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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… The result is a quiet yet ecstatic work that offers a profoundly contemporary view of an ancient practice.

Here’s the link to the Navona blogsite about it, with that gorgeous photograph of Piffaro.

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