Review Summary: A unique, fascinating collection of A Capella vocal arrangements from this modern day compositional master explores a degree of his musical capabilities and hits close to the heart.
Speak with anyone who is currently enrolled in a music major, or has received a degree in one, and the mention of Eric Whitacre will merit one of two responses. Some will not be familiar with the name at all, but the others will unanimously contend that he is one of the most ingenious and talented composers of today. Myself? I fall within the latter, as my experience with his work is something that has greatly impacted my appreciation for music and left a lasting impression on my person. Some years ago during my first year of college I had come to an impasse, one that I was not certain how to approach, let alone overcome. Entering into the School of Music as a vocal performance major, I had quickly come to realize within my first quarter that I did not fit in. Much to my dismay, I found myself overwhelmed and unable to find aid in my peers or my instructors alike, and all signs had seemed to point toward a quick end to my pursuit of music education. That is until the following winter, during which I would first be exposed to one of Whitacre's works.
The director of the choir I was enrolled in had presented us with an eight part SATB piece loaded with cluster and secondary chords, a signature compositional method of Whitacre, in a piece entitled Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
. From the first read-through, the entire group was completely enamored with the song and, by the time we had come to performing it, the majority could be brought to tears during even rehearsal runs (myself included). We even had the ecstatic pleasure of his presence as he visited our campus specifically to conduct a very personal practice for us all. On that night I was able to speak with him, get my score signed, and find the inspiration that drove me to pursue music composition as not only a major, but as a living.
Having a primary emphasis in voice as an instrument, this collection stands as a representation of not only what inspired me, but is also indicative of his strength and ability in creating overwhelmingly moving vocal arrangements. Each track is a proof that Whitacre has perfected the art of dynamics, enabling him to conjure a raw, emotive quality capable of piercing into the depths of the mind and stirring the heart and soul. At a moment's passing, a whispering pianissimo can blossom into a tear jerking chorus of encompassing harmonization. Even though I have already performed i thank You God for most this amazing day
, With a Lily in Your Hand
, Go, Lovely Rose
, and Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
, even I cannot resist becoming a little emotional each time I listen to the record to its completion.
With managing a perfect balance of musical dynamics, Whitacre is able to maintain his signature sound while preventing it from becoming stagnant or redundant. His music moves seamlessly through numerous transitions, at times pushing both ends of the spectrum as in With a Lily in Your Hand
. The track begins with a sound that is briefly reminiscent of a church choir before a number of accelerandos strike quickly but return back to a largo piano setting. The panultimate measures, however, eventually allow the accelerando/crescendo to resolve into a perfect authentic cadence. Whitacre uses a similar tactic during the epic fifteen-minute When David Heard
, only broadening the horizons greatly and placing emphasis more on the volume at which the song is sung, allowing him to unfold each musical sentence into a lasting sense of expression in the extended time.
While Whitacre exemplifies his dynamic mastery throughout the course of the listen, the methods in which he does so are much more various than complementing extremes. The opener, Water Night
, travels much like water in a relatively straightforward, placid path, at times growing to but never lingering upon a forte for very long. Likewise, tracks like Lux aurumque
do not boast the swell found in the other works, but rather dim down to quiet whispers before their expiration, particularly the former. Conversely, Go, Lovely Rose
moves slowly through its romantic journey, building chords note by note upon voice parts before its climax where the voices are allowed to briefly meet in a joyous frailty before descending again in separate melodic lines. i thank You God for most this amazing day
, to a lesser, quieter extent also travels an SSAA motive to that leads into another climax via note by note chord cluster construction.
Another signature tool that Whitacre utilizes beautifully is his implementation and expression in text imagery (or text painting, as it's sometimes called), where he mirrors the musical activity to that of which is being described or recited in song. One example of this is the aforementioned Go, Lovely Rose
(written by Edmund Waller) where the text "suffer herself to be desired, and not blush so to be admired
" is sung upon the blossoming of the song's climax, and the following fugue-like descent echoes "then die
" much like flower petals falling from it's bloom. Sleep
extends its cadence in what is easily associable with the lingering moments of consciousness before, appropriately, falling asleep. However, Sleep
is a unique and fascinating track in that it was initially set to the text of a Robert Frost poem, but in Whitacre's attempts to gain permission in doing so the Frost estate refused consent and threatened to take legal action should it be used. In response, Charles Anthony Silvestri, a friend of Whitacre's, agreed to aid in the writing of a new text, one which would have to fit syllable-by-syllable to the Frost poem. What adds another element of endearment is that, in relating this story, Eric told my choir in person that the lyrics used in the current version of Sleep
were written as Silvestri was watching his son sleeping.
The most energetic and vivid imagery, as well as the greatest example of Whitacre's collective compositional elements on this record, is the last track Leonardo Dreams
of His Flying Machine. As the title and the text (also written by Silvestri) imply, the piece is a narration of such for Leonardo DiVinci and his aspiration to fly. Much like a dream disturbed, it opens with the booming voice parts in relative unison upon the declaration "Leonardo dreams...!
". A descension of successive voicings subdues one back into the dream, as though continuing the flight previously interrupted in sleep. As the song continues, the chorus laments the tortuous series of failures and the frustration, painting the perfect picture almost to the likeness of each attempt gone wrong.
Leonardo is eventually put back to sleep and met with the sound of voices calling him (SSAA) and then finally the hasty hushing of the entire chorus "llumo colle su al congeniate grande alle, faciendo forzo contro alle resistente
" (loosely translating into wings large enough could then resist the force of gravity). The song fluctuates from pensive mentioning of releasing pigeons to frantic sribbling of quills upon paper as the images of wings, frame, and fabric materialize themselves. Later, the dissonance of a cluster chord sets the suspense as the text signifies Leonardo taking one last breath (the choir takes a breath as well) and leaps from high above. The final two minutes is a slow build complete with the rushing sounds of wind and nonsense syllables rushing past before soaring into the joyous sung text of "volare
The Complete A Capella Works
is a record that will take any listener on a journey, sometimes literally. While there are standout tracks featured, each minute of every track offers something unlike the last and should be enjoyed in its full production. His conceptual mastery on the human psyche creates a consistent, achingly beautiful impression, his outstanding execution of both subtlety and grandiose expression keeps each moment just as exciting, and his brilliant usage of textual imagery challenges the mind to embrace the picture he is presenting. These are just some of the ways by which Eric Whitacre truly proves himself worthy of the genius that many, including myself, will attest to him possessing. Anyone interested in a very unique, very intimate experience should make a point to acquire this soon.
i thank You God for most this amazing day
Go, Lovely Rose
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine