American music strikes a remarkable chord

This weekend, Stephen Layton's Polyphony will reunite with the Britten Sinfonia and the American composer Morten Lauridsen. They will be performing Lauridsen's settings of poems by Robert Graves, Mid-Winter Songs, in Norwich and Ely Cathedrals. Fitting venues for music one critic described as "shamelessly ecstatic", but they are a far cry from the last time the Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Lauridsen combination were together in the public eye. That was at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, home of the LA Lakers basketball team, for 2006's Grammy awards where they had been shortlisted in the choral music section for their Hyperion recording of Lux Aeterna, Lauridsen's settings of sacred Latin texts.

Layton (above), the Polyphony founder and director, says he reluctantly declined the opportunity to mingle with Kanye West and U2 - "it's a nine-hour ceremony!" - and the award eventually went to Leonard Slatkin's recording of Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. But Layton professes himself delighted to have been nominated, although he was not particularly surprised. "I've become very interested in this American style of choral music, which does seem to have struck a remarkable chord with the listening public." Since Lux Aeterna, Polyphony have released a CD of music from another contemporary American composer, 35-year-old Eric Whitacre who has been called "son of Lauridsen", which went straight into the classical charts. A recording of Mid-Winter Songs follows later this year.

Lauridsen has sold over a million copies of sheet music in America, and Whitacre made the top 10 of the American classical music charts. Layton is aware that such success has been accompanied by a certain critical sniffiness, but he stands by the quality, as well as the accessibility, of the music. "I've conducted John Rutter's music and think it has provided a wonderful vehicle for anybody interested in music to celebrate. Whitacre has been compared to Rutter but these are pieces not written solely for amateur singers to enjoy. There is a complexity that can test professionals. Equally, the Lauridsen Winter Songs, which is an earlier work than Lux Aeterna, has a harmonic language that owes a lot to Copland. In essence I'm delighted that one day I can be conducting Schnitke or whoever, and then next doing something a little simpler that everybody can sing." Layton suddenly stops himself with a quizzical look. "But I seem to be inadvertently setting myself up as a populist champion which I am not really. However, I do think there might be a shift going on in that people who are seriously interested in music don't always feel they have to listen to Birtwistle."

From today's Guardian

Listen to six minutes of Hyperion's Grammy nominated recording of Lux Aeterna with Stephen Layton conducting Polyphony:

O nata lux [3'39]-

Veni, Sancte Spiritus [2'20]-

and their best selling Eric Whitacre release featured here in Eric Whitacre outsells Mozart , Water Night [5'03] -

Polyphony's recording of Morten Lauridsen's Mid-Winter Songs is released by Hyperion in the autumn, not in April as was stated in earlier versions of this article. Thanks to Prelude Records for spotting my error.

CDs featured in this article are available from Prelude Records. Image and audio file credits - Hyperion. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Let the people sing and Harrison Birtwistle's cheesy 'Private Passions'


Anonymous said…
I was wondering when was the time before the shift when people who were interested in music felt that they could only listen to Birtwistle.

I'm always irritated by the implication of comments like that.


Rodney Lister

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