Let Us Sing Sweet Songs

Lindsay Koob, American Record Guide, January, 2005

I’ve encountered the very appealing music of Seattle-based Bern Herbolsheimer before in American collections; how delightful to now have an entire album devoted to him. He writes in many forms and genres, but has a particular soft spot for vocal music. Having lived, worked, and played in the Pacific Northwest for some years, I immediately picked up on the mystical aura of the region’s wondrous natural beauty suffusing his work—not entirely unlike Alan Hovaness, who was also an honored resident of the area.

Here we get a generous assortment of his striking and varied choral works and fragments, including a cappella pieces and others nicely accompanied by organ, mixed brass, piano, harp, oboe, and plentiful percussion—solo and various combinations. While most of them are serene and reflective, others intermittently reveal the composer’s bright sense of spiritual celebration and optimism. Among the latter are the “Gloria” from his St James Mass for Peace plus his touchingly naive and whimsical “Silly Shepherds” – one of three short Christmas pieces. “We Praise Thee, O God,” from his Te Deum, encompasses both extremes.

But the predominant mood is deep and meditative, to match the region’s dark and mist-shrouded forests or the craggy cathedrals of its mountain ranges and sleeping (?) volcanoes. Much of the music has a ring of timeless antiquity to it, thanks in part to the composer’s use of ancient modes and scales. The worshipful and ear-grabbing opening work, Ave Regina, employs a variant of the Aeolian scale. He achieves staggering effect with musically meager means, as in Blessed—a simple but supremely effective setting of the beatitudes. And I’ve never heard anything quite like his mesmerizing a cappella Seven Las Words—the survey’s longest work—wherein the stark grief of the crucifixion is conveyed by dark and brooding harmonic progressions over undercurrents of seething unrest.  The title selection, “Let Us sing Sweet Songs,” is also excerpted from the St James Mass. It is the album’s most effective evocation of natural beauty and attendant divinity.

The Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble—from Seattle’s St James Cathedral—are quite a discovery. Alongside such other crack choirs as the Seattle Pro Musica, they contribute much to their city’s vital performing arts scene. They manage everything from earthy choral roars to icy, transparent purity. Needlepoint intonation and unearthly ensemble top the high heap of the choral strengths. Soloists and instrumentalists alike perform flawlessly.

We get excellent sound from the heavenly acoustics of St James, plus lucid notes and full texts. Go ahead—treat your ears and souls to some new and refreshing choral magic. Much of it will rivet your attention like the sudden vision of Mt Rainier floating over Seattle’s urban seascapes on a rare clear day.

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