This first rule of kings place? You Do Not talk about kings place..
Not an easy promise to keep when Eric Whitacre, the maestro of musical unity, conducts a symphony of souls, weaving invisible threads that connect hearts in ethereal embrace.
So, where and how did you find the sublime music of Eric Whitacre? At what point in time did his world of searing harmonies, spell-binding melodies, and glorious ideas collide with yours?
For us, it was in St Bride’s church on Fleet Street at the happiest of weddings which saw two people reunited after years apart. As the soaring note in “Lux Aurumque” shimmered around us, there was an audible gasp from the congregation, and that was it; we were helplessly in love…
So it was with incredible excitement and a certainty of heart that we went to King’s Cross on a gloriously sunny and warm evening, knowing that we were going to see and hear the real thing.
Describing his love for close vocal harmony, Whitacre has written, “Something about human voices being close like that (makes me) feel like I’m going to pass out—it’s so beautiful and so painful at the same time.” We suggest that this is the magic of his music—that he can communicate and share this magical feeling so effortlessly with us.
The Eric Whitacre Singers begin by singing the aforementioned “Lux Aurumque,” still our favorite, and yes—there were the inexorable intakes of breath as the notes—pure, true, and golden—filled Hall One, its near-perfect acoustic making the sound exquisite. This was the start of a heady evening filled with simply gorgeous music, sung and played by incredible musicians.
After the hushed and perfect stillness as the notes of “Lux Aurumque” die away, Eric begins his guidance through the evening with an easy, friendly affability, commenting in a self-deprecating fashion, making us laugh and, yes, fall in love with him all over again. He tells us he is ‘thrilled to be back in London in this gorgeous hall’ and that it is so good to be ‘breathing the same air’.
The next piece is ‘Sainte Chapelle’, its long, sustained chords and legato meandering through exquisitely crunchy harmonies depicting Eric’s favorite building in Paris. This song’s text by Charles Anthony Silvestri, Whitacre explains that the refraction of light through the stained glass windows there is portrayed in musical notes as ‘voices of angels.’ The dynamic range is superb; the melodies effortlessly smooth combined with the closest of bittersweet harmonies.
It is a well-known fact that Eric Whitacre is a lover of music from all genres, and the next piece, ‘Where is my Mind?’, written for the Pixies by Black Francis, is an exemplary testament to the crossover and merging of styles. Soloist Andrea Haines (much admired by Whitacre, who introduces her as ‘the top soprano in the supergroup VOCES 8 and easily one of the world’s greatest choral singers’) is simply stunning in this poignant, ethereal arrangement of the song featured at the end of the film ‘Fight Club’. This is a debut performance of a brand new piece, and the swooping, humming, moving work is heart-thumping, spine-tingling perfection.
Pianist and friend Christopher Glynn joins the stage for ‘The City and the Sea’, music by Whitacre set to poetry by e.e. cummings, that lover of free verse, idiosyncratic syntax, and discarder of punctuation. Indeed, Whitacre’s compositions evoke similar feelings in his audience as does poetry—almost too beautiful compared to pain inside humans—and he is obviously stirred by it as many of his compositions seem to be inspired by well-loved poems. This is a set of five pieces, each complex and different, the piano dancing over the notes like light on water. Themes of control, power, intensity, love, chaos, frivolity, and peace are all here, and Eric clearly loves conducting this, his whole being alive with the music.
Whitacre’s conducting is lovely to watch; from where we were sitting in the balcony, we were privileged to be able to see his face and the range of emotions communicated to his choir. Through his graceful, expressive, and loquacious hands, he explores, encourages, and nurtures beautiful tone and restive unease and displacement with confidence and humble mastery. Passion, fervor, pain, joy… it was all there and shared with us so willingly and generously.
Next is the well-loved “Seal Lullaby,” a piece written for a potential Dreamworks movie that simply never happened. Its wistful poignancy is so tenderly played and sung, and the audience is soothed and lulled, in preparation for the incredible experience that comes next, “Come Sweet Death.” The choir sings this through as Bach intended, conducted by Whitacre, but then he walks to the side of the stage, having previously explained that the choir is going to sing it again, but this time at their own individual varying tempi. The result is breathtaking. The singers use hand gestures that show us where they are in their part, and it is just like Eric says—different colors of paint sliding into each other from the top of a canvas, merging at different times and creating different effects. We are reminded of raindrops on a window pane, trickling at different speeds and culminating together at the bottom. Incredibly (but perhaps not, understanding a very tiny bit of J.S. Bach’s genius with harmony and counterpoint), the sound works. More than works—it is lovely, the chaos and clashing exquisite in its agony and ecstasy.
The stunning “All Seems Beautiful to Me” follows, Walt Whitman’s wonderful words skillfully framed by sublime, calming, delightful harmonies of choral mastery. The balance of voices is perfection.
Whitacre’s arrangement of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” featuring the stunning solo voice of Andrea Haines once more, follows, before the final piece, “Sleep,” is performed in its comforting, impassioned, tender glory. The effervescence of choral sound envelopes Hall One, and we are more than moved.
An encore follows, and “May we sing together, always as one” is the final phrase of the evening, simply and fittingly sung in unison.
Since we have been writing down choral music, composers have tried to create the sound of angels. In the modern era, no one has come closer to this than Eric Whitacre. His music seems to have an epic stillness, a glorious moment in time that will never come again. His technique is strong—he starts with common chords in four parts, then often splits apart into eight parts, close together: dissonance, of course, but beautiful. His music stands in direct contrast to composers in the 20th century who sought (apparently) to achieve ugliness in their music through dissonance. Whitacre’s dissonance (many of the same chords) sounds so absolutely perfectly right. His ethereal soundscapes conjure visions of magnificent open vistas and a personal experience, like standing alone on a mountaintop on a clear day.
Eric Whitacre with the Eric Whitacre Singers performed at Kings Place onFriday 9th June 2023
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