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Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Dunedin Consort/The Peoples Mass
Delphian Records

Years ago I was talking with a composer about his upcoming Carnegie Hall debut. He was young and unknown, and he told me he hoped for either a really good review or a really bad one: either way, people might get interested in his music and something might come of the performance. Now, a Scottish chamber choir called the Dunedin Consort has recently put out "The Peoples Mass." "The Peoples Mass" assigns each part of the Mass to a different Scottish composer who is relatively young and relatively unknown (at least on this side of the pond). The result is pretty much garbage, and what follows is a really bad review. Interested?

The composers are Malcolm Lindsay, Christine McCombe, Tommy Fowler, John Gormley, Anthea Haddow, and Rebecca Rowe. The basic problem is that none of them seems to have bothered to develop an original perspective on the Mass. You might think that, this being Scotland, and this being the "peoples" Mass, weíd be in for an Irvine Welsh/James Kellman Where-the-f*ck-are-you-God-type composition that gets down and dirty and indignant. Au contraire. Nothing so much as a whisper of agnosticism troubles the sleepy, complacent piety these composers exhibit. Heaven and Earth are a seamless celestial realm of arpeggiated triads, seraphim voices, and easy tonal resolutions. "The Peoples Mass" comes across as monotonous and painfully indulgent as composer after composer romps through the most hackneyed devices known to music. Hearing the relentlessly cheesy harp writing made me actually yearn for Berioís Harp Sequenza Ė a piece I donít like because it treats the harp like a punching bag. But at least itís fresh.

A litany of each composerís transgressions would be useful to no one. So let me mention the two highlights. First, the concept behind "The Peoples Mass," developed by Fowler, is neat and worth trying again. It works like this: each of the six sections of the Mass is divided into three parts: a plainsong performance of the appropriate chant, the composerís liturgical setting for a cappella choir, and a secular setting based on a text of the composerís choice for a soloist from the Dunedin Consort accompanied by harp. The result could, in different hands, easily be a compelling realization of the "e pluribus unum"Ė effect touted in the liner notes. I, of course, could have used a bit more pluribus. Anyway, the second highlight is Anthea Haddow. While I really couldnít stomach her Pablo Neruda setting, her Benedictus does open and close with some spectacular choral writing. And, as her wordless "Epilogue" to the Mass proves, she is capable of writing music that is completely gorgeous.

But I really donít think Iíll be listening to the CD as a whole again. The music is just too flabby, unimaginative, and precious. "The Peoples Mass" is a good idea, but it needs stronger musical minds to be effectively realized.


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