Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaudeamus Sings the Memorable Music of Nicholas White (Secunda Pars)

In an earlier essay (read it HERE), I offered my insider’s review of Nicholas White’s Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis for Treble Voices. I performed this lovely music with Gaudeamus and Chorus Angelicus (the adult and children’s choirs of Joyful Noise) on May 17, as part of a concert called “In Sure and Certain Hope.” This program featured beautiful music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries, offering what Joyful Noise Artistic Director Nicholas White called “a dazzling array of Anglican choral music at its finest.” The major work on the program was Nick’s seven-movement requiem, titled In Sure and Certain Hope. This performance was the Connecticut premiere of this music. (You can read Nick’s own program note for this music HERE.)

When I first received my score for this music and saw that the first several pages of the opening movement were set in 7/8 time, I hesitated. I wondered how music set in an angular, disjointed, uneven meter like 7/8 (one-two-three-four-ONE-two-three) could be a reasonable framework for the opening words of this movement, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”). Well, I never knew that 7/8 could be so serene. This is perhaps the most serenely comforting and effortless music I have heard, or sung, in a long time. Over a lilting yet understated figure in the organ, the sopranos enter dolce and in unison, singing a figure that is more like a rhythmic chant than a full melody. A solo cello adds an arching melody, then the full chorus enters with a harmonized version of the soprano chant. This is one of those melodies that seems familiar, though it is not; it unfolds with graceful inevitability, burning itself into one’s memory. It was too bad that our ensemble never quite mastered the 7/8 meter; it requires a simple, visceral, non-cerebral approach, and I think many of the singers just worried too much about it. I found it entirely natural and appropriate for the text. Brief solos, presented ably by Gaudeamus singers, alternated with short choral sections to close the movement. Bruce Fifer delivered the brief baritone solo “I am the resurrection and the life…” with rich-toned assurance, and tenor Michael O’Herron’s warm, bright tone was just right for his finely-paced solo (“For none of us liveth to himself). The movement ended as it began, with treble voices singing alone on these final words: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.” And on the last phrase (“rest from their labors”) the music slipped effortlessly into just a few bars of the opening melody, the lovely lilting 7/8 music with which we first heard “Requiem aeternam…” (“eternal rest”). Beautiful.
An extended cello solo introduces the second movement, “How Does the City Sit Solitary” (words from Lamentations). This is music of deep nostalgia and longing, grieving even as it recalls that “she…was great among the nations and princess among the provinces.” A long section of irregular meter (5/4) at “She weepeth sore in the night” creates a mood of longing and instability; nothing here is certain.

A very cool modulation leads us without pause to the third movement, a lovely, understated choral setting of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”). Brief phrases chanted by the full chorus in the metrical Scottish tradition alternate with moments of repose, in which ornate but ethereal figures in the cello and organ seem to rise to the very hills. This movement would stand well on its own.

The fourth movement, “God is our hope and strength” (words from Psalm 46) is the only one of the seven that is unaccompanied. A verse that appears twice in the Psalm – “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” – is presented three times in this movement, where it functions as a refrain. This refrain, with its simple harmony and even rhythms, offers moments of calm repose that contrast with the more chromatic and rhythmically complex music to which the other verses are set.

The setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) which forms the fifth movement could stand alone as an anthem or in an arrangement for a solo voice or duet with organ (hint, hint). Here, too, a mood of serenity and calm confidence, which is so right for these words, prevails. The entire movement is lovely, but there is an especially extraordinary passage, culminating in a moment of supreme beauty, which must be mentioned. Text-appropriate sections in G major, E major, D minor, and B-flat minor lead to a polytonal augmented F-flattish crunch at the word “enemies.” The tension melts as the low F-flat melts to E-flat, setting up A-flat major (in suspenseful second inversion) for the words “thou annointest my head with oil,” where a descending soprano line soars suddenly to a high G, floating poignantly over a luscious diminished chord, before resolving miraculously to G major for the return of the opening theme. Nick could have let this important soprano line fall to the lower G, but how amazing that the melody he wrote tells us what the words can only hint at: that this oil represents the Holy Spirit, or the goodness of Divine Love, through which we move away from our enemies (diminished harmonies!) to “goodness and mercy” (G major, home key). It really is remarkable.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is the source for “In the midst of life we are in death,” the sixth movement, scored for double choir and organ. (The Gaudeamus performance used a solo octet [including me] for Choir I and the full choir for Choir II.) This music is frankly sensual, sinuous and highly chromatic, bringing to our ear the many disturbing images and ideas presented in the text: death, sin, God’s displeasure, bitter pains, and eternal death.... As the prayer for mercy turns from fear to supplication, the music becomes more diatonic and takes on an expansive expressiveness. An undulating accompaniment in the organ enriches the long, somewhat static vocal lines. Out of this rich texture, a solo soprano voice (the warm and silvery voice of soprano Jordan Rose Lee) emerges to sing a final prayer: “Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants.” How to describe the beauty of what follows? If Love could sing, surely this would be its song. The breathtaking melody soars when we expect it to fall, taking “sighing” to the heavens, “where sorrow and pain are no more.” And with the closing words -- “neither sighing, but life everlasting” – suddenly we are once again hearing the chanted tune that opened the first movement, accompanied by the lilting 7/8 figures in the organ. This is the beginning of the seventh, final movement. All the voices join in unison for a powerful restatement of the music from the opening movement, followed by a lush four-part setting of the same music, closing with a quiet “Amen.”

This is a serenely restful and optimistic Requiem, with sensitive and careful settings of these marvelous words. Obtain a recording, attend a performance, or better yet, find a choir in which to sing it.

You can listen to the first movement of Nicholas White’s Requiem here:http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/recordings.htmlThis performance is by the vocal ensemble that Nick founded, the Tiffany Consort. More about that ensemble may be found at http://www.tiffanyconsort.com/

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