Composer Alec Roth may be UK-based and of Irish/German descent, but it’s America that provides the musical heritage for his 2012 cantata A Time to Dance, recorded here for the first time by Ex Cathedra. The music is richly melodic, twitching with rhythmic energy, with wide harmonic vistas conjured up by even more widely spaced modal harmonies; Copland lies on the horizon of so much of its vibrant directness, shaded by the occasional bluesy nod to Gershwin and even Sondheim.
Roth’s long relationship with Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra has already yielded the exceptional Shared Ground (Signum, 2011), and their follow-up collaboration is even stronger. A Time to Dance is an hour-long cantata for a quartet of SATB soloists, choir and orchestra (here a Baroque band, inspired by the work’s original commission as a companion piece for Bach’s Magnificat), with all the makings of a modern classic—a work you’d want to perform and, crucially, perform again.
Divided into four sections—‘Spring Morning’, ‘Summer Noon’, ‘Autumn Evening’ and ‘Winter Night’—the work’s collage of texts draws with catholic breadth from the likes of Herrick, Blake, Edward Thomas and the Book of Common Prayer. Minutely sensitive to the poetry, Roth binds them into a single coherent musical narrative while retaining the original character of each, whether the fleet-footed energy of Rossetti’s ‘Dancing on the hill-tops’ or the meditative stillness of Thomas’s ‘Lights out’.
A strong quartet of soloists move through the seasons: Grace Davidson is bright, spring soprano, Samuel Boden sensuous, Brittenish summer; Matthew Venner’s countertenor is autumn and bass Greg Skidmore completes the year as winter. All come together with the massed forces of Ex Cathedra (on typically fine form) for a stately Globe-style jig, bringing this immensely attractive cycle to its exuberant close.
Choral societies are hungry beasts and there are only so many Rutter Glorias they can consume. With A Time to Dance Roth has provided a serious alternative—a contemporary work of real character and energy.