Fuguing great new music from Boston

The story of this adventurous new CD of contemporary choral music starts early in the 19th century in the rural southern states of America. At that time shape notation, or 'fa-sol-la', was an important force in democratising music and it allowed Baptists and Methodists who were outside the education system to sight-read 'fuguing tunes' and simple chorales. Reforming academic musicians rejected shape-note singing but it continued in rural communities in Appalachia using old editions of hymn collections, the most widely used of which was William Walker's 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion.

Almost one hundred and fifty years after William Walker's collection was published William Duckworth composed twenty vocal transformations of the hymns in a late 20th century take on 'shape-singing'. Duckworth's 1981 Southern Harmony may have sprung from an earlier century, but it certainly isn't a nostalgic look back to a vanished Appalachian spring. In fact Duckworth is as well known for his work in the fields of electronic music and the internet, including his online Cathedral project, as he is for his wide range of more conventional compositions. His hour long 1979 Time Curve Preludes for piano were acclaimed by Kyle Gann, no less, as the first ever post-minimalist composition, and Duckworth has perfomed Eric Saties' epic Vexations as well as being associated with John Cage's music.

Five of William Duckworth's brand new fuguing tunes form the centrepiece of Surprised by Beauty, a CD from professional choral ensemble Boston Secession, and the new disc concludes with three hymns in their original 1835 versions. Boston Secession was formed in 1996 by conductor and artistic director Jane Ring Frank who is seen in my header image. Under her leadership the ensemble has been building quite a reputation for fine singing. Their style is similar to European groups such as Polyphony and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and they couple it with innovative programming exemplified by the inclusion of Hugo Distler's Totentanz on their first CD.

Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt, who also contribute to Surprised by Beauty, need no introduction. But Boston Secession's composer in residence Ruth Lomon does. Ms. Lomon was born in Montreal in 1930 and is currently composer/resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her multi-lingual oratorio Testimony of Witnesses is being premiered in 2009, and Surprised by Beauty includes a tantalising excerpt from the new work. Testimony of Witnesses is a concert-length tonal work scored for chorus, orchestra and soloists and the texts in Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Polish, English and Yiddish recount the experiences of sixteen Holocaust survivors in their own words. The excerpt on the CD is Transport which portrays the deportation of Jews to the death camps using the words of five victims with the orchestra painting an eerie sound picture of the train journey to hell.

Surprised by Beauty is released on the tiny Boston based Brave Records label, and I have to ask why aren't more CDs like this being released? The singing is exemplary and gives no quarter to better known professional ensembles. The sound captured in the Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts by David Liquori is demonstration quality. The duration of 52 minutes is no problem when the quality is so high, and at least a pre-concert lecture isn't used as a filler. The sleeve notes by Robert Fink are excellent. But elsewhere the minimalist sub-title and ECM-style artwork seen below (at least it is in focus) are irrelevant if not misleading. There is no need to market this disc as 'new cool', this is simply excellent contemporary choral music that doesn't require endorsement by category. Buy it from the Boston Secession website or from Amazon.

Ruth Lomon's Transport uses words by Theresienstadt survivor Else Dormitzer. Composer Viktor Ullman was sent to Theresienstadt before perishing in Auschwitz. Read about his opera The Emperor of Atlantis here.

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Daniel Krueger said…
A well-earned favorable review. This is a group led by one of America's most talented conductors - Jane Ring Frank. I'm lucky enough to live in Boston and attend concerts all the time. So glad to see that this wonderful album is being so well received all around the world!
Unknown said…
I find it interesting that Secession is alternately praised and criticized for that pesky word: minimalism. The music, production, and performances themselves are universally, and deservedly, well-received.

Jane Ring Frank's thesis is supported by the controversy itself--that the beauty of these works transcends genres while using a small amount of content to generate a vast emotional effect. That is why reviewers are indeed "surprised by beauty;" they are astonished at the contrast between their own (or their analysis of others') understanding of minimalism, and Secession's execution of it on this CD.

This all makes for fascinating reading and listening.
A. M. Mead said…
It is so gratifying to see Boston Secession and Artistic Director, Jane Ring Frank receive such positive attention both in the U.S. and abroad. While I only have known of the group for half of its life span, I know that the music scene in Boston is thoroughly enriched by its presence.

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