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Choral Grammy: Singing Layton's praises

By Porter Anderson
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(CNN) -- You know something's up when two of the highest-profile and most honored American composers of serious choral music keep getting onto planes and heading to England to have their work recorded.

Los Angeles-based composer Eric Whitacre's "Cloudburst" is in the Best Choral Performance category of the Classical field in tonight's Grammy competition.

And when you work in a category that some of the Grammy show's audience won't remember past a good downbeat, it doesn't hurt to look like a surfer. The 37-year-old Whitacre likes to tell about getting into choral music in college when a buddy told him the school choir was going on a road trip . "Babes in Mexico," is his phrase for that attraction.

But Whitacre today is followed by people interested in choral settings of Emily Dickenson's aching poetry "I hide myself" and the devastating biblical text on a father's lament for a dead son, "When David Heard." (Read a review of Whitacre's "Cloudburst." )

And the composer says his music is in singularly good hands when the conductor is Stephen Layton and the ensemble is Layton's group, Polyphony, the artists honored by tonight's nomination.

This is an opinion seconded by the dean of American choral composition, Morten Lauridsen (Read a review of his "Lux aeterna" review).

"The amazing thing about Polyphony," Whitacre says, "is just how fast they are, not just how right they are. When they recorded 'Cloudburst,' they got together on a Sunday morning and by Tuesday night they had the album."

Whitacre echoes Lauridsen on probably the best compliment a composer could offer an artist: "On some of the pieces on the 'Cloudburst' CD, this is the only time I've heard them done right."

Layton's law

So who is this composers' conductor? After all, it's no mean feat to be so accomplished a director of vocal artistry so pure that, as Lauridsen says, "he reveals nooks and crannies in my music I've never heard, myself."

Stephen Layton is director of music at Trinity College, Cambridge, and is easily one of Europe's most sought-after conductors, working with the London Philharmonic, the Bournemouth Symphony and, in the United States, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Layton the ensemble Polyphony in 1986, naming it for the multi-voiced choral approach that evolved from the 12th century's "organum," an early form of harmonization in chant. Today, the "sound" is what prompts Layton, he says, to "refresh" the ensemble constantly, changing out as many as 20 percent of his singers for each project.

"Polyphony can make a special sound. It's got a luminous, translucent quality -- you can hear it with clarity with a lot of warmth around it. It's a lush, opulent sound. And I'm a great believer in such technical things as vowel equalizations and diphthongs that come into it, but actually you need to have great discipline to make even the most simple piece come alive.

The irony of a British conductor and ensemble being Grammy-nominated purveyors of such sounds in American music isn't lost on Layton. He's put a lot of thought into how he found the special sound he preserves and promotes in Polyphony.

"It's clearly come out of my training," he says, "from my days at King's College. And while this isn't the sound -- it's not student choral work, of course -- it does come down to clarity of line and intonation. A good British choir sings absolutely in tune, it's a given. That's the strength of tradition whereby a choirboy would sing every single day as I did at the age of 9 at cathedral."

It's not that Americans can't perform this work well, he cautions, it's just that composers working in the idiom explored for so long by Lauridsen and more recently entered by Whitacre lends itself to English choral traditions and training.

And while bringing what he defines as an orchestral balance to what a choir is doing, he says he finds "something amazingly distinctive" in Whitacre's "i thank you god for most this amazing day," a setting of the e.e. cummings piece that has become something of a signature for Whitacre's work. "In that piece, there's a marriage of music and text that's a defining moment in American choral music. It goes from naught miles an hour to about 500 miles an hour in about 10 seconds."

He also points to a strong influence of Lauridsen's artistry in such Whitacre works as "When David Heard." And "the music of these two guys -- Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre -- is becoming the most-performed music in choirs around the UK."

Whether tonight's Grammy goes Layton and Whitacre's way, there's more to hear of Layton and Polyphony -- with the Britten Sinfonia -- as Lauridsen's "Nocturnes" CD goes to market, just out this month from Hyperion in the United States.

For all the accomplishments Layton and Whitacre bring to the occasion at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it's rather charming to hear one of England's most powerful music makers ask, "So what do you think? Can 'Cloudburst' win this Grammy?'


Stephen Layton, director of music at Trinity College, Cambridge, is in Los Angeles for the Grammys.

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