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American Music from Saint Thomas: Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Orchestra of Saint Luke's, Gere Hancock, conductor and Master of Choristers, with Judith Hancock, Organ. Dan Locklair: Brief Mass (1993); Walter Piston: Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings; Locklair: Pater Noster (2000); & Randall Thompson: The Place of the Blest (1969) – Cantata for Treble Voices and Chamber Orchestra. KOCH KIC-CD-7567 (42:31).
This fine addition to the discography of American choral music encompasses performances of a few premier American composers of somewhat similar middle-of-the-road romantic compositional style. Piston and Thompson were both born near the end of the 19th century. Locklair (b.1949), Composer in Residence and Professor of Music at Wake Forest University, is possibly at the zenith of his creativity – hopefully, he has much more to say to us.
His Brief Mass (the ordinary, sung in Latin, a cappella) makes considerable use of the highly symbolic number "3". Much of it is scored for double chorus. The Kyrie brings to my mind a monk on the floor, face down, with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross. It is a plea for mercy that demands nothing and offers all. The Gloria is a stand up piece, full of praise and thoughtful thanksgiving. The Credo is a statement of faith, much of it chant-like, giving meaning to the elements of belief. The Sanctus-Benedictus takes us beyond ourselves with ethereal music ascending like incense. And the Agnus Dei reminds us of the innocent Lamb and the suffering that is the source of mercy and peace. The choir sings with the excellent intonation and control that is necessary to perform the piece convincingly.
Piston's Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings is a tour-de-force for the organist – Judith Hancock, whom some readers will remember from her days at Durham's Watts Street Baptist Church – and the strings. The prelude portion is intensely lyrical and richly harmonized. The allegro begins with a strident passage in the lower strings, the organ joining with intricate obbligato. As the movement develops, both strings and organ virtually fly.
Jesus said to his disciples, "When you pray, pray like this...." Locklair's Pater Noster (The Lord's Prayer) is a model of how this prayer may be sung. With rich harmonies and lyrical lines that bring wonderful depth to the meaning of prayer, it is perhaps the composer's most transcendent music.
Randall Thompson's Cantata for Treble Voices and Chamber Orchestra, The Place of the Blest, uses texts by Robert Herrick and Richard Wilbur for its four sections. Its melodic choral writing provides music that is easy to listen to and enjoy, and there is some especially nice woodwind work along the way.
This CD is a welcome addition to the growing selection of American choral music that is now coming into its own.