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Frammenti da "Chiara" for Two Antiphonal Choirs of Female Voices a cappella, opus 19a (1975/86).

Here are two fiercely difficult choral works for virtuoso choral groups or for study by choral groups wishing to raise their level of musicianship. Oliver Knussen, best known in North America for his instrumental music and for organizing contemporary music activities at the Tangle-wood Music Center, has written an attractive work for twelve female voices, to be spaced in two separated groups of six singers each. The text consists of mere syllables based upon the diminutive for "dear one" in a style reminding one of Gyorgy Ligeti's Lux aeterna. The work was commissioned and premiered by the women of the BBC Singers in june of 1986. It explores highly exaggerated levels of dynamics, rhythmic divisions of beats, and tone clusters, ending with a highly effective aleatoric crescendo-section based upon a major second. One would need twenty-four very well trained singers with exceptional pitch sense to bring it to life accurately, let alone to give it musical meaning and expressiveness. Though not for the average collegiate or community chorus, it would provide stimulating work and a stunning performance in a rich acoustical environment with the two groups singing and humming to each other and, at times, working as one, (as in the chantlike sections).

Harrison Birtwistle's On the Sheer Threshold of the Night also has a spatial performance conception: his four soloists (soprano: Eurydice; countertenor and tenor: Orpheus; bass: Hades) are to be interspersed in an arch of vocalists, with Orpheus (2 soloists) at center, six male choral singers at left with Hades at the extreme left, and the six female choral singers to the right with Eurydice at the extreme right. The text, entirely in Latin, is taken from Boethius and is given in an English translation by Helen Waddell, in the prefatory pages. Commissioned by the Hessian Radio, Frankfurt, the piece was premiered there in 1980 by the John Aldis Choir.

The vocal part of Orpheus (sung by two soloists) frequently has dissonant intervallic sounds with uniform rhythms; the choral parts provide chord clusters, and the remaining two soloists punctuate the fabric of sound with the narrative. The music moves at dirgelike speed to create a tapestry of sound while telling the famous tale of the night when Orpheus sought Eurydice and destroyed her by his glance. Birtwistle has created a work of interest and high quality that is beyond the performance level of most choral groups; only after much rehearsal would one ever hear it in live performance, I fear. For years, I have seen Birtwistle's name associated with the Proms concerts, a wonderful mix of programs sponsored by the BBC in late summers. We read of his series of Orpheus compositions that includes an opera, but none of this music is much known or performed in North America.

It is a sad comment on musical life in the United States that such new choral music cannot be heard in our institutions. If there ever was a category of "paper-music" we have two examples here, not because of their value, but because our musical life does not realistically permit having them readied for performance. Libraries acquiring music of twentieth-century composers should add these two scores to their shelves in the hope that someday performing resources will appear to bring them to life.

KENNETH ROBERTS Williams College
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Author:Roberts, Kenneth (American writer)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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