Dissonance is often viewed as something negative. In the hands of choral conductor Dale Warland, a dissonant chord is luscious and very moving.
"How you approach and leave dissonance is very important," Warland explains. "When you get into a tight dissonance, it's terribly important that those notes are right on the money. You can't have very much vibrato, or at least excessive vibrato, or you will not hear the true chord that the composer wanted at that particular moment. So vibrato control, balance of those voices, intonation--those are the very important elements, and they became expectations with the Dale Warland Singers."
Dale Warland led his own a cappella ensemble for more than 30 years. Since he disbanded the group in 2004 he's been composing and guest conducting. But Warland admits he's felt a sense of loss.
"I do miss having my own instrument, where you don't have to explain everything and you can get right to the essence without wasting any time," he says.
The true essence of this ensemble is captured on a recording that's just now being released, "Lux Aurumque." Much of the recording was planned several years before the group disbanded. The music came out of its concert series, "Cathedral Classics." Warland chose these pieces because he says these composers really knew how to write for the voice; they knew how to develop a true choral sound.
"There's this magic you hope will come through," he adds, "that really ends up being like a spirituality that carries the music beyond what you would hope."
Like cream gently rising to the surface, that magic comes through in each piece on "Lux Aurumque."
"A Prayer of the Middle Ages" by American composer Howard Hanson was out of print for many years before being revived by Dale Warland. It really grabs my attention with the opening fanfare. Then it moves into a warm, romantic melody. A wide range of dynamics and impeccable balance turn the Dale Warland Singers into a choir of angels as they sing this piece.
Warland has a soft spot for the motet "Hymn to the Creator of Light" by English composer John Rutter.
"Most of his original works are with instruments," Warland explains. "This work is a cappella. It's semi-extended for double choir. It just doesn't sound like the other Rutter that most of us know. I think he really stretched himself."
Tight, dissonant chords give this choral work a wonderful sense of mystery. Rutter wrote the piece in memory of English composer Herbert Howells for the 1992 dedication of the Howells memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral. When the choir sings, "A light which never sets," I can just imagine a vibrant sunbeam shining through the rich colors of that stained glass window.
One of the most memorable moments in these recording sessions occurred during Dominick Argento's piece, "To God, In Memoriam M.B."
Marlene Baver was a dear friend of Dale Warland. She was an organist, a choirmaster, a flutist and a fine trumpeter. In tribute to her, Argento's piece ends with a touching solo trumpet line that's heard off in the distance. The challenge for Warland was creating that distant trumpet sound in the chapel at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.
"We put it out in the narthex and the trumpet still sounded too present," Warland explains. "There was a little bride's room adjacent to the narthex, and even that was not far enough away. But there was a bathroom within the bride's room within the narthex, and we ended up putting the trumpeter in there and it worked."
The Dale Warland Singers perform with such honesty and sincerity it's almost impossible not to be touched by their music. Their expert phrasing, intonation and balance give the music on "Lux Aurumque" a wonderful sense of freedom. Dale Warland's thoughtful direction enhances their natural ability to make incredibly beautiful music that goes beyond the ears and directly to the heart.
Lucky for us, there is life after the Dale Warland Singers because there's a lot more music in the archives. Dale Warland says "Lux Aurumque" may be just the first in a series of forthcoming recordings.