choral music

  • Stunning Choral Music from Robert Kyr


    Robert Kyr: In Praise of Music
    Antioch Chamber Ensemble/Joshua Copeland
    Bridge Records 9558
    Total Time:  58:28
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Those who love transcendent choral music that features gorgeous harmonic writing that unfolds slowly over time will find much to enjoy in this new Bridge Release.  The Antioch Chamber Ensemble’s new album is a collection of ten choral works by Oregon-based composer Robert Kyr.  The music here was written between 2003 and 2018 and features texts both sacred and secular.

    Kyr’s music is in that same league and stylistic expression as the works of Morten Lauridsen.  The harmonies are all quite tonal with often intriguing harmonic shifts that captivate the ear with their unexpected arrivals and redirections.  Each work offers another transformative journey informed by the texts that direct the listener’s own contemplation.  The build toward these moments is also carefully sequenced on the album itself.  In Praise of Music (2006) opens the album with an inviting musical sound that is warmed by the chorus here gorgeously.  By the third work, In the Name of Music (2017), we hear some familiar ideas that appeared in the first two works with even more advanced dissonances and an overall expansion of vocal ranges to create a more intense work.  Kyr also explores ancient musical styles both in terms of Gregorian chant and Renaissance/Early Baroque styles in his setting of the Veni Creator Spiritus (2005) and in a specially-commissioned vespers service written for the Palace of Governor’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The latter also references Monteverdi with the use of texts from that composers 1610 Vespers with that same blend of styles heard earlier.  For variety, there is a wordless chorus, Dawnsong (2018) which creates its own stunning beauty.  The album continues with adapted settings of poetry by John Donne (Ode to Music, 2013), St. Francis of Assisi (Voices for Peace, 2002), and a final Alleluia for Peace (2003).  There is also a fascinating spiritual, Freedom Song (2011) which focuses on issues of racial and social justice and references call and response-like African singing.  It is the more unique style with a strong rhythmic pulse and growing excitement that makes this a surprising highlight.

    The Antioch singers perform these works so beautifully one may overlook some of the difficult writing that they are faced with at times.  The vocal lines are delineated well and enunciation is overall quite good which presents a solid, unified sound.  Though in much of this music, it is the sound of the words that holds as much, if not more power, than the word itself.  Joshua Copeland helps shape these lines well.  It additionally helps that the group is captured in a warm acoustic that is not over ambient.  The music’s ancient echoes in contemporary language will serves as an inviting experience for fans of contemporary choral music.

  • Three Unique Releases from The Crossing


    The Crossing/Donald Nally
    Navona 6287
    Total Time:  53:42
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Bryars: A Native Hill
    The Crossing/Donald Nally
    Navona 6347
    Total Time:  68:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Words Adorned
    The Crossing/Donald Nally
    Al-Bustan Takht/Hanna Khoury
    Dalal Abu Amneh, soloist.
    Navona 6356
    Total Time:  48:51
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The award-winning Philadelphia-based choral group, The Crossing, has been quite busy in the studio over the last couple of years and continue to release intriguing collections of contemporary choral works.  Three albums from the past year and a half demonstrate their range and repertoire.

    Released in May 2020, Carthage features a collection of choral pieces by composer James Primosch who currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.  He numbers Davidovsky and Crumb as his composition teachers and his work has been recorded on a number of labels.  The six pieces on Carthage are modern takes on ancient monastic mysticism both in their textual inspirations and musical styles.  Two brief works, including the title piece, open the album.  Journey uses texts by the great mystic Meister Eckhart and blends a chant-like quality into a subtle piece.  That quality continues in the more hopeful title work.  The three shorter pieces at the conclusion of the album continue these ideas of light and darkness with fascinating harmonic work and vivid musical imagery for spiralling ecstatically (1998).  The last piece, One with the Darkness, One with the Light, utilizes texts by Wendell Berry which overlays themes of loss and death.  At the center of the album is a Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus (2014).  It sets the five Ordinary texts of the mass.  These are layered against texts by Denise Levertov that explore concepts of unbelief and their own spiritual journey layered into the saint named in the mass.  Work for soloists helps add some additional interest to the music.  These are stunning works that blend ancient chant within modern harmonic contexts.

    Wendell Berry’s work also informs the larger-scale piece by Gavin Bryars which he specifically composed for The Crossing.  A Native Hill takes its title and texts from the 1968 essay of the same name by Berry.  This 12-movement work is a great exhibition of Bryars’ style with its often dense textures alternating with moments of simple lines (often chant-inspired).  There are some rather amazing moments where the choir moves outwards in a host of single vocal lines which adds a rather dense cluster of sounds.  The music shifts between these moments of simple harmonic ideas, often infused with extended jazz chords, to moments where the lines move into denser harmonic clusters.  It allows for often intense, and occasionally more dissonant, musical ideas, but the general harmonic language maintains its quite accessible style.  The choir performs the work beautifully and it is a quite moving, and even somewhat spiritual experience all its own.  The texts add another layer of philosophical and political implications that invite the listener to contemplate their intent.

    The more recent release from The Crossing demonstrates their programming versatility with music that uses ancient Sufi texts and Andalusian Poetry.  The a cappella group is joined by Al-Bustan Takht which adds instrumental color and support to the two primary works on Word Adorned.  First up is Embroidered Verses by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom.  The texts here celebrate and are informed by aspects of Classical Arabic poetry and secular music called the Muwashshah.  Each of the four movements use texts that celebrate nature, provide a drinking song, explore the nature of love, and war, respectively.  Harmonic ideas take inspiration as well from the Middle East with some additional interesting dense harmonies that have the choir singing quarter tones.  It is a fascinating blend of ancient and modern sounds.  Syrian composer Kinan Abou-afach tends to blend together a host of contemporary Western traditions, with explorations of modal harmonies and Arabic compositional approaches which tend to focus on linear ideas rather than harmonic ones.  His Of Nights and Solace also finds inspiration in the Muwashshah literature with a six-movement piece that is like a journey through the Andalusian region reflecting themes common to its source material.  Abou-afach incorporates Arabic scales which can lead into rather denser textural music.  In this work in particular, the idea of line and how it is approached within this cultural music is quite striking.  The pieces on this album are an excellent way to begin to widen one’s musical horizons.  Most fascinating is the way one can hear how this music is an ancient cousin to Europe (often far more influential to the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance than many realize!).  This particular release is taken from live concerts in 2015 which is the source for a final track of traditional music.

    The Crossing continues to impress with its range and diversity of music that often blends contemporary musical approaches with ancient styles.  Their releases include works that are informed by ancient modes and chant as well as folk music and in this batch of releases, one can experience all of these things in excellent sounds for music that has a sense of timelessness.