“The Heart of Music” a new recording by the Labyrinth Choir under the artistic direction of Dr. Anita Kupriss, presents a subtly linked group of compositions with no less of a
mission than to awaken the universal love that can be experienced through singing. This
Boston Area choir is part of a deepening trend in independent choruses whose priority it
is to bring the meaning of the music to the foreground of performance. And as the title
suggests, the heart of the music in this CD is right on its sleeve, inviting the listener to
share a very personal journey deep into the heart of music.
Dr. Kupriss is a well-known composer and conductor in Latvia, the country of her
heritage. Although this CD contains none of her own compositions, the inclusion of
pieces by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, the Romanian born György Orbán, the
Polish composer Romauld Twardowski and the Latvian composer Pauls Dambis, reveals
her connection to the music of living composers of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. And it is no coincidence that Dambis’ tender setting of the Latvian text, Pūti, Pūti vēja māte,with its theme of brotherly love, stands out as most evocative on this collection.
The arc of the selections begins with a unison chant of the Ubi Caritas text, set by Gjeilo.
The gently blossoming harmonies introduce us to the voices of the choir with a striking
soprano on the leading edge of the mix. Beautiful City by Andre Thomas bursts out with
an exuberant piano introduction played with great energy by Dr. Suzanne Sheppard but I
would have liked to hear this brilliant piano part on an instrument with a brighter timbre
and more as an equal voice with the choir.
The vibrant vocal timbre nurtured by Dr. Kupriss begs an equally vibrant piano sound. Would You Harbor Me? written by Ysaye Barnwell and arranged by Dr. Kupriss, is the first of several songs presenting a list of ways to open the heart. This song asks us to address our attitudes toward specific types of people who are often discriminated against, and we are sure to find one or two who would be challenging for us to harbor. The piece is intoned parlando style, throwing focus to text rather than melody or harmony and the choir’s performance is understated and honest. This song provides no instruction or answers, but merely poses the question. Daemon irrepit callidus by György Orbán presents a list of temptations by the Devil. Dr. Kupriss does not miss the irony as the Devil “sets forth trickery amidst praise, song and dance.” In this brief selection there are coy moments where Stravinsky meets the Verdi Requiem with a soupçon of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice thrown in for good measure. A.R. Rahman’s Zikr, an Islamic chant arranged by Ethan Sperry, widens the theme of brotherhood. The attributes, “Amazing, Eternal, Beginning and End, Forbearing, Gracious, Greatest, Merciful and Benevolent” remind us of the universal qualities of love. With percussion played by Jonathan Hess, this piece is performed with passion and as much authenticity as can be achieved by an American choir singing in Urdu. After a moving tenor solo by Jason Connell, an accelerando whips to a passionate, frenzied close. One can almost picture the Sufis spinning their way to ecstasy.
The list of ‘list’ songs is completed by two settings of Psalm 150, one by Howard Hanson, who was director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years, and one by Benjie-Ellen Schiller, currently a Professor of Cantorial Arts at Hebrew Union College. The Schiller is a favorite of mine and, like Zikr, employs Middle Eastern percussion and joyous full-throated singing that feels like a party as the various ways to praise God on
the instruments are enumerated. At one point, the Hebrew drops away and the choir singswordless, glorious “la-las”, as if the heart has transcended the need for words.
In a departure from the practice of many contemporary choirs, the female singers of the Labyrinth Choir sing with refreshingly full voices. The hearty male voices are balanced with womanly strength in a welcome and heart-warming sound that is rich and mature. This is strikingly demonstrated in Jerusalem, a robust hymn setting by Samuel Walter. In this piece, and in the Hanson, we hear an immediacy and honesty in the voices, yet within this robust sound, the choir sings with impeccable intonation, centering pitches in dense harmonies as well as unisons. The CD ends with Charles Trenet’s, I Wish You Love, arranged by Steve Zegree. This selection is especially poignant because of Steve’s recent passing, a big loss to our choral community. Even in this style, the Labyrinth Choir does not sacrifice its rich tone to the usual expectations of a more transparent jazz sound, but brings their unique full timbre to the song. The result is a moving rendition of a beautiful arrangement. And if you attend a concert of the Labyrinth Choir, be prepared to sing along. This choir shows us what it means to sing from the heart.
– Barbara Wild