Counterpoint, An American Hallel
(Egg cream Music, CD)
As one of the only professional vocal ensembles in the state, Counterpoint has long set the standard for this type of music in Vermont. And it’s a lofty standard at that. Over countless local and national performances and 10 albums, the 12-member group is exquisitely polished. Counterpoint is under the direction of Nathaniel Lew, an associate professor of music and the director of choral activities at Saint Michael’s College. On the group’s latest recording, An American Hallel, it tackles the sacred choral music of renowned American composer Michael Isaacson. The album consists of three larger, nonsecular works, “An American Hallel,” “The Seven Deadly Sins” and “Kohelet (Ecclesiastes),” that contrast Isaacson’s deeply rooted Jewish faith with his American upbringing. The result is a collection of sacred music that is thought provoking and stirring, regardless of the listener’s spiritual inclinations.
Isaacson is a curious figure. He has a PhD from the prestigious Eastman School of Music and is internationally respected as an elite composer and orchestrator. He founded Michael Isaacson & the Israel Pops and was recently honored, by Hebrew Union College, as one of the 10 most influential sacred-music composers alive. Despite those cultured accolades, Isaacson is not above “slumming it.” His credits also include music for several daytime TV soaps and movies of the week, as well as shows such as “Hawaii 5-0,” “The Bionic Woman” and, more recently, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Hallel certainly exists on the higher of those two planes. But there are moments, particularly during the piece “An American Hallel,” that juxtapose the divine with secular observations. The work is composed of a series of Psalms — specifically, Psalms 113-118. But interspersed between those choral pieces, folk singer Theodore Bikel recites passages from the likes of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Barack Obama. His deeply toned interludes accentuate the lessons found in each Psalm, providing a comparatively modern and distinctly American, well, counterpoint to each verse. It’s an effective device.
Isaacson’s flair for the dramatic serves him — and the chorus — well on the works that follow. “The Seven Deadly Sins” consists of nine bracing, foreboding movements that seduce and condemn in equal measures. “Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)” works as a benediction. The composition’s seven movements are striking in their serene beauty and highlight Counterpoint’s impressive blend and balance. In particular, the closing, “The End of the Matter,” is sublime, a delicate work of shimmering sustains broken by sharp staccato passages. But it is made whole again by a blooming resolve beautiful enough to suggest the divine to even nonbelievers.
Counterpoint debut a new concert featuring works by Vermont composers, titled “There Alway Something Sings,” with three performances this week: Friday, April 5, at the McCarthy Arts Center at Saint Michael’s College; Saturday, April 6, at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier; and Sunday, April 7, at the First Congregational Church of Manchester.
An American Hallel by Counterpoint is available at counterpointchorus.org.