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Recordings of the Month


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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Frank TICHELI (b. 1958)
The Shore (Symphony No. 3) (2013) [34:32] (The Tidepools & the Boy [6:14]; One Shore [10:13]; The Black Gondola [6:16]; Redemption [11:49])
The Song Within (2004) [8:20]
Constellation (2010) [9:10] (From the Sea [3:37];The Falling Star [1:36]; There Will Be Stars [3:57])
Here Take This Lovely Flower [3:05]
Earth Song  (2007) [3:49]
There Will Be Rest  (2000) [6:23]
Aram Barsamian (baritone), John St Marie (tenor), Kellee King, Lorraine Joy Welling (sopranos)
 Pacific Chorale (symphony, Earth Song, There will be rest),  John Alexander Singers (The song within, Constellation, Flower)
Pacific Symphony/John Alexander
rec. Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California; 1 and 3 June 2013; Meng Concert Hall, Clayes Performing Arts Center, California State University, Fullerton, 4 June 2013
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet includes sung texts
DELOS DE3461 [65:58]

I first encountered the music of Frank Ticheli on a splendid Naxos CD of wind-band music called Landscapes (review). The piece in question was American Elegy, a profoundly moving response to the Columbine High School massacre of 20 April 1999. I was struck by its ‘quiet dignity, panoramic sweep and hymn-like passages’, so when this new Delos album appeared I was impatient to hear it. The poets represented here are unfamiliar, but the Pacific Symphony and Chorale certainly aren’t; I much admired their recent Daugherty disc, which remains fresh and vital even after many outings (review).
The works on that CD were conducted by Carl St Clair, but here the Chorale’s artistic director, John Alexander is in charge. Indeed, The Shore was commissioned to celebrate his fortieth anniversary with the group. This ‘choral symphony’ is built around the highly evocative poetry of Fresno-born David St John. The scurrying prelude to The Tidepools & the Boy is followed by equally animated singing from the Chorale. Ticheli’s writing, spare but never desiccated, is flecked with lovely instrumental colours. The playing is clean and characterful.
One Shore finds the chorus in a quieter, more contemplative mode, their inward utterances punctuated by the simplest of accompaniments. Most striking is the originality of Ticheli’s score, which avoids the usual watery clichés. Even those rippling harp figures don’t seem at all hackneyed. Climaxes – sparingly used – have tremendous body and bite, and like everything else in this well-crafted work they are appropriately scaled. The chorus’s gently rocking phrases at the close are a joy to hear. They also offer a spirited counterpoint to the rolling/tolling of The Black Gondola, an evanescent, dream-like episode that isn’t only draped in black. Ticheli’s sound-picture is deftly drawn, and the ‘sea’s melody’ in Redemption – with the atmospherically distant baritone Aram Barsamian – is an ever-changing but always beguiling one.
The intellectual thrust of The Song Within, with its emphasis on hope, peace and what Ticheli calls ‘a crisis of faith’, is all too familiar in this age of anxiety; that said, it’s an a cappella piece of surprising sinew and strength. The John Alexander Singers are a lusty lot, yet in quieter moments they sing with a pleasing line and unanimity of tone. The tenor John St Marie, who is placed too far forward, is secure, but the high-lying choral parts are prone to fierceness. For all it felicities, though, The Song Within isn’t quite as memorable as I’d hoped.
Constellation, Ticheli’s a cappella settings of three poems by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), is yet another commission, this time from the California chapter of the American Choral Directors Association. From the Sea is nimbly sung by both the chorus and soprano Kellee King. The Falling Star flares with a quick, transient light, and There Will Be Stars is a simple meditation on the immutability of the heavens. The agile John Alexander Singers acquit themselves well although the recording gives King’s voice a cutting edge.
In that Naxos review I linked Ticheli and Copland, both of whose output is quintessentially American in its sounds and sources. Both seem to draw strength from Shaker melodies, which embody simple but abiding virtues. That’s certainly true of Ticheli’s arrangement of the gift song Here Take This Lovely Flower, which finds the John Alexander Singers in radiant concert; soprano Lorraine Joy Welling’s delivery has an artless purity that’s utterly right in this context. A sliver of sustained loveliness, well sung and recorded.
How do you follow that? With Earth Song, based on a poem Ticheli wrote to fit a pre-existing score. A quiet affirmation of the sustaining power of song it’s given serene and splendid voice by the Chorale. So often composer-penned texts are less than compelling, but Ticheli is as adept with words as he is with music. The final Teasdale setting, There Will Be Rest, is a perfect coda to this fine collection. In this piece, another Chorale commission, the poet’s awe of the heavens is translated into a long-breathed benediction of aching loveliness. Goodness, what a choir, and what a piece.
This is a very rewarding album that lovers of contemporary choral writing should hear. Not all the music or singing is of the highest quality, but it’s a measure of Ticheli’s considerable craft – and Alexander’s conducting skills – that even the less appealing pieces hold the ear from start to finish. As live recordings The Shore and There Will Be Rest have an added spontaneity, a subtle frisson, that makes them rather special; remarkably, Here Take This Lovely Flower is blessed with the very same qualities.
The recording is good, although it’s a little bright at tomes, and balances are generally fine. Also, the composer’s brief liner-notes – which include the sung texts – are very readable. I have one gripe though; the gaps between tracks are much too short. I suspect this is a problem with the download rather than the CD, in which case it’s one that can be fixed easily enough.
Strong choral writing, persuasively presented; well worth your time and money.
Dan Morgan