Life Stories – The Choral Music of Eric Barnum by Robert Bode, Choral Arts, and Eric William Barnum (Gothic Records, 2014)

Dr. Eric Barnum is Director of Choral Music at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. He holds a DMA in Choral Conducting from the University of Washington, an advanced degree in conducting from Minnesota State University as well as BA degrees in Composition and Vocal Performance from Bemidji State University (MN).

Robert Sparks assembled Choral Arts from Seattle’s best singers for a choral concert directed by famed Swedish conductor Erik Erikson. Following the concert, the group decided to continue under Sparks’ leadership, quickly becoming Seattle’s premiere choral ensemble. In 2007, Robert Bode became Artistic Director, and in 2010 Bode and Choral Arts won the Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence from Chorus America. Also in 2010, Choral Arts album, Mornings Like This won the American Prize for choral recorded music. In 2013,  Shall We Gather at the River placed second in the American Prize. They have again been nominated for the American Prize in 2014.

Choral Arts At Its Finest

A choral director myself, I rarely listen to choral music outside of my score rehearsal preparations. Two years ago, however, my choir was invited to sing along Seattle’s Choral Arts with several other area high schools. I didn’t know much of Choral Arts at the time, but upon hearing their music I was mesmerized with their clarity of sound and subtle nuance throughout each piece. I’ve been listening to the superb ensemble ever since. Pairing the Choral Arts sound with Barnum’s work was certainly a good idea.

Compositional Techniques and Influence

Many choral composers of the modern era have a niche. Whitacre, to his credit found a good one, the dissonance that he is known for, and which has transformed the modern choral genre. However, one thing that sets Barnum’s work apart from the other composers of the day, and therefore the contents of the album, is that he strives to expand his horizons and evolve musically throughout all his compositions. When listening to Life Stories, one will assuredly find that each track differs from the next, offering a wide assortment of choral sonorities throughout. At the same time you can easily hear Barnum’s influences, those of Thomas Newman, Arvo Pärt, and even Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame. Take the track, “Remembered Light”, where Barnum uses whistles to create the sound of falling snow. One can hear the modern influences throughout.

Barnum also goes past the standard sound of the modern choral composition in tracks like “Moonlight Music” and “Requiescat”, even harkening back to traditional counterpoint at times.

But, if you go to the root of the composer’s philosophy and the root of Choral Art’s pure sound, you get tracks like “Sweetheart of the Sun” where the two work incredibly well together. Barnum has a knack for taking love stores and themes of nature and weaving them together in sweet harmony, and Choral Arts, well, has a knack for the same. Here, Barnum takes Thomas Hood’s poem depicting the story of Ruth and Boaz. With Choral Arts gently singing, you can hear the outstretched hand of Boaz kindly asking Ruth to take part in life with him.

Overall

Life Stories – The Choral Music of Eric Barnum is truly outstanding. Any choral collaboration brought out by working closely together like that of Barnum and Bode is bound for choral success. My only complaint is, sadly, the soprano section of Bode’s outstanding ensemble. While the rest of the ensemble tends to blend and balance well together, the sopranos, perhaps in need of a re-voicing, stick out at times. A small quibble to be sure. Overall, I encourage choral snobs and lay folk alike to buy the album and give a sincere listen. Be sure to reflect on the many variegated stories within. They could be life changing.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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