Carson Cooman: The Evening Choir (CR023)
Review by Marjorie Johnston, The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians
Carson Cooman’s list of recordings is beyond extensive, with more than 20 devoted solely to his own compositions. This disc is an excellent introduction to the choral music of this gifted composer, not yet 40 years old.
The title of the disc may lead one to believe that it presents music for Evensong or Compline, or features texts with a night theme, but “The Evening Choir” is simply the title track based on a mesmerising text by transcendentalist poet, Jones Very (1813-1880). I hesitate to try to summarise this colourful, descriptive writing. To oversimplify the content, it conjures incredible images of the Saturday night church, one’s own presence in it, and what calls others to it the next morning. But the writing goes beyond that: there is a palpable sense that one is experiencing that the poet describes. In a phone interview, Mr Cooman said, “I have a file of texts that I started in college and have saved through a long time, just waiting until the right projects came along; I’d always wanted to set this poem.” His line of notes state that he… “sought to create a musical analogue to the blazingly vivid sound of Very’s verse,” and I believe that he was successful in achieving that goal. The poet and composer both drew me in with the line, “There is in these deep tones a power to abide within us.” There are times when the Lydian raised fourth brings Britain’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” to mind, and Mr Cooman explained that this was no accident. That first parallel is that poets Jones Very and Christopher Smart both lived with serious mental illness. Mr Cooman was not imitating Britain, but shared, “This was my Rejoice in the Lamb – about the same length and in cantata style, with the organ playing a significant role.”
There is good variety in this composer’s writing, and he seems to have a knack for mixing early and contemporary styles with ease. This is evident in the anthem, “Be Ye Wise,” with chanted verse alternating with elegant homophonic part writing for the choir. Baritone William Drakett is the ideal cantor. He is featured again on “The Kingdom of Justice” a four movement, thirteen-minute composition written in 2006 that I found very appealing. Soprano Sarah Rowley joins Mr Drakett as an equally exquisite soloist, and Alex Smith demonstrates great sensitivity matching the timbre of his trumpet part nicely with the choir and organ. Biblical texts were chosen by the commissioners at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in San Jose, California, and Mr Cooman a colleague came up with the sequence.
Like many composers, Mr Cooman primarily handles commissions. “I get more excited about projects that have specific things in mind. Of course, I won’t set a text that I don’t feel is worthy, but it’s really gets the juices going to write for any occasion or as a gift.”
The other tracks on the recording a typical Sunday morning anthem length. My favourite is “Easter day,” a lively and fun setting of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). It’s wordy, and it’s definitely not the standard “Christ is Risen” statement, though the message is loud and clear. Organist Joe Waggott plays the animated accompaniment without a hint of self-consciousness, enjoying every interlude, run, and is rhythmic accent. The peace may be strophic, but each stanza has a completely different character. In the hands of capable church musicians, this would be a delightful choice as well as the crowds-pleaser on Easter Sunday! It is published by Paraclete Press. The disc concludes with the “Te Deum” that was commissioned by AAM for the annual conference in Houston in 2008. This regal setting has a “British Sound” to my ear and was dedicated to esteemed AAM member, David Ashley White.
I was surprised to learn that Convivium Singersis not a professional ensemble. They have quite a few CDs to their credit, and under the direction of Alexander Norman, the dictation and intonation and first rate. Mr Cooman had worked with the Convivium label before and was happy to entrust the sessions to their staff, only contributing to the editing process afterwards. They will collaborate again later this year for the recording of a new oratorio.
Knowing Carson Cooman as a composer is only one aspect of his musicianship. Additionally, he is a highly respected concert organist, church musician, and a scholar, who serves as a reviewer for Fanfaremagazine and as an editor for two publishing companies. And these are all accessory roles to his job: composer in residence at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. I believe my AAM colleagues will appreciate this recording. He was most likeable in a phone interview, and I look forward to following his work more closely.
Marjorie Johnston, The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, March 2020