Sunday, June 28, 2009

When I first started to collect boy choir music I very quickly came across the American Boychoir and fell in love with their sound. It’s not surprising that even after hearing dozens of other choirs this is still one of my top three favorites. It’s useless to try and describe what they sound like, they just have to be heard because it’s a great sound, sophisticated and imaginative, that is easily recognizable.

One CD that touches me is the album Hymn.
This is from the liner notes, “Hymn singing has been a part of the human experience for many centuries. We might remember our first experiences of singing together when we were children, singing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs in churches, synagogues and temples. “

This CD has hymns from the Middle Ages through the Reformation as well as more recent works. There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy is the best version I’ve ever heard and Fairest Lord Jesus is very moving and emotional.
Anyone with a Southern Baptist background, like myself, will have fond memories of Softly and Tenderly which starts out with a sweet treble soloist. That was a favorite at our church.
Their version of Amazing Grace features a classical guitar and the warm, clear voice of Steven Curtis Chapman.
A few of the other songs are Morning Has Broken, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Praise to the Lord and several others, all really great.

Music is provided by the wonderful St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, a prefect choice for this choir’s style. This is a CD that I keep listening to and I never seem to get tired of it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Die Wiltener Sangerknaben, Innsbruck, Tyrol

The Wilten Boys Choir is among the oldest and most traditional boys’ choirs. They’ve been around at the Wilten monastery since the mid-thirteenth century. The concert choir and junior choirs have more than 150 boys.
Their foundation is in liturgical choral singing but they also do sacred vocal music from motets to oratorios and secular choral music like Tyrolean folk music and operas.

The CD that I have is the Joseph Haydn oratorio Die Schopfung (the creation) and like so many CD’s from that area the liner notes are all in German so I have to try and decode a few things here and there.
From what I can tell, there are two boy soloists, Thomas Reitner and Philippe Spiegel. The music is provided by the Timisoara Philharmonic and it’s great.
This is a two disc CD, recorded live in 2003, and is divided into three parts. The first and second parts are conversations between the angels Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel. Raphael and Gabriel are sung by men but Uriel is a boy’s voice. The third act is conversation between Adam and Eve. I have no idea what anyone is saying but I suspect it has something to do with an apple.

The great thing about classical music is that, like opera, you don’t have to know what the words mean. They just sound great and maybe not knowing the meaning of the words makes it easier to hear each voice as another musical instrument.

The choir comes in several times in this oratorio but I wish they had a bigger part because they are really excellent and so are the two young soloists. These are some very accomplished boys.
I’m getting more and more into classical, as long as it’s sung by boys, anyway. This is one of Haydn’s great compositions and act two has that famous trio of Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, In Holder Anmut Stehn, Mit Jungem Grun.
At least I think that’s the title. It’s probably like opera arias where the song is known by its first words, but I could be wrong.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

If you can't say something nice about someone... then come sit beside me.

It happens fairly often that I will get a new CD only to find that I'm not very excited by it, but I always give it a fair trial and listen to it at least five times. Almost always I discover things that I didn't notice at first and soon I find that I do like it after all. Sometimes those iffy CD's have become some of my favorites, but that isn't always the case. There are some CD's that I put on the back shelf for one reason or another. You may like them, though.

A Quiet Conscience by Connor Burrowes is one of those. It's actually sort of interesting because it’s Renaissance music but somehow it never makes me tap my feet. These are sacred songs from the 17th century and they are not choral music. It's the voice of Connor Burrowes accompanied by lute and harpsichord and I'm afraid it's pretty dry.
I like Connor, I like all of the Burrowes boys; they have given us some great music and this may well be a great CD. Just because it makes me yawn doesn't mean that others won't like it. Looking at Amazon, though, I see that it is no longer available and has been discontinued by the manufacturer, so maybe I wasn't the only one.

Another CD that I didn't bother putting on my iPod is Kein Schoener Land by the Regensburger Domspatzen boys. Here is a great choir, it's just this CD that I don't like.
I thought it was going to be them singing German folk songs because the blurb said 'featuring Rebensburger Domspatzen, but they only sing back up and not even on all the songs. There is only one where they have a strong role and the others are sung by German men. That's no fun.

The one song that I did keep was Zu Regensburg Auf Der Kirchturmspitz. The lyrics are weirdly funny, that old world humor, and it talks about a group of tailors sitting down to feast on a roast flea. Tailors were supposedly so small and insignificant that their festival gatherings would take place on a spire.
What I like about the song is that it sounds very comical. The line “Schneider meck, meck, meck” is repeated a lot and it puts me in mind of a Looney Tunes cartoon of chickens scratching in the barnyard.

Unfortunately, one good song is no reason to buy the CD.

Everyone loves Declan Galbraith... except me. His first CD is gathering dust as we speak. What a cute kid and what a big voice but songs like Mama Said, Imagine, Tell Me Why and so on, are just the sort of pop music that I don’t care for.
I grew tired of these songs when I was a kid and some of them are older than me. Sometimes he has backup singers that sound like something from the seventies.

Declan has a fun story about his musical beginnings and I'm sure he's a great guy but looking at the numbers on his later albums I see more of the same so, unless someone recommends a particular album, I think I’ll pass.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Aled Jones

One boy whose talent has carried him beyond his treble years and into adult stardom is Aled Jones. He has an interesting story in that a woman, Hefina Orwig Evans, attended a service at the Bangor Cathedral where she heard Aled sing Hear My Prayer. She was so impressed that she wrote a letter to the Recording Studios of Sain advising them to listen to him. They did and liked it, so 12-year-old Aled started his recording career.

He actually started singing at the age of 9 with the Bangor Cathedral Choir in Wales where he became lead soloist within two years. By the time his voice changed at age 16 he had recorded sixteen albums that sold more than six million copies. His voice really was remarkable and it’s not just the sweet tones but the skill that he possessed at that early age.

The CD that I have is the Best Of Aled Jones and it has that perfect version of Hear My Prayer that got Ms. Evans so excited. It’s the best version I’ve heard so far.
There are some songs with titles that I assume are Welsh like Yr Ehedydd, Ddwyfor Iesu (Pie Jesu), and Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn. Oh, how I wish I could pronounce those names.

I like Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, Frank’s Panis Angelicus and especially Bach’s Ave Maria in which he belts out some super high, powerful notes. There is also Agnus Dei, How Beautiful Are The Feet, Where’er You Walk and several others, all great.

The CD cover calls him “one of the best treble singers the world has ever seen” and I can’t disagree. I doubt that there are many boy singer fans who don’t have some of his music.
Too bad he had to grow up, but I’m sure he’s a great guy. After all, he’s a big Libera fan.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I like compilation albums. Sometimes they’re like a Whitman’s Sampler with an assortment of good things. One that I like a lot is Miserere, A Collection of Choral Classics. Here we get to enjoy the Winchester Cathedral Choir, The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Seaford College Chapel Choir, The Huddersfield Choral Society and the Viols of the Consort of Musicke.

Not only that, we get some excellent renditions of standards like the title song, Miserere Mei. It’s a popular song so, like everyone, I have a lot of versions of it and this one is really good. The soloist, little Barnaby Lane, gets to show-off a bit with those high, long notes and the rest of the choir does some pretty complex sounding vocals.

Other popular songs by the Winchester boys are I Waited For The Lord, Salvator Mundi, and my favorite This Is The Record Of John with soloist Michael Liley. I tried to find some information about Michael Liley on the internet but came up blank. Sometimes he’s referred to as an alto and other times as a countertenor. I have no idea what the difference is, but I love his voice. It’s different.
The piece is divided into three sections, each beginning with a verse for the soloist followed by a full section, echoing words of the verse but in a beautiful and different way.

They also do, from Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus and For Unto Us A Child Is Born which I like better because I hear it a lot less frequently than Hallelujah, plus it has some really cool vocals.

The Christ Church Cathedral choir does Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart and that great Bach number, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

The Seaford College Chapel has three numbers. The Lord Is My Shepherd and Abide With Me are beautiful and, while Parry’s Jerusalem is good, I have to say that I like Libera’s version better than any other that I’ve heard.

The boy choristers of the Seaford College Chapel Choir, aged from 11 to 18, some of whom are choral scholars from Cathedral and Music Schools, make up the four-part choir. The choir has performed in numerous capital cities: London, Paris, Washington, Moscow and more.As of 2001, the choir is mixed - with both male and female members, but this recording is from 1989.

Christ Church has been around since 1526 when John Taverner became Organist and Master of the Choristers. The present choir consists of sixteen boy choristers and twelve men.

This may be one of those CD's that is becoming hard to find. It seems to be out of production, but get one if you can.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I’ve been practicing and trying to perfect a new skill or science. I call it retro-phrenology. It’s based on the old belief, Phrenology, that a person’s personality could be analyzed by studying the lumps and bumps on their head.
In retro-phrenology, however, I believe that I can affect and direct someone’s personality by making lumps on their head. I got the idea from my mother who used to do it to me all the time.

I deserve a lump on the head for not going to see the Atlanta Boy Choir perform when I lived in Atlanta. I lived there for several years and I can't believe that I didn't once go see them. A good friend had a son who sang in the choir and they invited me to go on more than one occasion, but I passed it up thinking I wouldn't like it. I can be such a doofus.

Now I've been listening to their CD Garden of Beauty and it really is very good. I think their sound is a bit like the American Boychoir's. It's smooth and quietly beautiful. It’s interesting that there are no soloists on this album, no voice or voices that rise above the others to lead. It also has a slow tempo so that it sounds serene and contemplative.

The songs are not from the ususal choir repertoire and some of them use text from various poets. Garden Of Beauty comes from poems by an interesting trio of Sara Teasdale, E-Yeh-Shure and William Blake. The words to O Music come from Kalil Gibran and Nigra Sum is from the Song of Solomon.
The oddest one is adapted from an 1120 bestiary by Philippe de Thaun and tells a weird story about the pelican. It begins: “Pelicanus is the word for a certain breed of bird who truly is a crane; Egypt is his domaine.” It says the Pelican kills its young and then, in remorse, pecks its own breast so that its blood will revive them. Hmmm, I never knew that.

This choir has been around for more than 50 years, which is a long time by American standards, and has toured quite a bit. They have performed at the White House and they even won a Grammy award back in 1989.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Odds and ends
A question occurred to me the other day and I still have not found a good answer. I was watching one of my choral dvd’s and started thinking about the boys’ costumes and whether there is a difference between those worn by Church of England choirs and those by Catholic church choirs. I went to Wikipedia and, while there was a lot of information about both types of churches, they didn’t say anything about the choirs. I looked at a list of Catholic churches in England to see which of the choirs whose recordings I have would be on it, but I didn’t see any of them. Winchester cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Ely, Tewkesbury, Saint Paul’s, Saint John’s college and the others, are they all Church of England?
That leaves me with my original question of what do Catholic boys’ choir robes look like?
I may be misunderstanding all of this because it’s never been a part of my world. I gather that C of E is sort of like Catholic lite, or reformed Catholic, but is that the wrong way of looking at it? Do the Catholic choirs record their music?
Inquiring minds want to know. These unanswered little questions bug me, especially if it means that I might, through my ignorance, write something that is somehow incorrect.

Looking through my old books for something to re-read I picked up one that I’ve read twice but it was several years ago. It was Cry To Heaven by Anne Rice. Written in 1982 this is not a vampire story, it’s not about anything supernatural, or as she likes to say, preternatural. It is a well researched and fascinating tale about Venice in the mid-1700’s, and a boy who has a great singing talent.
This book looks closely at a sad bit of history, the world of the castrati singers of that time, their social status, musical training and careers. It’s a pretty racy story so be forewarned, but Anne Rice is such a masterful writer that she makes that period come alive and you can almost hear and smell and taste Venice. She takes us to a music school in Naples and to the opera houses of Rome. She talks about the teaching methods used back then and shows us the excitement and passion that people felt for opera and the adoration they had for the great singers.
It also contains drama, sex, suspense and revenge, a nice combination in any story.

I started noticing that a lot of the cathedral choir CD’s that I have are from Hyperion records so I took a look at their web site. They have an amazing number of classical music albums to choose from and the cool thing is that if they don’t have one in stock or if it’s out of production they will print you a new copy of it from their archives. I don’t own stock or anything, I just thought that was a nice idea since no choir can keep all of their music in production forever.
Did you know…?
The compact disc is a miracle of modern technology. Here are some facts:
They are made principally of injection-molded polycarbonate.
The diameter is 120mm.
They are 1.2mm thick.
They contain up to 680 megabytes of data. This is the equivalent of 250,000 double-sided leaves (500,000 pages) of A4 text (which would be 83 feet high and need 8 trees to make).
The music on a CD is imprinted in the form of pits of varying length on a spiral track 3.52 miles (5.66 kilometers) long.
There are approximately 16,000,000,000 pits 0.11 micro-metres deep.
The largest pit dimension is 3.054 microns; the smallest is 0.833 microns.
The width of the pits is half a micron -- which is the distance a human hair grows in two minutes and a fingernail in seven minutes. It is 700 times smaller than a pinprick.
The space between tracks is 1.6 micro-meters.
Read by a red-light laser beam, the CD plays from the centre to the edge, rotating at a speed varying from 400 times a minute at the beginning to 250 times a minute at the end. This is equivalent to flying round the earth one inch above the surface, up to 400 times a minute, counting every blade of grass on the way.
Your CD is read by the laser beam and makes over 44,000 arithmetical calculations every second in at least two dimensions. It is adding up columns of numbers ('digits'). But many of the numbers are missing because there are thousands of errors on the average CD. Therefore the numbers are added up laterally as well as vertically, enabling the CD-player to fill in the missing numbers by cross-checking them. This is all quite normal and is called 'error correction'.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Oliver Lepage-Dean

There was an inexpensively priced CD on Amazon one day titled An Evening Hymn. It was from the Choir of Saint John’s College so I knew it would be good and at the price, I think it was only $7, I jumped on it.
This is the sort of quiet CD that should be listened to when you are settled in with a glass of wine and no distractions.

The subtitle of the CD is Music For Solo Treble and the soloist is Oliver Lepage-Dean, a brilliant singer. He sings with an organ for accompaniment, played by Christopher Whitton, on most of the songs, but there are some where he sings with a piano or a cello. A couple of songs have the choir backing him up.

Oliver sings songs by Purcell, Stanford, Mendelssohn, Ireland and Britten and several other composers. There are 25 numbers on this album, some sacred and some secular. I like the two funny folk songs, The Plough Boy and Oliver Cromwell with their strange lyrics.

On Pie Jesu he drops his voice to blend with the cello and it’s really nice the way he echoes the deep notes. A lot of the songs are familiar and all of them are good and just to mix it up a little more he finishes up with a great Gershwin number, Love Walked In.

The biographical information I’ve found for him comes mostly from the liner notes. I don’t know how old he was when he made this CD but it was recorded in 2002. There is a great photo of him that shows him to be a very happy boy if that smile is any indication.

He joined the choir at St. John’s at the age of eight and served as a chorister for six years, culminating in two years as Head Chorister. He performed with Jose Carreras at the Royal Albert Hall and he toured extensively with the choir, including Japan, South Africa, the United States, Holland and his native Belgium.
It’s sad to note that his voice broke midway through the American tour, just five weeks after completing this recording.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Several years ago there was a robbery at a shopping mall in Atlanta. Someone stole a pickup truck and, in the middle of the night, drove it through the glass doors of a department store then started loading it with anything they could grab. They got away long before the police answered the alarm but they were later caught.
All of the newspapers reported it the next day but the headline in one of the smaller papers read “A Mall and the Night Visitors”.

That’s my clever segue into this piece about James Rainbird and his role as Amahl in the Gian-Carlo Menotti opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. I know that June is a little early to be listening to Christmas music but I feel like talking about James Rainbird and he doesn’t have very many recordings to choose from.

Anyway, the story is about a poor, crippled shepherd boy and his mother who receive a visit from the Magi who were traveling to Bethlehem, following the star. They asked if they could rest there in their humble home. The Magi tell them about the baby that is newly born and explain that they are taking gifts to him. Amahl wants to send a gift too, but he owns nothing except his crutch so he decides to take that to the child. It shouldn’t be a surprise that having announced his intention he was miraculously healed and could walk again and everyone is happy.

This was obviously written for kids, but even so I’ll bet a lot of them wondered why Jesus needed a crutch. He hadn’t even started walking yet and if he happened, for some reason, to become lame he could surely heal himself in the blink of an eye. Also, the Magi are pretty silly, especially the one with the parrot.

Despite the simple story line the highlight of the show is young James Rainbird. His singing is clear and sharp and he says his lines distinctly, convincingly and with a natural ease. He’s obviously comfortable on the stage. There is a scene where he hobbles to the door and sees the three Kings standing outside. He gasps loudly, knowing that his mother is never going to believe him when he tells her who is outside. He does it in a way that makes me laugh. It’s really charming.
I suppose there are other people in the play but they are not important. James steals the show; even Menotti said that he was marvelous.

This version of the opera was recorded in 1988 and was directed by Menotti himself, who also was present for the recording of this CD. It features the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
I don’t know what it is but I love to listen to James Rainbird’s voice, singing or talking. He was the first boy soloist that I noticed and I still rank him at the top of my list of favorites. He had a wonderful range and could sing loudly or softly and always with that great boyish quality in his voice.

I shouldn’t do this but I'll end with a bad joke.

It seems a woman gave birth to twin boys but was so poor she had to give them up for adoption. Years later she regretted her decision and now, no longer poor, she hired a private detective to track them down so she could know that they were both doing well. The detective came back with news for her.
“One boy was adopted by a Spanish couple. They named him Juan and he seems to be very happy. Here is a photo of him.
The other boy was adopted by a couple from the middle-east. They named him Amahl and he too is in a loving home.”
She asked, “Don’t you have a picture of him?”
The detective said, “Why? They’re identical. If you’ve seen Juan you’ve seen Amahl”.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I hope Libera tours in the US again soon and that they come to the south, maybe to Atlanta or Nashville. I can imagine them singing in Nashville with cowboy hats and rhinestones on their robes. Wouldn't that be funny? I’ll be there wherever and when ever they come.

The most unusual of Libera’s albums is the one from way back in 1999 that is simply titled Libera. These twelve songs have lyrics that have been adapted by Robert Prizeman and, for some, Ian Tilley. Prizeman composed the music for almost all of them, too.

The music for Sanctus is adapted from Pachelbel’s Canon and Te Lucis from Tallis’ Canon. Dies Irae is based on “Dies Irae, Dies Illa”.
The words of Mysterium are from the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (An ancient chant set to a French medieval folk melody) and Beta Lux from “How Shall I Sing That Majesty”. Prizeman also took a lot of Latin words from well known church songs.

There are not the familiar popular songs like I Vow To Thee My Country or Abide With Me that we hear a lot on later Libera CD’s but all of the songs are very beautiful and have those wonderful Libera harmonies that have become such a trademark of theirs.
Anyone familiar with their later albums will recognize the songs Salve Me and Sanctus and Libera, but Mysterium, Agnus Dei, Jubilate, Beata Lux, and the most of rest are unique to this collection.
Te Lucis reappears on the 2008 New Dawn album as Tallis’s Canon.

Some Cully and Horncastle fans may disagree but I think the soloists during this period, Liam O’Kane, Adam Harris, Steven Geraghty and Alex Baron, were the most talented and had the loveliest voices, at least until Ben Crawley came along. When I listen to this CD I find myself paying attention to the way the voices interact and to the things being sung in the background. It sounds very complex and is what makes Prizeman’s music so recognizable.

Sometimes I forget how great this CD is until I hear it again and then I wonder why I don’t play it more often.