RUNESTAD: Choral Pieces
Conspirare/ Craig Hella Johnson

Eriks Esenvalds, Ola Gjeilo, and Eric Whitacre might have to slide down the bench a little to make room for a newcomer. He is Jake Runestad, a Peabody-trained American composer who was born in 1986 and is currently headquartered in Minneapolis. Runestad’s music tends to be luminous, spiritually-charged, enmeshed with the texts that inspired it, and fully accessible to singers and audiences. There is also an American feel to his writing. I say this not only because of the American Triptych that captures the wisdom of HD Thoreau (‘Reflections’), Wendell Berry (‘The Peace of Wild Things’), and John Muir (‘Come to the Woods’) in song; but because of the open, unpretentious, uncluttered harmonies that extend musical life to the words of Hildegard, Tagore, St Francis, St John of the Cross, and the Sufi mystic, Rabia. There’s a reason why this guy’s songs are sung all over the place, and why an A-List choir like Conspirare has embraced him.

The centerpiece here is Runestad’s choral cycle The Hope of Loving (2015), which engages the choir and a string quartet in poetry explaining the mysteries of love. From the hushed and haunting ‘Yield to Love’ (Rabia), to the galloping energy of the ‘Wild Forces’ St Francis says lurk in us, to what sounds like Rutter and Webber in ‘My Soul is a Candle’ (St John of the Cross), this is a choral cycle to be reckoned with. A favorite selection outside that set is ‘Caged Bird’ (Paul Laurence Dunbar), which alternates the sadness of freedom deprived with the restless rhythms of people seeking to gain it. I also admire the tone painting that animates poet Todd Boss’s Waves as they toss, cross, crash and thrash their way through the opening selection of the program. Conspirare—no surprise here— supports the composer every step of the way; collectively and in the solos performed handsomely by soloists culled from its ranks.

I’m pleased to share my enthusiasm for two reasons. First, it is always nice to sound the alert when a talented new choral composer comes on the scene. Plus, one of the choirs I sing in—the redoubtable Arundel Vocal Arts Society of Annapolis—will be performing The Hope of Loving this December. Can’t wait!

Philip Greenfield

Listen to the album here.