The Esoterics' fifth CD, IMMAGINOSA features premieres by William Hawley and Stephen Paulus and other pieces that represent springtime song cycles on love and life.
Recorded after the IMMAGINOSA concert series in May 2004, this CD features several of The Esoterics' favorite cycles. Ross Lee Finney's Spherical madrigals resonates with the exploration and creativity of the Age of Reason, and Irving Fine's artful cycle of six Ben Jonson poems - The hour glass - traverses the evolution of love during the human lifetime.
The second half of IMMAGINOSA will either put spring in your step or send you off into blissful dreams. First, revel in recordings of two premiere performances: Four reveries by New York composer William Hawley, followed by a spring madrigal, Now is the gentle season, by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus.
Next, enjoy two contrasting settings of Emily Dickinson by Elliott Carter - Heart not so heavy as mine and Musicians wrestle everywhere. Finally, immerse yourself in two cycles of spectacular strophes by Sara Teasdale: The winds of May by San Francisco composer Kirke Mechem, and Donald Skirvin's Alchemy, which was commissioned by The Esoterics.
*** Reviews ***
Sixty years of American song from The Esoterics:
Beautifully crafted pieces from various eras – and beautifully sung, too.
By Andrew Farach-Colton, The Gramophone, February 2006
‘American inspiration and the modern madrigal’ is the subtitle of this intelligently conceived, lustily sung programme. Embracing more than 60 years’-worth of music, from Elliott Carter’s Heart not so heavy as mine (1938) to Donald Skirvin’s Alchemy cycle (2002), the overall result is surprisingly coherent and satisfying. The coherence derives from the shared strong tonal moorings of these pieces (many of them are quite tuneful, too); the satisfaction comes from their craftsmanship.
One expects skillfulness from Carter, of course, and although his two madrigals (on poems by Emily Dickinson) are a far cry from the thorny overgrowth of his mature style, they have a playful, expressive intricacy that’s impressive in its own right. All the settings are similarly well-wrought, but in different ways. William Hawley’s Four reveries (1995) boast a harmonic and textural opulence that seems channeled directly from Brahms and Duruflé. Skirvin similarly places harmony in the foreground, though his writing is somewhat sparer and more concerned with piquancy than richness. Irving Fine in The hour-glass (1949) and Kirke Mechem in The winds of May (1965) text-paint with less attention to harmonic color and greater reliance on melodic shape and gesture; they’re both witty composers, too. Ross Lee Finney’s Spherical madrigals (1947) glance lovingly back at their Renaissance forebears, and in their contrapuntal elegance and modal-tinged writing they are equally charming.
This disc is the fifth by The Esoterics, though it was my introduction to the 36-voice, Seattle-based choir. I’m mightily impressed. They make a lovely sound, with only a few edgy notes here and there from the sopranos, and they sing everything with warm affection and infectious enthusiasm. Kudos to founder/conductor Eric Banks. Note that the recording (made in the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle) is extremely resonant, which flatters the choir’s tone but not its diction, requiring one to follow along in the booklet. It’s worth the bother. Strongly recommended.
IMMAGINOSA: American inspiration and the modern madrigal
By Philip Greenfield, The American Record Guide, Jan/Feb 2006
To the Greeks, esoteric meant a tight community as well as the rarefied body of knowledge shared by its members. From the sound of things here, this 36-voice choir from Seattle does indeed constitute a close-knit community, so collegial and loving is the music-making on display. These young, spirited singers put this challenging repertoire across as though there’s nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing. Voices are bright and clear yet fully under control, balances have been expertly crafted by Maestro Banks (a Yalie by way of the University of Washington), and the emotional zing of the enterprise is compelling at every turn. The only quibble I have is diction, which loses some of its punch in the reverberant setting of West Seattle’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church: a fair number of consonants head up into the ecclesiastical ether and are never heard from again. The conductor and engineers might want to put their heads together on that one for next time. In the meantime, keep the handsomely designed booklet close by for full access to the poetry.
As the title suggests, Renaissance sensibilities were alive and well through the 20th century and are still kicking here in the 21st. (Donald Skirvin’s four Alchemy songs, on poems by Sara Teasdale, date from 2002.) The hour-glass, a group of six Ben Jonson meditations on the joys and pitfalls of love, is a welcome reminder of the immense gifts of Irving Fine, who died way too young back in 1962. (He was only 48.) William Hawley’s Reveries also are superb, while Elliott Carter contributes a moving realization of Emily Dickinson’s Heart not so heavy as mine, and a bustling Musicians wrestle everywhere also inspired by the Belle of Amherst. There are no dead spots (with these singers, nothing could stay dead for long, anyway); so the music can be recommended as enthusiastically as the singing. This and Chicago a cappella’s “Shall I compare thee?” (also this issue) are the most engaging choral anthologies I came across in 2005.