CD review: Excelsior (Fifth House Ensemble)

CD cover design by DM Stith

CD cover design by DM Stith

‘Excelsior’ contemporary music CD release pleases the ear, ignites the imagination

Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble shines in its Cedille Records debut

By David Abrams

Searching for the occasional gem in a program dedicated to contemporary music is much like scratching your way through an instant lottery ticket. Initially, hopes for a winner are high, with some six or so chances to win. But it hardly comes as a shock when you discover you’ve come up empty.

Excelsior, Cedille Records’ new CD released Aug. 12 that features four 21st century works performed by Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble (“5HE”), is one of those rare tickets that reveals a winner in nearly every box. Three of the four works on this album are real finds — listener-friendly works with craft, originality and musical inventiveness.  And while the accessible writing here may not challenge your ear, it will certainly engage it.

The album takes its title from the longest work of the four compositions: Caleb Burhans’s Excelsior, written in 2012. This appealing 31-minute work, like the three others on the album, is program music that gently guides the listener by way of extra-musical references. In Excelsior, an abstract poem by John Coletti serves as a sort of “libretto” for this four-movement monodrama for soprano and 10-piece chamber ensemble.

Burhans is a product of the Eastman School of Music, where he earned degrees in viola and composition. He takes for his inspiration “Excelsior III” — the name of the U.S. Air Force’s third and final experiment begun in the late 1950s to test a high-altitude parachute from 102,800 feet above earth. Burhans’s work targets the final phase of the experiment, when Captain Joseph Kittinger Jr. experienced a free-fall of some four and one-half minutes from his descent from about 19.5 miles above earth before employing his parachute at around 17,500 feet. (I’m happy to report that the captain, after some 13-minutes with his feet above ground, safely reached terra firma.)

Excelsior is scored for winds, strings, horn, amplified violin, electric guitar and soprano. The composer divides the work into four continuous movements: Earth; Ascension; “This is the highest step in the world.” (Free Fall); and Parachute. (Curiously, the CD liner notes make no mention of the movements.) Burhans uses the music not to create a literal depiction of the actual descent, but rather to invite a contemplation of the strange and beautiful sensation of free-fall.

The work begins with a simple, freely rhythmic folk-like chant whose rising intervals of a Major second followed by a Perfect fourth and later a fifth form the simple but haunting melodic foundation of Earth.   The style of writing throughout Excelsior may best be described as an amalgam of post-minimalism and new age music.  A nearly continuous set of repeated ostinato patterns unwind gently across time, in no hurry to spin out its dreamy sonorities. (Caution: Do not operate heavy machinery while listening to this piece. You’ve been warned.)

In similar fashion, the harmonic motion in Excelsior is extremely slow, with chords that change infrequently further enhancing the new age aura that forms the spine, and the spiritual foundation, of the work. At times I was reminded of the dreamy and hypnotic “Neptune, the Mystic” movement from Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets.

Burhans makes good use of the colors of traditional acoustic orchestral instruments buoyed with light amplification provided by electric violin and bass. At times the voice appears electronically sampled due to the soprano’s light use of vibrato, the “high altitude” tessitura (it reaches D above the staff) and the slurred drawl of her diction  which is largely unintelligible (words to the poem are provided in the liner notes).

If there’s a fault to Excelsior, it’s that the leisurely pace of the music and paucity of contrasting compositional material tend to grow tiresome, particularly in the lengthy final section (Parachute). Indeed, Burhans’s piece more than doubles the entire span of Kittinger’s 13-minute jump. The work would benefit by trimming the final six or seven minutes of the endless repetitions (Colorado residents listening to Excelsior while imbibing in legal marijuana will no doubt disagree).

Mason Bates’s Red River, dating from 2007 and the oldest work on the program, takes the listener on a vivid pictorial musical journey along the great Colorado River.

Bates, composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, couches this 19-minute work in an accessible harmonic language that remains listener friendly through its five movements: The Continental Divide; Interstate 70; Zuni Visions from the Canyon Walls; Hoover Slates Vegas; and Running Dry on the Sonoran Floor.

Red River uses a medium of mixed quartet comprising clarinet, violin, cello and piano, complemented by a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds that adds a new age dimension to the piece.  Like Burhans’s Excelsior, the writing in Red River induces a state of meditation that will have you reaching for your yoga mat.

The opening (and most compelling) movement of the work, The Continental Divide, seeks to transport the listener high into the Rockies. The writing is at once appealing, with a gentle harmonic style and homage to Americana that, along with of prominent use of the interval of the Perfect fifth, evokes a sense of spaciousness akin to “The Open Prairie” movement that opens Copland’s ballet, Billy the Kid. Strong ostinato patterns introduced by the clarinet soon follow, which in turn steers the music into a well syncopated jazz idiom that will continue to unfold during the two movements that follow.

With its jazzy colorings, asymmetrical metric patterns and lively syncopations, Interstate 70 has strong ties to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (which Copland had dedicated to Benny Goodman). Indeed, the clarinet maintains a strong prominence throughout the work not just because it’s the only wind instrument among strings, but because of its ubiquitous melodic and rhythmic prominence.

Hoover Slates Vegas, for example, recalls Morton Gould’s perky jazz idiom and syncopations in his Derivations for Clarinet and Dance Band (also written for Benny Goodman). Clarinetist Jennifer Woodrum generated lots of anima throughout Red River in her unofficial role here as the “Queen of Swing.”

Alex Shapiro’s motor-rhythmic Perpetual Spark (2011) is a seven-minute work originally written for piano that she later expanded to include string quartet, flute and string bass.

Shapiro, a pianist-composer raised in Manhattan now living in Washington State’s remote San Juan Island, alternates energetic sections of rhythmic vitality (your feet will be tapping from measure one) with slower, lyrical touches of French neo-classicism that recall the harmonic elegance of Poulenc.  The prominent use of the tritone from the opening measures gives the work a strong Lydian flavor.

I can’t say I’m especially fond of Jesse Limbacher’s six-minute excursion for wind trio, Air. Now in his early 20s, Limbacher a grad student at the Yale School of Music studying with David Lang is the youngest of the four composers featured in this album, and may not yet have found his true voice.

In Air, Limbacher ponders the meaning of air as “a life-affirming expression of the human condition.” That may sound like an interesting endeavor full of wonder and promise, and indeed the work starts off as if ready to fulfill its mission, with ambient sounds of air blowing through the instruments and the hollow sounds of clicking keys. But soon the air turns musty, as the three instruments begin a mindless series of wild technical outbursts whose empty virtuosity is enough to shock the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Ultimately, the listener is left to ponder not air, but rather whether this piece has anything of value to convey. Surely, Limbacher has more to offer than what can be seen in this work.

It’s clear from the level of performance in the four works on this album that Fifth House Ensemble was thoroughly dedicated to the success of this effort.  The level of playing here is first-rate, and the deep level of commitment from the players is never in doubt.

To be sure, the works on this recording by Burhans, Bates and Shapiro are fully deserving of this level of commitment  not just from the performers but also from listeners. Next time you’re thinking of trying your luck with a lottery ticket, go with a sure winner and order your copy of Excelsior.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review provided an incorrect state of residency for composer Alex Shapiro.

Details Box:
What: CD review: Excelsior (Fifth House Ensemble)
Works: Perpetual Spark (2011), Alex Shapiro; Air (2012), Jesse Limbacher; Red River (2007), Mason Bates and Excelsior (2012), Caleb Burhans
Who: Fifth House Ensemble
Label: Cedille Records, CDR 90000 148
CD release date: Aug. 12, 2014
Running time: 63 minutes and 28 seconds
Ordering information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *