Melinda Bargreen | 15 July 2021 for EarRelevant
The arrival of a new recording from the highly regarded Antioch Chamber Ensemble, now in its 24th season with founding conductor Joshua Copeland, is always a noteworthy event for choral fans and music lovers in general. The newest disc, In Praise of Music, was recorded at Washington and Lee University in November of 2018, but has only recently been issued. Whatever the reason for the hiatus, this is a recording worth waiting for.
The ten choral works presented here are by the prolific and multi-talented Robert Kyr, an Oregon-based composer, writer, filmmaker and photographer whose music compositional output is remarkably diverse. Kyr, a professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon, has written 12 symphonies, three chamber symphonies, three violin concerti, a piano concerto, several chamber works – and more than 100 works for chorus. Many of his choral texts are devoted to the themes of peace, racial justice, compassion, love, reconciliation, and harmony with nature. Kyr’s influences are as diverse as Bach and the Javanese gamelan. In addition to his prodigious compositional output, Kyr occupies important administrative posts: he is the director of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium, Music Today Festival, and the Vanguard Concert and Workshop Series.
Kyr’s inventive use of texts is particularly striking on this recording, where the track “Veni Creator Spiritus” alternates passages from the Requiem (for example, “Dies irae”) and the Mass (“Agnus Dei”). The three-part “Santa Fe Vespers” weave together texts from psalms, hymns, biblical passages, and anonymous sources. Kyr is not afraid to tinker with the classics: he takes John Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet XIV (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”) and reimagines it as an original poem that becomes a three-part canon.
The compositional styles are varied, too: often with rhapsodic passages that morph and modulate into strange new directions and entirely new keys. Kyr makes very substantial demands on his singers, including sudden key shifts, complex chord structures, and passages that stretch to the very edge of the singers’ compass. For the most part, the Antioch Chamber Ensemble was well up to these challenges. Some of the pieces are clearly very taxing for the singers, with exposed and top-of-compass notes for the soprano, and sudden shifts into chords that are startling departures from the key center.
The best works have a wonderfully rhapsodic quality with often startling changes in key signature and character. “In Praise of Music,” for instance, is full of constantly shifting tonal clusters, parallel thirds moving up and down, and organ-like chords, slipping through several key changes with lots of close harmonies. Sudden shifts lead into faraway and unexpected new keys. Surprising chords are built from a single low note to swooping harmonies that finally coalesce.
“O Great Spirit’ begins like a simple hymn, gradually expanding the freely shifting massed chords with extensive divisi to a triumphant conclusion, then restarting to move through various key changes, with extended high tessitura for the top lines — “reawakening” to a triumphant finale. The very striking “In the Name of Music” offers a procession through various keys to unexpected twists of new tonal centers. The music suddenly shifts to G major in an extended held chord that fades into a single soprano line.
“Veni Creator Spiritus” begins in the world of monastic chant, then broadening the spectrum. For this listener, this one is a little less convincing than some of the other pieces, finally reworking the various lines into a triumphant chord.
The next three tracks comprise the Santa Fe Vespers. “Heaven Hear My Words” opens with the men singing lines suggesting call and response chant. Over extended lines in the men’s sections, the women sing “laudate,” and then the two groups trade places. A chordal section leads to rhapsodic passages that taper down to a final bass line. (The final note sounded prematurely truncated; it leads directly into the next track.) “Hail Star of the Sea” (Track 6) continues the final note of its Track 5 predecessor, moving on to beautiful three-part melismas in the women’s voices and then to similar passages in the men’s voices, with the two joining for lush triple-meter chords. Occasionally a soprano very slightly overshoots a high note. Once again the music comes to an abrupt halt at the end of the track … leading to the Vespers’ third movement, Track 7, “Seraphim.” This one has an antique flavor, and could almost be a period piece except for a few exotic passages with more modern harmonies, and some striking modulations that lead to a final triumphant chord.
Track 8, “Dawnsong,” takes a long time to develop, with oscillating three-note figures in the men’s voices. In Track 9, “Ode to Music,” the male voices sing a three-part chant that’s less interesting than the singing on other tracks; finally ending up with what sounds like a very effortful triad.
In Track 10 (“Voices for Peace”), lush harmony returns – for the most part, we could be in the 19th century instead of the 21st, but as the piece moves on, a more modern tonality develops. Not all the chords are in tune; every once in a while, a voice leans slightly sharp or flat, as happens in the soprano line around 2:. Gently soothing harmonies do indeed invoke peace.
Track 11 is completely different: rich gospel voices introduce the theme of “I Want Freedom,” to the insistent triple-meter drumbeat, gradually growing faster and higher and more frenzied; it’s a tour-de-force.
Finally, in Track 12 (“Alleluia for Peace”), thickly layered chords in men’s and women’s voices alternate and interweave to rapturous effect. Rich harmonies are traded back and forth between the men’s and women’s sections: it’s an orchestra of voices. Around 4:17 the mood changes, the tempo picks up, and the “alleluias” shift quickly back and forth with a repeated “Dona nobis pacem.” Here is Kyr at his strongest, met by a conductor and an ensemble who can master these challenging pieces and give them their full due. ■
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