Notes and Editorial Reviews
Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s
Dedication Theme and Variations
7 Stanzas at Easter.
Songs from a Liberal Heart.
Eric Stewart, cond;
Gregg Smith Singers;
Long Island Symphonic Choral Association;
Saint Peter’s Ch
ALBANY 1463 (72:10)
Gregg Smith (b. 1931) is best known as the conductor of the eponymous Gregg Smith Singers. Founded in 1995, and one of the most important ensembles in the history of American choral music, the Singers gave first performances and recordings of innumerable works by American composers both living and dead (including groundbreaking first recordings of Ives), as well as first American performances of Renaissance and Baroque choral works that were at that point still largely unknown.
Smith has composed music since age five and has produced a catalog of more than 400 compositions. While he has (unsurprisingly) written primarily choral music, there have been instrumental works too, as well as ballets and operas. Though Smith has appeared on many recordings as conductor, this appears to be the first complete CD devoted to his own music (though there may be other obscure earlier releases, as so many of Smith’s recordings are currently out of print). If the quality of the compositions on this disc can be taken as any indication, this disc is long overdue. Unlike that of a number of well-known composer-conductors, Smith’s music is the work of an excellent composer.
This release is titled
Music for an Urban Church
and consists entirely of pieces that Smith wrote for Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church on the Upper East Side of New York City, with which he (and his wife, soprano Rosalind Rees) have been associated for many years. The pieces, which span 1977–2005, were all written to commemorate different events in the life of that particular congregation. They range from a
(filled with the musical spirit of the 1970s), to an original hymn tune, to a remarkable Easter anthem on a poem by John Updike. The Updike text is one many composers could never imagine setting to music effectively, and yet Smith does it with complete naturalness: producing a work that is not only a good setting of the text, but is also totally at home within the performance contexts for church anthems—no small feat. The brief cantata
Songs for a Liberal Heart
is a particularly effective work for chorus, soloists, and several instruments; the text is drawn from a variety of scriptural passages, which Smith weaves together into a very taut, coherent whole of great beauty.
The performances are taken from live church services that span the years, but are all well-mastered and sound just fine in this context. The only quibble I have is with Watson Bosler’s extended booklet notes, which are inflated to near comical proportions. Bosler has been the program note writer for the Singers for more than 25 years, and his well-intentioned booklet essay recounts in a discursive manner nearly every single detail (no matter how completely insignificant) that relates to any of the pieces, their performances, Gregg Smith’s career, and the people for whom they are written. Several of the notes take longer to read and process than it does to listen to the related pieces. Perhaps there are some individuals (likely those who were personally involved in these performances) for whom this level of detail is desired, but I found it frustrating and completely unnecessary in the context of a general CD release. However, don’t let that spoil the enjoyment of these very fine compositions. Gregg Smith has done so very much for other composers, and his own time in the compositional spotlight is well deserved in every respect.
FANFARE: Carson Cooman
Works on This Recording
Jazz Mass for Saint Peter's, for chorus & ensemble by Gregg Smith
Wayne Wright (Guitar),
Rosalind Rees (),
Bruce [Tenor Vocal] Gifford (),
Michael Levanson (Percussion),
James Sullivan (Trumpet),
Walter Richardson ()
Length: 28 Minutes 7 Secs.
Songs from a Liberal Heart, for chorus, violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon & organ by Gregg Smith
Matt Goeke (Cello),
Susan Deaver (Flute),
Madeline Sturm (Clarinet),
Conductor] Thomas [Organ Schmidt (Organ),
Daniel Hane (Bassoon),
Suzanne Ornstein (Violin),
Denise Cridge (Viola)
Length: 8 Minutes 39 Secs.
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