Review: Requiem and Other Choral Works

Read a review by Marjorie Johnston from the May-June 2022 issue of The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians of Dan’s Requiem and Other Choral Works CD (Convivium CD070) here. It’s reprinted with the kind permission of The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians.

There has been a buzz in the air about the recording of Dan Locklair’s Requiem in the months leading up to its release in March of 2022, and it is a privilege to be among the first to review it. Soon after completing the work for SATB chorus, four soloists, and organ in 2014, the composer undertook an extensive revision to include a string orchestra. That version, completed in 2015, is superbly performed and recorded on this disc, though both editions are available through Subito Music Corporation. Dr. Locklair dedicated his Requiem to his parents, hoping it may be “a small, yet fitting memorial to their rich lives.”

His setting incorporates Biblical texts of comfort and assurance and the traditional Requiem Mass movements (all in English), artfully connecting everything so there is no sense of fragmentation. In our phone interview, I asked how he achieved this. “Whenever I plot out a piece, I do so with a certain plan … as I look over the text, I have an idea of the tonal centers and where I want things to go. But then, music doesn’t always go by a plan, does it? Craft is what really matters, so I have to be open to surprise and wonder! It’s okay to go against your own plan for sound musical reasons. Everything has its roots in the things you’ve consciously learned and applied over the years, so if you’ve worked hard at your craft, you don’t really have to think about it.”

The Introit and Kyrie Eleison opens with an inviting string sound. After listening to the recording a few times, it became harder and harder to imagine choosing the original setting accompanied only by organ if budget and space would allow for strings. The soloists join the choir at “Lord, have mercy upon us,” with the choir almost sighing on “Lord” and “Christ” when they repeat the text. There’s an expansive shape to this opening movement, and at nearly eight minutes, it gives the listener a chance to settle in and commit to the complete work.

Each soloist has a movement assigned, beginning with “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” a lovely and linear aria for tenor. Christopher Willoughby has a naturally warm voice and is probably accustomed to people referring to him as a baritone or a bari-tenor because of his rich sound. It’s not only a gorgeous voice – he’s very musical, so future performers can appreciate and learn from his example recorded here. Because these solo movements are accompanied by organ only, each can be offered independently. “You do have to think practically,” Dr. Locklair explained. “You have to think about money and space, and by including the solos internally, there are really only five movements for the choir to rehearse, and you can just plug in the solo movements. The use of strings for the rest of the work makes the organ’s wind solos on these movements even more distinctive.”

The Sanctus – Benedictus has three distinct sections, with the text set very naturally in the opening with separation of “Holy, holy, holy.” “Blessed is he that cometh” has an intentional quote of the tune Picardy before building to the glorious “Hosanna,” making terrific use of the organ’s trumpet stop. The organ at Christchurch Priory, Dorset (most recently restored and modified by Nicholson Organs), and gifted organist, Martin Baker, were the perfect choices for this debut recording.

The Pie Jesu is for alto solo. It is beautiful and appropriate, but not self-indulgent. Elisabeth Paul sounds as if she were put on earth to be a mezzo, with an even tone from top to bottom. All the soloists – while very professional – seem to have innate vocal production, as if they were “unharmed by voice lessons,” as a soprano friend once said. A serious alto will find a myriad of opportunities to use this piece.

The choir returns for the Agnus Dei. The women have imitative entrances with the strings and organ; then, a violin solo leads to the second iteration of the text sung by the men, with a bit simpler statement. A solo cello leads from that to the SATB third section employing full strings. The chord at the end of the piece is set in an inversion, signifying “eternal rest.” A light, floaty sound is called for, and the Choir of Royal Holloway makes it sound effortless. “I Am the Resurrection” is set for bass/baritone solo with organ. It begins matter-of-factly with the recitative, “Jesus said unto her,” but then goes into a spirited dialogue between the singer and the solo trumpet on the organ – very perky and likable. It is sung expertly by Geoff Williams and would be a good choice for that way-too-early Easter service if the full choir is not an option.

The Lux aeterna uses the full performing forces. After the strings open and the first vocal line is offered in unison, the stacked entrances that follow on the word “everlasting” are very effective. There is an almost static harmony for a time, and there is a relief when it breaks. The beautiful choral writing at the close uses constant forward motion to provide the text painting on “perpetual light shine upon them.”

Hilary Cronin is the soprano soloist for “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes.” The aria has a bright, lively opening but subtly smoothes out a bit on “neither slumber nor sleep” and continues legato for the next section. The organ part keeps perking along, even when the singer is calm. The Rondo form used here is ideal. “Form can make the music even more powerful at times,” Dr. Locklair said. When I asked about the text painting throughout the work, he was pleased that it was simultaneously evident and subtle, prompting my inquiry. “I really enjoy setting the language in the most natural way. Text rules the day,” he stated. There is a dramatic build-up to a high C at the end of the movement, and one can understand why Dr. Locklair specifically asked for Ms.Cronin after hearing her in an Evensong recording on BBC, conducted by Mr. Gough. “Rupert was wise to incorporate parts of the Requiem into other things the choir and soloists were doing before the recording sessions began. They already had much of this music in their bones,” he said. Dr. Locklair also raved about Mr. Gough. “I hold Rupert in the highest esteem; he is so thorough and has good musical sense and judgment.” That is evidenced by the sound he draws out of the Choir of Royal Holloway. Southern Sinfonia is an excellent ensemble, as well.

The closing movement, In Paradisum – Requiescant in pace, has a pastoral sound that suggests the opening of a Merchant-Ivory film. It incorporates the signature raised 4th that Dr. Locklair uses so well in his music. The soloists return to join the entire ensemble, and a majestic crescendo makes it easy to visualize the martyrs receiving souls into the Holy City. The movement and the Requiem close with a serene, “Rest in peace.”

Since most AAM members are always important to address the rest of the disc: Other Choral Works. Some may already know the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Montréal) composed for the 40th anniversary of the Montréal Boys’ Choir Course in 2000, but if not, it is worth consideration. It is offered on this disc with great beauty and enthusiasm by the choir and Mr. Baker at the organ.

Track 10 is an absolutely gorgeous new setting of Comfort Ye My People. I don’t know of another that offers a welcome contrast to the familiar hymn tune, Psalm 42, or the classic tenor solo from Handel’s Messiah. “It’s such a powerful text, and I felt it needed to be set in a different way,” Dr. Locklair said. “Dale Adelmann did it with his choir in December, and I actually received nice notes from some of his singers!” This setting is an a cappella work for SATB chorus with some divisi toward the end. The first two stanzas, “Comfort ye my people” and “Speak ye to Jerusalem,” are warm and enveloping and almost strophic in nature; then the writing for “Hark, the voice of the one that crieth” has more movement and excitement, while remaining congruous with what precedes it. Amid the activity, modulation, and extended ranges for sopranos and basses, the words, “…make the rougher places plain” rock back and forth on just two chords. The final section is reminiscent of the beginning but ends on an uplifting major VI chord at, “…that the word is never broken.” Written in 2020 and dedicated to Dr. Locklair’s wife, Paula, I can easily imagine this being one of the composer’s most popular anthems, along with his O Sacrum Convivium of 1999 and his beloved organ work Rubrics of 1988.

Calm on the Listening Ear of Night follows – a Christmas anthem commissioned in 2017 by Aurelia Gray Eller, a friend and beloved member of the choir at Dr. Locklair’s home parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The text comes from Unitarian minister Edmund H. Sears, best known for It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. The anthem uses Mr. Sears’ own revision of his poem and creates a serene ambiance at the opening as the angels, the lands, and even the atmophere anticipate Christ’s birth. Mr. Baker’s sensitive playing and registration choices play a significant role in achieving this aura. It builds to a glorious celebration, followed by an organ interlude that restores the calmness of the beginning in a satisfying conclusion. Mrs. Eller commissioned the work in memory of her late husband and grandson, and she died just a few months after the work was premiered by Organist/Choirmaster Dr. John Cummins and his choir at St. Paul’s.

Logically, Advent and Christmas pieces are followed by one appropriate for Epiphany, O Light of Light, dedicated to Rupert Gough. The opening is set for SATB divisi and serves as a refrain between stanzas featuring soprano and tenor soloists. This fresh Epiphany anthem would be an enjoyable and approachable challenge for choir members returning after Christmas.

The text for the next anthem, Arise in Beauty, by poet Angier Brock, is an inspiring discovery. It presents a positive, grateful approach to both the morning and the evening and could be read as prayer. As Dr. Locklair states in his liner notes: “Ms. Brock’s poetry is also filled with wonderful twists on traditional texts (such as in the creative and reverse naming of the Trinity in speaking of “Inventing Wind,” “Generous Christ,” and “Luminous God”).” And the music does not disappoint, with colorful writing for both the organ and the SATB chorus. I inquired of Dr. Locklair if there is pressure to “measure up” to incredible poetry and texts he is asked to set: “It’s only stressful when there’s a double commission, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get, but obviously Angier is a fabulous poet whose work I am eager to share. There’s nothing more challenging than finding the right text. But I’ve developed a sense of what will work and, equally important, what won’t work. There are things I love reading that I don’t feel called to set.”

Having worked with Dr. Locklair on a commissioned piece before, I know the care and scholarship he brings to finding a worthy text. The Mystery of God is another anthem introducing a poem that genuinely resonates for this reader. It was written in 1876 by an American Unitarian minister, Frederick Lucian Hosmer. Mystery is a hallmark of our faith for many Episcopalians and this exquisite poem successfully marries mystery (mystery – not doubt) and faith. Again, Dr. Locklair matches the text with his gentle approach and a reserved climax for the final words, “an open path to thee.”

Returning to the disc’s headliner, I believe Dr. Locklair’s Requiem takes its place comfortably among the known Requiems, and I predict that it will be programmed widely in the years to come. “I hope you’re right!” he said. “Composers tend to only write one Requiem, and while I’d be open to a full orchestration of this for the concert hall, I don’t plan to write a second one. It takes a while for a piece to find its way into the repertoire, and it does so one listener at a time.” Additional strong reviews of this disc are sure to follow, and since Naxos now distributes Convivium, the availability of the recording is quite comprehensive internationally. I strongly encourage my AAM colleagues to buy and enjoy this recording