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Friday, November 28, 2008

A Fine Hour of Choral Music

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 [14:31]
Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de MONDONVILLE (1711-1772)
Grand motet, “Dominus regnavit” [24:34]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Gloria, RV 589 [28:19]

Ann Monoyios (soprano)
Matthew White (countertenor)
Colin Ainsworth (tenor)

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra

Jeanne Lamon, music director
Ivars Taurins, chorus master and conductor

Recorded at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto, October 15-16, 2006.

CBC SMCD 5244 [67:40]

In a rather brilliant stroke of programming prowess, Ivars Taurins, who serves as chorus master for Toronto’s Tafelmusik baroque ensemble, takes the helm here for an absolutely delightful selection of works for chorus and orchestra. There is little as gratifying as a well crafted concert, and this disc provides us with a fine sampling of the familiar, the sort of familiar and the unusual, all performed with a great deal of panache.

Bach’s cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 serves as the “sort of” familiar work. Listeners will immediately recognize the tunes as those from the Gloria of the Mass in b minor. This cantata, however, predates the mass, and was most likely used for a solemn service commemorating the Peace of Dresden that ended the second Silesian War. It was first heard on Christmas Day 1745, and the importance of the occasion is reflected in Bach’s choice of a Latin text, a rare occurrence in the Lutheran Church.

Graceful phrasing from the choir and soloists and a spot on choice of tempi makes this performance rewarding indeed. Ivars Taurins leads a spirited and engaging reading that is never breathless.

Rare indeed is an American performance of one of the many Grand motets that were staples of sacred music in France during the Baroque. What a treat it is to hear this setting of Psalm 93, a substantial work that was intended for concert and not liturgical use. The work of the three soloists is particularly satisfying, highlighted by some ravishingly beautiful trio ensemble singing. Conductors in the U. S. should take note of this splendid music and get it before American audiences more often.

Although he was an ordained priest, Antonio Vivaldi’s sacred music was very late in coming to light. Some sixty works survive and they were not discovered until the 1920’s when a significant collection of works for the church was discovered and cataloged in Turin. This Gloria was most likely written for the girls in the Ospedale della pieta, an orphanage cum conservatory where Vivaldi worked and taught for many years, thus explaining its sparse orchestration. It is undoubtedly one of the composer’s most popular and oft-performed choral works, and it receives a refreshingly light spirited performance here. Experienced choral listeners will enjoy the finely shaped phrases and the absence of 1950’s vintage lugubriousness of tempi that plague many older recordings of this music.

Well thought out repertoire choices, elegant performances and taut ensemble are the hallmarks of this delightful hour and then some, a collection sure to please amateur and professional listeners alike.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

i thank you god for most this amazing day

Such is the opening line of one of the most profound poems of the twentieth century, written by e.e. cummings. I encourage you to read the whole poem sometime because it is one of the most ecstatic celebrations of the joy of living ever penned.

That's how I feel today as I listen to the trickling of the fountain on my porch, reminding me that life is an ever-flowing stream; a never ending river taking us from one adventure to the next. I celebrate the gift of friendship that I receive in such daily abundance. I give thanks for my home, my church, my family, my cats! Today I look out the window and feel particularly blessed to see a beautiful world, a world that in spite of economic turmoil and war and strife, continues to be good to me and those I love.

And yet, in the background, CNN continues to report the sad news from India. All is not well with the world for many people. And so I pray for the people in this world who are hungry, for those who live in fear and for those whose existence is ever in the balance.

As we sit down to our nice meals in our comfortable and safe homes with people we love, I hope that all of us will take a moment to remember those who don't have what we have, and to redouble our efforts in this coming holiday season to not only make our own spirits bright, but to reach into our abundance and share some of what we've been given with someone in need.

Peace and blessings be with you on this Thanksgiving day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stellar new performances of old favorites for strings.

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 [19:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Eine kleine Nachtmusik , K 525 [20:07]
Pyotr Illych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 [28:58]

Moscow Soloists
Yuri Bashmet

Recorded in the Pavel Slobodkin Center, Moscow, 11-14 October 2006.

ONYX 4037 [68:29]

The year 1884 saw the bicentennial celebrations of the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. Although Holberg spent most of his professional life in Copenhagen, and adopted Danish as his primary language, the fiercely nationalistic Norwegians wanted to reclaim him for their own. Consequently, the city of Bergen commissioned a cantata from Grieg to be performed outdoors on the anniversary of the playwright’s birth. The cantata never got finished, but Grieg orchestrated a suite of dances for keyboard that he had previously composed as a tribute to Holberg and presented them to the city fathers instead. Modeled on the dance forms of seventeenth century France, Grieg attempted to recall the music of Holberg’s own time. While he succeeded to a degree, the graceful melodies, magnificent part writing and unique harmonies make the work pure Grieg. The result is music as clear and elegant as a northern winter.

The Moscow Virtuosi give us a most clean and transparent performance. Having heard many recordings of this music in which the tempi are lugubrious, and the playing heavy handed, it is a delight to hear this ensemble play with just the right color and texture. The playing is sonorous enough to let us enjoy the rich harmonies, but the Karajan-ish weightiness is gone. What is left is a revelation in its crystalline clarity.

Although little is known of the circumstances surrounding its composition, Mozart’s G major serenade, written at around the same time as Don Giovanni, remains one of his most enduringly popular works. It was most likely tossed off for a social function. Scored only, at the most for pairs of strings with optional double bass, it is usually played by a full string compliment, often too slowly and heavily. Again, Yuri Bashmet chooses a perfect set of tempi. The fast outer movements sparkle yet never feel breathless, and the inner movements are perfectly elegant without ever indulging in sentimentality.

Tchaikovsky considered Mozart to be his musical god, and he paid tribute to him on more than one occasion. This rich serenade with its cyclical opening theme is one such tribute. Once again Bashmet and his players avoid the heaviness that often bogs this music down to give us a performance that is almost radiant. Bashmet keeps homophonic sections rich yet never syrupy. Contrapuntal writing is played with absolute clarity. Again, perfect tempo choices and flawless ensemble make this performance one of the more memorable that I have heard in sometime.

It is always refreshing when an ensemble says something original with old war horses. In short, this recording is an hour of delights, and will replace a number of older performances of these works at the head of the line.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Does it Tell You?

How interesting it was that when Senator McCain made his concession speech that people in his crowd booed at the mention of President Elect Obama's name.

How interesting it was that when President Elect Obama praised senator McCain's service to our country, which is indeed significant, that the democratic audience in Chicago cheered and applauded.

Oh Republicans. How sad it is that you can find nothing but hate and derision in your response to defeat. Mr. McCain was more than gracious in his concession speech. He was a true American patriot. He was what we want to be as Americans...modest in victory, gracious in defeat.

How sad that the Republican crowd in Phoenix chose to be everything that Americans aren't.

How gratifying it was to see that Mr. Obama's supporters could bring out the best in what we as Americans really are. We are modest in victory. We can show appreciation for all that Senator McCain has given and sacrificed for our country.

Is it any wonder that the Republicans are looked upon with such derision. They are the anti-American dream. They are sadly the antithesis of what it means to be an American. They shout cat calls at their defeat. How sad that they can't be real Americans, and pledge to work together with the new president as Mr. McCain did.

Senator McCain is a hero once again.

His slogan was "Country First". How sad that his followers never read the posters.

Monday, November 03, 2008

What to do Tomorrow

This is my quadrennial message to all of my friends of voting age. If you haven't already done so, go out tomorrow and vote. It is more than just your civic duty, whatever that means. It is your moral responsibility. To say that your vote doesn't count is a pathetic cop out. It does. The last two presidential elections have been won on very slim margins. There have been a couple of important senate and gubernatorial races that were decided on just a few votes.

It is pretty easy to bitch about what is wrong with our country and our government from the comfort of your armchair. But if you don't get out of it long enough to cast your ballot, your right to complain gets thrown out the window.

So, regardless of your political persuasion, cast your ballot tomorrow. And if you have to wait in line for a long time...well, good! That's as it should be. See you tomorrow at the polls!