Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaudeamus Sings the Memorable Music of Nicholas White

Regular readers of this blog know that after I’ve sung in a choral concert, it generally takes a few days for me to calm down enough to write coherently about the music and the performance. Sometimes I’m emotionally overwhelmed, sometimes I’m musically overwhelmed, and sometimes I just need to process all the information that has accumulated in my head, sorting through the “tunes-be-gone” that are still echoing in my mind, and considering what words I can use to describe an essentially ephemeral experience.

On Saturday May 17, I performed in a concert with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus, the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise. This program, “In Sure and Certain Hope,” featured beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White calls “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” (You can read my two “preview” posts HERE and HERE.)

The program was indeed, dazzling, with beautiful choral music by William Byrd, Gerald Finzi, H. Balfour Gardiner, and the Artistic Director of Joyful Noise, Nicholas White, including the Connecticut premiere of Nick’s seven movement work In Sure and Certain Hope and his Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus sang well, considering how rough a few of the week’s rehearsals had been; some portions of the concert were truly stunning, especially when we were able to get off book and respond to Nick’s leadership from the podium. (It seems that a fair number of singers spent some quality time with their scores between Friday night and Saturday afternoon.) The audience responded with a warm ovation, rising to their feet and applauding through several curtain calls. It was my good fortune to stand right next to soprano Jordan Rose Lee, whose warm and silvery voice and nice technique always help me to sing better.

Three days after the concert, I find that the melodies and textures that persist in my aural memory are almost entirely from Nick’s music. William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris, Domine is flowing and mellifluous, and I love singing music of that style, but with the exception of the plaintive “Jerusalem” fragment, it just doesn’t stick with me, having been drawn mostly from the familiar and formulaic melodic style of the English Tudor period. The Balfour Gardiner Te Deum is thrilling, of course, and Finzi’s Lo! The Full Final Sacrifice is a remarkable setting of that astonishing poem by 17th-century mystical poet Richard Crashaw. (That poem, and Finzi’s setting, deserve their own essay here.) But when I spontaneously begin to hum or sing my memories of the concert, it’s Nick’s music that comes to my ear.

What is it about Nicholas White’s music that’s so memorable? It’s simple: the music is replete with beautiful melodies, clear structures, warm harmonies, a hint of contemporary popular style without schlock, and intuitive writing for voice and organ (this comes naturally to Nick, who is also a gifted singer and organist). The music surprises us, too, with unexpected rhythmic shifts, innovative harmonies that tug at us but never in a painful or ugly way, and arching melodies that seem to last forever.

The women of Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus opened the program with Nick's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. Writing in an earlier post, I said, “The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is richly melodic, with lush harmonies that ring out sweetly but never cloyingly. There's some magical writing for the two voices in this lilting music; the two parts often sing in unison, then blossom forth with the most ravishing divisi. The Washington Times called it ‘a joyously contemporary reflection.’ I call it luscious.”

Those blossoming harmonies exalt important textual passages, such as “my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” “shall call me blessed,” “holy is His Name,” and others. Within a firm diatonic framework, Nick calls forth some ethereal harmonies, and uses familiar progressions in innovative ways. For example, in setting the passage “and the rich he hath sent empty away,” the harmony moves comfortably from F minor to D-flat major, yet never has D-flat major sounded so bleak and hopeless. What makes it so? Is it the spare scoring here, or the suspension of the C in the voices as F minor melts into D-flat major, creating a distant tension between that note and the deep D-flat in the organ pedal? Each time we sang that passage I felt moved, sad, nostalgic. My favorite moment in the work comes a bit earlier, where to set the phrase “He…hath exalted the humble and meek,” Nick employs a rising whole-tone scale that seems to stretch far, far beyond its nine-note compass. This is exalted, uplifted, ethereal! The music seems to rise endlessly, and time seems suspended in the whole-tone cluster in the organ over which the voices float.

In the hands of a lesser composer, that passage with the rising scale might sound contrived. But one of the attractive qualities of Nick’s music is that he writes skillfully and confidently without sounding gimmicky, and he brings a fresh polish to the music so that it gleams without ever sounding slick. You can listen to the first movement of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis here:


This performance is by the vocal ensemble that Nick founded, the Tiffany Consort. More about that ensemble may be found at http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/

In a future essay (perhaps tomorrow!) I’ll offer my impressions of Nick’s moving seven-movement requiem, In Sure and Certain Hope.

Nick’s own program note for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis may be read HERE. Recordings of this and others of Nick’s compositions, as well as more information about Nick and his adventures, may be obtained through his website, http://www.nicholaswhitemusic.com/

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