Higdon: The Singing Rooms (CD review)

Also, Singleton: PraiseMaker; Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Jennifer Koh, violin; Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc TEL-32630.

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

Composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) must feel as though it's her wedding day. In the past month she has had world-première recordings of her works debuted on two major record labels, DG and Telarc. Since we're dealing with the Telarc album at the moment, here's the lineup: Alexander Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy is the "old"; Higdon's The Singing Rooms is the "new"; Alvin Singleton's PraiseMaker is the "borrowed"; and the album cover is mainly the "blue." Or close enough.

The program begins with Jennifer Higdon's The Singing Rooms, which the reader should not confuse with Jim Morrison's The Singing Doors. Violinist Jennifer Koh originally requested Higdon write The Singing Rooms, a concerto for violin, chorus, and orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra subsequently commissioned it, premiering it in 2008. Telarc here offer the first recording of it, with, appropriately, Ms. Koh as the soloist.

A lonely violin opens and closes the Higdon music, the chorus entering for its often quietly melancholy statements. Unlike so many late twentieth-century composers, Ms. Higdon believes in writing real tunes, melodies, rather than simply inventing new soundscapes. In The Singing Rooms she uses seven of the poems of a colleague, Jeanne Minahan. Higdon arranged the poems in a dramatic sequence "like rooms in a house," each with its own emotional response. The music has a lightly lilting, semisweet quality about it, creating lingering wisps of sweetly pensive contemplation. Jennifer Koh's violin playing conveys the varying atmospheric moods of the music, with the chorus and orchestra under Robert Spano continuously furnishing a cushy reassurance that all is well, even though the actual words of the poetry may escape the listener. Is any of it memorable or of lasting importance? Who knows. Only time will tell. Certainly, it is enchanting for the moment.

Alvin Singleton (b. 1940) wrote PraiseMaker for chorus and orchestra in the late Nineties, getting a live première in 1998, with this Telarc rendering its first recording. He sets his work to an original text by poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Susan Konguell. It is music of mostly restrained rejoicing, and its many contrasts, with occasional outbursts, make it an apt companion to the Higdon work, especially as it also begins and ends in a lonely, somewhat melancholy place. Neither the Higdon nor the Singleton piece is music you'll probably find yourself humming around the house afterwards, however. Most of it seems like a series of hushed, lyrical tone exercises, with the Singleton work sneaking up on you in progressively unexpected ways.

Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) debuted his well-known Poem of Ecstasy for orchestra in 1908. Maestro Spano's reading is colorful, sensual, and downright sexy. Spano draws comparisons to the music of Debussy in its lush textures, expansive themes, and long expressive lines. Hedonistic old Romantic that I am, I enjoyed it more than I did the Higdon or Singleton pieces, but that's just me.

The sound, which Telarc recorded in March of 2009, is fairly soft and distant, and while that may fit most of the music on the disc, it doesn't always provide the best acoustic for one's understanding of the words of the chorus. The midrange loses a good deal of transparency, as though one were listening from the back of an auditorium. Still, it's soothing enough, even if it sounds misty or cloudy at times. In the Higdon and Singleton music, there are few opportunities for the famous Telarc bass drum to make itself known, and, again due to the nature of the music, not a lot of chance for displaying a wide dynamic range or impact. Nevertheless, the Singleton piece in particular does have fine parts for brass and percussion, which stand out, and then in the Scriabin, with its greater orchestral range, the sound is better in most areas, if still a bit too soft and distant for my liking.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa