OPERA NEWS - December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers
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December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers

CD Button Music by Adamo, Bolcom, Corigliano, Garner, Getty, Heggie, Woolf. Delan; Lynch; Bailey (piano, organ). Volti Chorus, Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, Harms. Pentatone PTC 5186 537

Recordings December Celebration Cover 1215

GORDON GETTY has composed a set of four new Christmas carols (and who wouldn’t agree that we could use some new ones?) for women’s chorus and chamber orchestra, using texts of his own. Inspired by Getty’s charming vocal pieces, the Pentatone music label invited six other prominent American composers to create their own works in the same spirit. Getty’s pieces are neo-Elizabethan and melodically rich, traditional and reverent yet possessed of a subtle original stamp and occasional unexpected harmonic twists. “Candles on the Tree” is the best one: poignant and joyful, rattling off a list of yummy holiday foods, it’s an instant nostalgic classic. Getty has obviously poured his heart into these songs. The women of the Volti Chorus have a very attractive sound, but they’re slightly undermiked, and it’s not always easy to hear the words, despite Getty’s sensitive orchestrations.

The disc opens with Mark Adamo’s “The Christmas Life” (to a poem by Wendy Cope), which has a brightly-colored orchestration, lush choral texture, and rich, Barber-esque harmonies that illustrate the text vividly. It ends with five iterations of the phrase “into this house,” each with a strikingly different musical setting. Jake Heggie’s On the Road to Christmas is a set of six songs, with texts by, among others, A. E. Houseman, Emily Dickinson and Heggie himself. “The Car Ride to Christmas” is scurrying, pictorial, and adventurous, with a playfully nostalgic text by none other than Frederica von Stade. Soprano Lisa Delan delivers a colorful, spirited rendering of this great little portrait. Two of Heggie’s other pieces—“Good King Merrily on High” and “I Wonder as I Wander”—are adaptations/reinventions, but well worth hearing for Heggie’s deft re-harmonizations and fantasia-like flights. Delan floats beautifully through the serene, lovely last verse of the “I Wonder” arrangement. William Bolcom and Joan Morris contributed the rousing “Carol (Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide),” with a text by Bolcom’s late collaborator Arnold Weinstein, after Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It practically demands a singalong. 

The second of David Garner’s Three Carols is the momentous, seven-minute “O Magnum Mysterium,” with a text by the Reverend Thomas Breidenthal. The verses have a modal melody but upbeat, jig-like rhythm; each one describes the scene of Christ’s birth from the perspective of a different animal, with species-appropriate variations to the melody and texture. Delan and reverberant baritone Lester Lynch give compelling, well-characterized renditions and sing the robust refrains in resonant unison. Similarly substantial is Luna Pearl Woolf’s shimmering How Bright the Darkness, which makes fine, idiomatic use of harp in addition to light percussion and strings. Here, Lynch’s baritone mixes with the women of the Volti Chorus to particularly splendid effect. Lynch is also compelling in John Corigliano’s arresting “Christmas at the Cloisters” (with text by William Hoffman), which features the unusual, galvanizing accompaniment of Hammond organ (played snappily by Steven Bailey). Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, under the energetic leadership of Dawn Harms, make a vibrant contribution to this serendipitous holiday offering. —Joshua Rosenblum

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