Daniel Stephen Johnson was born in the desert and learned to play the violin. After studying viola and English at the University of Southern California, he wrote fiction at Columbia University. Then he moved to Connecticut, where he worked at a record shop and wrote about music, literature and comedy for the New Haven Advocate and the Believer. Now he lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and works as a sheet music salesman in Queens. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @linernotesdanny.
New York Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25 Years with 25 Premieres
Q2 Music Album of the Week for October 4, 2013
Friday, October 04, 2013
25 years, 25 composers: founded in 1988, the New York Virtuoso Singers are celebrating a quarter century of music-making by commissioning and performing works by over two dozen of today's most celebrated composers. Under conductor Harold Rosenbaum, the Virtuoso Singers have always been friends of contemporary music, but with this latest project, they've created – all at once – a little repertoire of important contemporary choral works.
The proof is in the recording. "25 x 25," a new two-disc set compiling their anniversary commissions, is a dazzling little jewel-box of choral writing that demonstrates the ensemble's willingness to live up to their name. These composers have come up with 25 different approaches towards the process of writing for the human voice, and the results are 25 different examples of choral virtuosity.
In most cases, the music grows outward from the text, painting it through music like a Renaissance madrigal. David Del Tredici's dizzying Alphabet II, sets an 18th-century abecedarian poem with trademark whip-crack melismas, while Save Me, O God by Yehudi Wyner brings Psalm 69 an operatic intensity, as a wrenching cry from the depths.
It's not just about hitting the high notes—there's also the matter of rhythmic virtuosity. Stephen Hartke's Audistis quia dictum est couches Jesus's sermon about "turning the other cheek" in rhythms that perplex rather than comfort, to tease out the essential mystery of Christian ethics, and David Lang's the same train uses the repeating structure of a traditional gospel hymn to create a series of unsettling rhythmic variations.
And then there are the composers for whom the text is just a jumping off-point, a high-dive to plunge the listener into waves of pure sound. The great sonic swoops in David Felder's harmonically luminous Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, or in Augusta Read Thomas's Spell – her elegy for Elliott Carter – are like the curves of an abstract sculpture.
There's an immense richness to the variety of compositional voices displayed here. If at all possible, listeners should savor these pieces slowly, like a box of birthday confectioneries, to preserve the distinctive pleasures of each individual morsel.
'25 x 25: 25 Premieres for 25 Years'
Soundbrush Records | Rel. Oct. 8