Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A new release of choral works by Robert Kyr from soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig with Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Craig Hella Johnson on Harmonia Mundi

American composer, Robert Kyr graduated from Yale University in 1974, continuing his studies at the Royal College of Music, London and at Dartington Summer School where he studied with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Kyr returned to America to complete his M.A at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with George Rochberg and George Crumb. In 1989, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he studied with Donald Martino and Earl Kim.

Since then Kyr's music has been performed widely around the world and has been commissioned by numerous ensembles, including Chanticleer (San Francisco), Cappella Romana (Portland), Cantus (Minneapolis), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, New England Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, New West Symphony (Los Angeles), Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, Yale Camerata, Oregon Repertory Singers, Cappella Nova (Scotland), Revalia (Estonia), Putni (Latvia), Moscow State Chamber Choir (Russia), Ensemble Project Ars Nova, Back Bay Chorale (Boston), and San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. 

To date Kyr has composed twelve symphonies, three chamber symphonies, three violin concertos, and numerous works for vocal ensemble including many large-scale works - A Time for Life (An Environmental Oratorio, 2007); The Passion according to Four Evangelists (1995); and three choral symphonies—From Creation Unfolding (No. 8, 1998), The Spirit of Time (No. 9, 2000), and Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light (No. 10, 2005).

Kyr has held teaching positions in composition and theory at Yale University, UCLA, Hartt School of Music, and Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, Aspen Music School, and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently Kyr is a professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, and chair of the composition department. 

A new release from Harmonia Mundi features two of Kyr’s major choral works, The Cloud of Unknowing and Songs of the Soul, together with a short unaccompanied choral work, The Singer’s Ode.

HMU 807577
Grammy-nominated conductor, Craig Hella Johnson directs Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra with soloists soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig

There is a lovely, mellifluous choral texture from Conspirare in this fine unaccompanied setting of Kyr’s own text, The Singer’s Ode (2012).  The music rises to a short climax before its gentle, quiet coda where the choir hold the final note until it fades.

The Cloud of Unknowing (2013) is a more substantial work, in two parts. This oratorio sets texts by St. Teresa of Avila, sung in 16th century Castilian Spanish; Psalms 42 and 136, sung in Latin and an anonymous 14th century text on contemplation, from which the work draws its title, sung in English. It explores the relationship between human and divine love.

Part I: Songs of the Night opens with Unknowing (anon. 14th c.), baritone David Farwig entering over strings before Esteli Gomez joins in this imaginatively written piece with beautifully written textures for the choir when they add there fine sound. There is an orchestral conclusion as the strings quietly fade. Esteli Gomez opens Fearing (St. Teresa of Avila) with the orchestra providing little string pizzicato decorations as well as a lovely solo violin contribution. Soon David Farwig enters to duet with Gomez. Both these soloists have very fine musical voices that blend especially well together.

Forgetting (anon. 14th c.) follows straight on, with the choir singing gently over hushed tremolo strings as this section gently rises. What a fine choir this is. The final piece in Part I, Longing (Psalm 42), is beautifully restrained. The choral sound richens and tries to rise a little, but continues to gently undulate with again Kyr’s fine choral textures subtly supported by the orchestra. Eventually the choir reach a pinnacle of vocal expressiveness with some lovely harmonies and finely sensitive singing before quietly fading away.

The two soloists come together again in Waiting (St. Teresa of Avila) the first section of Part II: Songs of Dawn with the orchestra providing a lovely pulse as they move ahead in this fine setting. The choir joins and there is, at the end, a solo violin passage that leads straight into Thinking (anon. 14th c.), where the choir take over, with orchestral accompaniment, the baritone voices conversing with the soprano voices in a finely written section. Kyr eventually overlays the voices, to brilliant effect.

The soloists return to duet again in Beseeching (St. Teresa of Avila) another lovely setting, full of Mediterranean warmth and some particularly fine singing from the two soloists. The choir enters with an orchestral bass ground in Piercing (anon. 14th c.), the strings providing a dramatic edge. The choir gains in intensity and tempo, concluding on a climax.

We move straight into Surrendering (St. Teresa of Avila) with a pure voice Esteli Gomez singing ‘Nada te turbe’ (Let nothing upset you) before David Farwig enters over strings passage singing the next line, nada te espante (Let nothing startle you) before they combine in this most beautiful section. Later the choir enters adding a lovely choral layer to this section before taking the lead. We are taken rapidly into Enduring (Psalm 136) a fast, rhythmic section where the soloists and choir alternate and overlay in a series of verses and responses, reaching a kind of ecstasy in the coda.

The cantata, Songs of the Soul (2011) traces the journey of the soul from being earthbound and despairing to a state of transcendence and joy. The odd numbered movements are for chorus and strings and set various biblical texts, whilst the even numbered movements are for soprano, baritone and strings and are settings of Noche oscura (Dark Night) a mystical poem by St. John of the Cross.

A deep resonant choir rises up slowly in the Latin setting from Psalm 69 and Jonah, Descending: From the Abyss, with some beautiful choral writing. Kyr’s part writing is superbly done with lovely harmonies and textures. The music rises in an appeal of increasing desperation, before quietening again with Craig Hella Johnson shaping the choir beautifully. The music descends to the depths towards the end before rising up again with such a lovely layering of textures. It falls, again, to the depths, to end on a deep rich note.

Baritone, David Farwig, is first heard in Venturing: On a Dark Night, a setting of St. John of the Cross, against an anguished small string ensemble Farwig sings superbly with fine vocal textures as he weaves around. Towards the end soprano, Esteli Gomez enters, vocalising and creating a haunting atmosphere, right up to the end, a beautiful moment where she beautifully and gently rises up.

Choir and string orchestra appear as Hoping: Toward Dawn, a setting of Psalm 130 slowly and gently rises up. The music soon becomes dramatic but drops to a hush before the choir moves slowly forward again. It rises up again, centrally, before gently leading to the conclusion with some especially fine individual choral sections leading to a hushed end with sopranos singing over basses.

Strings and baritone open Transforming: Beloved into Lover in this heartfelt setting of St John of the Cross with brilliantly done string textures. Esteli Gomez enters for second verse and combines with Farwig for the third and last verse weaving some fine lines.

The mellifluous sounds of this fine choir return for Arising: A Time for Song (St. John of the Cross) with Johnson achieving some lovely little nuances in gentle rocking motion before this section slowly rises in intensity to the end.

Uniting: Leaving My Cares (St John of the Cross) opens with Gomez bringing a lovely crystalline purity to this exquisite setting, accompanied by the barest string ensemble. Farwig joins to vocalise this time adding an intoxicatingly lovely sound, before joining in the text of the last verse. There is such a lovely hushed coda as the strings bring about the end.

Choir opens gently in Transcending: And Love Remains, a setting from Corinthians, with Kyr again layering his vocal forces to perfection. The music slowly rises and falls whilst overall becoming more passionate as the soul reaches a transcendent state on a long held choral note.

This is a particularly fine choral work that deserves to become popular.

This is an impressive disc all round with some of the finest contemporary choral music around. The performances are superb. The recording from Texas A and M University-Corpus Christi Performing Arts Center, Corpus Christi, Texas is excellent and there are excellent booklet notes from Robert Kyr as well as full texts and translations in a beautifully produced booklet. 

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