Gregg Smith Singers

David Bennett Thomas: Songs of the Seasons

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It won't quite do to claim, with annotator Donald Chittum, that American composer David Bennett Thomas "is free to use any musical materials, constructs, and modes of expression that suit his musical intentions with complete freedom and ease." He is not as eclectic as all that, and the music here falls easily into the basic vocabulary of a great deal of contemporary American choral composition: it is tonal, essentially lyrical, and filled with stacks of thirds and fourths that, if you retune your ears slightly, would suggest jazz in a different rhythmic context. This said, one can indeed note with pleasure the flexibility of Thomas's musical language, and his determination to respond to poetic texts in an individual way. Thomas draws on an impressive range of texts, from the Matins responsory O Magnum Mysterium to American haikus about the seasons, seventeenth century British metaphysical poet George Herbert, the Psalms, and three deadly poems about war from Walt Whitman's pen. Each of these calls forth a different vocabulary from Thomas, defined most of all through intervallic emphasis. The psalm settings (for baritone and piano, although all the other pieces are choral), with their lyrical language of faith, rely on open fifths, for example. In the "November-December" section of the title Songs of Seasons, Thomas evokes winter's gray not with the usual cloud of impressionistic harmonies but with an insistent and growing repetition of a single chord. Throughout, he succeeds in deriving novel programmatic effects from simple materials. Moreover, Thomas effectively ties his secular settings to an overall emphasis on faith; church choirs favoring materials that are not explicitly religious will find much of interest here. The Gregg Smith Singers continue their long mastery of small-scale contemporary choral music with assured, sympathetic performances that will make many choristers want to rush out and try these pieces themselves.

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