Celebrating its 50th season, Chicago's Grant Park Chorus, conducted by Christopher Bell, makes its a cappella recording debut with a CD of imaginative, moving, and sometimes whimsical works written between 1974 and 2005 by seven contemporary American composers.
The chorus's new Cedille Records album, Songs of Smaller Creatures and Other American Choral Works, takes its name from one of the four works receiving CD premieres: Abbie Betinis's Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Songs of Smaller Creatures. Other premieres on the CD, to be released June 26, include Lee Kesselman's Buzzings: Three Pieces About Bees; Stacy Garrop's Sonnets of Desire, Longing, and Whimsy; and Paul Crabtree's Five Romantic Miniatures.
The chorus also performs Eric Whitacre's When David Heard and Sleep, Ned Rorem's Seven Motets for the Church's Year, and David Del Tredici's Acrostic Song from Final Alice (Cedille Records CDR 90000 131).
The Grant Park Chorus, part of the summer-long Grant Park Music Festival, typically numbers 100 or more singers when it performs outdoors with the Grant Park Orchestra in Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
By contrast, Songs of Smaller Creatures was recorded indoors at concerts in the park's Harris Theater, with Bell directing a carefully selected ensemble of fewer than 60 voices. James Ginsburg produced the CD, with engineering by Eric Arunas and Bill Maylone.
Betinis's three-movement Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Songs of Smaller Creatures, written in 2005, comprises miniature tone poems for mixed a cappella chorus about bees, a spider, and butterflies using texts by Walter de la Mare, Walt Whitman, and Charles Swinburne. In "the bees' song," Betinis highlights the buzzing "Z" sounds from de la Mare's poem of the same name. "A noiseless, patient spider" is set for eight-part chorus, with each of the voice parts representing a leg of a walking spider. In "envoi," Betinis uses the nonsense syllables of Swinburne's text to evoke what she describes as "a subtle flapping of tiny [butterfly] wings."
Kesselman's Buzzings:Three Pieces about Bees, from 1976, offers whimsical choral vignettes based on Emily Dickenson poems. Kesselman describes "To make a prairie" as a "pastoral musing" to be sung leisurely, "almost tasting the atmosphere the poet paints." The insistent, driving rhythms of "A Bee his burnished carriage" portray the insect's ardent desire for a rose. In "Bee! I'm expecting you!," the Fly "types" a note to its friend the Bee, hopping from key to key.
Stacy Garrop's Sonnets of Desire, Longing, and Whimsy explores aspects of love through the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Garrop wrote the three-song set in 2004 for the San Francisco-based choral ensemble Volti. Garrop finds Millay's sonnets "beautifully constructed," with many of them "well suited to be set to music." To date, Garrop has set sixteen of Millay's sonnets for a cappella choir.
Paul Crabtree's Five Romantic Miniatures, from 1999, is a set of affectionate tributes to characters from The Simpsons animated TV series. Crabtree uses texts from the show to explore the lives of Grandpa Simpson, Lisa, Marge, and Homer, in whom Crabtree "uncomfortably" sees traits of his own father.
The sound world of Eric Whitacre is represented by two works. When David Heard, completed in 1999, is based on the Old Testament words of David, lamenting the death of his son Absalom. Whitacre says he wrote "maybe 200 pages of sketches, trying to find the perfect balance between sound and silence." He wrote the music for Sleep in 2000 for the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Unbeknownst to Whitacre, the Frost estate had ceased authorizing the use of the poem. The composer ultimately commissioned Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem to fit the existing music.