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John Quinn
MusicWeb International, April 2011

James Whitbourn has a growing reputation as a composer, conductor and producer of broadcasts. An earlier disc devoted to his choral music was warmly received by Grace Lace, though I have not heard it. On the evidence of this new disc I am keen to remedy that omission.

The most substantial offering here is Luminosity, a work in seven movements, conceived for choir and dancers. In a staged performance there is also the opportunity to use lighting further to stimulate the imagination and response of the audience though here we must rely solely on the auditory aspect of the work. The scoring is novel. The accompaniment features a solo viola obbligato, played here most skilfully and persuasively by Levine Andrade, one of the founder members of the Arditti Quartet. The other instruments involved are organ, percussion and the tanpura, an Indian instrument that produces a drone-like sound.

The texts selected by Whitbourn are by a number of mystic writers, including St. John the Evangelist, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Augustine. Whitbourn uses the forces at his disposal to create some most imaginative and often subtle sonorities and textures—the way the husky tones of the viola are employed is most evocative. There’s some most effective writing for the choir and the Indian overtones are not used to excess so that when they feature in the musical palette the effect generated thereby is all the stronger. The rapt concluding movement is particularly beautiful but the whole score is impressive and eloquent and its appearance on disc is most welcome.

The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ were written for King’s College, Cambridge and first performed there on Easter Sunday, 2005. The music is impressive and often dramatic, especially in the Magnificat. There are some passages of great power, such as at the doxology of the Magnificat and at the words ‘to be a light to lighten the Gentiles’ in the Nunc Dimittis. There are also some very poetic stretches, especially at the beginning and end of the second canticle. The only slight reservation I have is to wonder in passing how frequently the canticles will be performed. The tam-tam part, though optional, seems to me to be very important and many church choirs won’t have access to such an instrument. That part may be optional but the tenor solo role is absolutely integral. It sounds very demanding, requiring a soloist of the stature of Christopher Gillett to do it justice—Gillett is excellent, by the way. I hope these impressive canticles won’t languish unperformed, save on Big Occasions, simply because the writing is too ambitious.

The smaller-scale pieces give much pleasure. It’s good to hear the distinctive voice of Archbishop Tutu himself reading his own words, even if his contribution is brief. Eternal Rest was written to a BBC commission for the broadcast of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The music was originally conceived for orchestra—and it’s not clear from the notes, parts of which could have been more expressed with greater clarity, whether it was the orchestral version that was used for the funeral broadcast. If the choral version, with organ accompaniment, is a later inspiration then it seems to me to work very well. Of one that is so fair and bright uses, I think, the same text that Britten uses for his A Hymn to the Virgin. I can’t be sure since this is one of the texts not reproduced in the booklet. Whitbourn’s setting, for unaccompanied voices, is a good one.

The music on this disc reveals a composer with a fine ear for vocal writing. The music sounds well conceived for the voices and the accompaniments are, without exception, effective and complement the singing very well. James Whitbourn has made a shrewd choice of texts for these pieces and it’s obvious that the words have inspired him. The performances seem to me to be very good and accurate—though I haven’t seen any scores. Commotio, a choir which I’ve not previously encountered, sings very well indeed and the instrumentalists match the excellence of the singers. I would imagine that Matthew Berry is fully convinced by the music since he inspires performances of great conviction.

I’ve enjoyed this disc very much. James Whitbourn seems to be a choral composer of no mean accomplishment.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, September 2010

James Whitbourn (b 1963) is yet another English composer and conductor making a name for himself in the choral realm these days. As this anthology bears out, he is a talented composer who merits your attention. The compositions are accessible and quite original, though you won’t have any trouble spotting the Lauridsen influences in the opening and closing portions of Luminosity, Whitbourn’s set of seven choral songs inspired by the writings of John the Apostle, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and St Augustine. He is a composer who knows how to get your attention, whether in arresting moments like the tumultuous fanfare that opens his Magnificat or the gentle, disembodied soprano lines that ascend to the light in ‘He Carried Me Away in the Spirit’.

Especially impressive is Whitbourn’s ability to add something new and immediately change the sense of all that has gone before. The Lauridsen-like ‘Lux in Tenebris’ from the Luminosity set takes a sharp turn towards India as the viola (gorgeously played) begins bending pitches in that unmistakably Indian way. In ‘All Shall Be Well’, the Julian of Norwich excerpt that concludes that cycle, the viola returns, this time sounding like something out of Schindler’s List. Desmond Tutu’s prayer (read by the Bishop himself) begins jumping for joy once Whitbourn introduces African drums into the mix. A whole new thing happens each time.

I also admire the composer’s flair for rhythm. The “et exultavits” in the Magnificat and the wordplay of the “Alleluias” in the ‘Alleluia Jubilate’ are two interludes that really dance.

The singing is both spiritual and spirited...The organist, drummers, and tenor are excellent, and you’ve never heard a juicier viola in your life. Choral enthusiasts, in short, should place themselves on alert.

Carson Cooman
Fanfare, July 2010

James Whitbourn (b. 1963) is a busy English composer of music for the concert hall and for film/media. He has been called upon to write works connected to a number of British state occasions, including the BBC’s coverage of the funeral of Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Westminster Abbey’s September 11 commemoration service, and the BBC’s coverage of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. He has also worked as a choral conductor, clinician, and producer throughout both Europe and the United States, and he seems to be a particularly adept composer at writing substantial pieces for “occasional” circumstances. This release, sung by the excellent choir Commotio, contains several shorter choral works and one large piece, Luminosity.

Whitbourn’s choral style falls very much into the idiom of “meditative radiance” that is a very popular expressive language for much of today’s new choral music. Americans Morten Lauridsen [See LAURIDSEN Choral Works 8.559304] and Eric Whitacre [See WHITACRE Choral Music 8.559677] are probably the two best-known composers who work in this vein, and the influence of this style has spawned a great deal of imitation. And as in any period where many composers are working in the same basic language, the best are the ones who are able to take the common language to express something individual. As always, references/comparisons to other composers are not necessarily intended as criticism, but primarily as a way of helping listeners be able to place Whitbourn’s language. The two composers whose influence looms largest in this music are John Tavener and Karl Jenkins. Tavener’s influence is felt very keenly in many of the pieces, but especially in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (written for King’s College, Cambridge) and Luminosity—where the music of the solo viola part specifically calls to mind Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer. There are a number of places in these works where harmonic progressions and motion come very directly out of specific Tavener pieces, though Whitbourn places them in new contexts in his work. The influence of Jenkins is felt largely in the faster music; Alleluia jubilate (2008), a festive piece for treble voices and organ, is so reminiscent (in both harmonic progressions and musical structure) that I would probably have attributed it to Jenkins in a blind listening. Likewise, the Anglicized Africanism of A Prayer of Desmond Tutu calls to mind Jenkins’s Adiemus pieces. (Tutu himself reads his own famous prayer over the wordless choral introduction of this brief piece.) The only place where the reference to other composers seemed needlessly derivative was the first movement of Luminosity (whose music returns at the end), which is a gloss on Lauridsen’s very well-known Lux aeterna. As in the Lauridsen, the result is a radiant, but Whitbourn’s use runs far too close to direct quotation for comfort.

The main work on the disc is Luminosity (2007), a 30-minute choral cycle accompanied by viola, Indian tanpura, percussion, and organ. The composer states that the work, composed originally for use with dance, was intended to employ the visual element provided by the dancers as an equal part of its effect. It was an American commission from Westminster Choir College and the Philadelphia dance ensemble ArcheDream. The texts come from what Whitbourn terms “luminary authors” and include the Apostle John, Julian of Norwich, Ryomen, Isaac of Nineveh, Teresa of Ávila, and Augustine of Hippo. The piece is indeed very beautiful, unfolding largely over a series of drones and incorporating prominent use of the solo viola. Even in places where the music/harmony do sound different from a Tavener piece, the aesthetic spirit is extremely similar to many Tavener works of this sort. It is certainly effective and would probably be even more so when experienced with dance, where some of the extended periods of musical stasis would be serving as a background to a visual display.

The Oxford-based Commotio is an excellent choir founded in 1999 by director Matthew Berry to focus on lesser-known contemporary repertoire. The recorded performance and sound are strong and resonant, which serves the sound world of the music extremely well. For those who are interested in choral music in the vein described, this disc will provide much enjoyment.

Andrew Thomson
Choir & Organ, May 2010

This immediately effective music certainly gets right away from outworn Howells-derived conventions. Commotio provide excellent, fully committed performances.

Terry Blain
BBC Music Magazine, May 2010

The music proves striking…in this glowingly committed performance by the Oxford chamber choir Commotio…The performance [is] superbly sympathetic.

Tom Manoff
National Public Radio, April 2010

James Whitbourn’s Celestial Sounds

James Whitbourn’s Luminosity expands the experience of classical music beyond the edges of the traditional map of classical style.

English composer James Whitbourn, born in 1963, is part of a new generation of musicians who are no longer bound to the notion that contemporary music needs to challenge the listener with difficulty.

His new CD is called Luminosity, and it includes the choral piece A Prayer of Desmond Tutu. Tutu himself speaks on the recording.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the composer’s combination of classical choral style with elements of African music, heard especially in the percussion.

But Whitbourn isn’t stitching these styles together in some artificial attempt at multiculturalism. Instead, his combination of different styles flows naturally. I call this music “pancultural.” The composer hears styles usually perceived as different as one broad tradition. Most important, the music sounds authentic, honest and not the least bit contrived.

Luminosity is the title work of the CD. At the outset, a musical drone creates an archaic sense of time in which the chorus sings. A solo viola plays throughout this work, inflected by the melodic style of the Indian sitar.

This album is extraordinary. It expands the experience of classical music beyond the edges of the traditional map of classical styles. The word “luminosity” describes the nature of celestial light, and the music of composer James Whitbourn is a celebration of that light—peaceful, radiant and clear.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2010

Born in 1963, James Whitburn is one of the most approachable of the younger generation of British composers, his sacred choral works drawing much critical acclaim. The disc contains one of his most extensive scores, Luminosity, intended as a fusion of music and dance, and drawing on Eastern and Western influences. In many ways he is here following in the footsteps of John Tavener, the slow-moving hypnotic mode heightened by the use of the tanpura, an Indian drone instrument, and the sonorous quality of a solo viola. Organ and percussion add to the feel that we are in a religious Eastern temple, the music harmonically straightforward and obviously deeply satisfying to perform. Of course we are minus the dancers and the lighting effects used to create the transcendental beauty of eternal love, but standing alone I find it a satisfying score. The remainder of the disc is given to nine sacred pieces opening with the thrilling Magnificat and the following Nunc Dimittis. Maybe A Prayer of Desmond Tutu does cross the line into a modern commercial world, but it is a tune that once heard you will remember. Listening to the disc over a matter of days I found it best to dip into this group of works as they are in a similar mood. The vocal group, Commotio, were formed in Oxford in 1999 and possess that tonal quality that is fast becoming a national style. Sopranos go on high with much security, with the feel of boy choristers ever present, while the men bring a rich sonority to the music’s middle regions. Aided by a resonant church acoustic, and with contributions from the tenor, Christopher Gillett; Desmond Tutu as reader; and a generous organ accompaniment from Henry Parkes, one would believe that Whitburn is well served.

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