Whitacre: The Sacred Veil (CD Review)

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Artistic Director; Eric Whitacre, conductor; Lisa Edwards, piano; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello. Signum SIGCD630.

Composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is a gifted composer and choral conductor whose work always seems to be bursting with energy, imagination, and beauty. His style is a mixture of the simple and the complex, with melodies that are beguiling and straightforward on the surface but often expressed in harmonies that can stretch, soar, and bedazzle. His energy does not confine itself to his composing, as he also is active as a conductor. With the rise of the internet and technologies for interacting electronically, he has recently been active in assembling “virtual choirs” that feature singers from throughout the world joyfully blending their voices under his direction and stewardship.

Whitacre composed The Sacred Veil in with his friend and frequent collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri, who wrote the lyrics, which revolve around the death from cancer of his late wife, Julia Lawrence Silvestri. As you might surmise from those circumstances, The Sacred Veil is an intensely personal, deeply moving work of art; moreover, this Signum CD is rewarding in many different ways.

One of the interesting qualities of The Sacred Veil is the way it balances intimacy with expression. The lyrics focus on the really private story of Julia’s passing, told from the perspective of her husband, Charles. At the same time, the lyrics are used to evoke Silvestri’s concept of a thin veil that separates the past from the future, the living from the dead, the temporal from the eternal. A simple concept intellectually, but packed with mystery and complexity as a lived experience. Whitacre’s musical setting of the lyrics uses simple melodies played by the piano and the cello to provide a ground for the sometimes straightforward, sometimes soaringly complex choral parts.

Just listen to the opening measures, with a simple melody on the piano soon joined by a tone from the cello, the choir then joining in with some exquisite harmonizing that draws the listener right into the lyrics and thus into the story. By the time the final movements arrive, the vocal harmonies have become more layered, more complex, but the piano and cello still are there to provide a solid foundation for the harmonic structure of the voices. A particularly moving choral device that Whitacre uses to great effect are sliding harmonies in the voices as the lyrics reflect Silvestri’s thoughts and emotions in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s passing in the penultimate movement, “You Rise, I Fall,” an incredibly moving portrait of grief built upon love and hope.

Following the music there is a recorded interview with Silvestri and Whitacre. Such appendices to a musical performance can be annoying, but Silvestri and Whitacre offer an explanation of the meaning of the work and the creative process that the two of them used to bring the piece to fruition. The interview provides insights into The Sacred Veil that makes the listener want to listen to the music again, and again, and again.

Insight into the recording is also provided by the liner notes, which include a brief foreword by Grant Gershon, an introduction to the background story underlying the lyrics by Silvestri, and a movement-by-movement essay on the music by Whitacre. The liner notes also include background information and photographs for not only Whitacre and Silvestri, but also for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, pianist Lisa Edwards, and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. Seeing information provided for all involved just seems to add to the cooperative, supportive, intimate, indeed loving feeling engendered by both the music and the interview contained in this generously filled (nearly 80 minutes) compact disc. Even the austere but expressive black-and-white cover art feels perfectly appropriate for this release.

Last but not least, the recorded sound is of such excellent quality (Fred Vogler was the recording engineer) that the listener is not likely to really even think about it. The music is just there, sounding utterly natural and unstrained. This is a magnificent CD that I cannot recommend too highly. I hope you find it as moving and inspiring as I do.

Bonus Recommendations: Whitacre has several commercial CD recordings available, notably Light and Gold (2010) and Water Night (2012) on the Decca label. The former is all-choral, while the latter also feature some orchestral compositions. Another fine all-choral collection is Cloudburst and Other Choral Works (2007) on Hyperion. A release easy to overlook but wonderful to hear is The Complete A Cappella Works 1991-2001 (2007) performed by the Brigham Young University Singers on the Arsis label. They may be an amateur group, but both the performances and the engineering are first-class. Finally, a work by Whitacre that is a must-hear is Deep Field, orchestral music that Whitacre composed based on images of deep space from the Hubble space telescope. It is not available on CD as of this writing, but you can find links at Whitacre’s website, ericwhitacre.com.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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.
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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 First Symphony. 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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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