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Owain Park (b1993)

Choral works

Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: Various dates
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2018
Total duration: 75 minutes 52 seconds

Cover artwork: Boundary Beach 1 by Graham Dean
Bridgeman Art Library, London
 

As John Rutter (Owain Park’s erstwhile teacher) shrewdly notes in the booklet, Park is one of a new generation of composers whose voice has been informed by music of many styles, traditions and periods. This is indeed music ‘for us all to enjoy as listeners’.

Reviews

‘It is inconceivable that these pieces could be performed better; the choral sound is sumptuous, the detail immaculately nurtured by Stephen Layton and the absolute precision of pitching and balancing a joy to behold … there is enough of real musical quality and individuality here to make one suspect that Owain Park is no mere one-minute wonder but a composer who is going to make a very distinct mark on the British choral tradition’ (Gramophone)

‘Altogether, this is a welcome introduction to a composer of impressive achievement and considerable promise. Layton and his crack team of singers have done their colleague and friend proud’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

‘[Upheld by stillness is] a fine example of the way Park is able to engage with earlier musical forms and choral tradition, while finding a sound that's utterly modern. Superbly drilled performances and an effortlessly spacious and detailed recording’ (BBC Record Review)

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The music of Owain Park defies neat classification. He belongs to a generation of young British-born composers who are no longer shackled by the ‘-isms’ that loomed so large in the years after World War II when there was declared to be a ‘crisis’ of modern music, to be resolved only by rigid adherence to a set of compositional rules. Rather, he has allowed his imagination to be nourished by music of many styles, traditions and periods. As we listen to this survey of his choral music, written over a period of just five years, we can detect elements deriving from, for example, Gregorian chant, Tudor polyphony, Greek Orthodox liturgy, folk song, and the English choral tradition—but these are absorbed into an individual and personal style which could perhaps be called neo-tonal: that is to say, simple chord structures and melodic shapes are not excluded, but they are manipulated and played with like clay in a sculptor’s hands. Tunes, rhythms, and harmonies are there, but used in fresh ways which often go beyond what is predictable at first hearing.

Perhaps all composers of real stature are successfully eclectic, not limited by the here or the now. Ralph Vaughan Williams—another Trinity-educated composer—is sometimes thought of as quintessentially English and of his time, but he studied composition with Bruch in Germany, perfected his orchestration with Ravel in Paris, was inspired by (and made use of) music of the Elizabethan period, and was notable in reviving interest in the largely forgotten folk songs of the past, absorbing them into his own style.

If Park, like Vaughan Williams, is eclectic in his styles and sympathies, two distinctively English qualities nevertheless stand out: the care and sensitivity with which he chooses and sets words, and his innate feeling for choral writing (nurtured by his background as a boy chorister). His fast-growing work list includes a wide variety of choral music, which he would probably agree lies, for now at least, at the heart of his creative world.

Choral music poses its own challenges for the composer. Whereas most orchestras and instrumental ensembles are professional, able to play music of the most formidable complexity, most choirs the world over (if we exclude radio choirs and cathedral or collegiate choirs) are made up of amateurs or schoolchildren, more limited in what they can accomplish. In writing for them, a composer has to work within those limits, which can be a constraint to the imagination. Owain has been fortunate in having a world-class virtuoso choir at his disposal at Trinity College Cambridge, enabling him to write more freely and challengingly than would generally be practical, drawing on a rich and varied palette of choral textures: the music is rarely just in the normal four parts, often being split into many voices to create impressive kaleidoscopes and towers of sound, or left–right antiphonal effects, with semi-chorus or solo contributions at moments where these illuminate the text.

A captivating sound-world awaits you as you listen to the music—and the words—of this album, but don’t expect to hear much of it replicated by your local parish church choir. This is music unashamedly written for choirs at the high end of the spectrum, but for us all to enjoy as listeners.

The wings of the wind
This bright, extrovert piece was written for Trinity College Choir’s 2015 USA tour. A choir on tour, by tradition, is allowed to show off a little, and The wings of the wind has an engagingly ice-breaking, here-we-are-folks character that would have worked well as a recital opener. The text is a collage of individual Psalm verses compiled to invite vivid word painting and an arch-like musical structure with the opening and closing sections fast and rhythmic, and a more reflective central section containing an expressive soprano solo (starting with the words ‘For I will consider thy heavens’) which, perhaps in homage to the choir’s American hosts, seems distantly inspired by Gershwin’s Summertime.

Upheld by stillness
Park was one of five composers commissioned in 2014 by Suzi Digby, conductor of the London-based professional chamber choir ORA, to write ‘reflections’ on a movement of Byrd’s Mass for five voices—a genre currently being quite widely cultivated in choral composition, whereby an old piece is made the basis of a new one. He chose the Sanctus and Benedictus (which count as a single movement), and it was first performed, along with the other four ‘reflections’ and Byrd’s Mass, at a concert given by ORA in 2016. The music of Upheld by stillness seems to inhabit a floating dream world where fragments of the ‘old’ music drift in and out of the texture. The ‘it’ in the first line of Kathleen Raine’s poem refers to the world. Park writes:

I was instantly drawn to Kathleen Raine’s The World when looking for a text for this reflection. Its themes perfectly corresponded with my idea of Byrd’s Sanctus being an expansive, continually evolving work. It is a fascinating poem, manipulating only six ideas but creating an effortless circle of themes, interweaving and inextricably linked. Elements of the poem are reflected in this piece as well as melodic lines from Byrd’s original composition, which are often set against a backdrop of shimmering chords. While composing this piece, I kept the partbooks of the Mass in my sightline as a constant influence on the shapes and contours of the music. There is a sense of travel in the continuous humming, often linking sections as themes are passed around the voices. The ‘Osanna’ section borrows just the open vowels of the original text to create a warm, engulfing sound. This idea is heard twice in the piece, the second time returning elongated and more joyous.

Trinity Fauxbourdons
A fauxbourdon is a single melody line, often a Gregorian chant, thickened out by other vocal lines added above and/or below it: a technique as old as choral writing itself but still usable today. The single line which forms the basis of Park’s setting of the pair of canticles sung at Anglican Evensong is the ancient chant known as the tonus peregrinus (‘wandering tune’), so called because it strays beyond the normal boundaries of a Psalm chant. Park follows the traditional alternatim practice of presenting successive pairs of verses with the first of the pair left plain (with just the chant) followed by a verse elaborated with fauxbourdons, though he plays with this convention by allowing sustained wordless chords to support the chant in the plain verses. The fauxbourdon verses are treated more freely, with the chant itself sometimes elaborated, and the added voices forming chords which belong more to the world of, say, Herbert Howells than to Machaut or Dufay.

Above the stars my Saviour dwells
The text of this piece—in rhymed verse recalling the style of George Herbert or John Donne—is known only from Thomas Tomkins’ setting dating from the early or mid-seventeenth century. An ascription to Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, is not verifiable, and it is possible the text (originally titled ‘An hymne’) was written by Tomkins himself. Its style is madrigalian, with an almost erotic quality that has been likened to the Song of Solomon, and Park’s setting is essentially a chaste yet voluptuous soprano solo underpinned by floating wordless choral textures in the opening and closing sections; the choir sings the text only for a few bars in the central section. Above the stars was composed in 2017 for Trinity College Choir as a commissioned gift for Wendy Russell.

Phos hilaron
Written in 2017 for Trinity College Choir, this spacious and evocative composition (its title is Greek for ‘gladdening light’) forms a tripartite meditation on, and celebration of, evening—part of the liturgy of the Orthodox Church since earliest times. The words of the second part, heard here in John Keble’s renowned translation, are believed to be the earliest known Christian hymn. The three sections of Park’s setting each deploy different resources, to telling effect:

Part I: a brief, solemn introduction, mystical in character, for standard SATB choir. The texture is enriched with divided basses, the lowest of them sustaining a drone on E.
Part II: Keble’s translation of the Phos hilaron hymn, sung by a soloist to a simple chant-like melody supported by hummed chords from the choir.
Part III: the longest and most elaborate section, centred on verses from St Symeon’s ‘Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit’. The voices are divided into two groups, sometimes consisting of two equal antiphonal choirs, sometimes of a small semi-chorus pitted against the main choir, and within each group the voices are further divided, creating a rich texture and resplendent sonority. At the words ‘Come, alone to the alone’ the soloist reappears, at first supported by simple chords but then with the semi-chorus floating above, after which the full resources of both choirs come into play again, leading to a tranquil conclusion.

To some, the combination of big, rich, slow chords and drone basses allied to solemn liturgical texts might appear to be an excursion into territory that John Tavener made his own in recent years, but Park speaks with his own distinctive voice, coloured by echoes of a tradition that can enrich our own.

Ave maris stella
The repetitive, slightly jingly metre of this popular medieval hymn presents a challenge to the composer; Park does not attempt to camouflage the insistent metre but instead allows it to propel the music forward, retaining a pleasing simplicity in his melody (he acknowledges Grieg’s setting to be an influence), while clothing it with more sophisticated harmonies that would have delighted Francis Poulenc. The stanzas of the text are prefaced by bell-like repeated notes to the words ‘Ave maris stella’, rising from D via E flat and E natural to a final high G, leading to a luscious final Amen. Written in 2014, Ave maris stella is inscribed ‘for the Richard III Society, George Haynes and the St Peter’s Singers’.

Judas mercator pessimus
This dark, dramatic setting of the fifth Maundy Thursday Responsory (part of the Catholic liturgy for Holy Week) was composed in 2014 for Trinity College Choir. It is perhaps the most intense and, in every sense, challenging choral piece so far written by Owain Park. His own note on it follows:

Judas mercator pessimus begins as quietly as possible, growing out of a single note in an unhurried and foreboding beginning. The music gently expands and contracts in a ‘calling’ gesture—perhaps more of a choral whisper—containing flickering memories of a distant past. Short interjections from the semi-chorus call to mind Jesus’ despair at his betrayal, but the main choir’s continuous pursuit of one harmonic centre signifies the acceptance of his fate. There follows a passage of angst, containing jagged rhythms, hissing sibilances and clashing harmonies. Rushing lines of fast-moving notes travel through the choir, growing to the apex of this section and dying down again, as the semi-chorus eventually relinquish their hold on their dissonant harmony.
A more gentle and solemn mood reflects the words ‘osculo petiit Dominum’, accompanied by an eerie mixture of humming and singing. The descending contour of the music eventually comes to rest in very low bass notes as keening melodic phrases are passed around the upper voices. These phrases become chaotic utterances of ‘Christum Judaeis tradidit’, portraying the anger felt by those close to Jesus, then and now. At the climax of the work, every voice in the main choir converges in panicked repetitions of ‘tradidit’, then falls into stunned silence leaving only the spectral hum of the semi-chorus, before the entire world shouts at Judas in a last-gasp attempt to save Jesus.
In the last few moments, melodic fragments express glimmers of hope, mingled with sadness. The piece eventually peters out to nothing, the betrayal encapsulated in silence.

The following three pieces constitute a group of Latin motets which set the same texts chosen by Charles Villiers Stanford, organist of Trinity College and Professor of Music at Cambridge, for his own three motets written for Trinity College Choir and published in 1905. Stanford’s texts were bold choices, being in Latin—a language happily accepted in today’s Anglican church but disallowed then except at Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Winchester.

Justorum animae
This is the second piece in order of composition, written in 2017 for Trinity College Choir. Park’s Justorum animae embodies an old technique made new: imitative polyphony, where the same melody, with some variation, is passed around from voice to voice in constant interplay. In this case, the melodic line is eventually transformed from the slightly uneasy form in which we hear it at the opening to a beatific tranquillity, as the souls of the righteous attain everlasting peace after a journey through travail.

Beati quorum via
Park composed Beati quorum via in 2014, in response to a commission from the Wells Cathedral Chorister Trust. Park’s setting, like Stanford’s, is gracious and flowing—the melodic lines appropriately start to wander at the words ‘qui ambulant’—though, unlike Stanford, he underlines the law of the Lord (‘in lege Domini’) with faster and more rhythmically emphatic music before returning to the tranquil mood of the opening. In the closing bars, the sopranos and altos are directed to sing ‘like shimmering silver’.

Caelos ascendit hodie
This jubilant piece, dating from 2017, is the last of the three Latin motets, both within the set and in order of composition. Appropriately for an Ascensiontide motet, the music has a rhythmically animated, fanfare-like character, never predictable or regular for long—in the first twelve bars there are time signatures of 7/8, 4/4, 7/8, 4/4, 7/8, 9/8, 5/8 and 7/8, to match the joyful rhythms of the text. Much of the harmony is based on simple parallel chords that move up and down, a favourite device used by composers to create a festive sound.

For the fallen
As with Justorum animae, which similarly sets a text with a theme of departed ones at rest, this richly textured eight-voiced setting of Binyon’s renowned poem is filled with the interplay of voices. It begins with sopranos and altos radiating almost tentatively upwards and downwards in mirror image from a single note, singing a motif spanning just a major third (‘They shall grow not old’), answered by tenors and basses with their own motif (‘as we that are left grow old’), likewise contained within a narrow pitch range. The music gradually expands to fill a wide compass from high soprano to low bass, but then it progressively becomes simpler, with all voices persistently recalling the music of the opening with its single note and its ‘They shall grow not old’ motif to underline the idea of a memory that can never fade. The scheme of this deeply felt piece could possibly be modelled on Purcell’s Hear my prayer, O Lord, likewise an eight-voiced a cappella anthem which expands from a single voice to a quite passionate climax, subsiding to a tranquil final open-fifth chord (neither major nor minor).
For the fallen was written in 2016, inscribed ‘for Joseph Wicks and the Beaufort Singers’.

The Lord’s Prayer
This setting from 2015 of the best-known Christian prayer—notoriously hard to set to music successfully—is, like Upheld by stillness, a new piece inspired by an old one. In this case the old piece is John Sheppard’s own setting of the Lord’s Prayer, written in the mid-sixteenth century; Park was commissioned to write his reflection on it for the choir Siglo de Oro’s ‘John Sheppard at 500’ celebration. Sheppard’s music is heard at various points in the piece, sometimes in fairly literal form, sometimes fragmentary or distorted as if half-remembered from a dream. The sections which are wholly new are based in part on a technique known as bitonality—used in a not dissimilar way to Elgar’s part-song There is sweet music—where fragments of music (or just single chords) in different keys are juxtaposed or superimposed to create a special effect, in this case an atmospheric and slightly enigmatic one which is wholly the composer’s own.

I wonder as I wander
Holst or Warlock might almost have written this charming, tuneful carol—an endearing reminder that for several centuries English composers have had a place in their hearts for the carol genre, a form of folk art still beloved and current. John Jacob Niles originally set the text to his own tune, and for some years this American folk singer of the mid-twentieth century passed off the finished result as an Appalachian folk carol before admitting that both words and music were his own invention.

The spirit breathes
The spirit breathes is the only composition heard on this album to have organ accompaniment, though ‘accompaniment’ is not the most appropriate term: the organ part is florid and prominent, the choir part relatively modest and plain. The piece was commissioned by St Mark’s Anglican Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake, to commemorate the congregation’s 225th anniversary and celebrate the arrival of a new organ by Canadian organ builder Gabriel Kney, which they naturally wished to show off. The full range of the organ’s solo colours is utilized, with flutes, diapasons and mutations all called for at different times to illuminate the text, which was specially written by poet and former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. He prefaces his poem with the words ‘Loud organs his glory’, a phrase from H W Baker’s familiar hymn ‘O praise ye the Lord’, usually sung to Parry’s hymn tune Laudate Dominum. The subject of Williams’s poem is the unique role of the organ in worship, to pierce these ‘steely hearts … So that praise springs and singing starts’. In keeping the choir part simple, mostly moving at a steady pace with little contrapuntal elaboration, Park is allowing the remarkable text to be clearly heard, while giving the organ freedom to soar, its arabesque-like flute stop figures suggesting the flight of a free spirit. It comes as no surprise that Park quotes some of Parry’s tune in thunderous pedal notes, reminding us of the awe-inspiring power of the king of instruments. The first performance was given by Trinity College Choir on 15 July 2017 during their tour of Canada.

John Rutter © 2018

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