American Choral Music = PERSICHETTI: Mass; SCHUMAN: Carols of Death; BOLCOM: The Mask; FINE: The Hour-Glass; FOSS: Psalms – University of Texas Chamber Singers/ Dwight Bigler, Alena Gorina, piano/ James Morrow, conductor – Naxos 8.559358, 73:15 ****:
I will say at the beginning that the University of Texas Chamber Singers are a very well-balanced, and finely-honed ensemble of 35 mixed choristers (12-7-6-10) who deliver the goods in this repertory of bona-fide Americana. Naxos has captured the sound exceptionally well at the University Presbyterian Church in Austin, and Engineer Tom Handley should be proud of his work, as I know James Morrow is of his singers.
But for the general listener the repertory is somewhat mixed; William Bolcom’s The Mask is a setting of poems by African American poets, and for once his eclecticism seems to me a little out of place—I would have preferred more of his noted lyrical substance in this 1990 work, as the rather insipid melody of the second movement, “Heritage”, and the piano solo “Interlude for Natalie” does really fit into the overall scheme. Likewise the Lukas Foss Psalms—the first movement is fairly mushy and milk toast, showing only a small amount of that originality and clever way of adapting old to new that so thrills us in other pieces, though the solo singing of soprano Lisa Sunset Holt and tenor John Len Wiles is excellent. Movements 2 and 3 return us to more typical—and very good—Foss.
The gems remain, however. The most performed and probably best-loved work here is The Hour-Glass by Bostonian Irving Fine, a composer always known for high integrity and unflagging commitment to an American music that was able to absorb all sorts of styles; his choral music is beloved by ensembles world wide, especially the one we have here, a setting of poems by Englishman Ben Jonson, lovingly performed. Vincent Persichetti’s Mass is no concert work but instead a full-fledged liturgical piece that has its origins in the music of the early Renaissance, and is not out of place even today in modern settings.
William Schuman is mostly known as a symphonic composer, and came late to serious music, but that did not stop him from enriching the choral art with many songs and compositions. Carols of Death on Whitman settings takes its name from a single stanza of the seminal When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the poet’s tribute to Abraham Lincoln, and displays all of the choral carefulness and performance-worthiness that Schuman, as able and as careful a note-spinner as Samuel Barber, could muster. The piece is ascetic to a degree, as is all of Schuman’s music, but warmly evocative and inherently tied to the emotive needs of Whitman’s poems.
All in all a fine effort by a group that I hope to hear more from. Choral singing in the collegiate ranks is alive and well in Austin!
— Steven Ritter