From Captivity to the Holy City

David Denton, Fanfare, March, 2001

“This is very adventurous” is usually the critic’s way of saying that he doesn’t think a particular recording has much chance of selling, but in this case the words are intended as a strong recommendation. It is certainly a courageous choice of music, and provides the wide and varied program you would welcome in concert performances. Only time will tell whether it will prove attractive to the record-buyer. In time scale it moves from the short hymn tune Drop, Drop Slow Tears, composed at the beginning of the 17th century by Orlando Gibbons, through to Muehleisen’s De Profundis, first performed six years ago. It also requires a very versatile choir to encompass both Parry’s sentimental Long Since in Eqypt’s Plenteous Land, and the modernism of Albright’s Chichester Mass. This latter work, the most extensive on the disc, is in five short sections, and of considerable interest. William Albright was born in the United States in 1944, his wide-ranging taste in music including piano rags and the championing of new organ works. It is this very catholic approach athat has given his works such a unique musical voice. There are just hints of Stravinsky in the Benedictus, and Fauré in the quiet Agnus Dei, the whole work written in a tonal and generally lyrical format. It comes in contrast to John Muehleisen’s De Profundis, which flirts with many influences. It is a setting of 15 short sections of the Psalms, and is described as having a “postmodern sense of tonality.” It is certainly a most interesting, well-constructed, and taxing score, but, sadly, it has as yet found a void in my enjoyment.

I was delighted to find the inclusion of Edgar Bainton’s best-known work, And I Saw a New Heaven, a gorgeous piece of late-Romantic writing. I was also pleased to make acquaintance with Alice Parker’s Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, a work that will be little known to many outside the States.

The booklet accompanying the disc is most informative, and more essentially contains the words. The reverberant acoustic of the St. James Cathedral in Seattle, where I presume the disc was recorded, makes clarity of diction very difficult in the more complex scoring. The choir’s present conductor, Loren W. Pontén, formed the Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble in 1992. With around 28 professional singers, it was, two years later, appointed as the resident ensemble of St. James Cathedral. The choir’s major objective is to further audience interest in 19th- and 20th-century unaccompanied choral works, though they have developed a wide-ranging repertoire. With a nice tonal quality, the male and female voices are ideally weighted to produce a precise balance. At the appropriate points they can bring a nice cutting edge to their singing, and entries have razor-sharp precision. The Muehleisen work obviously taxes them, but elsewhere one is impressed by the ease with which they take every musical hurdle. That is particularly evident in the bold colors of Finzi’s God Is Gone Up, where you can feel the sheer pomp and ceremony of some British state occasion. The choir’s excellent principal singers take solo sections, and the Cathedral organist, Joseph Adam, is involved in three of the tracks, most importantly in bringing impact to the Finzi.

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