Saturday 17 November 2012

CD Review - Coro Allegro - In Paradisum

Coro Allegro is a Boston-based chorus for members and friends of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, singing a repertoire of classical music. The choir has developed a strong relationship with the composer Patricia Van Ness. She spent a year with them as composer in residence and the two pieces on this disc (on the Navona Records label) were both commissioned from her by Coro Allegro. The choir premiered The Voice of the Tenth Muse in 1998, repeating it in 2001, with the Requiem following in 2004. The recordings on this disc come from these live performances in 2001 and 2004.

Requiem uses the standard Latin text with the addition of a poem by the composer. Patricia Van Ness uses the text as set by Faure and Durufle (Introit, Kyrie, Offertory, Sanctus, Benedictus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna, Libera Me and In Paradisum). She sets this for choir and small orchestra (strings, oboe, bassoon), and the work was written in memory of Van Ness's friend and collaborator the dancer/choreographer Julie Ince Thompson.

Van Ness uses the orchestra for support and for colour. The strings act as a foundation on which the choir sings, with oboe and bassoon used soloistically and to colour the music. Her style is distinctive and both pieces on this disc belong to similar sound-worlds. Her writing is tonal and probably modal, with a lot of chant-like melodies. The basic texture consists of long held chords over which and through which weave the chant-like lines.

The results are very evocative and aetherial, whilst retaining a certain intensity, this isn't thin etiolated music. Van Ness uses quite open textures for her chords which adds to the work's distinctive feel. Use of instruments is quite subtle. the strings never really stand out, they simply support; partly because there are early 60 singers and just 14 strings. The distinguished baritone Sanford Sylvan sings the solo role, quite a substantial part which again invokes chant. In style, particularly in the string writing, Van Ness's work is similar to that of the Baltic sacred minimalists, but her music does inhabit its own world.

I found the Requiem immensely involving and not a little moving.  Van Ness works with relatively straightforward structures, but the end product is powerfully luminous.

The Voice of the Tenth Muse is an unaccompanied work, setting texts by Sappho. Van Ness used six of Sappho's poetic fragments:

  • I pray
  • Come to me from Krete
  • Now she stands among the Lydian women
  • To me it seems that man has the fortune of the Gods
  • Some say an army of horsemen
  • On the throne of many hues, immortal Aphrodite

She uses a mixture of English (translations by Diana Rayor) and the original ancient Greek, leaving the gaps in the text as they are. In this work the poet is very much the lovely soprano soloists, Ruth Cunningham.

The music is heavily melismaitc and profoundly evocative. The CD blurb describes Van Ness as a modern day Hildegard von Bingen, and indeed there is a strong feeling of Gothic Voices' A Feather on the Breath of God to these pieces; Hildegard for the modern age.

An important element in Van Ness's work is monody, whether unaccompanied or over a drone. In a way this makes her music very suitable for a talented amateur choir like Coro Allegro. The unison chorus effects give the music an open throated vibrancy and strenuouss which Coro Allegro brings alive. The Requiem in particular has moments of immense striving, as if the performers were struggling with the immensity of their grief.

The choir's performance is impressive and under conductor David Hodgkins, captures the spirit of the music in its intensity. They and their conductor have achieved a great deal in these performances. But it is clear that Van Ness's music stretches them, and there are one or two moments where they do not always cope well. But there are also many moments when you can simply forget who is performing and listen just to the music.

The disc comes with a booklet containing texts and translations. But if you put the disc into your computer you can access extended programme notes, an interview with the composer and scores for the pieces.

Patricia Van Ness (born 1951) - Requiem (2004) [35.42]
Patricia Van Ness (born 1951) - The Voice of the Tenth Muse (1998) [25.29]
Coro Allelgro
Sanford Sylvan (baritone)
Ruth Cunningham (soprano)
David Hodgkins (conductor)

Requiem recorded live on October 31 2004 at Church of the Covenant, Boston MA
Voice of the Tenth Muse recorded live on February 11 2001 at Church of the Covenant, Boston MA


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