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The Road Less Traveled … Byways of American Music
Stephen SHEWAN (b.1962)
Celebration Overture (2000) [4:37]
Moores School Symphony Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager
Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Frostiana (1959/1965) [33:57]
Roberts Weslyan College Chorale and Orchestra/Paul Shewan
Ron NELSON (b.1929)
Te Deum Laudamus (1985) [13:40]
RWC Chorale and Symphonic Wind Ensemble/Paul Shewan
Stephen SHEWAN
For Dancing Hearts and Tunes (2000) [5:11]
RWC Chorale and Chamber Orchestra/Stephen Shewan
Light (2001) [5:13]
RWC Chorale and Percussion Ensemble, Emily Shewan (horn)/Stephen Shewan
Land of Rest (2004) [6:01]
RWC Chorale and Strings, Ruth Shewan (soprano)/Matthew Curlee (organ), Robert Deutsch (cello)/Paul Shewan
Vaclav NELHYBEL (1919-1996)
Psalm 150 (1977) [7:53]
RWC Chorale and Brass Quartet/Robert Shewan
No recording details given
ALBANY TROY783 [76:59]



Perhaps the title of the disc is a little apologetic – I’m not sure I’d describe Randall Thompson as a ‘byway’ of American music. His choral compositions are staples of US choral societies, and his Alleluia has achieved world-wide recognition. His song-cycle for choir on poems of Robert Frost, Frostiana, forms the centre-piece of this interesting and impressive disc.

On the other hand, such modesty is perhaps becoming, as this recording is quite a family affair. The composer Stephen Shewan is a graduate of the Roberts Weslyan College in New York, an institution with a formidable musical tradition. His father Robert was for many years head of the music department at the college and conductor of its ensembles. He appears directing the final item on this disc, while other members of the Shewan family, Paul, Emily and Ruth, crop up on various tracks.

So the performances on this disc are all generated by staff, students and graduates of Roberts Weslyan College. The listener has to take that on board and make certain allowances, though I hasten to add that the standard is extremely high, and all the performances are accomplished and musically sensitive.

The first track is an extrovert orchestral work, Stephen Shewan’s Celebration Overture. This confident and likeable piece combines, perhaps, some of the virtues of two more famous overtures, namely Shostakovich’s Festive and Bernstein’s rumbustious Candide. It is brief and effective.

The ‘Seven Country Songs’ that make up Thompson’s Frostiana now follow. Thompson is most easily - though not entirely accurately - described as an ‘American Vaughan Williams’, with many of that composer’s qualities. To English ears, though, the American choral singing will take a fair bit of getting used to; even though they are confident, committed and extremely well drilled, the RWC Chorale produce what can only be described as a typical American ‘Campus’ sound. It’s open, forthright with wide and unabashed vibrato, particularly in the sopranos. The result is a certain lack of blend, and the great simplicity of Thompson’s melodic lines exposes this, at times cruelly. There is also a distressing tendency to sing just under the note when the music is soft – something that seriously afflicts the beginning of the exquisite final song, Choose Something Like a Star. Vowels, too, get a bit of a mangling - “Use lenguage we can comprehend” etc.

However, despite all this, the very special charms of this work do come through, and I would strongly recommend choral directors looking out for new repertoire to explore this disc. Still with Randall Thompson, Come in is a hypnotic reverie with little bird-calls in the solo flute, while A Girl’s Garden is in the same mould as Copland’s I Bought me a Cat, lively and humorous. I’ve already mentioned the beauty of Choose Something Like a Star, which is perfectly capable of standing on its own as a concert item, but makes a moving conclusion to this lovely cycle. Apart from anything else, Frost’s poetry is amongst the finest written in 20th century America – simple, direct yet full of vibrant imagery and inspirational turns of phrase.

What of the remaining shorter pieces? Rod Nelson’s Te Deum of 1985 begins impressively, with a prolonged crescendo from pianissimo choir and chiming bells up to a powerful statement reminiscent of Carl Orff. In the quicker section that follows, there are unmistakable echoes of the expanded minimalism of John Adams, sparkling textures in woodwind and percussion contrasting with more sustained repetitions in the choir. A powerful climax is reached, followed by a reprise of the opening textures and an increasingly exultant coda. As with the other works, the young instrumentalists prove themselves more than equal to the task of projecting this demanding music. And the worries about choral style I mentioned above are simply not as relevant here as they are in the more transparent music of Randall Thompson.

For Dancing Hearts and Tunes by Stephen Shewan is a later (2000) but far less interesting piece, inhabiting a fairly conventional idiom, with stock choral and orchestral writing. It does have a nice bounce to it in the jazzy 5/4 section, but probably tries to cram in a bit too much variety into its five minutes or so.

The same composer’s Light, for choir with percussion ensemble and solo horn (excellently played by Emily, another Shewan family member!) is dependant for its effect upon texture rather than rhythm, and does make good use of the resources of marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel. Land of Rest, on the other hand, the most recent composition on the CD, rather daringly sets different styles side by side, with a pseudo-jazzy soprano solo (rather in the manner of Tippett), followed by a strikingly simple hymn-like response from the choir. Here, the resemblance of the melody to Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a little off-putting, but I did enjoy the way the composer manoeuvred these two opposing musical worlds into close contact. Even if in the end it doesn’t actually seem to work - again, too much is packed into too short a time - the effort was worthwhile, and does suggest that this clearly talented but at present alarmingly eclectic composer may have hit on a stylistic vein that he can pursue.

Unfortunately, the disc ends with the weakest piece, Nelhybel’s rather dreary setting of Psalm 150, using musical devices and sounds already exploited so much more fruitfully by Gabrieli around the beginning of the 17th century. But, taken overall, the CD is a pretty impressive musical manifesto for this great New York college. And, who knows, perhaps somebody will now be inspired to produce a fully commercial modern recording of Frostiana; it richly deserves it.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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