John Quinn
MusicWeb International
January 2020

The Yale Schola Cantorum have made several recordings for Hyperion under their Principal Conductor, David Hill. This is the first of them that has come my way and it contains an interesting and rewarding programme of contemporary choral music; all the works except for Reena Esmail’s

substantial piece are for unaccompanied choir.

Magnificat by the Canadian composer, Tawnie Olson is a fascinating opener. Olson uses two choirs and gives them different but complementary texts to sing. One choir, singing in unison, has the text of the ‘Magnificat’ canticle while the SATB choir sings the ‘Ave Maria’. Olson explains in a programme note that she was keen to emphasise the ‘strength, character and intelligence’ of teenage girls, recognising that Mary was very young when she became pregnant with her son. So, she has taken the unusual step of tasking the choir that sings the ‘Magnificat’ with doing so in the style of a Bulgarian women’s choir because the sounds that such choirs make, she says, ‘tend to suggest female strength and determination’. Here, the Elm City Girls’ Choir make a fantastic, earthy sound, their tone deliberately edgy and nasal. Meanwhile, the voices of the Yale Schola Cantorum sing the ‘Ave Maria’ in a more mellifluous fashion. The ‘Magnificat’ music is exciting and vibrant and it presents a startling contrast with the smooth, reflective music of the ‘Ave Maria’. The result is a fascinating and stimulating mix of styles and textures until Olson brings all the voices together on the final ‘Amen’. This piece, and the terrific performance it receives, certainly grabs the attention of the listener.

Among the other short pieces, David Hill’s setting of God be in my head is a lovely miniature for chorus with baritone solo. He wrote it in December 2015 as a ‘short prayerful homage’ to his close friend, the organist John Scott who had died very suddenly in August 2015. Hill and Scott were organ scholars together at St Johns College, Cambridge and, fittingly, this piece was later sung at an Evensong dedicated to Scott’s memory in the College chapel. The present recording was made in the month following the composition of the work. I loved both piece and performance.

Shout joy! by the American composer, Daniel Kellogg is very different. This is a setting of an exuberant poem of praise by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007). Kellogg’s music is vibrant but also varied, despite the short duration of the piece. An interesting detail in the poem is that L’Engle shortens the word ‘Alleluia’ into a single syllable, ‘Jah!’ The piece is most attractive and it’s sung with verve.

The other two compositions are much more substantial. The distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams somehow manages to find time in his crowded schedule to compose music also and I’ve heard quite a number of his choral works, all of which I’ve found very interesting. His A New England Symphony, commissioned by the Yale Schola Cantorum, may well be his most ambitious choral work to date. Each of the four movements sets a poem by writers who, as Williams puts it, ‘belong to New England and yet have transatlantic history’.

First, we hear ‘O Brother Man’, a setting of words by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The poem enunciates Whittier’s abolitionist beliefs and Williams responds with music filled with ‘tortuous harmonies and pained outbursts’. The poem ends with the words ‘Love shall tread out the baleful fires of anger, / And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.’ You might expect—as I did—that those last four words would stimulate Williams to finish on a consonant major chord, but so charged is the emotion of the poem and the music to which it has been set that the ending is harmonically ambiguous, which seems appropriate. ‘By night when others soundly slept’ is a poem by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) who emigrated to Massachusetts with the early English settlers. The poem is principally sung by a solo quartet with the choir in the background. Williams describes it as a nocturne though I don’t find the music all that calm: rather, it seems to me that both the melodic lines and the harmonic language is quite searching; it’s an unquiet nocturne. There follows what is effectively a scherzo, ‘Divine Humanity! Behold’. This sets a poem by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), a one-time slave. The music is fleet and the Yale singers give words and music the expert articulation that’s needed. The finale, ‘Liberty’s Champion’ sets a poem by another one-time slave, James Pennington (1807-1870) who had the distinction of being the first man of colour to be admitted to Yale. This is the longest and most complex movement; the choir is divided into several parts and the music makes virtuoso demands of them. Williams’ writing is dynamic and full of energy and the Yale singers give it a terrific, spirited performance. Pennington’s words are moving in their aspiration and optimism, culminating in a final stanza which celebrates emancipation joyously. A New England Symphony strikes me as a significant achievement and it’s hard to imagine that it could have received a better first recording.

Reena Esmail’s This love between us ‘Prayers for unity’ is the only piece on the programme that involves instruments. She is an Indian-American composer and in this work, which is a piece about unity, she juxtaposes words from each of the seven major religious traditions of India; each tradition is addressed in a separate movement. The instrumental forces are, to put it mildly, intriguing. She has conceived the piece for chorus accompanied by sitar, tabla and a Baroque orchestra – here Juilliard415, a period instrument ensemble. In each of the movements the chosen text is sung in English and in its original language; the one exception is the third movement in which a Christian text is sung in English and in a Malayalam translation. I suppose I should come clean and admit that I may not be the best person to judge this work because I’ve never warmed to Indian music; I simply don’t like the sounds made either by vocalists or by many of the traditional instruments such as the sitar. I must say though that, with the exception of one movement I thought the East/West fusion worked well although, at least as recorded, the sound of the two Indian instruments tends to be much more prominent than that of the Western instruments.

The one movement that didn’t work for me was the second one, which is a setting for female voices and instruments of a Sikh text. There’s a very prominent part for mezzo soloist and to my ears Adele Dominguez sounds authentically Indian as she delivers her keening solo. It’s probably because the music is so close in style to Indian vocal music that, as a matter of personal taste, I didn’t enjoy it very much. The male voices come into their own in the fourth movement, a Zoroastrian setting. Esmail’s music is slow, hypnotic and darkly hued with the tabla very prominent. The voices are led by a baritone soloist and, like his female colleague, Charles Littlewood’s delivery of an Indian-sounding vocal line seems to me to be pretty authentic.

The fifth movement is a Hindu setting. Initially we hear a tenor and soprano soloist. He sings in English while she sings the same words in Hindi. After a central episode involving the choir, the soloists’ roles are reversed and this time it’s the tenor who sings in Hindi. The music in this movement is slow and sensuous. The finest musical achievement, though, seems to me to be the final movement, which deals with the Islamic tradition. Here the music is slow and features lovely melodic lines and radiant harmonies. Esmail’s writing for the woodwind, especially at the start, makes these instruments sound Indian. The movement is a very lovely conclusion to the work as a whole.

This love between us ‘Prayers for unity’ is a very interesting work and the score seems to me to be a successful fusion of the Indian and Western musical traditions. The idea to combine two traditional Indian instruments with a small orchestra playing on Western period instruments is highly original. However, both the sitar and tabla are instruments which project their sound very easily whereas the softer-hued Western instruments have less carrying power. Perhaps that’s why it seemed to me that in this performance the balance favoured the Indian instruments a little too much.

David Hill has devised a most interesting and varied programme for this CD and his highly accomplished choir sings it with tremendous skill. The recordings were made at a variety of time and locations yet the sound quality is consistently good. Hyperion have lived up to their usual standards in respect of the documentation with each composer providing a valuable note on his or her piece.