LAVISTA Missa Brevis ad Consolationis Dominam Nostram. Stabat Mater. MACMILLAN Sun-Dogs ; Carmen-Helena Téllez, cond; Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble IUMUSIC/ LAMC 1-2012-2.4 (68:50)
This excellent release features the enterprising and adventurous conductor Carmen-Helena Téllez and the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Téllez directed this wonderful group from 1992–2012, though has since left Indiana to join the faculty of Notre Dame University. The first two pieces are by Mario Lavista (b. 1943); although he is arguably the most highly-regarded living Mexican composer, his music is not especially well-known outside of that country, and very few pieces have appeared on commercial recording. Every piece of Lavista’s that I have encountered has been engaging. His language is a personal synthesis of influences from Renaissance and Baroque choral music (particularly Mexican polyphony) with textural and harmonic influences from the mid 20th century European avant-garde (I hear especially Berio). Téllez previously recorded the mass in an arrangement for vocal quartet accompanied by instruments; this is the original (and superior) version for unaccompanied chorus. The mass (1994–95) is a work filled with textural variety and deeply expressive responses to the traditional words. Lavista’s Stabat Mater (2004–05) is scored for chorus with cello ensemble (uncredited, presumably also students at Indiana University). The vocal parts alternate chant-like and cantorial passages (including solos) with decorated contrapuntal textures. The cellos provide a luminous halo (mostly in harmonics).
I’ve rhapsodized in the past about Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) who I believe to be one of the greatest composers working today. Sun-Dogs (2006) was co-commissioned by these performers and is based on a text by Michael Symmons Roberts, the librettist of MacMillan’s most recent grand opera The Sacrifice. As with much of MacMillan’s music, the inspiration is religious, in this case from the Dominican Roman Catholic religious order. The title refers both to the natural phenomenon (reflection/refraction of sunlight through ice crystals) but also to the origin of the name of the Dominicans, from the Latin term for sun-dogs, “Domini canes.” The texts blends oblique references to the history Dominicans with evocations of the natural world and “arcane allegories about religious calling.” The result is a virtuosic piece filled with intriguing textures and frequently changing moods. As always with MacMillan, the result is compelling in every moment: traditionally grounded, but freshly unconventional. Constrasts are always present, particularly his favorite contrast between luminous tonal material and disjointedly energetic atonal figurations. Though the difficulty of this piece will prevent it from entering the repertoire of many choirs, we are fortunate to have here such a fine recording. The CD was released on Indiana University’s own label, and it provides an excellent showcase for one of the university’s most interesting musical ensembles. Carson Cooman