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Robert KYR (b.1952) A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio (2007) [53:19]
Cappella Romana; Third Angle New Music/Alexander Lingas
rec. 10 May 2009, Beall Hall, University of Oregon, Eugene, USA CAPPELLA ROMANA CR-411CD [53:19]
Robert Kyr is a noteworthy and highly skilled American choral composer, long associated with groups like Conspirare, Chanticleer and choirs at Harvard and Yale. He has a new all-Kyr Harmonia Mundi album well worth seeking out, featuring Conspirare. This recording presents his oratorio A Time for Life, a beautifully-crafted but preachy work about environmentalism and modern man’s disregard for nature.
There can be no questioning Kyr’s skill as a composer. Just listen to the first five minutes, as singers enter one-by-one — there are only eight — to the accompaniment of a single solitary cello. Many writers would need half an orchestra to create the effect Kyr manages with one instrument. Kyr’s vocal style throughout is an ear-pleasing blend of traditional church music and contemporary, tonal, harmony with some really special climaxes: best of all the penultimate track and the “Dance of Life”. I think the best way to describe it is that there’s no doubting this music’s modern origins, but Haydn could listen to it with pleasure.
That said, there are two major caveats. The first is that almost all this music is slow. Only two sections are even moderately paced: “Howl, you shepherds!” and the aforementioned “Dance of Life”. Otherwise, the music moves along at a slow, steady, but pretty tread. I don’t think there are any substantial pauses between sections.
The second caveat is more important. A Time for Life is very much a “message” piece. It is all about the importance of helping to protect the environment. Depending on your taste, that may be enough for you to click “Buy” or it may scare you off altogether. I tried to focus mainly on the beautiful sounds being produced, especially in the marvellous final section of chorales and canons: “Remember, remember the holiness of life”. Part II, “Forgetting,” has some especially unsubtle lyrics, like “O Creator: We devour your forest, turning land into pavement” and “We defile your oceans, harming and killing sea life”.
Now, there is certainly plenty of glorious sound and music-making here, so much that you might nearly listen to it as a sacred work without a political message. The lyrics, carefully assembled by Robert Kyr from Orthodox Christian, Navajo, Eskimo, Chinook, Hebrew, Ojibwa and other sources, are certainly earnest and well-spoken. However, as an avid environmentalist, I’m concerned that the overall tone does not really rise above your parents telling you to eat vegetables, or Hollywood telling us that war is bad. The literal choir is preaching to the metaphorical choir.
Speaking of the choir, the Cappella Romana here demonstrates why it has a devoted fan-base in the Pacific Northwest and, via records, across the globe. There is not a weak link or uninteresting voice among these eight singers. The three string players from Third Angle New Music deal superbly with their parts and there’s a percussionist whose name goes unlisted. The booklet includes notes by Kyr and conductor Alexander Lingas, full sung text, and a letter of commendation and congratulation from His All-Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.