Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Americana in Earnest

N.B. I've noticed since coming to London that concert reviews here are really short, maybe about 400 words if the author is lucky.  Everything also gets a star rating.  Consider this an attempt to write a London-style review.

Eric Whitacre with the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra - ***1/2

Composer Eric Whitacre has a new album out on Decca Records, called “Light and Gold.”  That title is a canny descriptor of both the music and the man behind it.  Whitacre’s pieces are built with thick and heavy harmonies that seem to glow in their earnest tonality, earning them ubiquity at American high school band and choral concerts.  With this performance pedigree, it was understandable that when Whitacre led the esteemed London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a concert of his works, he could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“Thank you… um.  I love London!” Whitacre exclaimed at the start of the performance.  With his shoulder-length blond locks and perfect J. Crew stubble surrounding a billion-megawatt smile, it was impossible not to get caught up in the aw-shucks of it all.

The earnest music was perfectly suited to match the mood.  On the program, Whitacre paired his pieces with others by his American forebears, a sort of catalog of influences.   Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” for choir and orchestra opened the concert.  Aside from some brassy sound effects in the playful “I bought me a cat,” Copland did little to dress up the folk tunes, instead building simple and sturdy arrangements.  Whitacre wisely stepped out of the way and led a performance that was clean of sentimentality. 

The mood darkened heavily with “Mid-Winter Songs,” by Morten Lauridsen, Whitacre’s tonal godfather.  Lauridsen chose to set the music to disarmingly personal love poems by Robert Graves, blowing up the author’s emotions to billboard size with monolithic chords and thunderous percussion.  Even with an impassioned performance by the orchestra and choir, the anguished narrator drowned in orchestration.  Whitacre also included Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a piece whose elegant craftsmanship Whitacre agonized over while studying at the Juilliard School.  Soprano soloist Hila Plitmann, Whitacre’s wife, worked hard to send James Agee’s stream-of-consciousness text to the back of the hall, but was too glam to project the girl-next-door vibe the piece feeds on.

Because the concert was also a British coming-out party, the program was filled with several of Whitacre’s million-dollar pieces.  “Water Night,” “Sleep,” and “Lux Aurumque” certainly fit that bill, washing the audience in milky tone clusters that were never dissonant enough to offend the audience.  “Rak HaHatchala,” a set of five Hebrew love songs with lyrics by Plitman, was more agile than the others.  The troubadour melodies were not weighed down by harmonies here, instead quietly pushed along by a tambourine.

But the centerpiece of the program was Whitacre’s new commission for the LSC, “Songs of Immortality,” featuring dark, reflective poems by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson.  It was a deeply personal work for Whitacre, completed while his father suffered through severe health issues.  The optimistic major keys of “Sleep” and “Lux Aurumque” were replaced by ambiguously minor modes, while the burbling orchestral writing gave the choral parts tense momentum.  “Immortality” isn’t going to be another gold-selling composition for Whitacre, but that’s a good thing.  The piece shows that Whitacre can do more than sweetly beguile an audience, that there is dark substance beneath the innocent exterior of both the man and his music.

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