Tuesday, April 5, 2016

10 Contemporary Choral Pieces Every Chamber Choir Should Sing

Contemporary choral repertoire. I visualize contemporary music as the eccentric friend that likes to push boundaries while still captivating and inspiring others through their weirdness. I often find myself delving into the dark and colourful world of contemporary choral music and it is changing my life for the better. Many popular chamber ensembles today such as Voces8, Tenebrae Choir, Conspirare, Roomful of Teeth , and Latvian Radio Choir are advocates for contemporary choral music as well as catalysts for exposing the most beautiful choral music out there.

Of course we can't forget about the classic standards on every choir's bucket list, but we are not focusing on those masterpieces today.

All that being said, this was a tough list to conjure up because I have an endless amount of favourites constantly on repeat. Much of this inspiration stems from performing these pieces in past concerts or via browsing where they found their way into my little weirdo-driven heart.

Here we go:

Morten Lauridsen - Madrigali 

Every choir has sung or heard of Lauridsen's famous O Magnum Mysterium and/or the ethereal Lux Aeterna and were simply moved by its beauty. But have you ever heard his notable fire chord in the song cycle of Madrigali? 
The fire chord (B flat minor triad with a C added to mix) is the very essence and storytelling of a fire-burning passion complete with madrigal techniques from the Renaissance era.

Picture this: You become infatuated with a person that consumes you with desire yet you cannot have them, leaving you in a state of yearning and heartbreak.
Overtime, you find yourself at a stand-still, finding an uncertain peace in this unresolved experience, a peace which can be heard magnificently in the 6th movement "Se per Havervi, Oime, Donato Il Core", down to the very last chord.
Have a listen to the 1st movement and I assure you, you will feel a deep connection almost immediately and order a pack of scores for your choir.
My choir, Capital Chamber Choir, was incredibly fortunate to meet Mr. Lauridsen this past summer for the Music and Beyond Festival and rehearsed extensively on this very work with him. He had a way with words and creating a reflective atmosphere in the room through his stories. A truly memorable experience.

Honourable mentions: Midwinter Songs - Another incredible song cycle with piano that will surely warm the soul with poetry by Robert Graves. Have a listen to the 4th movement "Midwinter waking" and just sink into relaxation at that last resonating chord on the piano. *sigh*

Tarik O'Regan - Threshold of Night, Triptych 

Click here to hear Conspirare's recordings of both pieces

When a composer says he gets inspiration from British rock music, you may want to check his stuff out. Here's a snippet from an interview with Arts Atl.:

"This is a generalization, but a huge amount of contemporary music, and contemporary choral music, is slow. It does not move fast. I tried to combat that." 

Triptych is no exception. At times, you are seriously rocking out in the 3rd movement "From Heaven Distilled a Clemency" with the string orchestra and it certainly changes the pace. The three-movement piece was written with many things in mind and was soon commissioned to remember those who died in war:

"Most remembrance pieces are sad and very, very slow all the way through. I didn’t want that. So I started with slow music but then made it more vibrant, quite dancy, if you like. A lot of cultures don’t memorialize death in a slow manner. I’m thinking of music for an Irish wake or dances performed at funerals in many cultures."

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Threshold of Night. What begins as a delicate, uplifting entrance with gentle solo lines, changes into this mass power chord at the words "on the edge of being" that is just so cool and sets the tone of the piece. The dissonant harmonies and syncopated rhythms are challenging throughout and then ends on a delicate lullaby-esque theme at "go back, go back, my babe" which is the perfect finishing touch. It is sure to put you at peace, in some form or another.

Honourable mentions: The Ecstasies Above performed by Conspirare. Ugh, just amazing.

Paul Mealor - Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

If you watched the Royal Wedding back 2012, you certainly heard Paul Mealor's Ubi Caritas during the ceremony. The 1st movement of Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is very much a reflection of Ubi Caritas and is equally as beautiful. The four-movement madrigals set to Rose text are nothing short of a sublime piece with ethereal presence. The 2nd movement "Lady, When I Behold The Roses Sprouting" is my personal favourite with the low drone of the basses and beautiful high soprano phrases. Just pure awe. 
Choristers will surely enjoy the 3rd movement "Upon A Bank". It makes me think of waking up in the early morning with the birds chirping in the trees.

Honourable mentions: Stabat Mater with string orchestra  *I am incredibly lucky to be singing the soprano solo in the 2nd movement, which is probably one of the few solo pieces that reduce me to ugly crying, it is that beautiful. Have a listen of Tenebrae's recording from their album - A Tender Light . 

Salvator Mundi: Greater Love is also a force to be reckoned with that includes a solo SATB quartet and mixed choir. The complex rhythms and force needed to produce the powerful sound in the upper voices also makes me ugly cry.

Alfred Schnittke - Concerto for Choir

You want to tackle a beast of a mass choral work? Look no further. Schnittke's Concerto for Choir is easily my favourite choral masterpiece to this day. Even the most skilled choirs require a full fledged rehearsal process over a few months to tackle and perform this piece at a sub-par level. In addition, choirs will likely need a diction coach to go over the Russian! The 4th movement "Complete this work which I began" SPLITS INTO 26 PARTS.

I performed the complete piece with combined choirs back in the spring of 2013 and the feeling of accomplishment was surreal. Not an easy gig to learn!

There's really nothing for me to add rather than urge you to listen to all four movements and have your mind blown and heart racing. What a masterpiece.

John Tavener - Song For Athene

Going back to royalty events - if you remember watching Princess Diana's funeral back in 1997, you likely heard Tavener's Song for Athene being performed in the church. The best description of his works can be found in an article by Classic FM :
...refusing to bow down before any one style. It’s neither old nor new – it’s simply Tavener, haunting his audience and raging at them in turns. One of the features of the music is that it is almost inaudible at times and then suddenly bursts into almost deafening life. 
The basses get to tap into their staggering low drones of the register to maintain tuning and beauty of tone in this piece, which is not an easy task! I first heard my choir, Capital Chamber Choir perform this piece shortly before I joined and its musical effect rendered the audience speechless. You could imagine the stupid smile on my face when I learned we were performing it once again later in the season. Mission accomplished!

Honourable mentions: Mother and Child - This is the pinnacle of epicness (not a word, I know) and works very well as a closing concert piece. When you have a gong, an organ and a whole lot of powerful voices, the audience will be jumping out of their seats.

Ēriks Ešenvalds - Stars

I had the pleasure of performing this piece back in December 2015 and it reduced the audience to tears. The wine glasses mimicking B minor and dissonant chords is an audience favourite and the words aren't too difficult to learn from memory if you need to multi-task. The only word I can describe for this piece is: otherworldly.

It really makes you feel as if you are under the stars and simply in awe of its beauty, which ties into the final word of the piece - majesty. Indeed.

Bernat Vivancos -  Blanc, Requiem albums

Click here to hear the full Blanc album
Click here to hear the full Requiem album

I've recently became acquainted with the music of Vivancos and I gotta say, this is something else. The versatility, power, and incredible attention to detail to perform his works must be an amazing accomplishment in itself, because it is not easy music. To draw out and sustain notes while maintaining impeccable tuning and blend is incredibly challenging.
Both albums are beautifully haunting and eerie with such precision from the Latvian Radio Choir that afterwards, I am in a trance. I'm not a religious person, but if I died and went to heaven, I imagine the piece Obriu-me els llavis, Senyor sung to me by the angels.

I look forward to performing his works in the near future!

Eric Whitacre - When David Heard

"The text, one single, devastating sentence, is from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33:
When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!
Setting this text was such a lonely experience, and even now just writing these words I am moved to tears. I wrote maybe 200 pages of sketches, trying to find the perfect balance between sound and silence, always simplifying, and by the time I finished a year later I was profoundly changed. Older, I think, and quieted a little. I still have a hard time listening to the recording. " - Eric Whitacre from his website
The text alone is very somber and personal to many people who have dealt with the death of a loved one, including me. This work can easily be an intense and reflective experience for many choristers and being one of Whitacre's more complex pieces, the silence in between the notes is the most important aspect, giving effect of the emptiness that embodies a person when dealing with tragedy, as mentioned in Whitacre's description above.

Honourable mentions: I Thank You God For This Most Amazing Day , much like When David Heard, it is another complex piece yet incredibly uplifting.
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine is another audience favourite with a whimsical, dreamlike vibe complete with fun percussion and voices fluttering, giving the effect of the machine taking flight.
Lux Aurumque - Every time I performed this piece, I was brought to a meditative state and felt somewhat at peace with whatever challenges were going on in life. I guess you can say, this is another piece that makes waves with me so naturally, I had to add it to the list!

David Lang - Little Match Girl Passion

Click here for program notes on this work  - I have yet to perform this Pulizter prize winning piece, whether with choir or SATB quartet and it'll be mind blowing and heartbreaking at the same time. Lang certainly tests the waters with his contemporary works that can render one from feeling uneasy to completely calm. Certainly a composer ahead of his time.

Honourable mention: I Lie - quite a melancholic piece with Yiddish text. I am absolutely captivated by it.

Arvo Pärt - Te Deum

Derived from silence and emptiness, Pärt described this work as:
"something long lost or not yet found, the quest for something believed to be non-existent, but so real that it exists not only within us but beyond our being as well."
Pretty deep stuff. Needless to say I hope to perform this one day and just lose myself in the music.

...and there you have it! After a solid week of brainstorming the list and whining about narrowing it down to the top 10, I feel like I need a nap.

Please comment on other contemporary choral works you think should be added to the list! I'm always up for exploring new works!

- Blonde in the Choir