Nico Muhly: A Good Understanding (CD review)

Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale.  Decca B0014741-02.

The back-cover blurb describes the pieces on this disc as "contemporary choral classics."  Now, I hate to begin on a negative note, and I mean no disrespect to the musical selections on the album, which are lovely in every regard; but to call them "classics" seems premature. The very term "contemporary classics" seems contradictory to me, a typical stretch of PR hype. Let's wait, say, fifty years and see if people are still listening to and recording this music. Then we'll know if they're "classics" or not. For the present, I'd rather refer to them simply as highly agreeable choral compositions and leave it at that.

The back cover also describes Nico Muhly as "America's leading young composer." Not one of America's leading young composers, but apparently the leading young composer, period. Again, no disrespect to Mr. Muhly, who is surely an excellent composer, but not having heard the work of every other young American composer out there, I couldn't possibly agree that Muhly was the very best of the lot. In any case, he is, as I say, very good, his having started as a boy chorister in the Eighties and going on to pursue music at Columbia University and the Julliard School, studying composition with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse. Today, he's developed into quite a multitalented composer, working not only in classical music but in pop, rock, and opera.  In the current album, he works with choral settings of mainly spiritual texts.

The program begins with Bright Mass with Canons, a four-section choral work sung in Latin.  It sounds at once familiar, as it should, yet new and fresh and remarkably refreshing for what most listeners will deem "church" music.  I mean, it is a mass, after all.

The next piece, the ambiguously titled First Service, is in two canticles--"Magnifcat" and Nunc dimittis"--and sung in English. It aims to place four-hundred-year-old texts in a modern setting. Just don't expect a modernization to sound like something a rock singer or avant-garde innovator would write. These are still pretty conventional arrangements that do no disservice to the sacred words.

Senex puerum portabat ("The old man bore the child in his arms") is a Christmas anthem, again set to an old text, which begins sweetly enough and then bursts out in jubilation toward the end, finally floating down into gentle repose. It's one of the most-affecting pieces on the program.

The penultimate work, A Good Understanding, which lends its name to the album, is the most boisterous, outgoing work on the disc, with percussion in the forefront and organ and voices taking up the rhythms as the piece proceeds.  It's kind of fun, given the nature of the music.

The program concludes with Muhly's only secular work in the collection, Expecting the Main Things from You. Here, we get the words of American poet Walt Whitman set to music in three parts. It's the longest piece in the set, and, again, while it's probably not as memorable as Whitman's words alone, it does no harm to them, either. Outstanding moments:  wood blocks, Morse code, and the entire third movement.

The performances by conductor Grant Gershon and the world-famous Los Angeles Master Chorale do complete justice to Muhly's music. The purity of tone and intonation, the clarity of line, and the fusion of voices makes a joyful noise, indeed.  In the various selections on the disc, the Chorale is joined by a diversity of solo singers and instrumentalists, including Tamara Bevard and Karen Hogle Brown, sopranos; Tracy Van Fleet, mezzo-soprano; Kimo Smith, organ; David Washburn, Marissa Benedict, and Andrew Ulyate, trumpets; Kristy Morrell, horn; Michael Hoffman, Alvin Veeh, and Terry Cravens, trombones; Fred Greene, tuba; Claire Fedoruk, soprano; Drea Pressley, mezzo-soprano; Ralph Morrison and Steve Scharf, violins; Michael Englander, Aaron Smith, and Joseph Mitchell, percussion; and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.

Decca recorded the album in June, 2010, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the audio engineers providing exemplary sound. For the most part, the recording balances the voices well against the organ background, the vocals clear without being too bright or edgy. The organ is deep and solid, and the stereo spread displays plenty of center fill, delivering a room-filling choral/organ/instrumental sound, with vividly articulated percussion and a pleasant ambient bloom to the whole affair.


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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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