New Classical Tracks: 'though love be a day'

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
January 1, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — Antioch Chamber Ensemble; Joshua Copeland, conductor - though love be a day - Acis 18719

"There's something that always gets said at our concerts when I'm talking to people afterwards, or people who've heard us on youTube. They talk about the 'Antioch sound.' They're like, 'You have a very clear sound, but it's so warm. There's something so inviting that just makes us feel comfortable.'"

So says Joshua Copeland, the artistic director of the Antioch Chamber Ensemble, a 12-voice mixed choir from the New York area. Their new CD puts that clear, warm sound in the spotlight with 15 song settings by Matthew Brown.

That comment about being heard on YouTube is pretty central to how this album came to be.

"We had put up a video of ourselves singing on YouTube," Copeland says, "and it became very popular, and I started getting a lot of submissions from composers — around the world, actually — and Matt Brown contacted me, and he sent his piece to me, 'Though Love Be a Day,' to check out. Loved his music from that day — we premiered it, and absolutely enjoyed it, and I asked him to send the rest of his works for chorus."

That first song sent by Brown — a setting of a poem by e.e. cummings — is the title track of the new CD, though love be a day (hence the lowercase typography). Director Joshua Copeland said the piece appealed to him right away with its homage to the English madrigal form, right down to the "fa la la". "Antioch, when we first started, did a lot of madrigals," Copeland says. "So 'though love be a day' really hit home to me with a very nice madrigal feeling. Each one of the parts is very independent. There's really not a part in the music where you're strictly harmony. Each line is very important."

A second e.e. cummings poem appears later on the disc, "it may not always be so." In that poem, cummings depicts the almost universal pain of the end of a relationship, and Matthew Brown's setting uses some specific techniques to take us through that journey.

"You really get to that heartbreak at the end of that piece," Copeland says. "[Brown] has these beautiful soaring melodies, and lush, lush harmonies in this. And you get to the very end, and it becomes extremely stark and foreboding. Not only harmonically and musically, but vocally as well. It's some very tough chords at the end, almost like coming to the tough reality of the end of a relationship in this case."

Some lesser-known poetry makes an appearance in a triptych called "Above: Three Dreamsongs of the Wintu People." Before their disappearance, the Wintu people lived in what is now California. Each part of the triptych is a simple Wintu verse. The dreamsongs of the title all speak to the notion of our ancestors becoming one with the universe and living on as stars. One verse uses the dandelion as a metaphor for this transition. "That's the thing I loved about it," Copeland says. "The word 'dandelion' — when you consider the seed shattering, the dandelion is not dead. That's the life that's gonna happen again. The poetry relates this to spirits...and I just think it's magical."

The last Dreamsong, "You and I Shall Go," talks about reuniting with a lost loved one, picking flowers along the Milky Way. "That's one of those pieces that really hits deep," Copeland says. "When you think about people in your life — your family, your community — that you've lost. It is such a beautiful way of referencing, knowing that they will always be there in unexpected places. I thought that was particularly beautiful...and profound."

Love, in its many forms — lost, regained, spiritual, romantic, familial, eternal — is celebrated, recognized, mourned and idealized throughout the CD. A verse by the mystic Hildegard von Bingen uses the romantic language of love to depict the longing for communion with God, much like the Song of Solomon. Matthew Brown's setting offers a nod to Hildegard's own haunting style of medieval composition, but also uses a more modern palette. "I feel that it embraces kind of the best of both worlds," Copeland says. "We have a really nice taste of early music sound right at the very beginning — almost a replica of a chant. Then it blossoms into these lush beautiful chords. It keeps building up, building up. There's a wonderful soprano duet at the end of this, where the two sopranos just soar up and end on two very high notes as the choir dissipates on this very last word of 'sapphires' — saphiro — and we're just holding it there..."

A slightly more down-to-earth poem came from Garrison Keillor. Keillor and the VocalEssence ensemble in Minnesota requested a setting of "Table Grace," a sonnet with Keillor's signature mixture of nostalgia, picturesque scene-painting, and down-home practicality. "It brings you back to things you might have lost in your life," Copeland says. "People you care about, relatives that are gone now, that are no longer with us. It's the general giving thanks. It's absolutely beautiful, and the reason that we dedicated a whole CD to his music is, he really has a way of marrying the text to the music, and it is in this piece that I think it really hit me the most."

It's one of an entire collection of striking pieces featured on Antioch's latest CD, though love be a day.


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