The 28-voice Eric Whitacre Singers made the first stop on their first U.S. tour at Strathmore on Monday, and they were greeted by a wonderfully mixed crowd with the loud excitement usually reserved for a pop star.
Whitacre — conductor, composer, Grammy Award-winning recording artist and composer-in-residence at Cambridge University — has a sort of pop-star-like presence onstage. He never took a bow. He just ambled to the microphone at the end of each piece to discuss the next. He talked casually and humorously about the music (most of the program was his own music) and about the personal events or relationships that brought about each piece.
He scrapped the program’s order and announced as he went, leaving out an expected piece to leave room for his new arrangement of “Enjoy the Silence.” Even his singers weren’t always sure what was going to come next.
But his music and his music-making were not at all casual. Whitacre has become fluent in an idiom that John Corigliano, his mentor, explored. He’s a little like Arvo Part, but with a sense of humor. His harmonies — often simple triads with a couple of dissonant notes thrown in for their emotional kick — glisten. He has a gift of melody; his textures morph smoothly from complete transparency to dense clusters. It’s easy to listen to. But most of all, he has an ear for poetry. He chooses good texts and sets them in good taste.
His chorus, unaccompanied except in a couple of pieces, opened with a portion of the Bach motet “Singet dem Herrn,” one of the most difficult works in the choral repertoire to sing well, which the group nailed with clear, effortless instrumental-like runs and great rhythmic integrity. It was no surprise that they charmed as winningly in the silliness of Whitacre’s “Animal Crackers” on texts by Ogden Nash as they did in the pathos of Whitacre’s setting of the biblical text “When David Heard.”
But for my taste, the most impressive, both for choral flexibility and compositional imagination, was the pairing of Monteverdi’s “Sfogava con le stelle” with the Whitacre madrigal that followed, both so Italianate in the push and pull of the music’s flow and — the madrigal — such a vivid image of the 17th century in a 21st-century mirror.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.