June 22, 2010

Visions and Non Thoughts

The Swedish Radio Choir
By Jason Victor Serinus

Proof of our good fortune in having Ragnar Bohlin as director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is this tremendous CD, which demonstrates his overarching sense of line and purpose. In six contemporary works by Swedish and (in the case of Ned Rorem) American composers, Bohlin’s leadership of the 32-person Swedish Radio Choir produces mesmerizing dynamic gradations and shading.

One of the most startling works, Anders Hillborg’s wordless Mouyayoum (also spelled muo:aa:yiy::oum, 1983-1985) for 16-voice a cappella choir, has been termed a minimalistic classic. Commissioned by Concerts Sweden, Hillborg calls the 12-minute piece a study in sound, and says it is based on a phonetic formula.

Whatever it is, it calls for marked dynamic swells and impeccable control. I don’t know if the score demands mastery of Tibetan overtone chanting, but you will hear such tones occasionally emerging from and serving as a descant to a spellbinding sonic landscape.

Listen to the Music

Wit With His Wantonness

Fallandet

Vissions and Non Thoughts

Here and in Bo Hansson’s Lighten mine eyes (2007), a setting of the 13th Psalm, the grace and radiance of the female singers and the strength of the men reflect how Eric Ericson and the directors who followed him have refined the Swedish Radio Choir’s sound. Hansson’s work, dedicated to the Maria Magdalena Motet Choir and Ragnar Bohlin, is distinguished by tremendous dynamic swings and a beautiful, consoling conclusion.

Music by the dean of contemporary American vocal music, Ned Rorem, sets the tone for the CD. There’s nothing cheery about In Time of Pestilence, a six-madrigal setting of text from 16th-century English poet and satirist Thomas Nashe’s play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament. Referencing the bubonic plague from which Nashe fled in 1592, each short piece ends with the words, “I am sick, I must die –Lord, have mercy on us.”

The Rorem segues perfectly into the title work, Christian Lindberg’s Visions and Non Thoughts (2008). Commissioned by the Swedish Radio Choir and Concerts Sweden, and dedicated to Bohlin, this definitive recording of text by three spiritual teachers — Saint John of the Cross, Rumi, and Krishnamurti — repeatedly has narrators and chorus return to the phrase, “there is no security.” That may sound frightening, but it ultimately serves to affirm that life, love, and death all spring from the same eternal source. As the women masterfully create tongues of fire, and the full chorus makes animal sounds so realistic as to impel our pooch to hunt for the dog that had invaded our living room, Lindberg unspools music of great spiritual depth and staying power.

Sloth kept me from searching the Net for the nonsupplied English translation of Strindberg’s text for Lindberg’s haunting Vid Sista udden. Commissioned by the Swedish Radio Choir in association with Musik I Västernorrland, it again features a narrator. Thomas Jennefelt’s short Fallandet (2005) offered no such obstacle; it is wordless. Which is all the better for letting us appreciate just how expressive this marvelous chorus can be.

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.