Judging by the reaction of the young people in last night's audience in the Gates Concert Hall at Denver University you would have thought a Rock Star had taken the stage. Granted, Eric Whitacre certainly is charismatic and engaging. After one of his witty song introductions the young man sitting behind me exclaimed "He is the coolest guy in the world!" Cool is a great quality to have in a performer - but how does this translate in the music?
The first half of the program was played by the Lamont Wind Ensemble with varying degrees of success. The first piece, October was composed for Grade 3 high school musicians, and while lush and pretty in the end run was rather forgettable.
Ghost Train Trilogy made a far larger impression due primarily to the amazing way Whitacre manages to create the sounds of a train on stage. The percussion section gets a real chance to shine during the three movements, and judging by the enormous grins on their faces they were enjoying every minute of it. Percussive effects were shared throughout the ensemble with good use of wind, keys and staccato sections to create a highly rhythmic effect. There were also some fabulous solos in the piece most notably the trombone, tuba, horn and saxophone. All in all I really enjoyed this piece. The one thing that bothered me was that the flutes were often buried when the ensemble was at full volume.
After a very lengthy intermission during which the stage crew cleared the stage and set choir risers the Lamont Chorale took the stage. The 50 voice Choral is very professional and performed their section of the concert memorized. Whitacre asks much of his choirs - extremes of range, inflection and linguistic skills were called for. Through the course of the night the choirs would sing in Italian, Hebrew and Latin as well as nonsense syllables and ululations.
The first piece the Lamont Chorale sang was Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. The composer announced the piece as conceived for musical theater, but along with the number from Paradise Lost that was performed later in the concert, I am uncertain that it calls for any sort of stage action. Many times through the evening Mr Whitacre mentions that he 'sees' movies for many of his pieces and certainly that was obvious with 'Leonardo'. The music was at turns wistful and exciting, and it would be easy to see it as background to a film of the artist/inventor at work in his studio. The text by Charles Anthony Silvestri is evocative and eminently singable and the chorale performed it admirably.
The chorale then performed Four e.e. cummings settings including the world premier of Little Man in a Hurry. Whitacre effectively captures the grammatical whimsy of the poet using vocal technique to punctuate lines helping to really bring out the verbal conundrums that cummings is famous for. He has a truly brilliant sense for word setting, and his clever use of phrasing helped to bring out the uniqueness of each of the poems. Pauses, extended breaths and humming notes helped to keep things fresh and full of personality. The lights in Gates auditorium were too dark to refer to the printed texts, but they weren't needed. The chorale's excellent diction ensured that we understood every word. The world premier piece is an upbeat number full of tension and stress - entirely appropriate to the text. The percussive ma-ma-ma-mamamama vocalese of the various sections moved the piece along with a delightful sense of urgency. My only quibble this morning is with the setting of 'Little Man'. Whitacre chooses to reprise the first stanza to end the song which changes the thought you are left with from the poem. I'm not sure cummings would approve as he was notoriously fussy about stanza order and would not allow a poem to be published until it met his exacting ideals. As a writer myself I structure my poems to leave a thought - and the first stanza has a very different thought than the last. It is the endless argument between text and music and I haven't an answer myself - I just am not sure that the poet would appreciate the changing of his message.
St Martin's Chamber Choir and the Kantorei Chamber Choir joined the Lamont Chorale on the risers for the final part of the evening's performance. Most of the music sung was a well established part of the repertoire and was sung expressively. By far the audience favorite of this section were Animal Crackers Vol. 1 and 2 settings of comedic poems by Ogden Nash. The audience laughed throughout and the choir seemed to be having a great deal of fun singing them. Laughingly, the composer said "These songs are so stupid." What a treat to have an excellent choir sing joke songs - it reminded me in spirit of Victor Borge's rendition of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody.
My personal favorite of the evening was Five Hebrew Love Songs. These songs are rich and evocative not only of Hebrew culture and musical intonations, but of a personal love story that is obviously, judging by the composer's remarks, still very passionate.
Rock star or not, Mr Whitacre seems to go from strength to strength and it was a true delight to spend an evening in his company.