Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sometimes I Feel Alive. Rilke Songs. Introit for the Season of Epiphany. Arise, My Love. Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Ave, dulcissima. Missa Brevis. Aaronic Benediction. Behold the Tabernacle of God
Noel Edison, cond; Michael Bloss (org); Elora Fes Singers
NAXOS 8.559607 (60:07)
It’s difficult to be a Renaissance man in American society. People who do more than one thing well are often suspected of vague alchemy. The tendency is to admire those of us who become our own logo, someone immediately identifiable and categorical. Sometimes this transformation is almost instantaneous. After all, you can be a so-called New Jersey housewife one day and a reality TV star the next, or brand yourself Lady GaGa merely by being, well, gaga. But Julian Wachner is no Johnny-come-lately and he refuses to become a brand. The only thing predictable about him is his versatility and prodigiousness as a conductor and composer. This CD, the first in a series of three CDs representing his complete choral works, demonstrates how difficult it might be to pigeonhole a man who is as comfortable writing a benediction as he is a sensual chorale.
By the latter I do not refer to something like
, but rather Wachner’s settings of three E.E. Cummings poems,
There Is a Moon Sole, As Is the Sea Marvelous,
Somewhere I Have Never Traveled
, a compilation Wachner calls
Sometimes I Feel Alive
. The work is an
song cycle with male-female counterexchanges with a jazzy, syncopated, somewhat tongue-in-cheek twist. This is a musical encapsulation of young love leading (after all the fireworks of sexual abandon) to resolution, commitment, and serenity. The technique is hidden behind the ingenuity and liveliness, and there is more skill here than meets the eye, since Wachner has deliberately gone about composing a piece that can be sung by an amateur group. This is no easy feat when the result is as compelling as this.
, which Wachner derived by combining several of Rilke’s animal poems, is a more serious and complex piece of music reflecting the depth of Rilke while navigating the German text handily. Certainly, from a textual point of view, Cummings and Rilke are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and Wachner’s music reflects this. The syntax of the Rilke music is as multileveled as the text is musical. Wachner does a phenomenal job of conveying in his close harmonies the richness of Rilke’s poetry and the poignancy and humor as well.
As for the remaining selections, which constitute the bulk of the CD, I must admit, as I may have indicated in my recent review of Sir Philip Ledger, that I sometimes have difficulty evaluating religious music because of its adherence to liturgical imperatives, or to the traditions, express rules, and expectations of the church for which the music is composed. Though I particularly liked Wachner’s
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,
and though his sacred offerings here are well written, melodic and interesting, tonal and accessible, I’m not sure the compositions can exist in the secular world without the accoutrements of steeples, organs, oak pews, and the odor of incense. Accordingly, I should recuse myself by saying that I don’t attend church and I don’t tend to listen to much sacred music unless it is a few hundred years old (or maybe Britten and Fauré), and, even then, I am not particularly moved by the words of someone else’s scripture, nor am I ever impressed with how the music serves the text. Church choirs, however, I know for a fact, are constantly searching for new music to sing and Wachner’s music is popular among the aficionados because it is both singable and good. Perhaps the problem here, if there is one, is that the CD is weighted too heavily toward the sacred with just a tease of Wachner’s secular fare. However, judging by the Cummings and Rilke offerings, Wachner has nothing to fear from my predilection for the profane and experimental, nor do his sacred works have anything to fear from my agnosticism. And I am well aware of the fact that, though he did write secular music as well, the great Bach himself needed his church commissions, his choir conducting gigs, and his religious schoolteaching posts to foot the bill for his non-religious experiments.
FANFARE: David Wolman