Lo, There Is Light! Choral Music for a New Millennium
The Harvard University Choir; Murray Forbes Somerville, director; Nancy Granert, organ. Pro Organo CD 7085, $15
The Harvard University Choir is good. In fact they are very good, which makes one wonder why they haven't recorded nearly as much as their Oxbridge counterparts. The comparison could be considered unfair: King's College, Cambridge, for example, has a 555-year tradition and such a time-honored technique--crisp, well-mannered, reedy--that their sound, the English sound, is, to many ears, what a choir sounds like, period. Luckily, University organist and choirmaster (and New College, Oxford, graduate) Murray Forbes Somerville doesn't hold such a preconception. Since Somerville's appointment in 1990, the choir has released four albums, most recently Lo, There Is Light! This is an accomplishment made doubly admirable because, while Somerville guides the choir into a recording schedule more like his alma mater's, he doesn't try to make it mimic English timbre.
Lo, There Is Light! offers anthems and incidental church music from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth. The selections, which include Charles Callahan's hearty Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, an expressionistic Amen by Henryk Górecki, and the carol-like title work by Australian Matthew Orlovich, show off the choir's ability to make bold music. Brassy, occasionally reckless, at points the singers strain against their voices' technical limits the way a teenager might butt against a curfew. When this works, it can result in a thrilling, edgy performance: in the Górecki, for instance, they lean into the piece's dissonances in a way an English choir might not have the stomach for. When it doesn't work, the sound is a little tart. But any faults in the choir's approach are faults of youth; they sometimes miss, but only by trying too hard.
Nevertheless, the success of compilation recordings based on a theme, such as Lo, There Is Light! and the choir's previously issued discs, depend more on interest in the performers than in the musical offerings. To me, the real excitement lies just ahead. This fall, the Naxos label will release a disc of the choir singing works by Johann Pachelbel, and Centaur Records will issue the first recording of a recently discovered mass by Antonio Lotti, the manuscript of which was donated last year to Houghton Library. These discs will provide a welcome opportunity to hear how the choir's style stands up to one composer's works.
Within a few days after arriving at Harvard in 1987, I unsuccessfully auditioned for the Harvard University Choir. Having heard me mangle both the tenor and bass lines of a hymn, former choirmaster John Ferris sat nodding on the piano bench and carefully said, "That's an interesting sound." Though in that case "interesting" meant "hopeless," I think I can say without hint of euphemism that the Harvard University Choir's sound is interesting; I hope to hear it more and more often.
~ Daniel Delgado