Concert Review / Music / Notes & Observations

Concert Review: Eric Whitacre at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University

Eric Whitaker: A Wife in Concert

Performance: 12 April 2013, at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Presented by the Monash University Academy of Performing Arts

Eric Whitacre is a celebrity—his concert at Robert Blackwood Hall was promoted on Classic Breakfast on ABC FM.  You literally can’t buy publicity like that on Australia’s national broadcaster.

English: Picture of Eric Whitacre conducting

Eric Whitacre (Wikipedia)

Eric Whitacre In Concert looked like a sell-out event to an audience ready to be charmed and we were not disappointed.  Whitacre introduced each work and showed himself a very capable entertainer.  He quickly demonstrated a fine capacity as a conductor, good to look at, but not detracting from what was happening on stage.  Indeed, what ‘happened’ were exemplary performances from all involved.

The concert was presented with the resources of the Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne (conductor Michael Leighton Jones) violinist Elizabeth Sellars, cellist David Berlin and pianist Joshua van Konkelenberg (also on organ).

The first work was Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, which is emblematic of his choral writing—quietly ecstatic, full of piercing suspensions, delivering a sense of the sublime, of passion and possibly longing.  Despite Morton Lauridsen’s name not getting a mention anywhere near Whitacre, there seems to me a clear link to Lauridsen’s use of safe dissonances (such as intervals of major sevenths and minor seconds) and Whitacre’s use of closely pitched and long-held suspensions.  Lauridsen’s tonalities have more ‘muscle’ than Whitacre’s.  Whitacre and Lauridsen both set Christian Latin texts as concert pieces, though I think where Whitacre aims for the sublime in the text, Lauridsen strives more for the exegesis.

Though eminently likeable, Whitacre’s music is not classics dumbed down for the easy listener.  His choral music takes great skill to perform and the Trinity College Choir, though young, demonstrated what intelligence, passion and lots of experience as an ensemble can deliver—world class.

Whitacre introduced all the works and spoke disarmingly about himself and (curiously) talked a great deal about his wife Hila Plitman all throughout.  OK, she was in the audience with their young son, but such uxoriousness is unexpected and again, such is Whitacre’s skill as an entertainer, it wasn’t cloying (though others might disagree?).  Hila Plitman is in Melbourne to sing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.  She wrote the texts for Whitacre s Five Hebrew Love Songs, given by the choir (with Elizabeth Sellars delivering an exquisite solo violin line).  I guess it’s OK to feature your wife in concert under these circumstances.

Elizabeth Sellars is a fine, understated player and more than delivered the goods leading the Monash Sinfonia after interval, in four works scored for string orchestra.  Whitacre’s orchestral writing is less engaging, I think than his choral writing.  When he introduced The Seal Lullaby in the first half, he told us how it was intended as a song for a Pixar movie he was engaged to score that never got made.  Whitacre has written other film music and it shows.

Film music is often lifted from the film and performed in its own right in concert with happy results.  All the orchestral music in the Whitacre concert seemed in search of a film to give it meaning, it all felt a little untethered from something stronger.  The elegiac The River Cam was expertly played by the Monash Sinfonia with David Berlin on the cello solo, but it was, as Whitacre acknowledged, heavily informed by Vaughan Williams and to me lacked ideas enough to enable it to stand alone in concert.  It needed visuals.

One of the most popular works in the concert was Edwin London’s arrangement of JS Bach’s Come Sweet Death, sung in English by the Trinity College Choir.  London has taken the Bach chorale and instructed the choir to complete the closing elements of it at their own speed, in their own time.  The choir sang through the chorale once, then began a repeat using extensive hand gestures to accompany the words.  You could sense the many choristers in the audience thinking ‘oh no, choralography!’.  London’s hand gestures didn’t lean dangerously in the direction of liturgical dance, instead they began to reinforce the individuality of each person’s own decision on how to spread out their vocal line.  The aural effect was tangy, smeary and delicious.  The gesturing singers looked good as they broke out of sync with each other and not at all self-conscious.

For a choir developed in the Anglican tradition, inviting it to be mildly anarchic and creative like this is a huge challenge.  I’m guessing London’s use of the gestures also helps each choir member break out of choral regimentation and to be courageous in pursuing their own choices of timing.  The effect was worth the effort and looked particularly good with Whitacre abandoning the stage (eek! no conductor!) while the choir was flooded with a red light.  Eerie and smeary and, as always when someone ‘fiddles’ with Bach, still transcendentally Bach.

A much less successful performance can be seen on YouTube.  I bridle a little at the comment on the Youtube site:

“This is taken from Edwin London’s concept of “Aleatoric” or ‘chance’ composition.”

Gee, John Cage would interested in London’s concept of chance composition, as would John McCaughey and the Astra Choir, who have been treating audiences to original examples of this for years.

My point is that, clever and engaging as London’s piece was, it’s far from original and speaks volumes for the position Whitacre’s music occupies within contemporary art music.  Whitacre is a charmer and his music is of a very satisfying type, yet his range feels narrow; he has yet to embrace counterpoint and ultimately one could feel one can have too much of the sublime in one evening.  Yet, I would argue his importance as a populist of intelligent, new music writing is not to be underestimated.

I applaud Whitacre’s popularity and how he uses his celebrity to communicate new music to a broad audience (I was also pleased the audience knew when to applaud after each piece and did not leap to a standing ovation at the end).

His choral music is not as easy to perform as it is to listen to.  I’m sorry When David Heard was not included in the program, as it is the strongest of his choral works that I know of, striking out for ideas over the sublime, but tough to bring off.

The Choir of Trinity College also sang a work by it’s conductor, Michael Leighton Jones. My true love hath my heart is very competent writing in the Anglican tradition, (if you will) but is little differentiated from something of Herbert Howells’ —no bad thing, just not compelling listening in a concert context.

I did leave the concert feeling could do with something tangy to listen to, like a chaser of one of Don Martino’s  Seven Pious Pieces—powerful, passionate, challenging and immensely likeable choral music from 1972.  Unfortunately the only recording I can get hold of is from an outfit that sings well, but has its dial turned to Mormon Tabernacle Choir and misses the extraordinary subtlety of Martino’s serial counterpoint. Whitacre would probably be able to conduct this, even if he wouldn’t write it.

Nicholas M Tolhurst

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