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.
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
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.