A New Song CD: UW Chamber choir

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The UW Chamber Choir, directed by Dr. Mark Vuorinen, has released a new CD entitled A New Song.  It includes pieces by James MacMillan, Jeff Enns, and other well-known composers.  Available for $15 in the Music Office at Conrad Grebel, Room 1103.
CD Cover

List of songs

A New Song: Chamber Choir’s New CD


O sing unto the Lord a new song,
sing unto the Lord all the whole earth.
Psalm 96.1

A New Song is the newest CD of the University of Waterloo Chamber Choir. In April 2016, the choir took time at the end of the winter term exam period to reconvene for a few days of rehearsal and recording sessions at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener. Earl McCluskie of Chestnut Hall Music engineered and produced the project.

I chose music for the CD from repertoire the choir had prepared for performances in the winter term, during which they gave two concerts. The first concert was part of a residency at Grebel that welcomed the acclaimed Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan as the 2016 Rodney and Lorna Sawatsky Visiting Scholar. In addition to engaging the Grebel community through lecture and seminar, MacMillan rehearsed and conducted a program of his own music with the University of Waterloo Chamber Choir, the Grand Philharmonic Chamber Singers, and Toronto’s Choir 21. Grebel and the Grand Philharmonic choir collaborated with the Toronto-based Soundstreams Canada to bring MacMillan to Waterloo. The experience of having this world-renowned composer working with our students was a highlight of the year for all of us! The second performance from which I selected repertoire for the recording was the choir’s term-end concert entitled Chiarascuro, an Italian fine art term defined as “the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.” The two concert projects offered a range of repertoire for A New Song that focuses on living composers.  Themes of light and dark, or chiarascuro, run deep on the CD and take the listener through a range of styles and eras.  Emotionally, the progression of pieces on A New Song moves towards density and darkness and comes out again on the other side, concluding with a wonderful choral arrangement of Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning.

James MacMillan’s music is at once modern and ancient. It evokes the composer’s Scottish heritage and musical ancestry. The CD’s title track, A New Song, begins with a simple modal melody sung by the sopranos and doubled by the organ, expertly played by Jan Overduin, who holds each of the pitches sung in the melody, creating a warm cluster of pitches. The second section is sung over a graceful ostinato in the organ and includes vocal motives and pedal drones suggestive of traditional Scottish music and bagpipes. A climactic postlude based on the earlier melody brings the short anthem to a robust conclusion. The Strathclyde Motets is a set of fourteen pieces composed between 2005-2010 for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir. The motets are intended for specific liturgical celebrations covering virtually the entire church year. For A New Song, we recorded two of them. O Radiant Dawn is an Advent antiphon and is simple in its homophonic declaration of the text. 

The second, and more challenging motet, is Data est mihi omnes potestas (All power has been given to me on heaven and on earth). The opening statement sees all voices of the divided choir soaring upwards. Quick ornamental rhythms set the first phrase off in a powerful proclamation. A slower intimate middle section proceeds before the virtuosic Alleluias heard earlier, return to end the piece.

One of the choir’s favourite composers over the last several terms has been Ēriks Ešenvalds, a young Latvian composer whose music is harmonically warm and lush. He is a rising star in the choral music world; his music has been heard on every continent and recorded by prominent choirs world-wide. Stars is a setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem and marvels in the majesty of being witness to vastness of the night’s sky. Its use of singing glasses and warm harmonies evoke the beauty of a shimmering, heavenly sky. The second piece by Ešenvalds, O Salutaris Hostia, was recorded live in November 2015 and features two Grebel music students as soloists: sopranos Janelle Santi and Caroline Schmidt. 

Although the title of the CD is A New Song, the choir recorded several historical pieces as well. Josquin des Prez (born c. 1450) was arguably among the most celebrated composers during his own lifetime and beyond. Before the publication of volumes of music by a single composer became popular towards the middle of the 16th century, des Prez had several published volumes of music under his belt. Gaude virgo mater Christi is also thought to be a relatively early work. It demonstrates Josquin’s ability to clearly delineate a musical structure derived from the text, and uses his characteristic trait of alternating upper and lower voice pairings and reserving the use of all voices for climactic moments. Asciugate I begli occhi is a madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century Italian composer. Harmony was Gesualdo’s hallmark. His madrigals are often so harmonically adventurous that they sound almost modern to our ears today. Igor Stravinsky was so struck by Gesualdo’s madrigals that he orchestrated several of them, including Asciugate, in his Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. Josef Rheinberger, a German contemporary of Johannes Brahms, is primarily known today for his vast output of repertoire for the organ and for this short, beautiful a cappella motet. In Abendlied (Evening Song), Rheinberger sets text from Luke’s gospel (Luke 24.29). In this verse, followers of Jesus, who do not yet recognize him, meet him on the road to Emmaus and urge him to stay with them because night is close. Rheinberger’s harmonically rich setting is for six-part chorus. 

Immortal Bach by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (1915-2014) bridges the ancient with the modern. In this ingenious work, Nystedt uses Johann Sebastian Bach’s simple harmonization of the chorale Komm, Süsser Tod (Come, sweet death) as the basis of a sound experiment in prolongation. In the second hearing of the chorale, the choir is split into five ensembles, each holding the chords of Bach’s chorale for progressively longer durations, effectively blurring time, and creating ethereal clusters of sound that shift and change making Bach’s music immortal. 

The new CD also includes a work commissioned by Grebel. In 2015, the Conrad Grebel Chapel Choir, under the direction of Catherine Robertson, commissioned Jeff Enns to write a short anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David. It is an uplifting setting in a buoyant 7/8 meter. The pianist heard on the recording is Nicole Simone, a recent graduate with a double major in Music and Systems Design Engineering.

As one of the ensembles of the Music Department at Grebel, the Chamber Choir rehearses twice weekly in the fall and winter terms. Its members are selected by audition and are primarily undergraduates. Some of the choir’s members are Music majors, but most come from across the University and represent all of the University’s faculties.

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