Whitacre: Water Night (CD review)

Hila Plitmann, soprano; Julian Lloyd Webber, cello; Eric Whitacre Singers; London Symphony Orchestra. Decca B0016636-02.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is an American composer, conductor, and lecturer who has enjoyed a remarkable spike in popularity these past seven or eight years, thanks in large part to several best-selling record albums of his mostly choral music, like his Light & Gold CD from 2010, and to his "Virtual Choir" projects on YouTube. In 2010 he signed a long-term record contract with Decca, the present disc his second release for the company.

You may have heard the aforementioned, GRAMMY-winning album Light & Gold. This one, Water Night, from 2012 is in much the same crossover-classical vein, the music sung and played by various groups including his own Eric Whitacre Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra, with a couple of well-known soloists thrown in and occasional Latin texts, which Whitacre, a student of the Juilliard School, seems to enjoy. I have no doubt that Water Night will enjoy the same kind of success that Light & Gold did, and it certainly deserves attention.

The question we have to ask, though, is, Why? Why does Whitacre get all the praise, glory, adulation, and profit that probably a thousand other talented classical composers don't get? I would propose several reasons: First, Whitacre strikes a central chord in listeners' hearts; his music is spiritually uplifting in the manner of Arvo Part's, with inspiring messages of hope and salvation for everyone. Second, Whitacre seems to be an old-fashioned Romantic at heart, his music sweet, amiable, and elegant; the tone tranquil; the tempos calm and soothing; the style straightforward, sometimes sentimental; the voices uniformly reassuring. Who wouldn't respond to that? Third, he has attracted some of the biggest and best names in the business to perform and promote his music, in this case the Decca record label, the LSO, soprano Hila Plitmann, and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Then, fourth, there is the man's pure sex appeal. OK, maybe you weren't expecting that one. But it's true. Just as record companies favor beautiful, young, female musicians who are not only talented but make attractive cover art, so does Whitacre himself ooze sex appeal. Just glance at his pictures: He's relatively young, with the rugged good looks of a movie star, trendy long hair, and a stubble beard so chic these days. He could have stepped off the front page of any voguish men's fashion magazine. So, yeah, he's got it all, and I'm sure he's deserving of every bit of it.

OK, I think we've established that Whitacre writes beautiful music. Can we truly call it "classical"? Of course, we can, and, besides, it doesn't matter how much it crosses over into pop. Music is music, and if you enjoy it, who cares what you call it. Will any of Whitacre's music become "classic," that is, lasting? That we won't know for forty or fifty years. Right now, I'd call his material pleasurable but not necessarily memorable. I can appreciate it while I'm listening to it, but I doubt I could whistle any of it five minutes from now. We'll have to wait and see on the "classic" end.

The program begins with what is one of the best numbers on the program, "Alleluia" ("Praise the Lord") sung by the Eric Whitacre Singers. The composer says in a booklet note that he's neither an atheist nor a Christian, but he finds this particular liturgical word enchanting. Although the hymn is little more than the repetition of the word "Alleluia," it conveys a wealth of feeling.

"Equus," with the LSO, one of the only purely orchestral tracks in the album, is an example of what Whitacre calls "dynamic minimalism." However, it is far more than that and sounds at times as though John Williams had written it for a Spielberg epic.

Another favorite among the nine selections is "The River Cam," with cello and string accompaniment. It is a piece of music in the British "pastoral" school, reminiscent of Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Frank Bridge, or Ralph Vaughan Williams. It's quite lovely, and, for me, the best piece of pure "classical" music on the disc. I hope this one has a real lasting power.

The title tune, "Water Night," is one we heard on the Light & Gold album in choral form. Here, the LSO strings perform an orchestral version that I found even more affecting. Again, it follows a lightly meandering pastoral course, inspired by the poetry of Octavio Paz.

Then, Whitacre set some of the words from author Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" to music, here sung by Whitacre's wife, soprano Hila Plitmann with an accompaniment from the LSO. It's a charming lullaby and can almost bring tears to one's eyes.

And so it goes.

Recorded at St. Albans the Martyr Church, Holborn, London, and Henry Wood Hall, London, the sound is uniformly smooth and expansive, with an enormous dynamic range and solid impact. You won't find a lot of depth or air in the presentation, nor will you probably care. There are too many other things going on, like the superwide stereo spread and the extended frequency response. In other words, it is sound that matches and complements the music.


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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 Jon 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.

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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information (classicalcandor@gmail.com) toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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