in: Reviews

March 21, 2013

The Whitacre Phenomenon

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Whitacre conducts (file photo)

Whitacre conducts (file photo)

In spite of rough weather and minimal publicity, a decent-sized crowd turned out Tuesday evening at Symphony Hall to experience Eric Whitacre and his eponymous, (mostly) a cappella chorus.

Whitacre casts a spell, perhaps slightly self-consciously so, but no one can deny his impact on choral music, and the great art of combining human voices has in him a strong advocate. It was encouraging therefore to see so many young faces in Symphony Hall—with all the talk of aging traditional music lovers—and it’s also easy to see that he has something to say, both through his music and with his illuminating comments to the audience. The composer/conductor’s virtual choral gatherings on the internet have generated uncommon interest, and even a cult-like following around the world.  With such a fan base, perhaps only John Rutter has as many followers. And of course choral colleagues—directors and singers—love to find fault with those who “make it big” in our field. And Whitacre’s golden locks, sylph-like mien as well as his assured, convincing way of occupying a stage are bound to incite jealousy among some fellow musicians.

With him were 28 splendid singers, and it was fun guessing in the first few moments whether they were English, American, or a blend of the two. To my ears, listening to their vowels and their vocal style, it was obvious after a few phrases that they were a completely English group in all the best of ways: they sang gorgeously with extreme, convincing dynamics, their vowel colors (notably on “class,” which was “clahss” and “the,” which polished English singers pronounce “theuh.”) Most of all, their ability to sing in tune was admirable. Whitacre had them well-trained, able to turn on a musical dime, and they seemed utterly confident, up to whatever he asked of them. Although it would be more demanding not to find all his singers in the choral nirvana of Cambridge University, England where he is Composer in Residence, perhaps he could have included a few of his own country’s singers in this touring group. The strong point here, though, is that he appears to be appreciated and respected in England, something more unusual than one might care to admit.

Predominately Whitacre, both as printed and as it unfolded, the program showed a vast discrepancy between the two. The concert opened with The Star Spangled Banner in his arrangement, one which he then explained he’d only composed in the last few days. A brief setting of a bit more than one verse, it featured many of the Whitacre trademarks: beautiful soft singing, separation of male and female voices at the outset, a general cumulative effect, and on the whole it worked well. Then followed his “Alleluia,” a piece which he told us was inspired by his living in Cambridge, where on any afternoon one can attend a number of evensong services at such choral meccas as St John’s or King’s Colleges. Echoing a bit our own Randall Thompson’s famous Alleluia, written for the dedication of Tanglewood in 1940, Whitacre’s own piece of the same name (each of these is based simply on two words: “Alleluia, Amen”), we had the first hint of my only major reservation about Whitacre’s music: much of it is simply too long, sonority and color tending to trump a convincing balance of structure and substance. His own “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” was nonetheless interesting, and it sustained long lines with engaging success. Crystalline soprano Elin Manahan Thomas was the splendid soloist, and the chorus sang radiantly, expressing the idea of flight in an interesting way, calling back and forth, essentially in a tonal idiom, but leavened with trademark delicious cluster harmonies.

Whitacre then turned to Bach Motet No. 1, “Singet dem Herrn,” and just as we were delighted by the clarity and bright energy of that incomparable piece, he ended after the first section, leaving out several of the remaining portions, and saying nothing to the audience about it, or giving any explanation. He should think twice before such omissions. After all, he’s keeping rather distinguished company here, and how would he like it if some future conductor left out numerous major sections of one of his longer pieces?  The first half closed with Whitacre’s own “When David Heard,” written in honor of a choral director at Brigham Young University after his 19 year old son’s death. Too much of a quite-good thing, it seemed to me: there was much to admire, with a great deal of stunning soft singing, alternating chords and silence, and at turns a pleasant, bright restraint and clarity, but the audience was uneasy and clearly not totally engaged . With some serious editing this piece could be one of his best compositions.

A highlight of the first half was Edwin London’s arrangement of Bach’s “Come Sweet Death,” which featured the chorale, first sung as written, and then in elongated, aleatoric fashion, with individual singers creating wonderful effects, aided by arm motions and slight “choreography,” which enhanced the sense of the music. Whitacre modestly stood to the side and let the singers have their way with the second section.

The second half brought for my ears a much more direct, cogent enjoyment.   Whitacre’s settings of Ogden Nash poems (“Animal Crackers”) were perfectly suited to witty poet’s charming words, and e.e. cummings’ excerpts from “The City and the Sea” (here evoking Los Angeles) were compelling and refreshing. The piano accompaniments, handled deftly by Tali Tadmore, used only the white notes of the piano. His music for Octavio Paz’s “A Boy and A Girl” had opened the second half of the program, with uncharacteristic Whitacre brevity, which led to an appropriate setting of the text. Concluding the program, John Corigliano’s “Forever Young from Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan,” was quite a revelation, at least to my ears.

A standing ovation could have been predicted, and was in many ways deserved. For encores, we heard a setting by Whitacre of a Depeche Mode song from the ‘80s, and then his “Sleep” which elicited murmurs of approval from the audience.

An interesting evening, and there is no doubt that Eric Whitacre is a choral force to be reckoned with: we are—on balance—lucky to have him as an advocate in this changing world. Walking out of Symphony Hall into the snow, I couldn’t help wondering what Bach would have thought.

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is here.

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