Friday, July 31, 2009

I thought it was time to pay another visit to Downside Abbey and say ‘sup to the monks and choirboys. They have a CD from 2004 titled The Best Gregorian Chant Album In The World…Ever! I couldn’t let that claim pass without testing its veracity. Not that I’ve heard every Gregorian chant album in the world, but hey, how many can there be?

This is a two CD set but only the first disc is by Downside Abbey. The other disc is the St Dominic’s Priory Choir. Actually, track 4 on the first disc, Nos Autem, is by the Coro de Monjes Monasterio Benedictino de Santo Domingo de Silos. Never heard of them but their name is longer than their song.

For my taste this album could have had a lot more choirboys and fewer monks.
11 of the 17 songs from Downside Abbey are repeated from their other earlier CD Gregorian Moods so there are only 6 new ones.

The second disc by St Dominic’s has no boys at all that I can tell. It’s just all monks. The liner notes on this CD are of little help. It only lists the songs on each disc and doesn’t tell us anything about the choirs.

Anyone looking for treble voices would be better off with the first album from Downside Abbey, Gregorian Moods. Is this the Best Gregorian Chant Album In The World… Ever? I certainly hope not.

Personally I think the Enigma album MCMXC a.d. from back in 1992 is a lot more fun. It has some modernized Gregorian style chants and though it too has no boys’ voices I still listen to it often.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Things to watch out for:

Sometimes when purchasing music from the internet I don’t read the information closely enough and I sometimes end up regretting it.
The Choirboys (the first incarnation with CJ, Patrick and Ben) had two CD’s and I ordered both only to find out that they were really the same except for a song or two. One has Miserere and the other has Walking In the Air. They even have the exact same liner notes and pictures, just different covers.
Maybe one was the English release and the other was the U.S. release. I should have looked closer at the track listings.
Of course, I'm happy to have both in my collection but I was still surprised.

Most recently I received a CD that I had really been looking forward to, The Westminster Choir sings familiar American and British folk songs.
How was I to know that there is a Westminster Choir in New Jersey and that it isn’t a boy choir? I thought this was from Westminster Cathedral and that would have been a charming album but this adult mixed choir is not at all what I wanted.
Unfortunately I had unwrapped it before realizing my blunder. There was small print on the back that would have told me who it was if I had read it first. Once a CD is unwrapped Amazon won't take it back. That’s 16 bucks that could have been spent on Tolzer Knabenchor or something.

On one CD I luckily investigated before I bought it. It was a CD from the Athens Boy’s Choir, which sounded like it could be good until I looked further. Then I saw that it was something totally different from what I expected. Turns out they are a "transgender spoken word duo based in Athens, Georgia". Oops.

So, my point is to always read the descriptions and labels carefully and don’t unwrap a CD until you’ve looked it over.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Are you familiar with the principle of sympathetic harmonics? It's when a vibrating object like a tuning fork or a string can cause a like object that is tuned similarly to vibrate as well, without touching it. Strike a tuning fork and hold it near another with the same pitch and the passive one will begin to hum.
If I understand it correctly, some musical instruments, like harps, have a set of special strings that will resonate harmonically with others.
Sometimes I feel like I have a metaphysical tuning fork inside me and when I hear certain music I can feel it responding.

I really responded to a new CD I have from the American Boychoir (new to me, at least) titled Litton Live, The Farewell Concert. It was recorded in 2001 at Princeton University and it’s pretty wonderful.

One of our most prominent choral conductors, James Litton was music director at the American Boychoir school for sixteen years. He had a professorship at Westminster Choir College and Princeton Theological Seminary and was also the organist and music director at St Bartholomew’s Church in New York City for thirteen years.

This was a big show with 106 alumni members returning to sing along with the 79 members of the class of 2001. More alums wanted to be part of the tribute but there wasn’t room for them all.
I’ve never said this before but I wept at times listening to this CD. I don’t mean misty or moist, I had water running down my face. Thank goodness I was home alone because it was embarrassing.

Many of the men are now professional singers and when all of them come together they have a rich powerful sound. When the boys voices join in they bring it to a majestic level. The harmonies are amazingly smooth and sometimes multiple voices will be so synchronized that they sound like one voice.

They open with a stunning performance of Introit-Requiem aeternam, Kyrie eleison from Requiem by Marurice Durufle. Other songs include Prayer of the Children by Kurt Bestor, Greig’s Brothers Sing On, and some African American Spirituals. Bruckner’s Locus Iste was especially sweet. In all, there are 73 minutes of music and I found myself paying attention through the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Just a few more Lyrics that I happen to like…

Kyrie, Eleison (Lord have mercy)
Who would have thought that a word like Kyrie could be repeated, expanded and embellished in so many ways. It took a while for me to figure out that the only words to Kyrie were Kyrie and sometimes Eleison. At least, I think that’s right. I’m sure that someone who has spent more time in mass would know.
Surely the record for getting the most out of a word has to go to Libera. They managed to put 18 syllables into the word Sanctus.

A really pretty song that I see a lot is Morning Is Broken whose words come from the English poet and children's author Eleanor Farjeon.
She had been asked to make a poem to fit the lovely gaelic tune Bunessan. Everyone knows this song. It begins:
Morning has broken, like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for the springing fresh from the word.

Beautiful imagery. A lot of people thing that Cat Stevens wrote that but he only made it popular.

I have two versions of a song titled Bailero. One is by Anthony Way but the better version is by the Saint Philips Boys Choir. It’s a beautiful and haunting melody from the Auvergne region of France. A lot of opera sopranos have this in their repertoire. I really like it, but I looked up the lyrics and basically it says:

Shepherd, across the water, you are scarcely having a good time.
Scarcely, and you?
Shepherd, how do I get over there, there’s a big stream.
Wait, I’ll come and get you

That’s not nearly as romantic sounding as the music suggests.

There is another strangely popular tune of which I have several versions. Sure on This Shining Night was a poem written by James Agee, a local celeb, here where I live, and was set to music by Samuel Barber.

Sure on this shining night
Of star-made shadows round
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground

The late year lies down the north,
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandr’ing far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

I’m not sure I understand what all of it means but it sounds great, especially when James Rainbird sings it.

One more thing and I’ll shut up about lyrics. Just this… Venite Spiritu Et Emitte Caelitus.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Songs lyrics

I remember a book from several years ago that listed some of the many song lyrics that have been misunderstood by listeners, usually with humorous results.
The title of the book referred to an old Credence Clearwater Revival song that said, “There’s a bad moon on the rise”, but a lot of people heard it as “there’s a bathroom on the right”. I was one of those, but only at first.

Thank goodness for the internet because now we can look up those words that are sung indistinctly or in a foreign language and not embarrass ourselves, well, myself anyway. I love to know the lyrics to songs because they are often charming, moving or just beautifully written.

An example of a funny song is Sur Le Pont D’Avignon, sung by WSK. It says:
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L'on y danse, l'on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L'on y danse tout en rond
Les beaux messieurs font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.
Les belles dames font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.

That sounds great but what they are really saying is:
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring.
The handsome gentlemen do like this
And then like that.
The beautiful ladies do like this
And then like that.

And it goes on.

A sad one is Dennis Placzkowski singing Minuit Chretien.
The tune is O’ Holy Night and the words are of a little boy talking to God. His mother died and he wonders if she still loves him and asks if God will send her back.
He says, “Tell her, please, that at school I learn my lessons, I wash my hands and do the things she wanted…”
Dennis sings it with a convincing feeling that always makes me a little misty. Oddly, I can't find these lyrics on the internet. That title shows a different set of words.

A lot of songs use poems and set them to music, like Jerusalem which Ben Phillip sings on Libera’s New Dawn CD. It was written by William Blake during the days of the industrial revolution.

And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green,
And was the holy lamb of God on England’s pleasant pasture seen?
And did the countenance divine look down upon our clouded hills,
And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?

Libera kindly provides their lyrics on their web site.

Another good thing about knowing the lyrics is that, while I can’t sing, I can still lip-sync.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A few years ago, when I moved into this house, I realized that there was no aerial television reception here at the foot of this hill and surrounded by trees. There was no using a satellite dish and I’m too far from the main roads to get cable so I decided to forego television and see if I could live without it. It was easier than I thought it would be.

I watch DVD’s instead when I need something visual and not just movies. I like to watch performance DVD’s of boy choirs and I have several. Probably my favorite one is Ave Verum by the Choir of Saint John’s College Cambridge.
There are no special effects, no fancy camera work besides panning and zooming; it’s just the choir standing in the chapel, singing, but it’s fun to watch. Many of the boys, especially the younger ones, have such earnest expressions and it’s easy to see that they are taking their music seriously.
It’s also a bit funny to see them trying hard not to look at the camera, even when it comes very close to them.

They do three Ave Verums, one by Mozart, one by Byrd and one by Elgar. I don’t know which one I like best.
Some of the other songs are How Lovely are Thy Dwellings, Locus Iste, O! For a Closer Walk With God, Pie Jesu Domini and one that I like a lot, Cantique De Jean Racine.
One of the older choristers leads in Panis Angelicus and he has a wonderful, strong tenor voice. They are joined by an cello and harp on that number.

I think my favorite song is Haydn’s Insanae Et Vanae Curae. Listening to a CD I can hear how all the vocal parts come together but watching it I can see how it’s done. On this song they repeat the phrase "saepe furore" five times with a different combination of voices each time. The fifth time they go really high and loud. It’s really sort of thrilling.
There is a clip of that song and some of the others on Youtube so here's a link for anyone who wants to see it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Boni Pueri, Czech it out.

There is a very famous choir called Boni Pueri, from the Czech Republic.
The CD that I have is also titled Boni Pueri and the cover shows sixteen boys in gold and white, full length robes standing around a piano with their pianist and their organist.

The album is divided into three main parts, first some traditional religious songs like Halleulujah (Handel), a haunting Pueri Hebraeorum, and Kyrie and Gloria. They do a nice version of Panis Angelicus with the organ throbbing out those deep, deep notes that I like.

Then there is a song that I have only heard Libera do, Going Home, by Dvorak with words by William Arms Fischer. That’s followed by a couple of folk songs and the chorus from the opera The Bartered Bride by Smetana.

In the third part they lighten things up with a jaunty rendition of Waltzing Matilda, from Australia; Sakura, from Japan and Siyahamba, that beautiful Zulu spiritual that has the line, “We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God“.

The best part is when they do a Broadway medley of Hello, Dolly, Over the Rainbow, I Got Rhythm, Somewhere, and a really cute version of Chattanooga Choo-choo. That one made me smile but perhaps the most charming bit is when these little Eastern European boys sing America, from West Side Story, in English with Puerto Rican accents.

Boni Pueri was founded in 1982 and has become one of Europe's most notable musical bodies. The choir is a part of the newly opened Boni Pueri choir school under the patronage of the Czech Ministry of Education. It has 350 members and has given more than 2500 concerts all over Europe, America and Asia.Also, Boni Pueri is a cultural ambassador of the "European Federation of Choirs of the Union".

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

There is a song on The Choirboys CD called Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) and it was written by Howard Goodall as the theme to the BBC series Mr. Bean. I believe it’s the Christ Church boys who sing it on the show. It’s really a beautiful piece of music, very classical sounding.
Goodall has written theme music for other shows like The Vicar of Dibley and Blackadder and has won awards for his work.

In 2006 he came out with a CD called Winter Lullabies which he recorded with The Boys of Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford. This CD has six songs that were composed by Goodall using words from the writings of Thomas Campion, Joseph Mohr, Theo Dorgan and two anonymous pieces. The lyrics of Lullaby of Winter were written by Goodall, himself, and it speaks of the Christian Nativity story.

Now Winter Nights Enlarge paints a cozy picture of winter nights with blazing chimneys, cups of wine and yellow waxen lights while Crossing the Border is bleak and sad. “Home is where they broke our hearts and burned our houses, laid us low…”

These compositions were written with the great voices of the Christ Church boys specifically in mind. They also included some standards like Panis Angelicus and Ave Verum.

One interesting thing about all of these songs is that the music is provided by the great harpist Catrin Finch, called the queen of harps. She is young and beautiful and plays magnificently. Sometimes it sounds like two people are playing or one person with an unusual number of fingers.

Even though this CD has winter as a theme there is nothing particularly Christmasy about it except for the last song, O Holy Night. This is good, easy listening for any time of the year.
Oh, and I really like the artwork on the cover.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In the northeast corner of Spain is the region known as Catalonia (Catalunya), the home of the Basilica of Montserrat and L’Escolania de Montserrat, a really great boys choir. I just got a CD titled O Vos Omnes and it’s beautiful.

With the exception of Cantique de Jean Racine the songs on this CD are new to me and I like that. There is the title song O Vos Omnes and others like Ubi Cantas, Rosa Vera, Nigra Sum, Virolai and more.
Accompanied by an organ and backed up sometimes by the men’s choir the boys sometimes sound majestic and powerful and at other times hauntingly sweet.

I usually rely on liner notes to tell me something about the CD and the choir, and often those are in a foreign language, but this one is just blank on the inside so I had to go to the internet to find out something about them...

“At present the l’Escolania choir school is formed by more than fifty boys, from nine to fourteen years old, who come from all over Catalonia and also from the other Catalan Countries. During the four years they stay at Montserrat they study the last stage of Primary school and the first stage of Secondary School, along with their corresponding musical studies. Each student studies two instruments, piano and a second instrument of their choice, as well as Musical Theory, Ensemble and, of course Choral singing, which is the speciality of l’Escolania.”

“When the repertory requires it they are accompanied by the Montserrat Chapel Choir, formed by old choirboys and by the monks of the Ministry Chapel Choir."

“L’Escolania sings every day in the Basilica of Montserrat often to a great affluence of pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. With their song, the choirboys transmit the beautiful message of the gospels which transcends linguistic, cultural and even religious frontiers. The midday Salve has become, over the past decades, the most visited daily act of the Sanctuary.”

They have toured locally and internationally and have a lot of recordings.

“Located within the Abbey of Montserrat… the origin of the Escolanía could be traced back to the monastic schools of the Middle Ages. The monks who founded the monastery (1025) hailed from the abbey of Ripoll, where there was a flourishing monastic school. The "Escolania" soon developed its own characteristic by enhancing religious services with its fine singing as early as the XIV century.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I would like to say Happy Birthday to everybody’s favorite choir boy, Tom Cully, who turns 15 on July 2nd.

Phoenix boys choir

Just in time for the 4th of July we have a CD by the Phoenix Boys Choir titled Let Freedom Sing. It’s a good way to pay tribute to America’s independence day, the anniversary of when our ancestors won their freedom by licking the Brits… oh, no hard feelings from our English cousins, I hope.

This is the first CD that I have from this choir and it’s pretty good. It was recorded in 2002 and has a cute cover with the boys dressed as the 1776 signers of the Declaration of Independence in powdered wigs and tricorn hats.

This album has several patriotic songs such as America the Beautiful, God Bless America, The Star Spangled Banner and the one they always sing when they board a plane to go on tour, This Is My Country.
The last song is George M. Cohan’s Patriotic Fantasy, a medley of American songs.

Most of the other songs are from America’s past, like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Working On the Railroad and When the Saints Go Marching In.
There are also some international standards like Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Hymn to Freedom and How Can I Keep From Singing. Actually, some of the songs are sung by and with the men’s choir who are very good.

In 2001 the Phoenix Boys Choir won a Grammy award for Best Choral Performance for their recording of Penderecki’s Credo. I think I'll give that one a try. They began singing in 1948 and have become quite popular, even touring around the globe.

I like this CD but I don’t expect I’ll listen to the patriotic songs all that often. I mean, it’s not something to listen to every day, but it’s good to have them at this time of year to get in the proper mood. On the 4th we will raise the flag, shoot some fireworks and play this CD.