Gilbertson: Born (CD review)

Michael Gilbertson: Born; Edie Hill: Spectral Spirits; Gilbertson: Returning. Donald Nally, The Crossing. Navona NV6449.

By Karl W. Nehring

The Crossing is a chamber choir from Philadelphia that specializes in new music. Not only does the group perform new music, but it also plays an active role in seeking out and commissioning new works to perform. For example, the piece that opens this program, Born, by American composer Michael Gilbertson (b. 1987), was commissioned by The Crossing’s conductor Donald Nally and his spouse Steven Hyder in memory of Nally’s mother. The text, which is thoughtfully included in the liner booklet, is based on a poem by the late Polish woman poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996. It contemplates birth, familial relationships, and the human condition. The poetry is vivid and moving; having it set to music and sung with such conviction as this small choir brings to it adds up to a striking emotional experience for the listener, who will have to decide whether to enjoy the sheer beauty of the sound without referring to the printed text to completely capture every word the first time around or save that for a later listening session. There’s no right or wrong sequence – just be grateful the text is available if needed for complete comprehension.  

The next composition on this release, Spectral Spirits, by another American composer, Edie Hill (b. 1962), was also commissioned by The Crossing and premiered in Philadelphia and New York in 2019. The Crossing describes the piece as a “memorial to lost birds,” structured in four “pillars” or sections representing four extinct bird species: the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, and Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. “Composing Spectral Spirits was as much a study of humans as it was of birds,” writes Hill. “I found myself asking how human beings managed to obliterate these species. In some cases, populations were brought back from the brink of extinction only to be brought down again… Why, if we see something alive, vibrant, with striking color, do we want to possess it to the point of oblivion? Why is it permissible to destroy nature in the name of ‘progress’ or financial gain? In the end: we all lose. I grieve every day for the state of our planet and her creatures. Composing Spectral Spirits was a gift that gave me a chance to funnel this grief.”

The section for each bird has a formal structure that consists of a brief introduction, a naming, and then the main sung text, based on a poem by Holly J. Hughes from her book Passings, which contains 15 poems about birds that are highly endangered or extinct. Again, the texts for all sections are given in the booklet, along with a more detailed explanation of how Ms. Hill chose to compose the piece in this particular manner. In any event, the overall effect is haunting. The way the birds are briefly introduced, formally named, and then tenderly portrayed in verse that is sung so exquisitely by the choir is bound to capture the ears and imagination of the listener, regardless of whether he or she has any particular interest in birds, living or extinct. For my money, Spectral Spirits is one of the most interesting and engaging new compositions that I have heard in quite some time. Brava, Ms. Hill!

Closing the program is another work by composer Michael Gilbertson, titled Returning. The text is by Kai Hoffman-Krull who based his lyrics on the story of David and Jonathan from the Hebrew Bible, exploring themes of friendship, fraternal and passionate love, absence, and longing in the form of an unspoken conversation between the two. Having the written text is especially helpful in this instance to clearly differentiate between the two characters.

The engineering team has done a good job of capturing the sound of the choir. There is no harshness or glare, a decent stereo spread, and just enough ambience to give a sense of space without producing suffucient echo to smear the sound. The liner notes provide useful information on the composers and their compositions as well as complete texts – the only thing I could have wanted more would have been pictures of the birds featured in Spectral Spirits, but yes, I know I am being way too greedy. If you enjoy choral music, this is one you don’t want to overlook.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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 occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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 II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual 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.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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