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Ryland Angel and John Olund (tenors)
Lawrence Lipnik (tenor
Kurt-Owen Richards (bass
Jacqueline Kerrod (pedal harp)
Christopher Williams (troubador harp)
Daniel Thomas Davis (electric organ)
and Elizabeth Weinfeld (viola)
Like walking along the stone floors of cathedrals built ages ago or gazing at the portraits of kings whose reins have long since ended, Gregory Spears’s Requiem offers its audience a similarly blurred aesthetic experience, dissolving the present moment into an imagined history suggested by the trappings of style and language.
For indeed, if you tuned in mid-broadcast and heard a few measures of this 2010 Requiem on your local NPR channel—catching a snippet of recorder, a strum across a harp, or that beautifully piercing soprano—you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a particularly entrancing early music performance. But stick with it a few minutes, and there would be no confusing Spears with a composer of centuries past. Requiem is not an exercise in historic recreation, but rather a melding of techniques and plotlines which combine to deliver an attention-grabbing meditation.
It is a meditation not strictly given over to God, however, but an alchemy of religion and bedtime story. Spears’s work mixes sacred Latin passages with bits of found Breton text and a 16th-century poem linking purity, death, and the image of a swan. It was originally commissioned by choreographer Christopher Williams to accompany his production Hen’s Teeth, and in a synopsis of that work he references the role of the “Graeae, or three swan-like crones of ancient Greek myth” as well as the Breton fairytale “Pipi Menou et les Femmes Volant,” which helps explain why Spears’s piece is divided into two parts, “Swans” and “Witches.”
In this incarnation, the work was recorded in the lovely acoustic environment of Corpus Christi Church in New York. The composer himself conducted the skilled roster of Baroque and Renaissance performers, an ensemble which includes Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (sopranos), Ryland Angel and John Olund (tenors), Lawrence Lipnik (tenor, recorders), Kurt-Owen Richards (bass, chimes), Jacqueline Kerrod (pedal harp), Christopher Williams (troubador harp), Daniel Thomas Davis (electric organ), and Elizabeth Weinfeld (viola).
Though a requiem, it’s not a particularly morose contemplation. Instead, its transportingly solemn moments are balanced with the fluttering ornamentation of the vocal lines in one place and with a turn towards animatedly percussive delivery in another. Sharply pulled chord clusters ring out from the harp to open the piece, the drone beneath hinting that something ominous might be ahead. It’s a method of punctuation that reappears and pulls a sonic thread through the work, though when it returns the road traveled seems not to have been as dark as it first appeared. Rather, like a Grimm’s fairytale, the cast of characters may not have found their happily ever after, but they sure learned a few things along the way. If only the current spate of fantasy storylines on network television were as emotionally complex.