Betinis: Songs of Smaller Creatures (CD review)

And other American choral works. Christopher Bell, Grant Park Chorus. Cedille CDR 90000 131.

The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, publicly supported organizations that offer free performances at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois, each summer, have been entertaining listeners for years with frequently offbeat, little-known material. Here, the chorus goes it alone under the direction of Christopher Bell and present a collection of short pieces by modern American composers, some of the works descriptive, some serious, some humorous, some of them in world-première recordings, and all of them a pleasure.

The program begins with the music of Abbie Betinis (b. 1980), her three-movement vocal work that gives its title to the album, Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Song of Smaller Creatures. The composition begins with “The bees’ song,” a cute, expressive piece based on a poem by Walter de la Mare, a piece with lots of z’s in it. Next is “A noiseless, patient spider” from the Walt Whitman poem, followed by “envoi,” which uses a nonsense text by Charles Swinburne, the music sounding, as a note explains, like the hushed flapping of butterfly wings. It’s all very simple yet quietly haunting and moving.

After Ms. Betinis we get Buzzings: Three Pieces about Bees from Lee Kesselman (b. 1951). More of those z’s! The three pieces are “To make a prairie,” “A Bee his burnished carriage,” and “Bee! I’m expecting you,” all deriving from poems by Emily Dickinson. Like most of Ms. Dickinson’s poetry, the songs are brief, sweet, and meaningful. The choir sing them, as they do throughout, with clarity, precision, and, most of all, with feeling.

And so it goes, with music by Eric Whitacre (“When David Heard”), Stacy Garrop (Sonnets of Desire, Longing, and Whimsy), David Tredici (“Acrostic Song”), Ned Rorem (Seven Motets for the Church’s Year), and Paul Crabtree (Five Romantic Miniatures, which finds its inspiration in The Simpsons television show). The program ends with more from Whitacre, “Sleep.” As Whitacre notes, music often depends upon the “perfect balance between sound and silence,” and in this regard we may judge all of these presentations a success. The album will not disappoint lovers of choral music.

Producer James Ginsburg and Cedille engineers Eric Arunas and Bill Maylone recorded the music in concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois, in 2011. It’s a mildly reverberant acoustic, yet the sound is remarkably smooth and clean, with just a touch of natural hall resonance to give it a warm glow. The singers appear well spread out across the sound stage, and the engineers give them ample opportunity to communicate clearly and effectively. Because there is a sense of depth as well as breadth to the chorus, I would imagine it’s quite close to being there.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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