Gregory Spears: Requiem

Gregory Spears

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Gregory Spears: Requiem Review

by Stephen Eddins

Like any number of composers since the Romantic era, Gregory Spears (born 1977) does not limit his Requiem to the traditional liturgical texts, although he does include several -- Requiem aeternam, Agnus Dei, Kyrie, Libera me, and Lux Aeterna -- interspersed with Medieval and Renaissance texts in Breton and Middle French. Spears' influences are the kind of mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks, albeit considerably freer and more contrapuntally involved, and the archaic sound of Medieval and Renaissance music. His vocal writing is unconventional and often unpredictable, but it is skillful and lies well for the voice. Drones play a significant part in the Requiem, and there are large expanses of harmonic stasis through which haunting lyrical vocal and instrumental melodies ethereally waft and intermingle. In the climactic Lux aeterna and in the Postlude, the music soars into luminous layers of ecstatic, high-flying counterpoint.

The piece was first performed in 2010 as an opera/ballet with a scenario and choreography by Christopher Williams. Its primary non-liturgical text is a 16th century poem (also set by Claude le Jeune) which uses a swan dying from love as a metaphor for a lover's passion. Swans figure prominently in the scenario, and the music often conveys the feathery delicacy of the graceful bird's wings. At the premiere, the Village Voice aptly described the music as "magical, like feathers stroking the back of your neck." The music doesn't need the theatrical element or require a knowledge of the scenario to beguile and even enthrall the listener attuned to post-minimalist mysticism. It's a remarkably ambitious, assured, balanced, and expressive piece from a composer who was in his early thirties when he wrote it.

The Requiem is economically scored for ten performers, six singers, and six instrumentalists (modern and troubadour harps, recorders, chimes, electric organ, and viola), with two of the singers doubling on instruments. The composer leads an outstanding, passionately committed performance by a topnotch group of musicians that includes Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, members of Anonymous 4. New Amsterdam's sound is immaculate and crystal clear, yet with a mysterious, somewhat archaic ambience. Highly recommended.

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