Minnesota Public Radio has asked its listeners to pick their top five classical choral pieces. I love this for two reasons. First, it’s a refreshing alternative to those dreary top 100 classical piece lists in which every year the polled pick almost exactly the same compositions they chose in previous years. Second, it encourages classical compositions that emphasize the human voice, an instrument woefully neglected on the playlists of many classical radio stations.
MPR has partnered with VocalEssence, a Twin Cities musical outfit, to run the contest. Participants get a pretty long list of choral pieces from which to pick. I sympathize with the probable reasons for the pre-selected checklist. Unlike the symphonic repertory, there aren’t too many choral warhorses. So without any guidance, MPR/VocalEssence could wind up with a wide range of picks and no clear winners.
The downside, of course, is that lots of choral stuff I like isn’t on the list. The checklist is all pretty much requiems, oratorios, and cantatas and such, but nothing from symphonies or operas. The good news is that means that the contest won’t wind up inevitably giving the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th a prize (it consistently wins top billing at WQXR’s top 100 composer contest). The less good news is that some of my favorite choral pieces aren’t on the roster. This includes the choral love of my life, the funeral scene from Porgy and Bess.
And maybe next year they’ll consider including Ruth Crawford Seeger’s hauntingly beautiful ensemble piece Three Chants to an Unkind God.
Still, all-in-all, this choral poll is a great thing. Speaking of 20th-century composers, WQXR’s Q2 channel ran an interesting query of its listeners late last year, asking them for the best pieces of the last two decades. Here are the top ten hits:
10. Meredith Monk – Songs of Ascension (2011)
9. Georg Friedrich Haas – In Vain (2000)
8. Thomas Ades – Asyla (1999)
7. John Adams – Dharma at Big Sur (2006)
6. Donnacha Dennehy – Gra agus Bas (2011)
5. David Lang – little match girl passion (2008)
4. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – In the Light of Air (2014)
3. Andrew Norman – Play (2013)
2. John Luther Adams – Become Ocean (2014)
1. Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
Come to think of it, the top pick could be a contender in the Minnesota choral poll. Here’s a YouTube of the Passacaglia section from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, performed by the Roomful of Teeth ensemble.