Schola Cantorum on Hudson is a bright spot in the generally meager landscape of classical offerings in the Jersey City-Hoboken area. The small choir, founded by director Deborah Simpkin King a decade ago, has an energy and level of technical preparation that only a few such nonprofessional groups in the state have. King must also have a good appetite for a challenge, because the preparation of the premiere performances of Montclair composer Randall Svane’s Mass were likely intense and fraught with difficulty.
Saturday, the group, in conjunction with Lauda! Chamber Singers from South Jersey, gave the second performance of this beautifully sculpted, eight-part setting of the traditional ordinary of the Latin Mass at St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church in Hoboken. The singing was clear and self-assured, the direction by King consistent and exact, and the result a riveting reading of this gorgeous, eight-part a cappella score that uses Gregorian chant as a jumping-off point for lush, closely clustered vocal parts and pungent rhythms.
Svane’s score excellently probes the most expressive use of each voice type, and expands on the extreme legato nature of traditional chant by adding biting, irregular rhythms and close, dissonant harmonies. The words are familiar, but the expression greatly expanded, though Svane retains certain traditional practices, like setting the Benedictus for solo quartet. Best of all, this is a concept and structure that does not fizzle out or lose its focus partway through. The work, though conceived first as a solo Kyrie movement, then gradually expanded to a full mass, has an integrity and thoroughness of development that marks the work of a mature and knowledgeable composer. One hopes these concerts of Svane’s Mass help to get the work further performances; it deserves more exposure.
Willa Conrad, Chief Music Critic,
"At Merkin Hall (13 October) the Borromeo Quartet gave the premiere of Randall Svane's Quartet No. 2. The jagged and vigorous material of that movement led to a slow one where the cello was the only un-muted voice. The mood was a curious mixture of Messiaen and Turina's La oracion del torero! A short Presto with pizzicato effects led to a slow finale that contained a fugal episode but was tinged throughout with the profound sadness of Shostakovich and the Richard Strauss of Metamorphosen. Svane knows how to entice the ear and to sustain interest, yet I sensed that there was more to the work than was heard."
"One could only marvel at Randall Svane's six-year-old At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners. While its instrumentation is avowedly borrowed from Britten's masterpiece Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings , (early in the work Svane even has a brief Britten Serenade quote in the horn), the work stands upon but does not imitate the earlier piece. It is a setting of four of John Donne's Holy Sonnets already so strong in their structure and imagery that matching their intensity in music is both a challenge and an act of supreme self-confidence. Mr. Svane relies on long arching lines resting on luminous string writing. Whereas Britten's work even today seems to be about hornist Dennis Brain and tenor Peter Pears, Svane's is not about the soloists as individuals but rather Donne's poetry. At the text "And death shall be no more," the final verse of the third sonnet, Svane's work achieves an apotheosis of surpassing beauty in which the conductor Yehuda Gilad led the strings into an ethereal realm with a ritardando of perfect proportion. No matter that there was one more sonnet to be performed, that exquisite moment proved to be the fulcrum of the work, one of the few times that the climax of a large work is its quietest moment rather than its loudest."
"The Concerto for Strings, a recent work by Randall Svane, an American in his late 40s,
Joanne Sheehy Hoover
"The evening began with a pleasant surprise for this reviewer even before the first notes were sounded. Rarely does a critic find his words extensively quoted in program notes. such was, however, the case with the slow and reflective middle movement from Svane's moving Concerto for Strings, reviewed by this critic for Out and About in its 1993 premiere by conductor Yehuda Gilad and the orchestra. Happily, the words written then apply with equal force upon second hearing. Svane's personal style and sense for formal construction came through clearly without limiting the powerful dramatic flow of melody and harmony. His intense lyricism and passionate sensitivity to line and harmonic color contributed were well felt and conveyed by conductor and musicians. In the shadows of Sept. 11, the music did attain even greater poignancy. As Maestro Gilad pointed out when explaining his choice of the piece, there was a great deal of direct meaning attached to it. The work had been premiered by the orchestra. More significantly, Svane is a living American composer and a vital part of New Jersey's creative musical community."
Robert W. Butts
"For the centerpiece, the orchestra gave the first Cincinnati performance of At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners for tenor and horn by New Jersey composer Randall Svane, 40. It is a haunting setting of the Holy Sonnets of English poet John Donne (1572-1631), styled after Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. The work was reminiscent of Britten including its high tenor line but it also echoed practices of recent decades, such as close harmonies and pulsating rhythms. With tenor Mark Bleeke and hornist Duane Dugger as soloists, the collaboration was a seamless blend of music and poetry. The desolate orchestral background beautifully evoked Donne's somber words. The orchestra never overwhelmed the soloists, even when the timpani added a note of drama. The result was radiant."
"The "voices" on Saturday night came in Randall Svane's "Songs of Innocence," a choral setting of William Blake's verse originally written for the Newark Boys Chorus, for which Svane was music director. Hearing the female voices of the Montclair Kimberley Girls Chorale and the Pingry School Women's Glee Club on Saturday, though, brought an added touch of innocence to the piece. A choral director himself, Svane's sense of the young voice was palpable at every turn. He apparently follows the cardinal rule of children's literature in creating work that remains simple without being simple-minded. His choral lines always maintained a fine balance with the orchestra, and the music was eminently singable and filled with surprising twists of harmony and intriguing overlapping lines without seeming too sophisticated."
"The Colonial Symphony is and has been a laboratory for New Jersey composers. Dedicated, through the considerable energy of its music director, Yehuda Gilad, to performing music of our time as well as a more standard repertoire, the orchestra again served as a Petri dish for new music on Saturday evening, this time for a familiar scientist, Montclair's Randall Svane. The work was not new or in premiere. Svane's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners," a setting for tenor, French horn and string orchestra of four metaphysical texts by English poet John Donne, was written in 1993. Among other previous performances, Gilad presented it last winter on a new 20th century music series he directs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The same soloists, tenor Mark Bleeke and French horn player David Jolley, were present Saturday, and their familiarity with the work was much of the reason for a solid, if not altogether transcendent performance. Svane has set the poems, dealing with imagery of angels blowing the final trumpet call, death, the soul's deliverance, and a final submission to God, with a great deal of sensitivity to the drama of the text. He has a real ear for the crispy consonants that make English both difficult to set, but delicious to hear when set well. The tenor's part moves in long, cantilevered lines that lean, like the walls of a pyramid, against the horn's occasional pressing comments. There's a sense of majesty and momentousness in the construction. In the angularity of vocal line and the fussy, coloristic orchestration (besides strings, a timpani provides textual emphasis), Svane seems to have been looking toward he spiky melodies and pungent instrumental tastes of Benjamin Britten. But the works' most endearing trait is its simplicity and focus; the texts may be thickly layered with meaning, but the music moves swiftly and succinctly, and the combination of voice and horn is marvelously exploited to the idiosyncratic beauty of both."
Willa J. Conrad
"The other premiere (local, if not world) of the evening was Randall Svane's At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners, a superb setting of four Holy Sonnets by John Donne (1573-1631). Svane, present to receive well-deserved kudos, sets the English language with impeccable sensitivity a singer's dream. The work is a duet for tenor and French horn, with the tenor as the Poet and the horn as the presence of Death. The possibility of hearing Svane's recently completed opera, The Scarlet Letter, intrigues."