Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

This new recording places at its
center Paulus’ last large scale work, Far in the Heavens, a
commission for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Like his
other large scale oratorios, it covers the full range of his expressive and
accessible style. Combining words from disparate cultures, centuries, and
faith, the texts include prayers from St. Francis of Assisi, Mohammed, and the
Navajo as well as poetry from Henry Vaughan, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and William
Blake. Paulus mines each of these sources for the common human experience of
grief, recovery, and spirituality to provide a balm of healing years removed
from tragedy.

The words of each movement are almost exclusively in a homorhythmic texture
allowing Paulus to carefully craft their setting. He follows the words’
natural poetic stress resulting in both reflective and emphatic recitations.
Color and word stress become the primary focus of the texts’ meanings. For
instance, the word “light” receives notable attention – a loud consonant
chord in a major key – in both the first and second movements.

The most dramatic elements of the work appear in the opening chorus, “They
are All Gone,” where Paulus’ use of orchestral colors is on full display.
Throbbing timpani and brass fanfares announce that “they are all gone”
while the lightness of harp and woodwinds evoke the “glows and glitters” of
an air of glory of the high heavens. Likewise, the movement “Great Spirit”
is marked by marked contrast between the opening invocation of the Great Spirit
through animated outbursts of percussion, woodwinds, strings and the hushed
sustained colors of the choir’s childlike incantations that follow. Here
Paulus sounds Britten-esque as an arrhythmic recitation of words sounds over
sustained tones in the orchestra.

The performance of True Concord Voices and Orchestra is excellent. Paulus’
trademark bright harmonies and cluster chords ring true with perfect choral
intonation. The expressiveness of the music and texts come through effectively
with clear articulation and distinct enunciation. The choral tone is generally
crystalline with minimal vibrato which suits Paulus’ sound world, but at
times fails to match the vibrancy, depth, and balance of the orchestra.

The remainder of the recording provides exposure to lesser known small form
works of Paulus’ catalogue. The most intriguing of these is “Little
Elegy” which is beautifully expressive in its simplicity much like his
beloved “Pilgrim’s Hymn.” This recording will appeal to many, as
Paulus’ music is undeniably beautiful and pleasing; but it also important
because it serves to introduce lesser known music, including a new masterwork,
of an influential 21st century American voice.

Adam Luebke

image_description=Far in the Heavens – Choral Music of Stephen Paulus
product_title=Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus
product_by=True Concord Voices & Orchestra; Eric Holtan, Conductor.
product_id=Reference FR-716 [CD]