Thursday, January 06, 2011

In the CD player

Two CDs I picked up last month that have been getting regular play at home and in the office:

This year's Christmas selection. I kept hearing Alison Krauss singing the Wexford Carol on the radio, and said to myself, "I didn't know Alison Krauss did a Christmas album. That's wonderful!" But it's not AK that did the Christmas album, it's Yo Yo Ma, who did a Christmas album with a lot of guest artists, AK included.

It's not really a Christmas album, per se, although it includes "The Wexford Carol," "Joy to the Word," "The Wassail Song," "Happy Christmas" and "Auld Lang Syne. It expands on the idea of Christmas and becomes a Celebration album, full of holiday songs and joyful songs from around the world. James Taylor sings "Here Comes the Sun," Amelia Zirin-Brown sings a soulful "This Little Light of Mine," Wu Tong and the Silk Road Ensemble perform "Kuai Le," and the Assad family perform "Familia."

Listening to this album feels akin to gathering with a group of musically talented friends, spending the evening sharing talents and stories from their traditions. Chris Botti's trumpet shines on "My Favorite Things" and "Auld Lang Syne." Diana Krall's lush vocals and smooth piano dance across "You Couldn't Be Cuter." The old master Dave Brubeck takes a turn on "Joy to the World." Chris Thile's mad mandolin skills fly around "Dona Nobis Pacem" and "Touch the Hand of Love" (in which he backs up Renee Fleming's glorious vocals. Alison Krauss mourns the previously mentioned "Wexford Carol." Jake Shimabukuro pulls his ukelele out for a spin on "Happy Xmas (Was is Over)." Joshua Redman graces us with "My One and Only Love." Natalie McMaster rips into a dance with "A Christmas Jig/Mouth of the Tobique Reel." And threading all these various pieces is the repeated refrain of "Dona Nobis Pacem," improvised upon time and again by the various artists.

This album goes in a lot of directions, from Spanish dance to Canadian reel to Christmas carol to experimental mandolin to smooth jazz to Americana to classical to gospel. It never settles into any genre or feel for very long, before somebody else picks up the pace and runs in a different direction. What does hold it together is the cello of Yo Yo Ma, and the passion of the friends he chose to partner with. At the end, once the instruments are put away and the voices grow quiet as they head into the night, one is left with the warmth of joyful celebration exhibited with such passion and talent. And you can't quite wait for it all to happen again, soon.

It's difficult to know how to describe Eric Whitacre's choral music. Except to say it's necessary. It's beautiful. It's ethereal, dreamlike. Ebullient and Ethereal. One can hear the angels singing. It hearkens back hundreds of years to Tallis and Taverner, and yet feels ahead of its time. Beginning with texts culled from classic literature, Whitacre paints tapestries of sound; tight, shimmering chords, blocks of sound carrying one after another, gentle melodies and complex harmonies. In many ways restful, peaceful, gentle, and yet profound and moving all the same.

Eric Whitacre is probably the closest thing there is to a choral superstar; choirs love his music, and I've even heard him a few times on Classic King FM, Seattle's classical music station. Some criticize this success (composers aren't supposed to be famous unless they're dead; otherwise they're 'too commercial' or they've 'sold out'); others who think choirs still ought to sound like Mitch Miller probably won't quite get Whitacre. But I've been enjoying him for a few months straight now, and am saving my pennies up to buy his latest CD.

If you're curious, here's a sample, and a wonderful example of the use of technology to create something worthwhile and beautiful.

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