By Victor Carr Jr
May 19, 2011
Jennifer Koh, violin;
Robert Spano, conductor
One of the compelling features of Jennifer Higdon's The Singing Rooms is its form--an amalgam of violin concerto and oratorio. Higdon's setting of poems by Curtis Institute colleague Jeanne Minhan envisions a house, which the chorus describes in physical detail in the opening and closing movements, in between which individual rooms evoke different emotional states and experiences. Higdon's trademark language--post-neo-romantic with elements of minimalism--and bright, tingling orchestration uncannily create the sensation of light coming through windows. She uses this technique as the great effect in the two big climaxes ("Confession" and "A word with God") where rapid rhythmic figures build to an explosion of energy that gives the impression of entering a new realm. Through all of this the violin's wordless commentary (brilliantly played by Jennifer Koh) unveils as much if not more feeling than the text.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform wonderfully under Robert Spano's direction, as they do for Alvin Singleton's PraiseMaker. Set to a poem by Susan Kouguell, PraiseMaker concerns invoking the wisdom of ancestral spirits for guidance in the present and the future. The music begins in the shadowy atmosphere of a sacred ritual, then opens to light and drama as yearnings of the ancestors are given expression.
It was probably with an aim to sell a disc of new music that Telarc chose to play it safe by ending the program with Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy rather than with his less familiar Prometheus, Poem of Fire, which, being more modernist, and using a wordless chorus, is stylistically more appropriate. But my initial concern about this being just "filler" material was blown away by Spano's stunning rendition, which revels in the music's luxurious colors and heated emotions, while the Atlanta Symphony plays the piece as if it were freshly composed for them. A marvelous performance. Telarc's recording relays all three works in vivid realism. A top choice disc.
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