Eriks Esenvalds: The Doors of Heaven

Stereophile named the Portland State Chamber Choir's 2014 release Into Unknown Worlds a “Record To Die For”; one imagines the publication might say much the same about The Doors of Heaven, the premiere recording by an American chorus exclusively devoted to the music of Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. With conductor Ethan Sperry directing the choir, the recording features four exquisite works that make the strongest possible case for Esenvalds. As critical to the music's impact are the stirring performances by the choir, which since its 1975 founding has earned more than thirty medals and awards in competitions.

Esenvalds' music is technically complex yet due to its powerful melodic dimension extremely accessible. The choir might be divided into as many as sixteen parts in a given piece, and consequently the result is understandably ravishing to the ear. Traces of twentieth-century classical movements are present, though Esenvalds shies away from incorporating abrasive moments of dissonance into these sumptuous settings. Emblematic of modern-day librettos, he also isn't afraid to combine texts drawn from multiple sources, though again the result is more seamless in effect than collage-like; cases in point, Rivers of Light combines Finnish and Latvian folk melodies with excerpts taken from British explorers' journals, while the libretto for Passion and Resurrection is drawn from a number of liturgical sources, among them the Stabat Mater and excerpts from Job, Isaiah, and the book of Psalms.

The opening setting, 2015's The First Tears, draws its text from an Inuit legend about the Raven (the creator of the world) and the Whale. During this fourteen-minute performance, lead voices alternate between female and male singers, and passages similarly alternate between both the soloists and the full choir and male and female sections. A remarkable range of expanded vocal effects is deployed, with, for example, the line sung by a soloist echoed repeatedly until it fades away, and the vocal dimension is expanded upon with instrumental resources appropriate to the narrative. The twang of a jaw harp appears alongside the singing, and during separate sections soft percussion accents and the haunting sound of Native American flutes augment the choir's wordless expressions. With respect to dynamics, the music extends from moments of great delicacy to climaxes of immense force, making for a consistently captivating presentation.

Though only six minutes in duration, 2014's Rivers of Light is no less compelling, as Esenvalds uses folk melodies sung by male and female soloists with, once again, the unusual sound of the jaw harp and the luscious textures of the choir to tantalizing effect. Written in memory of Mother Teresa, 2006's A Drop in the Ocean concerns religious faith and sees the altos chanting "The Lord's Prayer" in Latin while the sopranos sing her favorite prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.” The delicate balance achieved between the lead vocalist, in this case soprano Rebecca Yakos, and the larger choir resources impresses greatly, just as it does throughout the recording.

The Doors of Heaven closes with its longest piece, the four-part oratorio Passion and Resurrection (2006), arranged here for soprano Hannah Consenz, vocal quartet, choir, and the Portland State University String Ensemble. Hushed vocal chants and elegiac string textures pull the listener into the material's heavenly sound world, the prayerful music suggesting kinship at times with the works of John Tavener and Henryk Górecki (the soprano's melismatic delivery during the fourth part in particular indicates stylistic commonalities between Esenvalds' setting and Tavener's Mary of Egypt). The vocal quartet operates throughout the half-hour work like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events and providing contrast to both the soloist and the choir, and consistent with textual content that has to do with Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, the musical presentation ranges from meditative calm to anguished lamentations.

Put simply, any lover of contemporary choral music would do well to seek out this worthy collection. On this superb sampling of his artistry, Esenvalds accomplishes that rare feat of sounding thoroughly contemporary while also engaging the listener with immediacy at no compromise to the music's integrity.

October 2017