'Here's a CD to put the hype back into Hyperion … extraordinarily beautiful … the recording is blessed with top performers in the choir Polyphony under the conductor Stephen Layton, who carefully shapes the recitativo phrasing and demands crystal clarity in diction and ensemble. Hyperion has a winner' (The Times)
'The combination of tonal opulence, expressive depth and verbal conviction creates a heart-melting mix in When David heard, by far the longest work on the disc and a masterpiece of unaccompanied choral writing. Unmissable' (Classic FM Magazine)
'This beautifully performed and recorded CD contains the bulk of Whitacre's choral canon and displays his delicate yet vital approach to writing for voices. I guess if you like Tavener (or Pärt, who is strongly evoked in David), you'll enjoy Whitacre' (Gramophone)
'Cloudburst is the central piece here, a dazzling kaleidoscope of busy clamour, arcing lyricism, solo and spoken passages, sighing, handbells, wind chimes, inter alia. Whitacre was only 22 when he wrote it. Mightily effective, it's superbly performed (as is everything else on this CD) by Polyphony and Stephen Layton' (Five stars, BBC Music Magazine)
'I would certainly urge anyone with a love of choral singing to buy this disc, not merely to sample this atmospheric sound-world but to luxuriate in the gorgeous choral tone of Polyphony' (International Record Review)
'Ethereal and chillingly beautiful choral works - an intense and moving aural experience' (The Independent on Sunday)
'Whitacre has experienced enormous success recently, writing choral and wind ensemble music. It's not hard to see why, from this impeccably performed collection' (Fanfare, USA)
'This is one of the most exciting discs to come onto the market... The whole experience is simply stunning. The precise and secure tuning of Layton's group, with effective, elegant phrasing and ensemble makes this more than a winner - it's a superb disc' (Cathedral Music)
'As heart-stoppingly electrifying as anything you've ever heard … ranks as one of the truly worthwhile recording events of 2006' (ClassicsToday.com)
'A highly significant composer with a very genuine gift for choral writing and one, moreover, with that priceless ability to communicate strongly and effectively with his audience' (www.musicweb-international.com)
'Il y a des disques dont on n'attend rien et qui nous donnent tous! Eric Whitacre se spécialise dans la composition chorale. Et il a trouvé le bon filon....' (ClassicsTodayFrance.com)
'Whitacre creates magical compositions that are stunning in their power. A beautiful album' (The Daily Express)
'Theirs [Polyphony] is the sort of virtuosity that calls no attention to itself but unfolds the music with a spontaneous, ongoing sense of discovery' (Opera News)
'This one is in the We Told You So Department. American composer Eric Whitacre in his mid-30s, is – with the estimable Morten Lauridsen – a part of a growing bounty of choral exploration and development frequently now being recorded by the British-based Layton and his remarkable ensemble, Polyphony. And the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences have heard the word and smartly nominated this outstanding CD for a Best Choral Performance Grammy. The title work alone is a tour de force, the singers themselves creating the percussive sound of a raging storm. Note, also, the wrenching despair of “When David Heard” – this may be too much for families suffering the loss of military sons and daughers right now, by the way. Lauridsen’s new “Nocturnes” also with Polyphony – hits stores in February. For now, soak yourself in this superb “Cloudburst"' (CNN, USA)
'A lifetime of listening to choral music had not prepared me for such lush harmonies — a cappella voices perfectly tuned and blended. This was my first encounter with Polyphony, possibly the best small (25 or so) professional chorus in the world. Polyphony is from Britain, where choral singing is a national fetish. Since their formation in 1986 by conductor Stephen Layton, they have amassed an impressive catalogue on the Hyperion label, which also includes the highly praised, Grammy-nominated recording of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. But for pure Polyphony, the group’s CD Cloudburst, comprised entirely of works by wunderkind composer Eric Whitacre, is a stunning recording, their best showcase yet' (Encore, USA)
'A sign that the 36-year-old American choral composer Eric Whitacre has arrived is that he has been given the glamour treatment by Stephen Layton's magnificent Polyphony, one of the finest a capella choral ensembles active in the world today' (Fanfare, USA)
'…if you have any interest in choral music, you absolutely must buy Cloudburst, a new CD of Whitacre’s choral music, sung with otherworldly purity of tone and security of pitch by the vocal group Polyphony, conduced by Stephen Layton…if someone sat you down, played Whitacre’s When David Heard, and told you it was a new piece by Arvo Pärt, you’d just think it was another in a very long line of works of unalloyed genius from Pärt…When David Heard is that good. Hair-raising. Electrifying. Whitacre has developed a remarkably distinct style...Whitacre is the genuine article…' (Stereophile, USA)
I hide myself [2'51]
i will wade out [2'45]
Go, lovely Rose [4'07]
When David heard [12'57]
hope, faith, life, love [3'50]
Her sacred spirit soars [5'08]
At the age of only 35, Eric Whitacre has already gained a reputation in the United States that many composers strive for a lifetime to achieve. The American Record Guide named his first recording one of the top ten classical albums in 1997, and the Los Angeles Times described his music as having ‘electric, chilling harmonies; works of unearthly beauty and imagination’. His Water Night (included on this new recording) has become one of the most popular choral works of the last decade, and is one of the top-selling choral publications of all time.
Whitacre’s published works have sold well over 350,000 copies worldwide. This is clearly a composer to watch, and if his phenomenal Stateside success is anything to go by, his emergence into the British music scene should be revelatory.
And who better to represent an innovative young choral composer than Stephen Layton and Polyphony, award-winning exponents of twentieth-century choral music? Their account of Britten’sgarnered the group a Gramophone Award and a Diapason d’Or in 2001, in 2002 a Gramophone Award nomination followed for the choir’s CD, and at the 2004 Gramophone Awards Polyphony’s recording of works by Arvo Pärt, , was voted Best of Category in the Choral division.
Under Layton’s directorship, Polyphony handles Whitacre’s evocative and soulful music with consummate artistry; from the quiet intensity of Sleep to the breathtaking exuberance of With a lily in your hand, by way of the tender innocence of This Marriage (one of three premiere recordings on the disc), this new recording is a stunning showcase both for an up-and-coming young composer and also for the awesome talents of one of the UK’s leading choirs.
Other recommended albums
Proudly a fifth generation Nevadan, Eric Whitacre was born on the second day of the 1970s in Reno, Nevada—north east of San Francisco, directly north of Yosemite National Park and just east of the American Sierra Nevada ranges. His musical upbringing matched the lack of focus and patchiness of most of his contemporaries: piano lessons that ‘didn’t really stick’, as he recalls, because he couldn’t take the practice regime; playing the trumpet in junior high marching band for a few years, until he was kicked out for being troublesome; playing synthesizers in a teenage techno-pop band with the adolescent dream of being a rock star.
To his surprise he was admitted to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as a Music Education major, despite not being able to read music. And it was extra-curricular interests—not Vegas gambling but women—that sparked a major turning point: ‘I was sort of tricked into joining the choir (there were a lot of cute girls in the soprano section) and on the first day of class we started rehearsing the Kyrie from the Mozart Requiem. My life was profoundly changed on that day, and I became a choir geek of the highest order.’
From there the creative impulse took over—dreams of rock stardom morphed into serious compositional study, there was the publication of his first work at the age of twenty-one, and a move to New York’s Juilliard School in 1995 for a Masters with John Corigliano and David Diamond.
Since that first choral piece, Go, lovely Rose, at the age of twenty-one, Whitacre’s work has centred around music for voices. ‘Writing for chorus is and—I assume—will always be my vocation in the truest sense of the word, a real calling’, he asserts. But two years later, at the age of twenty-three, Whitacre wrote a work for that other staple of American college campus and community music-making—the symphonic wind band.
This was Ghost Train, which Whitacre has described, perhaps with unjust self-deprecation in an essay on orchestration, as ‘just a giant half-educated guess. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I think I ended up making some choices by accident that inadvertently made the ensemble sound fresh.’
He describes the enormous success of Ghost Train (over a thousand performances and forty recordings to date) as ‘a complete fluke—it skyrocketed to fame here and abroad, and suddenly afforded me the opportunity to become a full-time professional composer. So I ran with it.’
It is a story up to now, then, of easy serendipity (coupled, of course, with evident intuitive musicianship and raw talent): joining the college choir because of the cute sopranos … and becoming one of America’s most successful choral composers within a few years; writing a wind band piece with the proverbial blindfold on … and generating a torrent of commissions and performances for the same forces around the world.
Whitacre’s musical influences are broad and far from exclusively classical. The pop/rock core of his musical upbringing prior to the college-days classical music epiphany is equally present in his work (we might hear, in particular, the melodic ease and richly compound harmonic textures of pre-punk, keyboard-dominated prog-rock). In that respect, he is probably quite typical of the younger generation of ‘classical’ composers, raised on an omnivorous musical diet and with less of an old-school sense of high-art/low-art hierarchy. It is revealing, perhaps, that he describes his recent work based on Paradise Lost as an ‘opera/musical’ which, he says, combines ‘elements of traditional theatrical music with trance, dance and ambient electronica’.
But aside from issues of genre definitions or blurring of stylistic boundaries Whitacre’s aims are simple: ‘Most of all, I want the music to be relevant, and honest, and pure.’
Purity, directness of expression, a keen sense of climax and anti-climax, a wide-eyed receptiveness to moments of ecstasy: these are constants and key characteristics in Whitacre’s often sublime music. By the standards of the last century’s more adventurous choral explorations, it is fundamentally conservative music, with few surprises or innovations harmonically or rhythmically. But it is surely Whitacre’s craftsmanship and impeccable sense of musical judgment that has spoken to many thousands of choristers and audience members in North America, and increasingly beyond; clashes strikingly made and deliciously resolved, triads piled on top of each other into shimmering clusters, beautifully made voice-leading. The way he lands on words, how he judges when and where to make a musical–emotional effect, the way he makes certain chords, or chord progressions, speak is extraordinarily refined and eloquent.
His choice of texts, the way he explains such choices, and his performance instructions are refreshingly direct and uncomplicated. For I hide myself, an Emily Dickinson setting, he writes: ‘Just a simple song, really. All of the musical suggestions come from a careful study of the poem, a quiet, passionate soul occasionally speaking a little bolder than the age will allow. She loves almost to the point of distraction, and this mood must prevail in the performance: shy and sullen, her passion surging to the surface only to sink back into the silence that is herself.’
For Water Night (1995), a subtle, ecstatically poised response to a remarkable poem by the Mexican, Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz (1914–1998), Whitacre wrote: ‘The poetry of Octavio Paz is a composer’s dream. The music seems to set itself (without the usual struggle that invariably accompanies this task) and the process feels more like cleaning the oils from an ancient canvas to reveal the hidden music than composing.’
The feel of this music, its reflective poise and its moments of mystical wonder, encourage the thought that it is overtly religious. But Whitacre refutes this: ‘I’m not Christian, nor do I consider myself to be religious. The poetry that I choose simply speaks deeply to me, and I just do my best to illuminate the words with music. For me, setting When David heard had nothing to do with its religious connotations, but rather its very human drama. It was written for a dear friend who lost his son, and was intended to give him some small measure of peace and meaning.’
There is a similar ambiguity with Whitacre’s three E E Cummings settings, which he describes as ‘Three Songs of Faith’ (or ‘of Praise’ elsewhere), and as ‘a cycle of pieces about my own personal faith’: personal faith, then, as a private ‘belief system’ and reflections on the spiritual and unknowable, not circumscribed by ‘religious’ faith. In his note for i thank You God for most this amazing day Whitacre comments: ‘The poetry strikes me as shiny and brilliant, and many of the chords (especially settings of the words painting the indescribable, i.e. “infinite”, “You”, “opened”, “God”) are intentionally designed to shimmer.’ And about hope, faith, life, love he admits to having had trouble setting the whole poem, which would call for vibrant and virtuosic music, ‘a real show piece … the more I thought about faith however, the more introspective I became, and I modified the poem entirely to fit that feeling. I took only the first four words (“hope, faith, life, love”) and the last four (“dream, joy, truth, soul”) and set each of them as a repeating meditation.’
While Whitacre chose to set just eight words from that Cummings poem, for Lux aurumque he decided to have another poem translated into another language altogether before he set it. And unusually, it was not from a dead language into the vernacular, but the reverse. According to Whitacre, Edward Esch is ‘a recluse, in the truest sense of the word … born sometime in the early ’70s, but rarely making a public appearance’. A short poem of his was translated into Latin by a close friend of the composer, Charles Anthony Silvestri. Perhaps, like Stravinsky with his Oedipus Rex, Whitacre was drawn to the ritual antiquity of Latin? ‘Yes, I’m in love with Latin, the sounds of the vowels, the consonants, the logic of it all, the ancient quality it has. It just felt right to translate the text.’
Whitacre finds the poetry of Silvestri, a Vegas-born Los Angeles history teacher, ‘rich and full of possibility’. Her sacred spirit soars reads as a pastiche Elizabethan madrigal text, a hymn to Cecilia and Fair Oriana that Whitacre sets for double choir with characteristic fluency (as steeped in stepwise movement as the Cummings setting i will wade out is intervallically more angular).
Silvestri’s poem Sleep is, in effect, a parody text created for the unusual reason of legal necessity (parody in the sense of applying new words to pre-existing music). Whitacre set Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in 2000, as a commission from a Texan lawyer/soprano in memory of her parents. He subsequently discovered, to his dismay, that the Robert Frost Estate forbade the poem’s setting to music (although twenty other settings apparently already existed). Forced with the prospect of denying publication of this work until the poem came out of copyright in 2038, Whitacre asked Silvestri to write an alternative text; the structure needed to be maintained, and certain words from the Frost poem, such as the recurring ‘sleep’, needed to be incorporated. It was an elegant solution to a problem that Whitacre evidently and understandably found exasperating (he freely admits culpability for not securing permission to set the text in advance; but it is another case of the law’s potential to obstruct Art’s true path …).
No such copyright and public domain issues could arise with other poets Whitacre has set: This Marriage, a simple, touching, homophonically parallel setting of the thirteenth-century Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi; Edmund Waller’s Go, lovely Rose from 1645; and Emily Dickinson’s I hide myself—the last two of which, together with the dance-like setting of Federico García Lorca’s With a lily in your hand, form Whitacre’s Three Flower Songs.
In addition to Water Night, two other Octavio Paz settings appear on this disc: the dreamy, erotic A Boy and a Girl, and Cloudburst. Apart from being the most episodic and adventurous work, the latter is the only non a cappella work here, and reveals through some striking effects Whitacre’s keen imagination for colour. Piano and percussion (including wind chimes and thunder sheets) are joined by handbells, as well as clapping, finger-clicking and thigh-tapping by the singers to create, most effectively, a simulated rainstorm.
‘The Cloudburst is a ceremony’, Whitacre writes, ‘a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things. The mood throughout is reverent, meditative and centered … the performer must take the spiritual journey with total respect for the power of the water and profundity of the rebirth.’ New-agey stuff on paper, perhaps, but the musical results are wholly convincing and lacking in phoniness. Magical new sounds, singability and a special atmosphere, simply and resourcefully achieved—considerable achievements from a composer twenty-two at the time, whose exposure to classical music and its notation was non-existent just a few years previously.
Meurig Bowen © 2006
Other albums in this series
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs
Hyperion 30th Anniversary seriesCDA30025
New World Symphonies – Baroque Music from Latin America
Hyperion 30th Anniversary seriesCDA30030