Clerestory, a nine man a cappella ensemble founded in the Bay Area in 2006, has self-released its first studio recording, Night Draws Near. This meditation on death, loss, and living in the face of human mortality is inspired by the traditions of Halloween, All Soul’s Day, and The Day of the Dead. Their previous eponymous release is a ‘best of’ collection of live concert recordings, and all of their live performances are available for free on Youtube and their website. This is an innovative marketing tool, and it is interesting to see how many small groups (those without AFM contracts governing the use of live recordings) are moving in this direction. Fellow Bay Area upstarts Voices of Music recently hit 4,000,000 plays on their Youtube page. Eventually artists will have to make money for these efforts (and unions will have to acknowledge that the model has changed), but for now, thanks to groups like Clerestory, there is a wealth of free classical music available on the Internet.
It is difficult to talk about Clerestory without mentioning Chanticleer, as the overwhelming majority of the former once sang with the latter, and both groups feature several countertenors. No disservice is done to either group by the comparison, as the common influences are clear. Both ensembles champion a certain austere simplicity – an attentiveness to beauty and clarity of tone at even the most dramatic and expressive moments. I liken Clerestory’s approach throughout Night Draws Near to a series of photographs taken by a single artist. While the content of each photograph may be unique, each image is clearly the work of the same person – flavored, if you will, by a common sensibility and technical approach. Some of this may be the default sound of an ensemble utilizing so many countertenors, steeped in both early and modern repertory. The pure technique required to produce a cohesive ensemble sound in this range encourages a certain palette of vocal colors. Part of this approach may be tied to their common experience in Chanticleer, an ensemble known for an emphasis on blend and precise singing. Perhaps, however, this is simply a viable “American” approach to all-male ensemble singing, and both groups reference a larger trend in our choral culture?
To be sure, Clerestory does not come across as a lesser version of Chanticleer; there are notable differences between the ensembles. Clerestory being smaller in number, sounds like a chamber group in the best meaning of the word, delivering an intimate level of detail in even the most robustly sung moments. The members are also older, and their life experience comes across as a rich and mature tone – especially from the fine bass section and in the heartrending solo work of tenor Kevin Baum. That Clerestory sounds so good is especially amazing in light of a few facts that further distinguish them from Chanticleer: Clerestory, according to founder Jesse Antin, is a part-time ensemble, rehearsing only for the handful of home season concerts they offer. They do not have, nor do they appear interested in, a full-time touring schedule or daily rehearsals. In light of that, the quality of this debut studio recording is doubly impressive.
Though not true to the form of a Requiem Mass, Compline, or Evensong service, there is a frequent return to Mass-like elements throughout Night Draws Near that at least conjures this sort of structure. Great attention was paid to key relationships from track to track, and the CD flows in a well-conceived manner. The opening track, Missa da Requiem: Introitus by the French composer Claudin de Sermisy (1490-1562), is strong, raw, and full-throated with clean, overlapping polyphonic entrances that at once sear the mind and buzz in the ear. Clerestory weaves a logical path back to the sometimes abrasive music of DuFay and Josquin des Prez with this interpretation. Curiously for a group defined by the presence of countertenors, this track is performed with all members singing as tenors, baritones, and basses. The countertenors enter with a whisper, not a bang, in the second track, Turn Thee, O Lord by William Croft (1678-1727), a memorable anthem with clear shades of Purcell. Though the ensemble blend is beautiful, at times the antiphonal sopranos do not quite match timbres – a less unified sound than one might like. Closing this first set is O quam gloriosum est regnum by the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), a joyful text performed with great attention to the best elements of this genre: An awareness of what role each interweaving line plays in the musical whole and an attention to internal phrasing as dictated by the cadence of the text.
A shift away from this type of liturgical early music (and I hope that Clerestory will someday record a CD composed entirely of this repertory – they certainly know how to sing it well), comes in the form of Sweet Suffolk Owl, a Madrigal by Thomas Vautor (c. 1580-?), and Epitaph on a Dormouse [sic.], an English part song by Benjamin Cooke (1734-1793). Both are somewhat playful pieces sung one to a part. The former describes a solitary owl, and the latter reflects on the fleeting nature of life by lamenting the death of a mouse. I found the Vautor to be just a little too jaunty a madrigal to portray the protagonist owl in the lamenting manner described in the program notes, but it is a wonderful piece nonetheless complete with Te-whit, te-whoo owl calls. Taking nothing away from the ensemble work on the rest of the CD, I found the proto-barbershop glee by Cooke – full of predictable and comforting harmonies – to be a clear high point. This quartet (soprano Chris Fritzsche, alto Jesse Antin, tenor Kevin Baum, and bass Tom Hart) is just stunning; clean, in tune, well-balanced, and unified in approach without the hint of strain or artificiality. This is singing to be trusted. It is a strange morality tale – an admonition from the choir loft that the nobility should repent of their sins, told through the guise of an absurd lament for a dead mouse. The work is so genuinely sung that one has to read to program notes to get the joke.
Though the transition from Cooke’s Epitaph to Einoujuhani Rautavaara’s (b.1928, Finland) Lorca Suite is eased by the common key the two pieces share, the leap forward of 150 years is instantly apparent in the music. The performance of this suite (along with the works by Gerald Finzi and Peter Warlock that follow) truly distinguishes Clerestory as a world-class ensemble, on par with Chanticleer, the King’s Singers, or any other group working today. Here the sopranos as a section sound full and strong. Perhaps the extended vocal technique demanded by the music (extremes of range and dynamics, dissonant singing, and no small amount of sweeping glissandi) engenders a certain sense of vocal freedom? Soprano Chris Fritzsche takes a moving solo on the third movement, La luna asoma, and the suite as a whole highlights the precision of Clerestory’s altos and the depth of their Basses. This is strangely wonderful music, and Clerestory sings it with conviction and purpose.
Gerald Finzi’s (1901-1956, England) Three Short Elegies are miniature masterpieces of expressive text setting, and Clerestory makes the most of his tender and sometimes unexpected harmonic choices. They bring out Finzi’s deft word painting, uncovering minute details tucked away in the score. As with the Lorca Suite, Clerestory’s interpretation reveals a deep and mature understanding of the music.
I was surprised by the ‘forward-looking’ quality of Peter Warlock’s (1894-1930, England) The Shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi. Perhaps best know for his strophic Christmas carol, Bethlehem Down (performed in this video by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge), Warlock shows himself to be a composer of great depth and imagination. Like their earlier selection for lower voices, Clerestory benefits from the integration of their countertenors into the tenor, baritone, and bass sections. It isn’t so much that the sound is softened, as it is filled out with additional timbres. The tenor section in particular takes on an alto sheen reminiscent of the finest Cathedral choirs. This may be the definitive American recording of this piece.
Night Draws Near once again take a surprising turn (though well-crafted with respect to key relationships) with La Llorona, a Mexican folk song arranged here by Ramón Noble (1925-1999), and Double Double, Toil and Trouble by Jaako Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963, Finland). Each piece fits into the program’s mission, but while fun in their own right – the Mäntyjärvi with its witchy, snarling vocal lines must be especially fun to hear live – they feel like orphans on this recording, the former for stylistic reasons, and the latter for its subject matter.
The next set returns us to the moorings of an implied sacred liturgy. John Tavener’s (b. 1944, England) Funeral Ikos, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958, England) Full Fathom Five, and Elanor Daley’s (b. 1955, Canada) In Flanders Fields each paint expansive scenes worthy of their contemplative texts. The chant-like verses (lovingly phrased by Clerestory) of Funeral Ikos, clear the ear of the Mäntyjärvi, creating an open space for the harmony of a repeated homophonic Alleluia refrain. This piece tells the story of a man departing/departed of this life; in this liminal place he contemplates all that he leaves behind, the uncertainty he faces, and the comfort of the eternal psalm, Alleluia. Great attention is paid to word stress in these long sections of chant, illuminating meaningful text paired with simple music. Full Fathom Five, a setting of text from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, describes a similarly expansive space that changes on a scale too slow for human perception: The sea as seen from below. With slow and connected phrases juxtaposed against the sung sounds of bells ringing underwater, Clerestory effectively creates an otherworldly soundscape. In Flanders Field, a setting of the famous poem by World War I surgeon John Alexander McCrae, begins with a robust, heartfelt, and completely believable solo by tenor Kevin Baum. If for no other reason (and there are plenty of other reasons), buy the CD for this solo alone. The ensemble evokes a desolate scene and the silent cry of the battlefield dead, “…short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow… If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep.” The erie calm of a motionless battlefield is visible.
Bay Area composer Paul Crabtree’s (b.1960) War Music: On Horseback crosses into the macabre. With appropriate onomatopoeic vocalisms (a nod to the war madrigals of Janequin and Monteverdi), and florid lines well woven by countertenors Chris Fritzsche and Justin Montigne, we hear a dead soldier sing his joy at being carried back home for burial as the honored guest of a raucously patriotic parade. This track is an example of Clerestory’s consistent vocal approach despite stylistic differences. There is nothing wrong with their performance, but it would not have been marred by a slightly more vicious tone.
In the simple Shaker song Lay Me Low, replete with tastefully spare, mixolydian sub-tonic cadences, we hear of the desire to die – not as a triumph, tragedy, or comedic or moral argument, but rather as a simple desire to be at rest after a long life. This is acceptance of death in clear, refreshingly positive terms, cleanly arranged by the American Kevin Siegfried (b. 1969).
Though classically trained singers will never sound completely authentic in the Sacred Harp repertory (Clerestory’s tenors show a distinct lack of strain when singing their highest notes here), New Morning Sun by S. Whit Denson (1890-1964) is an interesting compliment to the rest of the program. Conspicuous not just for the pitch pipe blow and tuning chord that starts the song, this is also the first challenging key relation on the disc. If their intent is to wake us after lulling us to sleep with Lay Me Low, they succeed.
Returning once again to the Mass-like formalism to close their program, Clerestory delivers a setting of the Nunc Dimittis text (Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, usually sung in Evensong or Compline services) melded by the American composer John Musto (b.1954) to a poem by the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po, The Birds Have Vanished. This piece alternates overlapping, organum-esque chant melodies with spare descriptions of Li Po’s ever-disappearing natural landscape, culminating in a cascade of placid and shimmering Amens. The sparse texture occasionally reveals weaknesses in specific singers, but overall the effect is stunning.
The sound of this recording is very intimate; singers are simultaneously identifiable and well-blended throughout the stereo field. There were times, however, when I longed for more detail from Clerestory’s inner voices. It wasn’t so much that the altos and tenors were too quiet, as that their sound was not always as distinct as their bass and soprano counterparts. I wondered if this had more to do with their placement in space than the actual voices. That is a nit-picky little detail that in no way mars the overall product. The reverb, whether real or digital, is tasteful without being conspicuous. In a few choice places, dramatically effective reverb is allowed to tail off after final chords, acknowledging that the room is as much a part of a choir’s sound as are the singers.
With Night Draws Near, Clerestory steps into a field occupied by the best male vocal ensembles in the world. While this CD does not always achieve the dazzling perfection found on the (likely better funded) recordings made by those full-time ensembles – say what you will about the decline of the record industry, having a record company’s backing still helps – at its best moments, Clerestory proves itself equal to the greatest male vocal ensembles recording today. It is a little sad that a nation of so many has produced so few professional ensembles of this type and caliber. Clerestory proves it can be done, and I am excited to see what they produce next.