Houston Chamber Choir, “Soft Blink of Amber Light” = Works of WHITE, HAGEN, THEOFANIDIS, OQUIN & DIORIO – Houston Ch. Choir/Robert Simpson – MSR Classics

Houston Chamber Choir, “Soft Blink of Amber Light” = DAVID ASHLEY WHITE: The Blue Estuaries; JOCELYN HAGEN: soft blink of amber light; CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS: Messages to Myself; WAYNE OQUIN: O Magnum Mysterium; DOMINICK DIORIO: A Dome of Many-coloured Glass – Houston Ch. Choir/Robert Simpson – MSR Classics MS1499, 56:013 (9/22/15) ****:

A very rewarding collection of modern choral works performed flawlessly!

I have heard of the Houston Chamber Choir before and been very curious about their other albums that contain contemporary repertoire. However, this is my first actual listening and I am highly impressed! What we have here is a very carefully chosen set of works by contemporary American composers. Each work here has some commonality with the others, such as purely tonal and often breathtakingly beautiful harmonies, but each piece is unique and has its own merits.

I was unfamiliar with David Ashley White, a faculty member at the University of Houston. His The Blue Estuaries uses poetry by Louise Bogan that all have something to do with the passage of time and on eternity, according to booklet notes. The sound of this work is calm, serene and evocative of English anthem style writing.

The soft blink of amber light by Jocelyn Hagen was my one of my favorite works in this collection. She uses a text by the American writer Julia Klatt Singer that is a bit of rumination on fireflies as fascinating and calming little creatures. There are elements of minimalism and some interesting little tinkling of piano, winds and marimbas in the accompaniment that I found captivating. I would love to discover more by this fascinating young composer!

I have held the music of Christopher Theofanidis, Texas native and alumnus of the University of Houston, in high regard for a long time. I also find him to be at his strongest when writing for chorus. His Messages to Myself uses texts by Walt Whitman, Jalal Rūmī (whose writings Theofanidis has called upon before), Amy Beth Kirsten and William Butler Yeats. The writings all have a relationship of sorts to themes of love, fidelity and sincerity and – as in all of his music – I found the resulting sounds beautiful and alluring.

Wayne Oquin, a professor at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, sets the Latin Nativity text O Magnum Mysterium, as so many others across the centuries have done. I do not agree with some reviews I have seen that say that the contemporary setting by which all will be judged is that by Morton Lauridsen (excellent though that one is.) Oquin’s is quite lovely and, in its own way, reverential.

A Dome of Many-coloured Glass by Dominick Di Orio uses four poems by Amy Lowell, which are essentially reflections on nature. Each song here seems to match the tone of the text quite well. This is an enjoyable piece but I must say it was my least favorite work here. A couple of the solo voice sections, though sung well, seem curiously out of place and the whole work is infused with basically a nearly non-stop marimba concerto that serves as accompaniment. It’s a strong timbre that I think should be used sparingly. I think, in places, it actually detracts from the flow and the accompaniment – if even needed in certain sections – could be shared among other timbres; piano, bells, synthesizer – something. There were, indeed, some great moments herein to compensate for that quibble. Di Orio is a choral conductor at Indiana University and former member of the Houston Chamber Choir.

The Houston Chamber Choir is an amazing ensemble and I greatly respect and appreciate their commitment to the music of living composers. Anyone who loves great vocal music should go get this. The music, the performances and the recording are all splendid.

—Daniel Coombs

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