'Evensong' Brings the Club to the Cathedral

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The criticism that this or that classical musician "wishes he/she were a rock star" tends to come pretty cheap, but especially so in the case of composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. He plays stylishly, he knows how to give a credible performance with electronic amplification, and has a fondness for fauxhawks has always made him look less like, say, tinntinnabulist composer Arvo Pärt than Tintin the boy reporter.

"Evensong," the first CD dedicated entirely to his compositions, demonstrates that – if anything – his music has a much more meaningful relationship to rock, that Burhans has learned one of the difficult important lessons that artists from pop traditions have to offer the stars of other genres: how to make it look easy.

On piece after piece, his compositions excel in those details which would seem to be impossible to achieve as the result of labor or study. The instrumental compositions here emphasize melody, color, atmosphere and affect above all else, and bear more than a slight family resemblance to his and guitarist Grey McMurray's brooding, ambient, almost Trent Reznor–like pieces for their two-man project itsnotyouitsme.

But they achieve these seemingly "superficial" effects with a precision and consistency that could only be the result of meticulous craft. Burhans pulls them off without breaking a sweat—as do, needless to say, his virtuosic friends in Alarm Will Sound, who perform on this disc.

The real surprise here is that Burhans is at his best when he turns that craft towards the oldest and stodgiest genres of classical composition. The psalm set by his powerful motet Super Flumina Babylonis ("By the waters of Babylon") has been the basis of musical cris de coeur for centuries, and the English liturgical tradition is built on the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, Burhans's settings of which are the very soul of subtlety and elegance. A busy choral singer himself, he is just as much at home—if not more so—in the cathedral as in the club.

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