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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sarah Slean, Music by Christos Hatzis, Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller

We humans are ever creating categories, local, international, contingent, "universal." "timeless," temporary. We are ever defending or undermining them, depending. And a new thing will then eventually come along and throw categories into confusion. When that happens, we take note.

Something like that comes to us in the form of a new CD that brings together two compositions by Christos Hatzis, featuring vocalist Sarah Slean and Symphony Nova Scotia under Bernhard Gueller (Centrediscs CMCCD27819). The music is so well-done that I can scarcely imagine not covering it. Yet is it something I might not ordinarily seek out, that all of my readers would not necessarily as a matter of course incorporate into their New Music listening? There is no simple answer because it is an unexpected twist to our categorical understanding.

Well, so what is it? Simply put it is Canadian composer Christos Hatzis's two interrelated symphonic song cycles Lamento and Ecstacy. It comes alive through the expressive presence of acclaimed vocalist Sarah Slean and the happy confluence of conductor Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony.

Lamento was the first of the two cycles. It came into being in 2012 as a kind of long rejoiner-tribute and/or commentary-exegesis on Purcell's beautiful "When I am Laid in Earth" from Dido and Aenaes--but also a wider meditation on loss, mental illness, suicide.

Its success for all concerned eventually made it a good idea for a second cycle with Slean and Nova Scotia. Ecstasy is the result, which features lyrics penned by Slean herself and a theme-mood in much happier territory, in a way the obverse of Lamento. 

As I wrote above, this music is exceptionally well done. The category breaking involves the injection of a "pop" element into the music. And it is not so much a today-top-40 sort of pop, it is closer to what in the later '60s were categorized as MOR (Middle of the Road), more like something Barbara Streisand might have done than, say, Joni Mitchell or even Carol King. And for that it is also a little closer to the sort of song one might hear on Broadway than on a Classic Rock radio outlet.

The lyrical content of these songs, especially the poetics of mental health in Lamento, puts them more squarely on the "Art Song" side of things. I must say I especially like the final "Despair" movement of Lamento, the one most beholden to Purcell.

Sarah Slean's performances are one-of-a-kind and I can scarcely imagine anyone coming close to her dramatically smashing way with these songs. By the same token the orchestral parts come very much alive with Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony. The orchestrations are quite lovely and do a great deal in setting off Ms. Slean's expression-rich readings.

Sometimes I wonder as an exercise in my own judgement whether I would (assuming a capability which is another matter) choose to write music in a certain way, here in this way. My answer in this case would be no--which is only to say that I do not feel entirely akin to this MOR-Classical meld. However I concede happily that there is a great deal of brilliance to be had in this music which transcends air-guitar visions of what I might dream of as my"own," so to say. Nonetheless if I do not exactly "speak" this language I do appreciate the music as exemplary.

It is rather remarkable fare in the end. Yet it is neither avant garde nor is it entirely capital /M/ Modern in some superadvanced way. You might say it is somewhat "old fashioned," even. Mahler meets MOR meets Christos Hatzis? Maybe. Yet it is that in unique ways that make it something one should pay attention to, for it is quite a two-fold achievement in often sublime ways. Bravo.

Recommended for those who self-select for the parameters sketched-out here. Give it your ears.

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