Thursday, December 29, 2005

CD Review - Chanticleer sings Purcell

True, we just had some Purcell reviewed last time. But how about some more?

Evening Prayer: Purcell Anthems and Sacred Songs
with Chanticleer, dir. Joseph Jennings, and Capriccio Stravagante, dir. Skip Sempé. Liner notes by Lindsay Kemp.

About the performance: First off, I must confess to a bias with regards to Chanticleer - in my opinion, they can practically do no wrong. Happily, this recording does nothing to disrupt that opinion. This album is a wonderful collection of Purcell's church music. The collaboration with Capriccio Stravagante is fantastic - the blend between voices and strings is amazing. The music allows a number of the members of Chanticleer to show off their solo voices, which they do admirably. But the real magic is when they sing together. For tuning, tone, and pure musicianship, Chanticleer cannot be beat. Whether they are singing in unison, as in 'An Evening Hymn' or in complex counterpoint as in 'Hear My Prayer', it is hard to imagine Purcell ever sounding better. For anyone interested in Baroque music or simply in really excellent choral singing, I would heartily recommend this CD.

About the music: Purcell grew up during the reign of Charles II, when England was experiencing a bit of an artistic renaissance after the stringent nature of Cromwell's Commonwealth. Music by past composers, such as Byrd, Tallis, and Gibbons was revived, and the music of Louis XIV's court was an influence as well. The earlier English influences can be heard in the complex counterpoint of such works as 'I was glad,' which is reminiscent of Gibbon's 'O, Clap Your Hands' or Byrd's 'Sing Joyfully.' And the French influence is clearly discernable in the ritornellos and dance-like rhythms in 'The Bell Anthem' and other larger-scale sacred works. But Purcell shines the most in the smaller anthems such as the well-known 'Hear My Prayer' where his incredible counterpoint skills are paired with a more daring harmonic approach; in these works he exhibits an unusually intense, emotional, and very unique musical voice.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

CD Review - Janet Baker sings Purcell

Long-term intrepid readers of this blog have probably heard previous mention of The Princeton Record Exchange. The Record Exchange is a fabulous store where many classical CDs can be picked up dirt cheap, and has gotten a great deal of my business in the past year and a half. So much, in fact, that I am hopelessly behind in listening to all the music I've acquired there. In the interests of addressing this situation, I am going to post periodic short reviews of CDs after acquiring them. So, without further ado, on to the first review.

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with Janet Baker, Patricia Clark, Monica Sinclair, and Raimund Herinex. With the St. Anthony Singers under John McCarthy and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Lewis. Harpsichord continuo: Thurston Dart.

I bought this recording because it had Janet Baker, a well-known English mezzo-soprano. I was not disappointed - her performance of Dido was splendid. She has a rich tone, and her singing is extraordinarily expressive. Patricia Clark in the role of Belinda was also very enjoyable - she has a light, clear, nimble voice well suited to Purcell. On the other hand, Raimund Herinex as Aeneas was a little dull and woolly. The chorus, although occasionally sounding a little quavery, was in general quite strong and energetic, and the orchestra was excellent. My main criticism was with the witches' scene. Monica Sinclair as the Sorceress, all the witches solos, and the chorus as well tried to adopt a nasal, sneering, sinister tone. While this was initially dramatic and amusing, this tone interfered with the tuning and the musicality, and I wish a more straight-forward reading had been chosen. Apart from that, this was a fine recording, with Janet Baker standing out from the ensemble for her extraordinary emotional singing.

About the piece: Henry Purcell (1659-1695) wrote Dido and Aeneas, his only true opera, in 1689 for a girls' boarding-school. Accordingly the music is simple and the opera only an hour long. The story focuses on that part of the Aeneid set in Carthage, where Aeneas, a Trojan Prince fleeing the fall of Troy, and Dido, Queen of Carthage, have a brief affair before parting acrimoniously. The most famous part of the opera is Dido's final aria, "Thy hand, Belinda" and the subsequent final chorus "With drooping wings," which must rank as some of the most beautiful music Purcell ever wrote.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

RIP Martino

The Boston Globe reports that Donald Martino, Pulizter Prize-winning composer, passed away on Thursday, December 8 while on a cruise with his wife in the Caribbean.

Martino taught at the Third Street Settlement in New York, Princeton, Yale, NEC, and Harvard. After serving as Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University from 1980 to 1983, he joined the faculty of Harvard in 1983; he retired as Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor Emeritus in 1992. He founded his own publishing company, Dantalian, Inc., to publish his music.

I am not intimately familiar with Martino's work - the one piece I know is Eternitie, from his Seven Pious Pieces on texts by Robert Herrick. I sang it with the Back Bay Chorale several years ago. It was beautiful, and I loved it, and I am sorry the composer is gone.

At least he had a good run. His many awards include two Fulbright scholarships; three Guggenheim awards; grants from the Massachusetts Arts Council, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts; the Brandeis Creative Arts Citation in Music; the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in music for his chamber work Notturno, First Prize in the 1985 Kennedy Center Friedheim Competition for his String Quartet (1983), and most recently, the Boston Symphony's Mark M. Horblit Award.

Nothing to sneeze at. RIP, Donald.

Information from and Grove Music Online.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

the meaning of conductor

Not many posts this semester - one of my New Semester's Resolutions is to change that! Look for more updates coming soon to a blog near you.

Roseae Feminae, the women's choir I founded a little less than a year ago, is having their winter concert tomorrow night. I am a little nervous and a lot excited. Our dress rehearsal was excellent, and while usually that's considered a bad sign, I think in this case it's a sign that a lot of hard work by the chorus paid off. Most of today was spent making the program, both writing program notes and wrestling with the actual machines that put the ink on the page. I did not know that it was possible for a copier to jam so often, and I have had some experience with them. After an hour's worth of work yielded me 27 programs, I decided to call it a draw and retire from the field of battle.

But tramping home in the evening (with a big pile of messed-up programs to recycle) got me thinking, as I have before, about what a conductor does. There are many noble theories related to artistic philosophies and interpretation and focus and musicality and whatnot. But in my experience, what a conductor does is wrestle with copiers. And spend time looking up Purcell in New Grove, and translating words in German folksongs that don't appear in dictionaries, and trying to find translations of the Great Antiphons on Catholic websites, and then digging out a Latin dictionary to make sure those translations are correct. And e-mailing people (oh, the time spent e-mailing people) and making charts to calculate when people are free to rehearse and scheduling rooms and calling choir members, and putting forth an enormous amount of work to get people in the same room at the same time with the music in their hands. And putting up posters to recruit singers, and then putting up more posters to recruit audience members. And pounding out lines on the piano, and learning notes, and studying scores, and waving your arms in the air, and then waving them again, and then waving them again, because your muscles can't seem to remember that it's 3/4, then 1/4, then 2/4, not the other way around.

This blog's web address is based on a pun - in physics, a conductor is a material or object that permits an electric current to flow easily. But that's not so much a pun as a metaphor. A conductor permits the music to flow easily, or in many cases, a conductor permits the music to happen in the first place. That means a lot of administrative organizing, and a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and more than anything, a lot of e-mails.

I spent part of the day reading The Robert Shaw Reader for my last assignment of the semester. Much of it consists of letters to his choir. While most of the letters address rehearsal techiques and philosophies, or artistic reflections, many of them contain injunctions to the choir to show up to rehearsal, not to be tardy, to learn their notes at home, and to get their heads out of the scores. Even Robert Shaw had to get people into the same room at the same time with the music in their hands. I am in good company.