by living composers that quoted, incorporated or alluded to his music.

The concert, which was held in the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on West 66th Street in Manhattan, began and ended with shots of undiluted Gesualdo that offered a reminder of the third indisputable fact regarding his music: that it is fiendishly difficult to sing. The Antioch Chamber Ensemble performed it with clarity of tone and intonation so pure that you could hear the buzz of overtones created by some of the close harmonies. The most daring of these often color the sighs and wordless exclamations that punctuate both spiritual and secular texts, and the Antioch singers gave each its expressive register: impassioned, weak-kneed, swooning.

“O Gesualdo, Divine Tormentor!” written in 2004 by Bruce Adolphe is a transcription of five Gesualdo madrigals for string quartet, including “Moro lasso,” and an “Epilogue: Momenti” made up of lines by Gesualdo spliced together. Tucked in between like a cuckoo’s egg is Mr. Adolphe’s “More or Less,” a witty reaction to “Moro lasso” that features exaggerated slides, sharp harmonic accents and a deep, impatient groove in the cello. The excellent Brentano String Quartet gave it a probing and rhythmically vigorous performance that drew together its disparate components into an inner dialogue.

That dialogue continued in Brett Dean’s “Sparge la morte for Cello, Five Voices, and Tape” (2006), Wolfgang Rihm’s selections from “Seven Passion Texts for Six Voices” (2001-06) and David Gompper’s “Musica Segreta” for piano and string trio (1996, revised 2006). In Mr. Dean’s work the solo cello, played by the Brentano’s emotionally fearless cellist, Nina Lee, brackets Gesualdo’s madrigal with a high searching line, which eventually converses with an electronically sampled version of itself, an effect both disorienting and poignant.

The pianist Soyeon Kate Lee brought her sensitive playing to Mr. Gompper’s “Musica Segreta,” in which she joined Ms. Lee and the Brentano’s first violinist, Mark Steinberg, and violist, Misha Amory. Here Gesualdo’s music is sublimated more fully into Mr. Gompper’s own Modernist language with chiseled rhythms, brilliant sound and the occasional big gesture. When the opening of Gesualdo’s madrigal “Beltà, poi che t’assenti” appears toward the end in the strings, it does so with the flickering insubstantiality of a hologram.

There was no recognizable Gesualdo in the two Passion motets by Mr. Rihm, which used the same texts as Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories, but the densely chromatic music, interspersed by cluster chords that were as dissonant as they were scintillating, had a clear kinship with Gesualdo’s psychologically probing and emotionally raw language.

 

Review of our performance at the Shandelee Music Festival:

Review by Barry Plaxen

SHANDELEE, NY (August 12, 2012) – Breaking with “tradition,” the Shandelee Music Festival brought a choral group to Livingston Manor for the final concert of the 2012 Festival on August 11, 2012, prior to the two forthcoming solo piano recitals of the International Artists of Shandelee on August 16 and 18.

The decision to add choral music to the mix of instrumental and chamber performances seems to have come form Festival Co-director Daniel Stroup who is a choral conductor at the United Nations School in New York City. One of his student choirs rehearsed in the Sunset Pavilion at Shandelee and when Stroup heard the voices in the venue he knew he wanted to present a choral concert there.

The New York City based Antioch Chamber Ensemble is currently celebrating its 15th season of music-making under the leadership of founding Artistic Director Joshua Copeland… With the Shandelee hall’s amazingly clear, sharp and stunningly resonant acoustics, the just under a dozen voices presented a program of sacred and secular songs that literally rang out with beautiful tones wafting through the space.

The selections performed varied from Renaissance to Contemporary, with songs by John Sheppard, Jan Sweelinck, Giovanni Gastoldi, Alice Parker, Ivo Antognini (who discovered the group on youtube and contacted Copeland), Eric Whitacre, Matthew Brown and with jazz pieces by Brown and Greg Jaspere. There were piano accompaniments for a few works.

At a concert such as this, “the singing’s the thing.” Hearing the vocal line separations and both consonant and dissonant melding harmonies, the swelling and diminishing sounds and variety of short selections is what it is all about. But I must add that when music by masters is also performed, thrills happen.

In addition to the above composers, two madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi and a Motet by Anton Bruckner were the highlights of the evening for me. Monteverdi madrigals are a mainstay at any a capella choral concert, and rightly so. I don’t think anyone else’s music of that period (1580s -1650s) is as well-written melodically and harmonically. His was the music that was in the forefront of the move forward from Renaissance to Baroque, from madrigals to opera.

Bruckner (1824-1896) on the other hand is not known for choral music and was not an innovator in the sense of Monteverdi (or Debussy). This Viennese symphonist was celebrated for the Romanticism of his symphonies and masses and their rich harmonies (and considerable lengths). Not as well-know are his motets, which are a favorite of Stroup’s and I can see why. As with Bruckner’s symphonies, the motet “Os Justi” that Antioch performed was full of heart-touching, sweetly blending dissonances, and modulations that seemed to come out of nowhere (I love that!), plus harmonic progressions that may have been original when the motet was composed. Those are Bruckner’s gifts of innovation, and for this listener of his music last night, ‘more would have been better’.

Without any hint of doubt about the decision, Stroup and the Festival Board are to be congratulated for using the concert hall for a vocal concert.

Shandelee concerts are sell-outs. For tickets to the August 16 and 19 piano recitals: www.shandelee.org and 845-439-3277.

Reviews for our newest CD, The Passing of the Year:

“The excellent choir ACE under Joshua Copeland… Excellent performances…”
Turok’s Choice, Issue No.229 ~ February 2011

“The Antioch Chamber Ensemble… sing with an unaffected verve and tight ensemble unity that many other groups can only envy… the program as a whole is very satisfying… Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year…is a fine cycle of no little invention and dramatic effect… the ACE brings a lot of energy and drive, not to mention subtlety and substance to all of this music, captured in great sound during the festival… Bravo to all concerned.”
Steve Ritter, Audiophile Audition ~ February 2011

[In] Whitacre’s Sleep [the] singers are joined by piano and violin in sensitive performances by Christine Chang and Jennifer Cho, respectively. Indeed, Chang, the choir’s regular pianist, is unfailingly attentive to the needs of the music in this piece as well as the Dove…part of the choir’s success is its ability to characterize each piece fully, communicating its individuality; they make the performance about the listener, not the singer. The five songs to poems about roses by Morten Lauridsen are delightful, the choir again finding the perfect characterization: fresh yet sweet, matching Lauridsen’s tender but dry-eyed response to Rilke’s passionate words to produce something utterly charming… a remarkably successful disc… I am certain that any listener will appreciate and value these excellent performances by an outstanding choir.”
Jeremy Marchant, Fanfare ~ March/April 2011

“Copeland and his 11 fellow performers clearly appreciate the bitterness and hurt in the text and music [by Morton Lauridsen]. Textures are spare, the tempos initially swifter than other recordings, and the effect almost madrigal-like at times, despite modern harmonies… [The Whitacre] performances are the more moving for their luminous clarity. The earlyThree Flower Songs in particular engage both ear and heart, every line clear, every chord impeccably tuned, and the text beautifully projected. Antioch ’s other Whitacre is comparable… Pride of place, however, must be given to the premiere recording of the choral version of Whitacre’s settings of Hila Plitmann’s Five Hebrew Love Songs. Heard here with piano accompaniment and Jennifer Cho’s elegant solo violin, the instruments underline the Semitic flavor of the work, now blended with, now standing apart from the voices in what is an ideal setting of his wife’s fragile, evocative verse. A recording of the string quartet version has just been released on Decca with the Eric Whitacre Singers, but this one is something special, not least for the wonderfully sensitive instrumental accompaniment… [Belmont Ford’s setting of] If Music Be the Food of Love suggests she should be better represented. This charming part-song, beautifully performed, is harmonically of a type with Whitacre and Lauridsen… The 12-voice Antioch Chamber Ensemble…projects the complex eight-part writing [of The Passing of the Year] with remarkable authority. As elsewhere in this program, the flawless blend, excellent intonation, and enthusiastic but sensitive phrasing of these relatively young artists, pure and slightly bright in the English style, assures aural bliss… The recordings…are crystal-clear without being analytical, the parts distinct, but the voices beautifully integrated into the ensemble, with a nice sense of space but no excessive reverberation… make sure to grab this second release while it is available.”
Ronald E. Grames, Fanfare ~ March/April 2011

“…this is a top-notch ensemble with extraordinarily fine blend and balance, unanimity of attack, intonation, and rhythmic accuracy… To those attracted to this repertoire, this disc is definitely recommended.”
James Altena, Fanfare ~ March/April 2011

“Without question…a commendable choir. They can be bright and engaging in selections like ‘Answer July’. A poignant hush descends for the opening bars of Whitacre’s ‘Sleep’ and for appropriate moments in the Hebrew Love Songs as well. Emotional entry into the music is admirable in all respects… an attractive program.”
Greenfield, American Record Guide ~ January / February 2011

 

Autun, France Cathedral concert. 7.20.10

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Prime Piccolo at St. Philips

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Sun, May 30, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Happily, I was able to make it to my first Piccolo event Saturday afternoon. Trust me when I say — from long experience — that Spoleto USA’s little-sister festival consistently manages to attract quite a few world-class acts in all areas of the performing arts, and yesterday’s performers fall into that exalted category.

Antioch is a fabulous New Jersey-based professional mini-chamber choir (12 voices) that’s been performing in Piccolo’s generally excellent Spotlight on the Art of Choral Music Series for years. I first heard them here a few years back, and have been looking for a chance ever since to again wallow in their sweet sonorities and relish anew their rare choral artistry.

Perhaps the most revealing thing I can tell you about the ensemble’s quality is that about half of its members are alumni of the vaunted Westminster Choir, Spoleto USA’s world-famous resident chorus. Their appearance at St. Philip’s Church offered a winning array of mostly a cappella choral classics, both ancient and modern, plus some really cool jazz.

They got going with a set of five Italian Madrigals: secular choral confections from the late renaissance that tend to celebrate things like the beauties of springtime and the joys of romance, or to bitterly mourn lost or unrequited love. Among others, we enjoyed a frolicsome number about beautiful shepherdesses (lots of “fa-la-la’s”) by Giovanni Gastoldi, a keenly mournful jilted suitor’s lament by Cipriano de Rore, and an especially gorgeous item about love’s ecstasy by Claudio Monteverdi,– with its adroit canonic layering of vocal lines. Next came the jazz numbers: three of them, all by rising composer Greg Jasperse. We heard “Oh How Beautiful, this Finely Woven Earth,” an original composition, followed by a lovely arrangement of the popular song “Fields of Gold.” The best-known piece was “VoiceDance,” a happy wordless vocal romp that recalls the art of scat-singing. And all of it is real jazz, both in terms of rhythm and harmony, yet the composer achieves classically brainy levels of sophistication and refinement that would make these pieces at home in any serious choral event. With them, Antioch revealed an entirely different sort of vocal warmth and laid-back expressiveness.

Finally, we were treated to the evening’s true novelties. The first was “Though Love be a Day,” the world premiere performance of a cunningly crafted E.E. Cummings setting by Matthew Brown, a young composer who studied with American choral icon Morten Lauridsen. Brown, as explained by founding director Joshua Copeland, sent the piece to Antioch after discovering them on YouTube. The singers, loving the music, ran with it, and for good reason: it’s a sweet and warmly accessible work, offering ingenious harmonic structure and direct emotional appeal.

The final selection was The City and the Sea, a new five-piece cycle (again, setting poems by E.E. Cummings) by American choral wizard Eric Whitacre. Antioch recently delivered in its world premiere performance, and they’ll be giving its European premiere in an upcoming tour. Not just any old choir gets to do this composer’s premieres. The music, like the poetry it sets, tends to be whimsical and wondering, almost like nursery rhymes. Whitacre’s usual inventive tonal structures beguiled our ears, and the piano accompaniment was downright startling, consisting mostly of tone-clusters that enveloped the choral sonorities in a kind of surreal harmonic haze.

Bravo to accompanist Christine Chang for pulling this very tricky material off splendidly. The happy crowd’s spontaneous standing O got us a sweet encore: “Sleep,” a well-known earlier piece from Whitacre, a soft and sensual marvel in which the composer makes a truly beautiful thing of dissonance. Antioch’s interpretations glowed and glittered throughout, offering melting tonal beauty, dead-on intonation, exquisitely nuanced phrasing, tremendous dynamic range and faultless technique.

This concert will continue to haunt me for days. And to think: this sterling ensemble is but one of many reasons why music lovers should take Piccolo Spoleto very seriously. Afterward, I was touched to witness the reunion of director Copeland with his revered mentor, Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, former Westminster Choral Director (and still Spoleto USA’s cherished choral director), who had come to bear proud witness to the consummate artistry of his protégés. What a joy it must be for him to count artists like these among his life’s work.