Betinis: Songs of Smaller Creatures (CD review)

And other American
choral works. Christopher Bell, Grant Park Chorus. Cedille CDR 90000 131.

The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, publicly supported
organizations that offer free performances at the Grant Park Music Festival in
Chicago, Illinois, each summer, have been entertaining listeners for years with
frequently offbeat, little-known material. Here, the chorus goes it alone under
the direction of Christopher Bell and present a collection of short pieces by
modern American composers, some of the works descriptive, some serious, some
humorous, some of them in world-première recordings, and all of them a

The program begins with the music of Abbie Betinis (b.
1980), her three-movement vocal work that gives its title to the album, Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Song of
Smaller Creatures
. The composition begins with “The bees’ song,” a cute,
expressive piece based on a poem by Walter de la Mare, a piece with lots of z’s
in it. Next is “A noiseless, patient spider” from the Walt Whitman poem,
followed by “envoi,” which uses a nonsense text by Charles Swinburne, the music
sounding, as a note explains, like the hushed flapping of butterfly wings. It’s
all very simple yet quietly haunting and moving.

After Ms. Betinis we get Buzzings: Three Pieces about Bees from Lee Kesselman (b. 1951).
More of those z’s! The three pieces are “To make a prairie,” “A Bee his
burnished carriage,” and “Bee! I’m expecting you,” all deriving from poems by
Emily Dickinson. Like most of Ms. Dickinson’s poetry, the songs are brief,
sweet, and meaningful. The choir sing them, as they do throughout, with
clarity, precision, and, most of all, with feeling.

And so it goes, with music by Eric Whitacre (“When David
Heard”), Stacy Garrop (Sonnets of Desire,
Longing, and Whimsy
), David Tredici (“Acrostic Song”), Ned Rorem (Seven Motets for the Church’s Year), and
Paul Crabtree (Five Romantic Miniatures,
which finds its inspiration in The
television show). The program ends with more from Whitacre,
“Sleep.” As Whitacre notes, music often depends upon the “perfect balance
between sound and silence,” and in this regard we may judge all of these
presentations a success. The album will not disappoint lovers of choral music.

Producer James Ginsburg and Cedille engineers Eric Arunas
and Bill Maylone recorded the music in concert at the Harris Theater for Music
and Dance in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois, in 2011. It’s a mildly
reverberant acoustic, yet the sound is remarkably smooth and clean, with just a
touch of natural hall resonance to give it a warm glow. The singers appear well
spread out across the sound stage, and the engineers give them ample
opportunity to communicate clearly and effectively. Because there is a sense of
depth as well as breadth to the chorus, I would imagine it’s quite close to
being there.


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