Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It’s a little ironic that composers can spend their lives creating great works of art and then they die and begin to decompose.

It used to be that all I knew about Bach was that he composed music for the pipe organ. I thought he was okay but it wasn’t something I was really interested in. That was before I heard Bach choruses sung by boy choirs. Boy, did I change my mind fast. I had no idea how grand and beautiful his music could be.

There is a CD titled Johann Sebastian Bach - Famous Choruses and it features several of the great boy’s choirs: Kings College, Knabenchor Hannover, Tolzer Knabenchor and Wiener Sangerknaben.
It also has the voices of the men’s choir Chorus Viennensis and the mixed adult choir Collegium Vocale (Ghent) but don’t let that stop you from buying the CD. The adults sing in combination with the boy’s choirs and, in my opinion, are improved by doing so.

I just love the first song Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) which is a very rousing number by the Tolzer Knabenchor.
Another stirring song is Der Himmel Lacht, Die Erde Jubilieret (The Heavens Laugh, The Earth Rejoices) which is sung by both the Tolzer and the King’s College boys. It’s a good pairing.

Every song on here is beautiful and to have such a great collection of boys makes it a perfect album. I like it a lot.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Angelic Voices

If I had studied music instead of art I would have a better musical vocabulary and I could express myself in ways that are more accurately descriptive than to just say that something is ‘beautiful’. That usually doesn’t fully explain the feeling I get from a piece of music.

But there is a line that I walk between using the same adjectives so often that they become boring and using adjectives that sound too pretentious, or at least pretentious for me. I pulled up the old thesaurus the other day and started looking for new superlatives to spice up my writing.

I like words like rich, classy, quiet, fresh, crisp, hearty, and so fourth, but maybe I should try words like scintillating, arresting, resplendent, dazzling or sparkling.

With that in mind I’ll try and describe a CD by that vivacious group of boys, The Vienna Boy’s Choir. This CD is appropriately, if unimaginatively, titled Angelic Voices, the Best of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. What I like best about this CD is the mixture of classical, folk and pop songs. It starts off with that euphonic Bach number 'Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude'. The violins are dynamic and the voices are alluring.
WSK, as always, gives us a very mellifluous version of Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ and they are renown for Handel’s ‘Hallelujah‘.
The soloist on Mendelssohn’s ‘O, For the Wings of a Dove‘, sings the German version and his young, piping voice is ambrosial. It’s the only German version I have heard.
There are well known songs by Handel, Strauss and Mozart, all performed with an effervescent ease. ‘Zadok’ the Priest is especially sonorous.

They follow the classical with songs like ‘Scarborough Fair‘, ‘Shenandoah‘, ‘La Guantanamera’ and ‘Loch Lomand‘, all of which are (get ready) pulchritudinous.

All joking aside, I really do listen to this one a lot. 'Loch Lomond' is one of my favs.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Once Were Angels

I had seen a CD offered on Amazon for a long time and finally got around to ordering it. This turned out to be a good idea because it not only has some great singing but the liner notes have a lot of interesting history about boy choirs.

Back in the 1950’s Harry Mudd built a steel-tape recorder from parts which he had to order. It took three years to get them. With his friend Philip York he began recording boy choir performances. They started with New College but then lots of other choirs wanted to be recorded.
They eventually created the Alpha label and began to make albums. The first was Christmas Carols From New College, Oxford.
Records didn’t sell very well but, and I’ll quote a passage from the text, “The later ‘Alpha Sound’..., which Harry helped create and publicise, is historically tremendously important - it being so different from the cultivated full head tone so popular until the 1950’s. This sound, recorded first of all in Oxford by Harry has today become ‘the’ accepted English chorister tone…”
I don't know exactly what that means but I'll go along with it.

Before WWII boy singers were referred to as boy sopranos by the record companies but Harry Mudd helped change that to Treble Soloist, which is still the more accepted term.
There was a change in English Cathedral music. The ‘English Sound’ was being replaced by the ‘Ely Sound’ which was influenced by the music of Benjamin Britten. The choirs of Oxford and Cambridge were leaders of the new sound.

This CD features recordings that were made before digital recording technology but the music and voices are perfectly clear and beautiful. Here are 24 tracks sung by 13 boys such as Andrew Wicks, Paul Dutton, Michael Ginn, Dara Carroll, Thomas Hunt, Peter Davey and lots more.

They are singing a variety of works like I Will Give My Love An Apple, Mozart’s Alleluya, Pie Jesu, and the Skye Boat song so there is something for everybody. The liner notes tell a bit of history about all of the singers but I won’t go into them here.

I’m very grateful that someone was around to make quality recordings of these boys so that their voices were not lost to us completely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Here is something fun to do if you have a little imagination. Pick out some appropriate music, put on your earphones and go about your daily routine but pretend that you are in a movie and the music is the soundtrack. Maybe it’s a comedy that day or a drama; let the music set the mood.
They say that the best movie soundtracks are the ones you are not aware of, the music that leads our feelings without taking our attention from the picture.
Perhaps you will be the star of your movie or maybe just an extra or a star making a cameo appearance. Even an ordinary day becomes more fun when you‘re making your own story.
Just don’t break into a song and tap dance in the middle of the mall. Most people won’t understand.

Solvguttene - The Boys of Silver

I got two CD’s from Harry Turne’s Festival web site that I like but they were a bit of a mystery since all of the liner notes are in Norwegian. Solvguttene is from Oslo and I had to go to their web site to find out something about them.
Founded in 1940, they are a big choir, comprised of 65 boys aged 8 to 15, and 25 adult male singers, all of whom have previously been boy singers. Additionally, 25 boys aged 7-9 are training to be qualified for the concert choir.The choir will normally comprise around 60 singers on international tours and has a varied repertoire, although the focus has been and is on classical church choral music.
They have toured a lot and are extremely popular in Norway.

One of the CD’s is Solvguttene Guttekoret, a Celebration Concert in the Boda Kyrka, Sweden. It has good versions of a lot of the standard songs like Panis Angelicus, Pie Jesu, Ave Verum and so forth. Even though most choirs do these same songs it’s the voices that make them different and enjoyable.

The other CD is Solvguttene, 50 Ar (Years). I like it a lot but all of the song listings are in a language that I can’t read. You can find them listed on the BCSD site if you want to know what they are. Maybe your Norwegian is better than mine.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

This weekend I drove down to Atlanta to see the Canterbury Cathedral Choir who are touring the states. They were at St. Philip’s cathedral, a huge and beautiful Episcopalian church in an upscale part of town.

The choir has already been to Chicago, Indianapolis and Sewanee, Tennessee and still have Charleston, Richmond, New York, D. C. and Whitemarsh, Pa. ahead of them. It looked like a comfortable bus but that is still a lot of miles to cover.
Before the show I watched for a few minutes as the boys played in the church playground. The were running, climbing and jumping all over the place and were so full of energy they didn’t look as if the tour was wearing on them. Near the end of the show, though, some of them were trying to hide their yawns.

It was a really nice show and I was happy to see how many people turned out for it. The auditorium held, I believe, 2,000 people and it was nearly full. As usual, I got there early for a seat near the front.
There were twelve men and eighteen boys, all dressed in royal purple cassocks, the boys with upright ruffled collars and the men with short ones.
They opened with Vigilate by William Byrd and went on to works by Parsons, Tallis, Scarlatti, Britten and a lot more. Sometimes they were backed up by St. Philip’s big pipe organ and other times it was just their wonderful voices. There was no need for microphones here, they filled the hall with their powerful notes.

What I like about being at a concert like that and sitting close is that it makes easier to follow the different voices as they weave in and out of each other, rising and falling, swelling and softening, complex but always harmonic. It’s fascinating.

All of the music was sacred music except for their last song, their second encore, when they made everyone smile with a sweet, funny version of I Got Rhythm.

While I was there I picked up their newest CD, Ceremony. It features soloist Joel Whitewood, the 2007 Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year. The boys sing Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and a lot of other nice standards.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Confessions of a Libera junkie

Hello, my name is Larry and I am a Libera addict. I’ve been clean now for almost 20 minutes. I really think I have it under control now… uh… oh no, here I go again…. Ahhhh Gaudate.

I love watching the Libera DVD of their Leiden concert, Angel Voices/Libera in Concert. When I’m bored or if I’m feeling tense or a little down this will always cheer me up.

I liked a term that someone used recently to describe a charismatic choir or chorister; it was chorisma. The chorisma of the Libera boys is magnified by seeing them on stage, especially with close up shots of their faces. Their expressions as they sing are sweet to watch but you can also see details like Tom Cully has freckles and Michael Vereycken has lipstick smeared on his chin. Little Ben Philipp is truly angelic, in fact, they are all just cheek pinching-ly cute.

The lighting is really nice and I like the camera angles and movements. The orchestra is excellent and Fiona lends a very sophisticated touch with her long, black gown contrasting nicely with the boys monk‘s robes.

One of the best parts is the interview footage that is interspersed with scenes of the boys practicing, on tour and playing at school. Tom Cully makes me laugh with the his magic trick and Josh’s smile is contagious.

I won’t say how many times I’ve watched this DVD but it’s a lot.

Monday, April 13, 2009

When a newcomer begins to explore choir music it’s important to remember that just because we don’t recognize the name of a composer or a composition it doesn’t mean that we won’t like it. Instead of keeping to only the more well known figures like Bach and Mozart I think it is more rewarding to branch out.

People who have grown up in the Catholic church were probably introduced to names like Palestrina, Poulenc and Parry at an early age but they were new names to me, and now I like them. Truthfully, I had never heard of Franck, Stanford or Elgar before I started getting into all of this, but now I enjoy their music all the time.

Frequently, if I’m not excited by a song or CD that I’m hearing for the first time, it will grow on me and often become a favorite if I just listen a few more times and let my taste grow and catch up.

Music makes learning fun (I wish I had known that when I was in school) and we can learn about more than music. By being curious about the composers and singers, and looking for information about them, we get exposed to history, geography, literature and more.
Plus, if you drop names like Franck, Stanford and Elgar at a dinner party everyone will think you are really smart.

I learned some new things from a new CD that I got from the Riga Dome Boy’s Choir (sometimes spelled Riga Dom) who are from Riga, Latvia, the home of the Riga Dome cathedral.
This CD is titled Marlindendur, which is the name of a poem by Icelandic poet Jóhann Hjálmarsson. It means a malevolent spirit or witch from Iceland.

The cover says that it “… describes an Icelander experiencing his present through senses suffused with the deep violent past of Iceland - especially the spiritual and social foundations described in the Saga of the People of Eyri.”
That sounds pretty high-brow but the music itself is easy to like.

The singing is amazingly good and so is the music by the Baltic Philharmonic Chamber orchestra. I don’t know when I’ve heard singing and music blend so well and at times it’s hard to tell what is voice and what is violin. The poem may be about folklore tales but the music is modern and really good.

One of the tales from the saga is told in English about Kjartan, a boy with extraordinary gifts of civilization:
I saw a seal poke his head up through the floor,
I saw a half moon fly from door to door,
I saw a boy in the blood pools by the trees,
A singing skull said that boy is me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Today I acquired a couple of CD’s that I have wanted for quite a while. These have been my own personal Holy Grail of recordings and they have been difficult to track down because they are no longer in production. I’m talking about the first two CD’s by Libera, which they recorded as the Saint Philip’s Boys Choir, New Day and Sing Forever.

I have never even seen a description of this pair, nor heard of anyone who owned them so I will describe them here.
The first CD, New Day, has 12 tracks and almost all of them are familiar. They are:
You Are the New Day
Orinoco Flow
Pie Jesu
San Damiano
Always There
One Voice
Adoramus Te
Bright Eyes
Song of Joy
Amazing Grace
One Day

Only the last song does not appear on one or more other albums.

The second is Sing Forever, recorded in 1988, and the tracks are:
Morning Has Broken
Sing the Story
Deep Peace
San Damiano
The Lord’s My Shepherd
All Through the Night
Sing Forever
I have a Dream
Pie Jesu
For the Beauty of the Earth
Panis Angelicus
Light the Candles
Be Still My Soul

I wonder sometimes why Robert Prizeman has a rather limited repertoire (it probably has something to do with paying royalties) but I’m not complaining. Even though most of these songs are repeated on the first two Angel Voices CD’s and elsewhere the arrangements are different and so are the voices.

The New Day cover shows 17 boys sitting on a rocky incline and looking skyward. They are wearing blue sweat pants, light blue hoodies and no shoes.
The soloists on this CD are Robert Chee-a-tow, Gareth Lowman and Jaymi Bandtock.

Sing Forever has 18 boys on the cover, the front row kneeling and the others standing behind them. They are wearing the fore-runners of Libera’s monk’s robes. These are of a thinner fabric with larger cowls and shorter hems. Again they are all barefoot so I’ll bet the robes were later elongated to cover the jazz shoes they wear now.
Soloists are Jaymi Bandtock, Jonathan Arthey, Ian Grimley, Sam Harper, Gareth Lowman and Matthew Arthey.

I'm very glad to have these. Now if I can only find an affordable copy of Requiem by the Boys Air Choir.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

There was a legendary choir that is no longer together called the Boys Air Choir and they had, among their many great recordings, one CD that is already becoming scarce.
Blue Bird is one of those albums that should be on every collector’s shelf. The title song and most of the others on this CD were written by Charles Villiers Stanford, the prolific Irish composer who wrote the well-known Magnificat in G, which is also performed wonderfully on this album.

The song Blue Bird is a poem by Mary Coleridge that was set to music by Stanford. It’s a pretty poem and the music makes it more special.

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

There are videos of this performance on Youtube.

Sleepsong was written by Michael Mcglynn of the group Anuna, who also (I believe) recorded Blue Bird. For some reason I get a kick out of hearing the old languages like Irish and Scotch Gaelic and this song has sections of Irish that sound mysterious and beautiful.

The cover of the CD is one of my all-time favorites showing a young boy wrapped in a mystical aura of light and holding a glowing white ball that floats above his hands.

All of the boys were principal soloists from Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s and Salisbury Cathedral. This is their second album. Connor Burrowes, the oldest of several talented brothers, is choir master on this one and two of his brothers, Patrick and Edward, sing. Andrew Johnson is very young on this CD, but I will say more about this group at a later time. They deserve a big post.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I am one of those unfortunate victims of the modern world who have to spend the workday confined to a cubicle. The walls are only five feet tall, and thin, so they can’t block the sound of the other drones around me. I can hear every whisper, every sniffle and cough, every conversation in the entire room.
The salvation of my sanity, though, is music. I have several gigabytes of boy choirs on my iPod so my earbuds become an invisible shield wall that I can hide behind.

One particular CD that distracts me very nicely is titled The Music of Westminster Cathedral Choir. This CD has some of the usual songs, such as Ave Verum Corpus, Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis and those are very nicely done, but two songs stand out uniquely.
The first is Benjamin Britten’s short Mass Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The other is Sanctus, Mass in G, by Poulenc. Both versions of Sanctus share the same words but I love the way the two sound so completely different, yet brilliant.
I could try to describe them but I can’t do better than their music director, James O’Donnell does in the liner notes. I don’t understand all of it but he says, “(Sanctus) is based on a sweepingly powerful twelve-note theme…, (Agnus Dei) is set in an uneasy 5/4 meter over a sinister ground bass on top of which the text is sung to a sinuous and lamenting chromatic motif.”
If you hear the song you will understand what he is saying, and the adjectives sinuous and lamenting are really appropriate.

As for the other Sanctus O’Donnell says, “If Britten’s Sanctus hints at the power and majesty of the heavenly throng, Poulenc’s angels seem to be dancing on tiptoes with barely-contained childlike joy. The final Hosanna then surprises with its suddenly unleashed power…”
It’s a really beautiful piece and, to my ear, it’s very complex but the choir handles it wonderfully well, as they do the entire CD.

This is my only Westminster album so far but not for long.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

There is a lot of excitement here this week. My company gave us a little bonus so now I’m expecting some new CD’s in the mail. Just doing my bit for the economy.

I noticed that northern Europe is underrepresented in my collection so I sent for a CD by the Moscow Boy’s Choir and two from a Norwegian choir called Solvguttene Guttekor.

I’ve been curious about the Latvian group the Riga Dome Boy’s choir so I ordered their album titled Marlidendur.

For a while I’ve seen one again and again on Amazon called Once Were Angels, The Tradition of Boy Trebles, a collection of British boy treble performances. I got curious so that one is coming too.

I am finally getting the Silk Road DVD from the Vienna Boy’s Choir web site. I could have had it before now except that their web site never got updated to let people know it was available. Their ‘film’ link still says it’s coming this fall and the ‘shop’ link still has it available for pre-order. I’ll bet they’re wondering why sales are slow.

One CD arrived yesterday, The Moscow Boy’s Choir. It’s really nice. One thing that makes their sound different from other choirs is the really strong piano that accompanies most of the songs. At times it becomes really dramatic, especially on the Rachmanifoff pieces.
Some of the songs are traditional Russian folk songs like Evening Bells which is really sweet because behind the soloist the others are singing ‘bong, bong, bong…’.
The album has some good Christmas carols and a lovely Ave Maria (the Bach one) but the song that moved me most is Faure’s In Paradisum. I teared up a little, something that happens now and then with certain songs or paintings.

Anyway, good CD. I expect the others will be as well.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

So I told my doctor that I was having trouble sleeping because of some weird dreams. Sometimes I dream I'm a yurt and sometimes I dream I'm a tepee.
He said, "You need to relax. You're two tents."

Now for some relaxing music.

You know, you don't have to actually go to heaven in order to hear what it’s going to sound like. It will sound just like the choir of New College, Oxford on their CD Agnus Dei: the Music of Inner Harmony.
The mood is set by the first song, Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, Op.11, an ethereal piece with lots of ooh-ing and aah-ing (which I really like). It's more relaxing than a massage and a bottle of wine.
The next two songs, Faure's Cantique De Jeane Racine and Missa Papae Marcelli-Kyrie by Palestrina are just as soothing.

I probably listened to this CD three or four time before I realized that a lot of these songs are sung without music. It's very slickly done with lots of layers of beautiful voices.

This CD features a great version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria, Op. 37 No. 6. and there is a nice version of Taverner’s The Lamb, but I have to say that I like the version that Ben Philipp sings on Libera’s New Dawn album better. His has that special Libera treatment.

Maybe my favorite song is the final one, an especially slow tempo version of Miserere Mei, Deus. This one lasts for almost fifteen minutes and the young soloist has a very tender and appealing voice. I have quite a few versions of this song and they are all good but this one is special.
This is a great CD.