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Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
There will come soft rains
The Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West/Richard Nance
rec. 2018, Lagerquist Concert Hall, Mary Baker Russell Music Building, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, USA
Texts & English translations included

The music of Ēriks Ešenvalds has been well served on disc in recent years. Individual pieces often crop up on mixed recital discs of choral music but several choirs have gone even further and devoted whole programmes to his pieces (review ~ review~ review ~ review). Now, the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West has entered the lists with this programme of his music. Perhaps inevitably, some of the repertoire overlaps with the earlier discs but also there are some items that were new to me.

One such was A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby. This is a very interesting piece which sets poetry from two very different sources. The piece opens with lines from Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth (‘What passing bells for these who die as cattle?’) Perhaps unsurprisingly, these words are set to very arresting music, which is dramatic, loud and urgent. Eventually, however, the emotion winds down and the second part of the piece is reached. This is an extract from A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby. This is a 1918 song by Peter C. Caporossi with lyrics by Jack Whalen which Ešenvalds found in the Library of Congress. Read in isolation, the words are of their time and rather sentimental but Ešenvalds avoids trite sentimentality in his setting which features a soprano and a baritone soloist supported by a hushed wordless choir. The two elements of the piece form a fine contrast: the gritty bitterness of the Owen words and Whalen’s evocation of a bereaved mother seeking consolation in her memories.

Ešenvalds has long been an admirer of the American poet, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) and there are no fewer than six settings of her verses in this programme. There Will Come Soft Rains is one of them. I’ve heard it before and once again I admired the beauty of the musical setting. Only in Sleep is another Teasdale setting. The beguiling melody is sung by a soprano soloist, here the excellent Natalie Breshears. Her vocal line is, in the composer’s words, “enwrapped....into 8-part harmony, like a very dear baby being swaddled in softest blanket.” Perhaps the most remarkable Teasdale composition is one that I’ve heard a number of times, Stars. Here, Ešenvalds adds to his choral textures by getting members of the choir to sound water-filled tuned wine glasses. The effect is magical and the ethereal sound of the glasses allied to the well-imagined writing for the voices conjures up an excellent evocation of the vastness of a cloudless night sky, speckled with stars. Incidentally, an amusing story is related in the notes. The piece was commissioned by an American choir who gave its first performance in a church in Argentina. After the rehearsal the water-filled glasses were left on the front pew whence the singers could retrieve them for the performance. Come the concert, and lipstick marks on the glasses betrayed that some audience members had thought the water was there for their refreshment! Some hasty tuning was necessary to discover which of the glasses could still be used.

With one exception - Spring Rain, which is accompanied by two guitars – I would categorise all the pieces in this recital as a cappella. However, Ešenvalds does occasionally introduce individual instruments into the scores, not to accompany the singers but to provide extra colour from time to time. The water glasses in Stars offers one such example and, unless I’m mistaken, this device is used in a couple of other pieces too. Elsewhere, a sopranino recorder is used to excellent effect in two passages during My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose; the instrument gives the music a decidedly Highland feel. Equally effective is the selective use of a Jew’s Harp in Rivers of Light and a whistle and tambourine in O, She Doth Teach The Torches To Burn Bright. Perhaps best of all is the use of a bass flute in Long Road. This piece is a lament for love lost through bereavement. The words and music are poignant and affecting but there comes a point where words can take the setting only so far and instead Ešenvalds deploys the bass flute and little tinkling bells while the choir sings wordlessly. It’s highly effective

The music on this programme offers excellent examples of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ imaginative feel for choral textures. His music is accessible – though there’s no question of ‘dumbing down’ – and I would imagine that the choir enjoys singing it. The Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West is an accomplished ensemble and they have an evident affinity for the music of this composer. Indeed, one of the pieces, Northern Lights, was commissioned by them and they give a fine account of it. Part of the piece is a setting of a Latvian folk song which is entrusted to a solo tenor. Here the singer is Austin Schend and his attractive, sappy voice is appropriate to the assignment.

Schend is but one of several soloists drawn from the 26-strong choir (9/8/8/9). All do well and the choir as a whole makes a fresh, appealing sound which is well suited to the music. They’ve been very nicely recorded by engineer John Struzenberg and producer Adrian Peacock in what is, to judge by the booklet photograph, a large, modern concert hall. The composer himself has provided the booklet notes.

This is an enjoyable and well-executed anthology of music by one of the most interesting of today’s choral composers.

John Quinn

Disc contents
There will come soft rains
There Will Come Soft Rains (2016) [3:57]
The New Moon [3:48]
Long Road [6:10]
Rivers of Light (2013) [5:58]
Northern Lights (2013) [6:20]
Only in Sleep (2010) [5:31]
O, She Doth Teach The Torches To Burn Bright [5:35]
A Soldier’s Mother’s Lullaby (2015) [6:52]
Spring Rain (2017) [5:18]
In My Little Picture Frame [4:51]
Evening (2006) [3:51]
My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose [3:43]
Stars (2012) [4:02]
Amazing Grace (2004) [5:22]

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