All About Jazz
American Record Guide
Broad Street Review
Chestnut Hill Local (review of premiere)
Chestnut Hill Local (CD review)
Fanfare Magazine 2009 Want List
Liturgy, Hymnody, and Pulpit Quarterly Book Review
Philadelphia City Paper
Philadelphia City Paper 2009 Top Ten Classical
Philadelphia Inquirer (review of premiere)
Philadelphia Inquirer (feature on recording sessions)
Philadelphia Inquirer (CD review)
Philadelphia Music Makers
Recovering Choir Director
Mr. Smith has managed to take several elements I’ve come to love (German and Latin liturgical music, modern choral writing, renaissance instruments and counterpoint) and turn them into one interesting and beautiful work. He plays with an amazing variety of voicing combinations, for instance a rather exciting three-part canon in the Magnificat. This one-of-a-kind work has both strong echoes of the ancient and modern in wonderful juxtaposition, and is well worth the listen!
Elements in the CDs by Flautando Köln and by Petri/Yue overlap for further serendipitous juxtapositions in the collaboration of composer Kile Smith with ensembles Piffaro and The Crossing. Smith, a well-regarded composer steeped in the streams of Lutheran liturgical music, accomplishes a remarkable feat in his vespers setting. He employs a Renaissance wind band and choral group that focuses on newly-composed music in his successful post-modern setting of a Reformation period vespers service.
Piffaro co-director Robert Wiemken notes that the decision to use texts and structure from the Reform period and branch of the liturgical tree made use of familiar tunes that were readily appropriate. Smith brings to bear not only his involvement in that particular lineage of worship, but also familiarity with early instruments as a player.
The hour-long service on the CD is both familiar and innovative. Timbres we love from Piffaro’s work in early music are there as well as texts known from the core of the standard early repertory. Tunes from the Reformation leap to our ears. The tonal and rhythmic languages resonate with mainstream choral, liturgical, and, to some extent, ensemble writing in the late 20th century. The music has clear tonal centers, the harmonies reinforce those, and the chords use the intervals of perfect fourths as well as traditional triads. The result holds resonances of late Stravinsky and mid-period Copland.
Thanks to correspondences among early European instruments and those of other world cultures, the variety of tonal colors used resonates with the worldwide soundscape. A tremendous element in the release is the inclusion of study scores as PDF files in a separate partition on the CD. The disc functions perfectly in a CD player as an audui disc; in the CD drive of a computer (Mac and Widows), it allows the listener to follow the scores of all the pieces while listening. A small gallery of photographs is included as well.
The Crossing (20 voices directed by Donald Nally) provides just the right solid choral sound, blending but not blurring the timbres. That works ideally with the range of tone colors from Piffaro’s recorders, shawms, sackbuts, etc. When vocal and instrumental solos emerge from the texture, they come forth related to the whole rather than inappropriately indistinct.
The seven Piffaro members, using Renaissance instruments at a=466, demonstrate their virtuosity with a grace ﬁtting the occasion. All of the playing is wonderful, and of particular delight is Greg Ingles’s execution of the passage-work for sackbut in the ﬁnal section, Deo gratias.
recalls the probing and angular music of Hugo Distler, but with a lighter heart and a natural exuberance… The closing of the ﬁnal movement (“Deo Gratias”) is almost giddy… This is richly gratifying music to know…
The liturgical form providing the basis for Kile Smith’s Vespers is the Lutheran service of evening prayer. The sound palette is again quite unique: chamber choir (The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally) with another unconventional accompaniment: a Renaissance wind band (Piffaro), complete with full consorts of recorders, shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, and continuo (lute, theorbo, guitar, and harp)—27 different instruments played expertly by seven musicians. In fact, Vespers was commissioned by Piffaro, not the choir, for what we might call “chiesa in camera” performance—concert as church, without doctrinal allegiances or exclusions. As with the other works discussed here, the composer has reshaped a traditional liturgical form to serve the musical design. But rather than invent his own texts, Smith relies on biblical texts in Latin and hymn texts in German along with their original melodies. Thus the musical forms are more conventionally periodic in nature. Smith points to the earliest Lutheran composers such as Praetorius and Schütz as inspirations, writing at a time when wind consorts were in their prime. Plainchant, chorale variations, and complex imitative counterpoint abound.
On the other side of Bach, the music also recalls the probing and angular music of Hugo Distler, but with a lighter heart and a natural exuberance. Stravinsky’s neo-baroque fanfares come to mind in several of the instrumental flourishes, such as at the end of the “Gloria” and “Magnificat” movements. The closing of the final movement (“Deo Gratias”) is almost giddy in its exuberance.
Smith also writes music that draws fully on the remarkable talents of his performers. It is no discredit to the performers on the other discs to note that much more is asked of the virtuoso ensembles performing the Vespers. Not only are the demands of sonority, range, ensemble, and intonation more extensive, but performers are asked to contribute a more varied palette of inflection, shaping, shading, and rubato. Smith writes idiomatically and inventively for Piffaro, having grown up playing in a family recorder consort himself. Piffaro exhibits technical proficiency well beyond any amateur ensemble, of course. The instruments sound so full on the recording (though still well balanced with the choir) that it makes one wonder if the balance of these early instruments in the hall would be nearly as favorable. The composer is said to be considering an arrangement for modern instruments as well.
Donald Nally formed the chamber choir The Crossing in 2005 from singers he had worked with closely during his earlier years in Philadelphia. Coming together for brief periods to rehearse intensively for an annual series of concerts, their repertoire is devoted entirely to works written in the last fifteen years. Not only are their voices exceptionally well-matched, their familiarity with each other and with Nally allows for an impressive level of musical flexibility and expressive freedom in very challenging repertoire. They have worked closely with a handful of American composers from the Philadelphia area (e.g., Smith) and beyond, often performing two or three of a composer’s works over several concerts. They also feature recent works by British and continental European composers such as Bo Holten, Paul Spicer, and Joby Talbot, whose music is widely known in Europe but rarely heard here.
Along with Smith, Kline, and Lang, those composers are writing new music that is quite accessible on the first hearing but also rewards repeated listening (and, especially in the case of the Smith Vespers, repeated singing). This is richly gratifying music to know. As church and school cultural trends place further pressure on us to water down the traditional three-minute anthem or concert piece, we need to create the musical space—a sacred space—for this evocative repertoire. It should be reaching, and benefiting, audiences beyond the urban cloisters where it currently flourishes.
a brilliant new work… fascinating… totally modern, without ever being simplistic
Piffaro, The Renaissance Band was founded in 1980. Its intention was to recreate the sounds of both the professional wind bands of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods as well as those of more rustic peasant music. Directors Joan Kimbell and Robert Wiemken conceived the idea of translating a Renaissance liturgical work for chorus and wind into 21st century practice. Having previously produced liturgical reconstructions in both the Roman and Reformed traditions, it was decided to use a Vespers service in the Reformed tradition. This meant that the service would include Latin canticles, but also German hymns and would be able to use a variety of chorales as the musical foundation. The Philadelphia-based composer Kile Smith was chosen as the composer, partly because Smith himself grew up in the Lutheran tradition and was familiar with its musical traditions.
The result is 65 minutes of contemporary music performed by The Crossing (under conductor Donald Nally), a choir founded in 2005 to specialise in contemporary choral music, and Piffaro, mixing modern and old traditions. Smith was able to take advantage of the fact that, like most other period wind groups, the performers in Piffaro are proficient on a variety of instruments, as were their Renaissance counterparts.… Smith uses the choir in a similar manner, extracting soloists from amongst the singers and mixing and matching the eight parts (SSAATTBB) in various ways, usually variants on full choir or lower voices.
The thirteen movements of the Vespers consist of a sequence of Latin canticles and psalms, interspersed with Hymns in German and purely instrumental Sonatas. But the inﬂuence of the Lutheran chorale is strong and these form the structure of the instrumental movements as well.…
Smith’s style is essentially tonal and he uses both plainchant and Lutheran chorales in his settings. He makes full use of the wide variety of instruments available to him and each movement seems to be orchestrated in a slightly different manner. The result is not a strict liturgical event, as Smith has pared or elaborated the source texts according to his needs. With the plainchant, sometimes Smith presents it plain and at other times it simply threads its way through the piece. In the choral movements, the instruments usually provide a commentary around the chorus.
Inevitably, writing for such instruments as recorders, Smith often produces music that is consonant, though often striking and modally inflected. That said, there are moments of edginess and chromaticism. The results are thoughtful. Though based on medieval and renaissance sources and ideas, the result is totally modern, without ever being simplistic.
Though the various movements are written for different varieties of forces, using two different languages and mixing plainchant and Lutheran chorales, Smith creates a coherent and well-balanced final structure.
I have nothing but praise for the performers. The Crossing sing the music as if they have been doing it all their life—there is nothing contrived or awkward about their presentation. And their twenty members make a beautifully blended sound, which matches the wind players well. Piffaro play Smith’s music as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which is a testament to their technique and to Smith’s ability to craft new music for old instruments.
This is one of those pieces that deserves to have a wider life, but given the forces required is likely to be beyond the means of many groups.
The CD booklet includes an article by the artistic directors of Piffaro along with one by the composer. Full texts are provided, including texts for those instrumental numbers based on Chorales. Also, if you put the CD into your computer you get access to PDFs of all the music on this disc, which makes it a stunning resource for all those interested.
There’s some very ﬁne singing and playing here. But the main interest lies in its fascinating blend of ancient and modern. Piffaro and Kile Smith have created a brilliant new work in the spirit of the Lutheran Vespers service which remains accessible without ever talking down.
Good for Philadelphian Kile Smith for creating a worldwide buzz with this exceptionally beautiful work commissioned and performed by Piffaro, our acclaimed Renaissance ensemble. Vespers sneaks up on you, like a velvety cocktail, and then you are hooked.
Peter Burwasser, 31 Dec 2009
bursts with the invention that characterizes the best music… a magniﬁcent achievement… fresh, vibrant
Carson Cooman, 9 Oct 2009, Issue 33:2, Nov/Dec 2009
American composer Kile Smith (b. 1956) has been a mainstay of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania music scene for many years and is the curator of the famed Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. In his compositional life, Smith has written a distinguished body of orchestral, chamber, and choral pieces that displays imaginative use of traditional materials. Music inspired by sacred themes (both church and concert pieces) forms the vast majority of his output, and this newest CD release features his largest work: a full Lutheran Vespers service, scored for choir and Renaissance wind band.
Smith’s Vespers (2008) is a magniﬁcent achievement: it draws on the contrapuntal and textural idioms of Renaissance and Baroque music to create a fresh, vibrant musical statement in a contemporary harmonic language. The many instruments of the Piffaro Renaissance band are employed in myriad delightful combinations—from gentle, pastoral recorders with harp to a blazing chorus of shawms, dulzians, and sackbuts.
Like his Lutheran predecessors in the Renaissance and Baroque era, Smith bases many of the movements upon traditional chorale melodies. These prove fertile ground for his own harmonic explorations, and the whole work bursts with the invention that characterizes the best music (from any era) of this sort. The performance is excellent—Piffaro has distinguished itself through many records of period music, and The Crossing is a recently created choir (brainchild of conductor Donald Nally) that performs contemporary choral music exclusively.
This disc is one of the ﬁrst few releases on the new Navona record label (the classical imprint of Parma Recordings). All Navona releases include a marvelous feature: PDF-ﬁle study scores of the music on the CD are included on a data layer (to be viewed via a computer).
ethereally beautiful… a composer of stealthy excellence… a singular voice
Peter Burwasser, 9 Oct 2009, Issue 33:2, Nov/Dec 2009
Kile Smith is the curator of the renowned Fleisher Collection of music in Philadelphia, and a composer of stealthy excellence. His Vespers is an ethereally beautiful setting of liturgical text that deftly blends modernity and ancient forms. Commissioned by a period-instrument ensemble, it is enchantingly played by their collection of sackbuts, shawms, lutes, and other antique instruments.… a singular voice.
a major new work… perfectly wonderful, truly elegant
Charles H. Parsons, September/October 2009
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, has a distinguished performance and recording history. They are quite lively specialists producing an exciting, compelling sound. The Crossing was founded in 2005 by conductor Donald Nally to perform new and modern choral music. They too have been critically acclaimed.
Does something here look amiss? The clue is supplied by two small easily overlooked (I did) words on the cover: Kile Smith. I presumed that “Kile Smith with the Crosssing” indicated a soloist or conductor and another group joined Piffaro in the music-making. I put on the CD and heard music that was Medieval-sounding, but not quite right. A closer look at the notes reveals Kile Smith to be the composer of Vespers!
The music is a major new work (2008) commissioned by Piffaro. The idea was a liturgical work for wind band and chorus, a common practice in 16th and 17th Century Europe. It was decided to commission a Vespers service in the Lutheran tradition, 13 familiar texts. But this was not to be a reconstruction or assemblage of period music. Instead, Piffaro commissioned Philadelphia composer Kile Smith to juxtapose the old and the new, 16th Century chorales and a 21st Century idiom. The result: a perfectly wonderful work, a truly elegant, workable (and enjoyable) combination. It can be somewhat confusing for a few minutes. Sometimes the music sounds like the “real thing”, but as gentle dissonance creeps in the listener is not so sure. Yet it is not frightfully modern, but most pleasant. Both groups perform exquisitely.
The complete original texts with English translations are included, and—here is the surprise—the complete music scores! They are on the CD-ROM part of the disc, and you can print it out. Now, do I shelve the CD with my other Piffaro recordings on the Renaissance shelf or on the contemporary music shelf?
Ancient practice through modern eyes and ears—the result is a success
Andrew Druckenbrod, July 2009
The trend of writing new music for period instruments has passed through predictable stages of gimmickry and pseudo-Hegelian synthesis to ﬁnally be, simply, “music”. Questions of genre and authenticity shouldn’t get in the way of our enjoying a spectacular work such as Kile Smith’s Vespers, based on ancient Lutheran liturgical German and Latin texts. Nor should they problematise the collaboration of the Renaissance band Piffaro, who commissioned the piece, and a contemporary vocal ensemble, The Crossing.
While Smith’s knowledge of Lutheran practice informs the work, the hushed awe that ﬂoats in every movement of Vespers is wholly appropriate in the generic sense. The Philadelphian composer displays a tender love for the texts of his church and Martin Luther with settings that express even the Latin or German in sparkling beauty.
The Crossing intones the chant-like passages well, but its expertise shines in the shimmering timbre it creates for Smith’s contemporary counterpoint. The ﬂowing setting of Psalm 27 is an early example, but the a cappella hymn “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” calls on its clearest and precise singing as it moves from four to eight and then 16 voice parts.
Smith’s decision essentially to background Piffaro was gutsy, but crucial to the success and balance of the piece. Its members play with sensitivity and grace, but often quietly and in clear accompaniment to the singers. That’s the case even when sackbuts enter or when the band alternates with the choir, as in “Vater unser”.
It may be authentic that a 16th-century Vespers would be arranged this way, but it ﬁts Smith’s soundscape so well that it also was surely foremost a compositional decision. The music is choral, even if Piffaro commissioned it, and Smith stuck to that. It takes conviction for a commissioned composer to listen to his inner voice above the feelings of obligation to those who foot the bill. The result is a quiet yet ecstatic work that offers a profoundly contemporary view of an ancient practice.
Easily one of the best releases of the year of any type
Seldom do I come across a piece with such profoundly direct emotional appeal. I’ll say it outright: this work is a masterpiece of the deepest kind. The Crossing may specialize in new music, but the sound they produce here is of a kind that Palestrina would certainly have approved, and any Lutheran congregation in the seventeenth century would think they are in heaven. Smith’s use of the 20-odd instruments magnificently played by Piffaro are uncannily integrated in the very thick textures of this work, and then gloriously dissipate into brilliant solo and chamber-like combinations when called for. I’ll call this music tonal with a twist; though modern, and it has some contemporary edges to it, it still feels almost uncomfortably familiar, a masterly mélange of old and new that perseveres in a way that one can feel without necessarily having to explain. The writing is brilliant in all respects, and including the score of the entire work as a series of bonus PDF files is a luxury that all listeners with a degree of musical education can take advantage of.… This is easily one of the best releases of the year of any type… it would be a crime to pass it up. ★★★★★
New Made Old
Vespers is almost preternaturally beautiful.
[Piffaro’s] newest recording may be their boldest project yet… This Vespers is almost preternaturally beautiful, presented with an apparent simplicity that reveals the timeless essence of musical expression. But it is not at all simple, as Smith subtly weaves contemporary ﬁgurations, pacing and textures into an old fabric. It is remarkable how seamless this effect is, and how utterly self-effacing is Smith’s technique. A casual listener might miss the impact of Vespers, but not for long. The music seeps into the consciousness with gentle stealth and power, ﬁnally disarming any resistance… This recording is one of those fortunate synergies of ﬁne forces… The sum of the parts is magical. Don’t miss this one.
Composers’ shared idea yields disparate works
creative breakthrough… Smith created an ethereal, homogenous synthesis with an immediately identifiable personality… Smith suggests a state of being that many people aspire to: His Vespers is a sanctuary, a refuge from life.… scrupulously relevant… His use of musical antiquity—Piffaro’s Renaissance instruments—is about cheery, primary colors.… the richness of Smith’s choral writing can be mistaken for mere prettiness. Listen closely, though, and the spiritual solidity of his music is full of distinctive rewards.
The core of any Vespers service is the Magnificat, and Smith’s contains a minor miracle that is characteristic of the piece. Many composers have taken the hard-sell, full-choir approach to this text. Smith’s setting is carried mostly by soprano soloists who sing a mid-tempo melody that’s almost anti-evangelical in its conﬁdent simplicity. Then the melody organically germinates into canonic counterpoint, seeming to step outside itself and into another realm, one easily accessible and there whenever you want it.
Together, the two pieces complement each other perfectly. Kline tells you that you’re not crazy or amoral when in the thick of your 21st- century angst. Smith tells you that you don’t always have to go there, and when you do, his music works far better than aspirin. Maybe the two pieces should be performed together—Kline spelling out the existential problem, Smith coming forth with the solution.
The passages written for Piffaro alone… validate the faith they place in Smith; his thinking out of the centuries-old box in regard to Renaissance instruments leads to some novel combinations of texture… Vespers is an appealing listen; Smith’s music is colorful and ingratiating, and the performance of both Piffaro and the Crossing is of front-rank caliber. Performance ★★★★, Sound ★★★★
Kile Smith, Vespers performed by Piffaro, The Renaissance Band and The Crossing Chorus (Navona).
What a beautiful and remarkable thing this turns out to be. Here on a new label, is newly composed music in the spirit of the Renaissance and “the musical flowering of the Lutheran Reformation” that seems to combine both the most sumptuous beauty of Church music with the charm and delight of court music. It’s altogether gorgeous and haunting. And when, out of some necessity of text and some version of harmonic calamity, a sudden dissonance arrives that out-Gesualdos Gesualdo, you remember that Kile Smith is a 21st century composer living in Philadelphia who has, almost like some Borgesian Pierre Menard (who wrote “Don Quixote” out of his own modern needs), synthesized all of this anew out of what has gone before. It would appear that we now have a piece of contemporary music that, in its very different way, deserves to be mentioned along with Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.” The performance here is stunning. ★★★★
If you’re looking to give the gift of music with a local connection this Christmas season…. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, and The Crossing, the chamber choir, have joined forces to record Kile Smith’s Vespers.…
Philadelphia composer Kile Smith’s Vespers was a commission by Piffaro and The Crossing. It’s a modern setting of the tradition Vespers liturgy of the German Lutheran Church for chorus and period instruments. The work was given its world premiere in 2008 by Piffaro and The Crossing under the direction of the latter’s Donald Nally in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The Vespers was subsequently recorded at The High Point, St. Peter’s Church, in the Great Valley, Malvern, by Chestnut Hill’s George Blood Audio.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Smith’s Vespers is his nearly unique ability to blend the traditional outlines of centuries of musical settings of the Vespers’ selections from the Bible plus additional devotional texts with the harmonic sounds of modern music. This is all the more impressive when you consider that he’s using Renaissance wind instruments to accompany contemporary singers. Smith had to first take into consideration the obvious technical limitations and peculiar tones of instruments that are the predecessors of those we now hear in orchestras and bands. He then had to find ways to both overcome and even exploit those limitations and advantages, as well! in the service of harmonies, voicings and combinations those instruments were never intended to project. Yet he managed it all without ever sounding either condescending or constricted.
His vocal writing is no less impressive in this score. He calls upon the 21 singers of The Crossing to both evoke the singing style of the Renaissance straight tone and purely tuned and employ the more sharply focused sounds of the early 21st century. The span of the vocal parts is sometimes broadly spaced out and sometimes tightly knotted but always used to delineate the interior and exterior meanings of the text in combination with the instrumental accompaniment.
Therein lies one of the most amazing aspects of Smith’s Vespers the organic integration of the instrumental and vocal parts to produce a piece in which the choir is not so much accompanied by the band but one in which both singers and players form one multi-textured and multi-colored body of sound that expresses the convictions of the text.
Both the singing and the playing are splendid. The Crossing proffers singing that’s pure in pitch, eloquent in phrasing, powerful in emotional projection, dramatic in narrative conception and exquisite in the tone painting of the text. Piffaro plays with tart timbres and technical virtuosity. And George Blood’s recording perfectly balances clarity with resonance.
tour de force… essential listening
Vol. 25 No. 6, December 2009 / January 2010 (newsletter of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians)
Four hundred years on, American composer Kile Smith enlivens the tradition of Praetorius and Scheidt with his Vespers (Navona NV5809). Written for the versatile Renaissance wind ensemble Piffaro and the virtuoso choir The Crossing (directed by Donald Navarre [sic]), Vespers is an hour-long tour de force with the Lutheran chorale at its heart; classic melodies provide the basic material for ethereal hymn settings, Stravinskian psalms and striking instrumental sonatas. Piffaro is rock-solid throughout, laying a colorful harmonic foundation that enables The Crossing to soar above them. This wonder [sic] new work is essential listening; as a bonus Adobe Acrobat ﬁles of the score are included on the CD.
transcendent… hauntingly beautiful… inspired…full of life, joy, and celebration… timeless
…an exceptional treat… a modern restatement of Renaissance-era wind bands for a sacred context… a fusion of the 16th Century and our 21st. I think Dr. Luther would be at home and J. S. Bach would appreciate what was going on… one hears a transcendent heavenly setting of “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”… Psalm 113 completes the trilogy of psalms in preparation for a 13th Century tune used by the Bohemian Brethren in the 16th Century. The psalm setting is hauntingly beautiful. I simply couldn’t wait to sing along. Remember that included sheet music?
The recording is at once recognizable as a liturgical service of Vespers… ambitions [sic] congregations (and their musicians) may be able to include some pared-down portions of the music for a congregational service of Vespers. The music is full of life, joy, and celebration appropriate for a New Year’s Eve service, a congregational anniversary, a building dedication, or an ordination.
Piffaro is blessed with skilled musicians, a creative composer in Kile Smith, and a daring record label, Navona Records. The combination produced a fresh, reverent, and timeless recording that is historically and musically grounded in the best of Christian liturgy and hymnody. What are they working on next?
The composition and recording of Vespers is inspired and inspiring.
The origin of Vespers was as a commission by the popular American Renaissance Band, Piffaro, and the vocal ensemble The Crossing of Philadelphia composer Kile Smith. Vespers a modern setting of the traditional Vespers liturgy from German Lutheran tradition for chorus and period instruments. The piece was given its world premiere in 2008 by Piffaro and The Crossing under the direction of the latter’s Donald Nally in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.
While not strictly a holiday recording, Smith does recast older texts previously set to music, including “Wie Schon Leuchtet der Morgenstern” and “Herr Christ der Einig Gotts Sohn.” Smith’s musical settings are crafted in such a way that techniques and practices from different periods dissolve into one another in the solution of his musical vision. The early music elements of this music are amplified by Piffaro and the Renaissance Band’s expert and well-known sound. The vocal ensemble, The Crossing, lends the modern edge to the performances, capable of spanning five centuries of vocal practice from plainchant to the 21st century.
The true genius here is the composer, who chooses not to simply reharmonize older music, but instead, create completely new music. This is truly old wine in new wineskins that does not spoil. This music is immediately accessible for the novice and expert alike, offering different layers artistry to be enjoyed. The charm resides in the old and new existing side by side. Piffaro is uniformly fine and The Crossing is a group to watch.
Like Penderecki, Smith mixes old elements with distinctively modern ones, but both the elements and the way they are joined are quite different. Smith incorporates Renaissance vocal techniques and fluent modern writing for wind band, with some strikingly effective choral sections (on the word “Alleluia,” for example) and a series of instrumental movements that are more than interludes – they are themselves based on religious texts, which they seem to have absorbed and then reproduced in an alternative form. Smith… incorporates a clean, modern sound while paying tribute to compositional techniques of the past…. Vespers is an emotionally and musically appealing update of some timeless religious sentiments, with the use of German text enhancing a never-quite-imitative connection to the era of Bach – for example, in “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” (“God’s only Son, for all time”).
Kile Smith’s Vespers released on the Navona label
Many composers today, however likable their work might be, still seem to be searching for something to say, as if they haven’t yet completely found their musical voice. Unlike so much that sounds experimental, Smith is a composer who has found his voice: Here is a man that teaches with authority. Behind his work stands not only a well-trained pen, but also but also the excellent Lutheran musical tradition. All of this comes together in Smith’s Vespers, first performed in 2008 by The Crossing and Piffaro. This work combines old and new and embraces originality without eschewing lovability.
Ensembles unite in an ambitious ‘Vespers’
David Patrick Stearns
When unimaginable musical elements enjoy an unlikely convergence, performers often do what’s necessary to ensure that it happens again.
That’s why the Malvern sanctuary of St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley has suddenly become a meeting point for musicians representing chronological extremes – the newly created and the utterly ancient – for a week of recording sessions. The music, Vespers by Philadelphia composer Kile Smith, is a piece so ambitious and singular that it might not otherwise be heard with any frequency, if ever again….
Nobody could have guessed seven months ago, when the piece was premiered…that Vespers would warrant a recording…. Though a quiet, steady presence among local composers, Smith is best known as a radio host on WRTI-FM (90.1) and as curator of the Free Library’s Fleisher Collection of music.
He is also the author of approximately 100 pieces, many of them choral, and it was that fact that inspired Philadelphia’s Renaissance wind band, Piffaro, to take a chance on commissioning a 70-minute Vespers service from him. Yet even Piffaro cofounder Kimball was surprised when rehearsals began. Put simply, “our jaws just dropped,” she said.
“He’s really a composer who knows how to generate an emotional life out of a few tiny notes – and that’s the only thing that matters in composition,” says conductor Donald Nally, who ran Philadelphia’s Choral Arts Society for years but never heard a note of Smith’s music until Vespers was proposed to him for his handpicked virtuoso choir, The Crossing.
“Everything fell together. It was almost as if I couldn’t mess it up,” said the composer during a break to readjust microphones. “Everything that was supposed to happen in order for it to work happened before I knew it. It had nothing to do with me, in a way.”
The commission was unique in Smith’s experience, if only because both groups are among the best of their kind and have few limitations. Immediately, he wrote a dizzying psalm setting with 16 different voice parts. Were Smith writing for a church choir, he’d be declared insane – and Nally initially was taken aback. “You kind of want to say, ‘Please don’t write anything just because you can.’ That’s always a disaster,” Nally says. “But that’s not what he did. . . .”
The piece is hardly typical for either of the ensembles concerned. Piffaro is in the business of playing music by composers who can only be consulted via Ouija Board. The Crossing, which exists only during intensive, discrete times of the year when Nally is on break from chorus-master duties at Lyric Opera of Chicago, gives programs that mix a wide range of contemporary works, never ones featuring hour-long works by a single composer.
The idea began as Piffaro was itching to do something different and contemporary. The traditional Vespers service has always been so open-ended that it does not constrict a 21st-century composer, and Smith’s adult life has been steeped in Lutheran tradition and hymns – exactly the milieu that Kimball says best suits Piffaro’s instruments.
What resulted has harmonic kinship with modern Anglican choral music, as well as some of the mystery of medieval music. The words familiar and original seem equally applicable. At best, the music is so direct and uncalculated – an expression of religiosity as opposed to an advertisement for it – that its antecedents disappear into a highly personal portrayal of psalm texts.
“A lot of people think religious music should be slow and profound,” said Smith, “but the chorales come right out of Renaissance dance music. There’s a lot of vigor.”
Once Vespers was begun, he says, the composing process was like “breathing.” That might seem odd to those who view religious music composition as an act of transcending one’s self, rather than self-expression. The fact that self-expression is essential to Smith’s religious music might seem even more odd considering the outwardly conventional circumstances of his life.
He grew up in Pennsauken, where his chief musical claim to fame was being cast in the title role of Amahl and the Night Visitors just before his voice broke. His main compositional education was at Philadelphia Biblical University, which accepted him only on probation because, at that time, his musical skills were seen to be so limited. He went to work at the Fleisher Collection after graduation, and has been there 27 years. Between raising three daughters with his wife in Fox Chase, he was composer in residence for the now-defunct Jupiter Symphony in New York City.
Reviewing a cross section of these past works, there’s plenty of accomplishment and capability. His Vespers, however, seems to tap into a part of his life he hasn’t always wanted to talk about: mystical experiences that he had as early as age 8.
In an e-mail, he described the first of these: “I was lying in bed looking at the ceiling and wondering about God, how could any of it possibly be true? And yet, how could it not be true? How could everything be here just by itself? At that moment, I was enveloped in a cloud of warmth that welled out of my ribs. . . .”
Such sensations, hinted at in past works, seem much more in evidence in his Vespers. Yet the process of getting them on paper may be beyond the help of divine intervention. Though Smith considers the Vespers psalm texts some of the greatest literature ever written, setting them to music is about time and work.
“When I wrote this piece, I had a vision of everybody sitting in a big church, a wide open space, at night. The problem with this vision is that it’s nothing if the audience can’t hear it. It took weeks to get those first four bars written,” he says.
The rest, he says, has little to do with sacred vs. secular, but with artistic fervor. “It takes a while to settle in and find the nuggets within the text that make a personal statement with you,” he says. “There’s got to be a way that it strikes you, makes sense to you and is important to you. If that’s not happening, why bother being an artist?”
Phila. composer beautifully blends old and new
David Patrick Stearns
ecstatically beautiful … ﬁne compositional talent blessed with inspiration and strategy … making ancient things modern is more common in Europe, but few such endeavors by Peteris Vasks, Giya Kancheli or Arvo Pärt have Smith’s lyrical immediacy and ability to ﬁnd great musical variety while maintaining an overall coherent personality … elements were assembled and juxtaposed with intelligence and originality. Most immediately apparent … was the harmonic sensitivity lavished upon the blended Piffaro winds. Thus, the piece prepared your ears to hear matters of religious importance conveyed in miniature Schütz-like strokes—as well as instilling conﬁdence in what was to come. The choral entrance on the word “Alleluia” was seamless, and all the more breathtaking for being so cleanly vocalized by the Crossing (Philadelphia’s best chorus), conducted by Donald Nally.
Choral sections were punctuated by instrumental movements also inspired by religious texts, but in music that had subsumed the words but projected them in spirit. At times, the winds had a gently bleating quality (as in Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ), but they never lapsed into potentially cheap picturesque effects. Though a concert work, Vespers was close in spirit to liturgical-minded composers who wouldn’t let effects eclipse words.
But you’d never say that Smith kept a respectful distance from the text. The German-language “Our Father” had block chords whose power came from their inner voices and their almost processional rhythm. Other texts took on subtle narrative with a variety of vocal solos and duets and use of recurring refrains. Formality was there, but it was completely negotiable.
Magniﬁcent concert at Hill Presbyterian Church
Smith’s Vespers … turned out to be one of the ﬁnest concerts I’ve heard in at least the last decade … The idea of Piffaro—an ensemble specializing in performances of music composed during the Renaissance of the 15th, 16th & early 17th centuries—commissioning a living composer to write a score to add to its repertoire is almost a contradiction in terms. And yet, Piffaro’s directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, didn’t shrink from that contradiction. In fact, they embraced it with the same level of conviction that has characterized Piffaro’s development into one of the world’s premiere period instruments ensembles.
Remaining in context even while breaking new ground was their motto when they commissioned Kile Smith to compose a setting of the Lutheran Vespers Service to celebrate Epiphany, the manifestation of God in the ﬂesh as the Infant Jesus, the ﬁnal feast of the Christmas season. And, recognizing the need for a chorus with which to perform the score, Kimball and Wiemken couldn’t have made a better choice than The Crossing, with Donald Nally set to conduct the actual performance.
Smith met the daunting challenge of composing new music in an old form as though it were second nature to him. He has taken hold of the complex structure of 12 individual and varied movements to construct a score that proffers both cohesion of intention and diversity of expression. By opening and closing with music based on Latin Gregorian chant, he establishes the larger historical context of Vespers as an evening service of the Roman Catholic Church from which the new Lutheran Vespers has developed. By maintaining the Latin Vulgate texts of Psalms 70, 27 & 113 and the Magniﬁcat, Smith honored Luther’s intention to retain as many as possible of those portions of the Latin Rite that he considered apostolic treasures. By employing the newly written German texts of hymns, Smith acknowledged the new vernacular style of the Reformation. And by interspersing three purely instrumental sonatas within the progression of the choral movements, Smith tipped his compositional hat to both the historical tradition and Piffaro’s musical prowess.
The score, itself, is a marvelous marriage of the old with the new. Smith has beautifully combined Renaissance modality and polyphonic voice leading with modern dissonance and resolution, all with a bracing ear for blending and contrasting the tart timbres of Renaissance instruments, often sensitively supporting the choral singing but occasionally coming to the fore to dramatic effect.
His writing for the chorus is no less masterful. From delicately shaped single lines of music through complex yet transparent counterpoint into full throttled chorale-like harmonizations, Smith never fails to free the human voice to soar with the soul’s inspiration. While maintaining the primacy of projecting the text, Smith’s choral writing also proffers music that moves from start to ﬁnish in an unbroken arch of exposition, development and resolution that seems to unfold naturally before your eyes. The music envelops you and carries you along with its narrative, never more magniﬁcently than in the Hymn “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” (God’s only Son, from all time).
Under Donald Nally’s direction, The Crossing and Piffaro gave Smith’s Vespers a sterling performance Sunday afternoon before an audience that packed Chestnut Hill Presbyterian and rewarded the musicians with an ecstatic standing ovation. Piffaro played with consumate skill and engaging vibrancy and The Crossing sang with the technical immaculacy and interpretive intensity that has become its hallmark. Pitch, balance, blend, tone and diction were all impeccable, with soprano Shari Alise Wilson and tenor Steven Bradshaw particular standouts.
It was an altogether stunning concert that effectively brought the holiday season to a memorable consumation and that enhanced the repertoire of music for chorus and instrumental ensemble with a gem of a score.
Back to the future: The renaissance meets the New Millennium
Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance band, took a big risk when it devoted an entire program to a commission by a single Philadelphia composer. I thought they’d made a promising choice in giving the commission to Kile Smith, based on previous pieces he’d written and the fact that he actually sings and plays percussion with an early music group. But they were still laying a heavy bet on one composer.
In composing a work for Renaissance instruments and chorus, I figured Smith could take one of four possible approaches:
1. Evoke a glamorized, sentimentalized vision of a past that never was. Popular music groups have done this in the past, to produce novelty items that resemble real early music in about the same way Norman Rockwell illustrations resemble real American small town life.
2. Create his best imitation of a piece done in authentic Renaissance style. Make a belated addition, in other words, to a tradition that expired centuries ago.
3. Cut all ties to the past. Treat the instruments as an interesting new set of toys. Write in one of the standard modern avant-garde modes.
4. Work with his own taste and musical imagination. Follow his own personal vision and try to create the best music he could, according to his own standards.
When Smith’s Vespers opened with four unrelated blasts from the instruments, I succumbed to a momentary fear that he’d chosen the third course. Fortunately, I was overreacting. Smith chose Option Four, and produced the kind of success I hoped he’d give us when Piffaro first commissioned this project … overall, his Vespers is a triumph. Piffaro took a risk on Smith and he gave them one of the major events of the music season.
In the eighth section, the entire band plays a beautifully serene instrumental sonata for seven recorders. In the sixth section, ﬁve of the same musicians produce a rousing piece for recorders, guitar and dulcian (the ancestor of the bassoon). In other sections, they support the vocalists with a sonic kaleidoscope that includes shawms (the forerunner of the oboe), sacbuts (early trombones), harp and two kinds of lute. The Deo gratias was the kind of exultant blast that Piffaro usually uses as a finale, with shawms, dulcians and sacbuts working all-out. But this time the music was written especially for them, with that kind of ﬁnale in mind, and some great voices magnifying the effect.
Piffaro’s new music
Tom Purdom, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 2007
[Preview]…In January, Philadelphia’s globe-trottting Renaissance wind band, Piffaro, is pulling out all the stops. It is devoting an entire concert to the premiere of a new vespers for the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Its instrumentalists will join forces with The Crossing, an eighteen-voice chorus led by Donald Nally, and the Vespers will feature psalms, a Magniﬁcat, and instrumental works.
Piffaro’s choice of a composer looks particularly promising. I’ve heard a number of Kile Smith’s compositions over the years and I’ve been happy with all of them. I was particularly impressed with his tone poem for horn and string orchestra that Karl Middleton’s [sic; Middleman’s] Classical Symphony unveiled last season. Smith’s subject for that work was an interesting and surprisingly moving novelty—the ceremonies some churches conduct on the Saturday night before Easter. He obviously has a good feel for liturgical music and he is also a percussionist and singer in an early-music group, Quidditas.
Will the music be any good? Will Smith succeed? Who knows? Piffaro is giving us a glimpse of the musical life of the past that is just as basic as the use of period instruments and period styles. It is offering us the same kind of experience our ancestors had when they heard the cantata Bach or some other local composer wrote for the week’s service. We will be alone with a new creation, with no guidance from the past, and no knowledge of its future.