Madison Choral Project music is enjoying a cultural renaissance, with a broad swathe of the public connecting to it as never before. The world of contemporary choral compositions is constantly churning out new works that explore and push the genre in fresh directions.
From the rapt, lullaby-like sounds of Plainscapes to Francis Pott’s unflinching addressing of grief in Word, five works deserve wider attention.
Judith Bingham has long been a highly regarded composer for choirs, orchestras, ensembles, brass bands, chamber, and solo piano. Her range of styles reflects her ability to take inspiration from any sources and rework them in her distinctive manner. This disc – her first on Naxos – showcases the choral side of her work with performances beyond reproach, including organist Thomas Trotter in Ancient Sunlight.
Written for the Waynflete Singers in 2001, First Light takes as its starting point Mark Shaw’s poem on the Incarnation. Bingham plunges listeners into atmospheric uncertainty from the start, using macabre harmonic language and dynamic writing for choir and brass, contrasting with the more delicate plainsong used during the responses.
Each of the Responsories reveals something new in a piece that is not only intensely dramatic but also thoughtful; the hushed awe in which the choir sings is impressive and moving. This quality is particularly evident in the sixth Responsary, where the plainsong of ‘Mellius illi erat’ contrasts with an ethereal backdrop.
The most complex piece on the disc – a 2004 Proms commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus – is The Secret Garden. Its theme arose from a combination of ideas that included the 18th-century world of Linnaeus, the garden in which Adam and Eve would have lived after their departure, as well as a piece of research into the synergy between orchids and moths that Bingham had undertaken for a BBC TV series on plants.
The two brief works for the brass ensemble on the disc are equally fine, especially The Snows Descend, which is a paraphrase for the brass of one of Bingham’s choral pieces. The entire set is superbly recorded and an excellent introduction to a composer’s music whose talents still need to be widely appreciated.
English composer Roxanna Panufnik (b 1968) draws upon various musical influences in her works, including world music. She aims to create ‘musical bridges between faiths’, and in Love Endureth, you can hear fragments of Sephardic chant, Christian plainsong, Sufi rhythms, and a Japanese lullaby, all combined with traditional Anglican text to form a truly Ecumenical Magnificat.
In the seventeenth century, Latin pieces might be sung in public places like the Chapel Royal, where Tallis and Byrd worked, but this was not the case for most other churches. So choristers began to develop their style of working with a melody, and the cleverest among them started to add voices, improvising melodies in parallel with the plainsong tune. The result was an improvised counterpoint that became known as a garden, and the chains of 6/3 chords it created were a calling card of early English sacred music for the rest of the century.
But just because a piece was improvised does not mean it wasn’t composed, and there is evidence that many of the tunes in these earliest garden pieces were previously written down, either for instruments or other purposes. For example, this lullaby, by Edmund Hooper, originally existed as instrumental music: one of the instruments would play the bass part while singers improvised their upper parts over it. The result is a lullaby with an enchanting beauty and a climax that would surely wake even the most soundly-sleeping baby. Interestingly, this piece also contains the only recorded instance of a syllable dotted in a sixteenth-century choral work. It’s a small indication of how improvised counterpoint could be used to make a musical argument and show the power being gathered by these new sounds.
For a program framed around renewal, concluding with an image of Spring and rebirth would be tempting. But there is still a winter to weather, and hope and certainty remain fragile. That did not stop English vocal octet VOCES8 from providing luxuriant and luscious harmonies in Kate Rubsy’s ‘Underneath the Stars’ and a Carroll Coates arrangement of ‘Danny Boy.’
The group’s new director, J.D. Burnett, infused the ensemble with an impressive dynamic range that energized the church’s acoustics. He maintained the discipline of his predecessor, Donald Krehbiel while expanding the choral group’s expressive potential.
Dove’s The Passing of the Year is a remarkable work for choir and piano. It presents the natural cycle of seasons – from the invocation, ‘O Earth, return!’, through the burgeoning of Spring to the sweltering heat of Summer and the fading frailties of Autumn – in a sequence of choral settings of poetry by Blake, Dickinson, Peel, Nashe, and Tennyson.
Dove was once the group’s composer-in-residence and wrote this piece for VOCES8 in 2019. The work’s opening section is an ode to nature that eulogizes its “sweet days and roses” before darkening into the acceptance that earthly life is transient. Dove’s kaleidoscopic harmonic colors convey the poet’s image of the soul as a “seasoned timber” before the light repetitions reassert that “yet chiefly lives.” It is a brilliant musical representation of this metaphysical conceit and an aural experience to be treasured.
The choral genre is a vast one, with numerous styles and influences to be found in its many works. It’s also ever-growing, with new music constantly being churned out by composers from all over the world.
In recent years, composers such as Judith Bingham, Karl Jenkins, and Kerensa Briggs have been creating highly emotive and thought-provoking works. Their pieces can have an almost theatrical effect on audiences, bringing the audience into the heart of the performance.
British composer Will Todd is well known for his work in contemporary choral music. His compositions range from various jazz-style settings, such as his Mass in Blue, to the beautiful Stay with Me Lord anthem. His choral works are regularly performed by choirs all over the world.
Another prolific UK composer is Paul Hillier. His choral works are widely performed, and his recordings with the King’s Singers and Evelyn Glennie have been critically acclaimed. His choral pieces have been adapted for film and TV, such as Street Songs, which featured in the movie The Great Escape and Tyger Tyger, for Youth Music’s nationwide Sing Up campaign.
American composer Nico Muhly is a sought-after collaborator and composer with a wide-ranging musical background. His works have been performed in Carnegie Hall and St. Paul’s Cathedral venues. He has received commissions from the Metropolitan Opera, the Hilliard Ensemble, and the Tallis Scholars.
One of Muhly’s best-known works is Looking Up, written for a large mixed ensemble and incorporates elements from American minimalism and the Anglican choral tradition. This piece has ethereal beauty and otherworldly sound effects, such as tuned glasses.
While most modern audiences may consider choral music to be old, boring harmonies that died with kings, some brilliant composers still create aural ephemera that means something to many people. Some, like Morten Lauridsen, have earned the respect of a worldwide audience, while others, such as Eric Whitacre, keep listeners on their toes with transcendent textures and compositional techniques.
The Boosey & Hawkes Contemporary Choral Series includes works by established and emerging voices. The catalog ranges from pieces for large choirs with complex voicings to smaller chamber ensembles that highlight each singer’s unique voice. The collection includes works for both sacred and secular occasions, with some including lyrics that are suitable for mass participation.
Choral performers are hungry for new types of exploration. Panufnik is interested in multi-faith and cultural perspectives, using Sephardic chants in this double choir setting. Dove also demonstrates his supreme understanding of the human voice with this cycle that explores Love, sex, and death through various secular texts.
Gjeilo, who has a background as a pianist, is one of the most performed choral composers in the world. His distinctive soundworld has evolved a contemporary and familiar style; thick harmonies and rich textures recall film score – music that forms a significant part of his inspiration. With a work for orchestra and his choral output, he continues to push the boundaries of a musical genre that is perhaps best known for its traditional sonics.