JENNIFER HIGDON: The Singing Rooms; ALVIN SINGLETON: Praisemaker; SCRIABIN: Poem of Ecstasy – Jennifer Koh, violin/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Robert Spano, conductor – Telarc 32630, 78:18 ***1/2:
I am a big Jennifer Higdon fan; virtually every work I have heard shows a composer of great promise and high accomplishment. The Singing Rooms, touted as a violin concerto with chorus offers a lot to chew on, and I am not sure that she is as successful here. Since I am working with a review copy I have no idea what the poetry by Jeanne Minahan is about, and this inhibits some understanding of the music even though the chorus also sings wordlessly. The seven-movement piece has a lot to offer—Higdon’s signature Americana feelings often reflected in her harmonies and melodies, an easygoing instrumental palate of great color, and a sense of the poetic that also transfers itself into energetic rhythmic vitally grace this work.
But I also found that perhaps in an attempt to accommodate orchestra, chorus, and violin, that none of these entities is exploited to the full. True, the violin does have a lot of fast runs and impressive filigree, and many of its lines are sweet and soaring (thanks to the wonderful playing of Koh); but you also get the feeling that none of this music belongs in an organic manner to any particular group, as if the whole thing could be redone and rescored without any loss of impact. There are also very few high emotional points here and the whole thing is relatively low key—maybe the poetry would help explain this, I can’t tell. I enjoyed this, but am also somewhat puzzled by it—Higdon can’t write bad music, but I fear she is trying to do something with these forces that just can’t be done no matter what the circumstances. It definitely is not a violin concerto – more of a concertante effort with odd forces involved. It is also odd that it is being promoted as such when Higdon’s own real Violin Concerto (with Hilary Hahn on DGG) has just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music (10,000 bucks—is that all the thing is worth these days?).
The real choral winner is Alvin Singleton’s Praisemaker, a piece of extraordinary depth and emotion. Singleton has lived in Atlanta since 1985, and was Composer-in-Residence for three years with the ASO in the early eighties. The texts are from poet Susan Kouguell, and the work intends on being a universal secular celebration of accomplishments and learning. This it indeed does, and I found it enthralling from first to last, something I can’t say about all of this composer’s music (his best disc to date is probably the 1992 compilation on Warner/Elektra with the ASO and Robert Shaw and Louis Lane). This piece was commissioned by the Cincinnati May Festival in 1998 and premiered there.
Scriabin’s Poem is of course a standard item on most concerts, and it has a boatload of recordings. I was surprised at how well it fit with the rest of this program, something a little unexpected but curiously pleasing. Spano and the ASO give it a blazing performance, even if I don’t think it quite equals the blistering performance by the late Sinopoli and the NY Phil on DGG. Muti of course also gives a smoldering reading with Philly on EMI, and Stokowski set the standard on his Everest recording with the Houston Symphony some years back. But Spano’s superb and powerful brass along with a finely blended tone from all the ASO sections—and excellent sound—add up to an experience that is fully competitive, and makes a nice conclusion to this release. [A couple years ago this would have been a multichannel SACD release…that might have aided discrimination of all these varied instruments and choral forces… ho hum…Ed.]
— Steven Ritter