Review Summary: Eric Whitacre's presence on Light and Gold both as composer and conductor makes this the definitive album for Whitacre fans.
Eric Whitacre is the face of the classical music world in the 21st century. Ask anyone who participated in their high school choirs or bands in the last decade, and they will likely gush over the mention of his name. In his two-decade career as a classical composer, Whitacre has emerged as the preeminent modern voice in choral and wind band composition. Works such as “Cloudburst”, “October”, and “Lux Aurumque” have been some of the most widely performed works in the modern repertoire. The 40-year-old composer (think Justin Bieber for the classical world) also boasts dashing good looks, a virtuosic soprano of a wife, and a stunning natural musicality and confidence that allows him to conduct enormous ensembles with remarkably powerful interpersonal communication.
Indeed, it was his charisma that allowed him to create his Virtual Choir, a concept similar to Michael Tilson Thomas' YouTube Symphony Orchestra. He asked for singers to submit recordings of themselves singing a part to his choice of composition over YouTube, the most popular being their rendition of Lux Aurumque. They followed a video of him conducting the piece, and his team mixed the 185 tracks together to make a remarkable recording of his landmark composition. The video has reached over a million views. It is these endeavors that make Whitacre such a transcendent figure in the classical music world; he, unlike so many professional musicians, understands the need to embrace social media to reach the audiences that classical music once enjoyed.
Yet, his popularity roots itself in the quality of his compositions, widely performed by high school and university ensembles and regarded as some of the best work by composers of his generation. Next to internationally best-selling albums and Grammy nominations, Whitacre has received awards from countless professional composition associations, and his commissions are some of the most sought after in the world. This semester, he is a visiting fellow at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University.
Despite not premiering any new material, Light and Gold
is an important album for Whitacre. It marks the beginning of a long relationship with Decca, the legendary record label, and also marks the first album featuring an ensemble that Whitacre conducted himself since 1997's The Music of Eric Whitacre
, which largely features his wind ensemble work. Although countless other ensembles have recorded Whitacre's material, these interpretations should be seen as the standard, not only because of his presence on the album, but also because of the immeasurable quality of each recording. No other recording of “Lux Aurumque” achieves the same level of organic growth that Whitacre's ensemble so perfectly creates. Whitacre's power as a conductor can be felt as strongly as his presence as a composer.
Nevertheless, Whitacre does feature pieces that have never been professionally recorded, although he and other groups have performed them around the world for years. “Nox Aurumque”, “The Seal Lullaby”, and “The Stolen Child” all make debut appearances on the album, allowing Whitacre to set the standard for some of his newest pieces. While “The Seal Lullaby”, a departure from standard a capella fare with the addition of piano accompaniment and “The Stolen Child”, one of Whitacre's best recent a capella compositions, are both highlights on the album, “Nox Aurumque” is the worst performance on the album. Here, the sopranos overpower the ensemble, and Whitacre fails to provide a sense of the big picture, instead allowing the ensemble to meander throughout the piece. Indeed, his companion piece to the classic “Lux Aurumque” pales in comparison in terms of actual composition, and has come under criticism from many Whitacre fans.
The highlight of the album, however, is the second movement of Whitacre's tribute to e.e. cummings, Three Songs of Faith
, entitled “hope, faith, life, love.” The composition uses the first and last four words of cummings' poem of the same title, and on each word, Whitacre quotes an older piece of his, thus forming a summarized statement of his a capella work. While the piece has been performed and recorded widely, Whitacre manipulates his ensemble for a mesmerizing performance of the piece, achieved through remarkable dynamic and textural contrast between each word. On the last word, “soul”, Whitacre quotes the first and third movements of the same set of songs by repeating the word in two extended melismatic sections. Between the two sections, Whitacre allows for a two second silence that establishes a necessary break between one of the loudest, highest sections of the piece and perhaps the most sublime, subdued section of the album. New Whitacre listeners could find no better summary of his work than this short movement.
Critics of Whitacre will cite that as his very problem. He has a definitive, instantly recognizable style. Music theorists have named chords after him (namely, his use of the major second and perfect fourth in a root position triad), and admittedly, his compositional style does not vary much among his a capella work. Yet, just as The Tallest Man on Earth may sing with that same warbly voice, use the same open chord tunings, and use very similar fingerpicking and strumming styles across his work, Whitacre composes as no one else can. No other modern composer has such a distinctive harmonic language, and Whitacre combines that strength with a remarkable sense of soaring melodicism. As the beginning of a long contract with Decca, Light and Gold
marks the impressive beginning to what should be a fruitful career, one that may create the most successful classical albums of the young century.