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American Choral Premieres - Hovhaness, Rochberg, Blackwood, Etc / French, William Ferris Chorale

Release Date: 03/10/2009 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 109   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Alan HovhanessGeorge RochbergWilliam FerrisEasley Blackwood,   ... 
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

AMERICAN CHORAL PREMIERES Paul French, cond; William Ferris Chorale ÇEDILLE 109 (64:10 Text and Translation)

HOVHANESS 4 Motets. E. COHEN Stabat mater. P. NICHOLSON Velum témpli. P. FRENCH Who Am I? BLACKWOOD Read more class="ARIAL12bi">A King James Magnificat. KREUTZ Scapulis suis. FERRIS Lyrica sacra. W. C. WHITE Nunc dimittis. ROCHBERG Behold, My Servant

A Chicago native (1937–2000), William Ferris studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin at the DePaul University School of Music and took private lessons with Leo Sowerby. Long associated with Catholic institutions, Ferris served as organist at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, subsequent to which he was appointed director of music at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, New York. Returning to Chicago in 1971, the same year he founded his eponymously named William Ferris Chorale, he assumed the post of director of music and composer-in-residence at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. He was knighted by Pope John Paul II in 1989. Though a serious-minded musician and composer who wrote three operas and had his Acclamations for organ and orchestra commissioned and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1983, his work with the Chorale, at least on record, was heavily skewed towards the kind of soft-core Christian-message works designed to have mass appeal (pun not intended). To a degree, Ferris may thus be seen as somewhat of an American counterpart to British choral composers such as John Tavener and John Rutter. Ferris’s own Lyrica sacra on this disc is comprised of three movements or sections, drawing upon disparate texts from Psalms, Matthew, and the Song of Solomon. The settings are mildly dissonant and rather freely tonal, resolving at the end of each in a not quite settled non-triadic consonance. The writing is in a fairly simple, straightforward chorale (i.e., block chord) style.

By the time Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) got around to writing his Four Motets in 1973, he had reached opus number 268. Whatever one might think of his music—Leonard Bernstein dismissed the composer’s First Symphony as “filthy ghetto music”—he was certainly one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. He practiced a style of musical simplicity based on unison melodies, lengthy bass pedals, and often non-existent harmony that could almost be called asceticism. But his stark monodic approach, according to the Boston Globe ’s Richard Buell, could give rise to “a kind of exoticism” in which the “atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, and nostalgic.” The description fits the Four Motets , based on texts from Jeremiah and Psalms.

At nearly 13 minutes in length, Easley Blackwood’s A King James Magnificat , taken from Luke 1:46–55, is the main event on the disc and, without doubt, the one work most likely to invite repeated hearings. A student of Messiaen, Hindemith, and Boulanger, the Indiana-born and Chicago-based Easley has long been an important voice in American contemporary music. Though in the 1980s he became involved in a number of avant-garde experiments with micro-tonal scales and electronic music, for his 2004 A King James Magnificat Easley returned to a completely triadic tonal style for a piece that is both melodious and joyous.

Paul Nicholson (b. 1963), in addition to his composing activities, also serves as accompanist for the William Ferris Chorale. His brief Velum témpli is a setting of the Latin responsory traditionally used throughout the centuries during Holy Week Tenebrae services. Nicholson’s music, dissonant and foreboding, is appropriately fitting for the text, which foretells of the Day of Wrath to come.

Paul French (b. 1959), who took over the directorship of the William Ferris Chorale in 2005, is represented as composer on this disc by one of the two odd works out on the program. It is neither in Latin nor is it an English translation of a scripturally based Latin liturgical text. Rather, French’s Who Am I? is a setting of a poem by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), who was executed by the Nazis for his outspoken opposition to the Third Reich, for his efforts on behalf of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, and finally for his involvement in the failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Solemn and in a style that alternates between static and more animated chant-like passages, the piece gains in austerity from its open parallel octaves and fifths organum-like vocal lines.

The other odd work out is by the well-known American composer George Rochberg (1918–2005). His Behold, My Servant , was commissioned by New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and premiered in 1973. Textually a medley of verses from Psalm 148, Isaiah, and Robert Blake, the piece postdates Rochberg’s hardcore avant-garde period. By the time he came to write it, he had abandoned the “empty, dead-end path of serialism,” and had adopted a neo-Romantic style. Behold, My Servant reflects this new direction in a choral score of arresting beauty.

William C. White (b. 1983) is a Blackwood student. Currently, he is director of the Hyde Park Youth Symphony and conductor of the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra. He is well known—as was the late Robert Kreutz (1922–1996)—in the Roman Catholic community for his contributions to the Church’s contemporary choral repertoire. White’s 2007 Nunc dimittis , in English translation, is a setting of the Canticle traditionally paired with the Magnificat at Evening Services. The text is taken from Luke 2: 25–35. As with other works on the disc, when the voices are not singing in unison, octaves, and open fifths in a kind of chant-like style, they transition to a more animated and rhythmically defined vertical homophony. There’s not much in the way of independent contrapuntal interplay between the voices. Much the same may be said of Kreutz’s brief Scapulis suis , a Latin setting of verse 4 of Psalm 91.

Finally we come to Egon Cohen (b. 1984), the youngster among this assembly. His Latin-titled Stabat mater set in English translation was written in response to an invitation to submit a piece for this CD. The music effectively captures the doloroso character of the text; but it does give me cause to wonder why a young, Jewish composer would be drawn to this deeply Roman Catholic 13th-century sequence that meditates on the suffering of the Virgin Mary. Surely, as Rochberg and many other Jewish composers have, Cohen might have found an equally moving text from the Hebrew liturgy.

Heard from beginning to end without pause, “American Choral Premieres” has a bit of a hypnotic—dare I say, deadening?—effect. Much of this music is of similar content and style, so that after awhile the pieces tend to lose whatever it is that makes them distinguishable from one another. But I alluded to that at the outset when I said that the William Ferris Chorale, at least on record, appears to be geared towards the kind of soft-core Christian-message works that are designed to have an easy-listening mass appeal. In live performance, however, they have sung major a cappella and choral-orchestral works covering a wide range of the 20th-century American repertoire; and as evidenced by this recording, they are a thoroughly disciplined and superb sounding vocal ensemble that projects with a smooth, detailed sound and nuanced, sensitive singing.

Admittedly, there are those for whom the works on this disc will have little appeal, but for those with a liking for this sort of thing, the CD can be easily recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Motets (4), Op. 268 by Alan Hovhaness
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973 
Behold, my servant by George Rochberg
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973; USA 
Lyrica sacra by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1962; USA 
A King James Magnificat, Op. 44 by Easley Blackwood
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2004; USA 
Who am I? by Paul French
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: 2007; USA 
Velum templi by Paul Nicholson
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1998 
Stabat mater by Egon Cohen
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Nunc dimittis by William C. White
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Written: 2007; USA 
Scapulis suis by Robert Kreutz
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960 

Sound Samples

4 Motets, Op. 268: No. 1. Blessed is the Man
4 Motets, Op. 268: No. 2. Help, Lord
4 Motets, Op. 268: No. 3. Lord, Who Shall Abide
4 Motets, Op. 268: No. 4. The Fool Said in His Heart
Stabat Mater
Velum templi
Who Am I?
A King James Magnificat
Scapulis Suis
Lyrica Sacra: Qui Manducat Mean Carnem
Lyrica Sacra: Qui Vult Venire Post Me
Lyrica Sacra: Sicut Lilium
Nunc Dimittis
Behold, my Servant

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