Classics Today Recording Reviews: Transient Glory I - Vital Records

Review by: David Vernier

Subtitled “A celebration of living music and the momentary beauty of the young voice”, this is an essential disc for fans of new choral music and for anyone who wants to experience the virtuoso capabilities of one of today’s finest youth choirs. It’s hard to say which came first, the rising technical standard of young vocal ensembles or the more and more demanding music written for them, but this seriously challenging program certainly will surprise listeners whose impression of “youth choirs” is of a cute little band of loosely disciplined and even less well-tuned singers up on the stage at junior high parents’ night.

Francisco Núñez, a highly regarded composer of youth-choir music in his own right, directs this 44-member concert chorus (the entire YPC organization consists of 300 choristers in five choral divisions) in the kind of tour de force performances that leave you in wonder and awe–and with a thankful heart that in today’s world children are singing and embracing music with such enthusiasm and joy and commitment.

I’m not saying that the music itself–eight world premieres, all of which were commissioned by or for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City–is all immediately ingratiating, beautiful in the traditional sense, easy to listen to, or even necessarily successful in terms of its likely appeal to mainstream audiences or viability for any but the most sophisticated choirs. I also am somewhat troubled by what seems to be a trend of composers toward self-referential, self-indulgent, self-gratifying works that can’t be understood by first-time listeners without an accompanying program note or explanation. In other words, the music is more about the composer saying “see what I did” than about just writing a piece whose music and text speak for themselves.

Michael Torke’s Song of Ezekiel for voices and piano begins with a cool, rhythmically catchy, chugging motion that for a few minutes captures our imagination and sets our feet tapping–but the simple ideas are unsustainable for four and a half minutes, and Torke’s use of the treble voices is nothing more than an unidiomatic extension of the pulsing piano, complete with register shifts that would sound fine on the keyboard but are just plain awkward, strained, and pointless when sung. Steven Mackey needs a whole page to tell us what his The Attic Which is Desire is about. If you just listen to the music, throughout which is a droning ostinato on the word “soda”, you have no idea what’s going on. But it turns out that this William Carlos Williams poem reminded the composer of his own attic sanctuary when he was a child, and although this text “is not an obvious poem to set to music”, he did it anyway, and stretched a musically and thematically thin concept into nearly six minutes of sometimes intriguing, more often repetitive and predictable music–which again is given as convincing a performance as anyone could hope for.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s Un-labelled is a piece written in response to her son’s mental illness diagnosis, and it cleverly works incomprehensible words and “computer-like coding syllables” into the context of clearly discernible passages in English, ultimately putting forward her son’s wish not to be “labeled” because of his illness. Jenny Johnson’s Smiling Eyes, a reflection on the importance of history and meaning of ancient works of art, is another perfect example (as is The Attic. . .) of a piece that should be left in its purely poetic-text state. Overlaying spoken and sung text and juxtaposing fragments of lines, repeating a word out of its original, meaningful context, and trying to find music for essentially non-musical language just sounds forced and unnecessarily difficult. Oddest–and frankly annoying–is Walter Thompson’s Colors 41402, an example of his own “soundpainting” system of improvisatory composing/conducting. Presumably this system of “more than 700 gestures signed by the conductor” during a performance leads to some kind of revelatory sonic experience, described by Thompson as something like “flipping through a television with 100 channels”. You have to wonder why anyone would consciously choose to do that, although you have to admit that the Young People’s Chorus truly makes some unique “choral” sounds here–while still leaving you to ponder just what meaning lies among the shouts and swoops and murmurings.

There’s much more here–my favorite being Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum’s imaginative, to-the-point, and intelligently conceived Two songs from e.e. cummings–and those who have an interest in these things will definitely want to explore it all. The sound is open and vibrant and clear on some selections and very oddly balanced on others–such as the spoken lines versus the choir in Smiling Eyes, and the various solo and instrumental combinations in Debussy’s La Damoiselle Elue. Transient Glory is a wonderful project designed to bring forth newly commissioned choral music and to “celebrate the profoundly transcendent nature of young singing voices.” Anything that seeks to advance the art of children’s choirs and encourage excellent singing is a good thing. And in spite of the abovementioned reservations regarding the specifics of the music itself, I anxiously await the next volume in this provocative and innovative series.