STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, March 3 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!
Nico Muhly: Beaming Music (Bedroom Community)

Marimba and organ are not your average keyboard duo, but it works so well I could cry. Thank you, Nico, for doing this. and what’s in a name? “The title refers not only to the various metric subdivisions of the main material, but also to Chris Thompson, the percussionist who commissioned it, whose his sunny disposition colored each stage of this piece’s conception, rehearsal, and performance.” If that doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Fast Cycles (Bedroom Community)

When I was in college, organ music (specifically that of J.S. Bach) was one thing I used as a study aid. The continuous tone of the organ and the steady harmonic and rhythmic movement of Bach’s compositions kept me focused. Now, I’d like to present a piece of organ music that might be less relevant as a study aid, but that is vastly more useful as a source of inspiration. Nico Muhly’s Fast Cycles brims with inventive uses of the organ. While this piece might not literally be “pulling out all the stops,” it certainly delivers on excitement and beautifully novel sounds from an instrument that is too often forgotten. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Alejandro Bento: “Heartbeat” from Ripples (Subtempo Records)

In such troubling times as these, there’s nothing quite like an introspective solo piano piece to help you find your center. Alejandro Bento’s “Heartbeat” is one of three such works on his EP Ripples, a simple and stunning collection which traces a wide emotional arc through modest musical means.

Bento’s fingers float above the piano in soft washes of sound, each melody shaped with striking intimacy and refreshing sincerity. The piece ebbs and flows organically up and down the piano keyboard, gently persuading you into a soothing musical meditation and—if you listen closely—quietly connecting you to the beat of your heart. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8pm hour today to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Honest Music (Harmonia Mundi)

I’m fascinated by this piece by Nico Muhly, scored for violin and pre-recorded sound. (I guess we used to say “violin and tape” for works like this, but it’s never a tape nowadays, is it? The performer(s) play with a CD or sound from digital download.) It’s interesting how the layers of pre-recorded harp, percussion, and electronic organ don’t really seem to interact with the solo violin part (which layers over itself, and is thus played by two violinists in this performance), at least not explicitly. The elements stacked on top of each other just seem to exist, and all have distinct purpose of their own, like people living above and below each other in an apartment building. The title seems to stem from the earnest, forthcoming character of this music. Honesty, even in wordless musical form, feels so refreshing.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Glass Effect from Lavinia Meijer

by Maggie Molloy

When most people hear the harp, they think of Baroque suites or Celtic folk ballads, angels strumming heavenly melodies—or perhaps that sideline string instrument sandwiched between the violin and percussion sections of the orchestra.lavinia-meijer

But harpist Lavinia Meijer is interested in expanding those possibilities. In fact, she’s made an entire musical career out of it.

Meijer has cultivated a name for herself as one of the most diverse harpists of the 21st century, consistently seeking out little-known classical solo and orchestral repertoire, collaborating with contemporary cross-genre artists, and recording brand new music that bursts through classical music boundaries. And when the music’s not written for her instrument—she simply arranges it for harp herself.

Her latest project is The Glass Effect: a two-disc release featuring works composed and inspired by minimalist mastermind Philip Glass. The first disc is classic Glass: 10 of the composer’s famous 20 Piano Etudes, each delicately arranged and deftly performed on harp by Meijer. The second disc highlights Glass’s influence on the next generation of composers, featuring Glass-inspired compositions by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone.

Recorded as a tribute album for Glass’s 80th birthday this coming January, the two-disc set begins with a retrospective glance backward through Glass’s extraordinary compositional discography. Meijer lends her fingers to 10 of Glass’s 20 Etudes which, composed over the course of 1991-2012, offer a glimpse into the development and ongoing transformation of his harmonic language and compositional style.

Etudes are, of course, exercises: short musical compositions designed to develop (and, once learned, demonstrate) the skill and technique of the player. And trust me, Glass’s Etudes are no easy feat.

Yet Meijer dances with grace and charm through the entire obstacle course of changing tempi, textures, and techniques, crafting each phrase and every delicate detail with the utmost care and attention. From the soft and sweet lullabies of Glass’s early Etudes to the motoric rhythms and virtuosic variations of the later ones, Meijer’s arrangements maintain the music’s trademark clarity and unshakable sense of forward motion while also offering compelling insight into her instrument.

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The second disc is bookended by Glass’s haunting theme from the 1982 apocalyptic film Koyaanisqatsi, beginning first with Meijer’s solo harp arrangement. She craftily transforms the original synth-laden ostinato into a poignant and introspective solo piece which speaks to the sheer power and timelessness of Glass’s melody. But she doesn’t forgo the electronics entirely: the theme comes back again at the end of the album in a remixed version with electronics titled “Lift Off,” which Meijer created with sound designer Arthur Antoine in 2014.

The effects of Glass echo clearly throughout the second disc, which showcases how ambient and minimalist music has evolved (and continues to evolve) in the hands of young composers.

Among the first composers featured is Bryce Dessner (who you may recognize from the band The National) with his three-movement Suite for Harp. Dessner’s piece utilizes the full pitch range and performance idiosyncrasies of the harp, painting a hazy soundscape of softly cascading melodies, harmonics, and arpeggios.

laviniaNico Muhly’s two contributions to the album, each originally composed for piano, are more introspective in nature. Meijer’s fingers drift patiently through the simple, chant-like melodies and soft bass drones of Muhly’s “Quiet Music,” and her playing brings a quiet warmth and aching resonance to “A Hudson Cycle.”

Muhly’s pieces dissolve into the soft ambience of two of Ólafur Arnalds’ most music box-worthy compositions. Meijer twirls through the twinkling melodies of “Erla’s Waltz” and drifts sweetly through the circular harmonies of “Tomorrow’s Song.”

Arnalds’ friend and frequent collaborator Nils Frahm follows with two compositions originally composed for piano but expertly arranged for harp by Meijer. Breathy melodies float above soft (but busy) bass arpeggios in “Ambre,” while block chords echo against a serenely silent backdrop in “In the Sky and on the Ground.”

However, it’s perhaps composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s contribution which stretches the harp the furthest from its traditional musical stereotype. His composition “Night Loops” for harp, looping pedal, and electronics sparkles with fluttering melodies and crackling electronics, creating an entire glistening garden of timbres and musical textures.

And thus, the album ends with a glance toward the future—a look at how Philip Glass’s musical influence continues onward in all its ever-expanding variations and transformations.

Because although Glass may be a minimalist, his influence is far from minimal.

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ALBUM REVIEW: The Westerlies

by Seth Tompkins

The Westerlies’ eponymous sophomore album is unified by a clarity of purpose and a distinctive sonic palette. The overall effect of this release is one of harmony and serene simplicity. In fact, this album is so consistently styled and masterfully produced that it could be easy to miss the ingenious subtleties and careful construction that underpin the simple beauty of this release. That would be unfortunate, because to miss the subtleties in these 17 tracks is to miss the potential lasting impact of this album.

 

It is difficult talk about The Westerlies without mentioning the album’s distinctive sound. Despite differences between tracks, the sound of this album is remarkably consistent from track to track, creating a satisfying unity that runs from beginning to end.

The chief element in this unity of sound is the types of articulations The Westerlies have chosen to use. This is not to say that the articulations are uniform across the album; quite the opposite is true! Within just the first few tracks, the wide variety of articulations varies from mellow to aggressive and from bright and insistent to smooth and nonchalant. However, despite this obvious prowess, the group does manage to create a unified sound through articulation alone. This is mostly accomplished through their heavy reliance on a specific articulation: a somewhat soft, breathy, but very consistent sound that is reminiscent Stan Getz. This particular sound is one that guides the listener through the entire album. While not a sound that may be familiar top all listeners, by the end of the second disc, it seems like an old friend.

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Photo Credit: Sasha Arutyunova

The most outstanding specific sonic element on this disc is the way in which the group has handled the bass. Despite the trombone usually being a “bright” instrument, through smart microphone placement and expert execution, The Westerlies have coaxed an incredibly broad array of bass sounds out of the humble trombone. In many sections, the bass sounds as if it being produced by a euphonium, tuba, or even an electronic bass instrument. There are also moments when the bass sound is pure trombone. The staggeringly wide range of bass sounds The Westerlies include on this release is worthy of high praise, especially as it is apparently achieved with little or no digital alteration.

Another notable element of the sound world of this album is the group’s use of extended techniques. The noodling, the screeching, the growling, and related sounds make frequent appearances on this release. However, instead of the intrusive gimmicks these techniques can sometimes be, here they serve only to color and shade the unified sonic world the group has created. In many instances, these unusual sounds blend so well with the main textures of the music that they may pass unnoticed as they sculpt the soundscape. In many spots on this release, these effects take the place of electronic effects; there are many moments when what sounds like a digital alteration is actually being created live via the acoustic instruments of the group through these deftly executed special techniques.

The apparent lack of digital enhancements on this release is one of its chief merits. Through the use of extended techniques, savvy microphone placement, and top-notch engineering, The Westerlies and their producer, Jesse Lewis, have managed to create a collection of sounds that in many other cases would require a great deal of computerized hocus-pocus. And beyond that, they have managed to do it in a way that is not the least bit self-righteous. They are not shoving the fact that they are mostly acoustic in our faces; acoustic is simply the way their music exists.

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Photo Credit: Michael George

A secondary aspect of the laudable lack of digital trickery on this release is the freedom the group takes with letting some of the “uglier” sounds of brass playing bleed through. In many spots, edgy sounds come through that some producers might want to keep off their finished products. In other places, the sound of these muscular instruments can be heard bouncing of the wall and ceiling of the recording space. The fact that these peripheral brass sounds made it onto the final album is evidence that this group has done some deep soul-searching on the true nature of brass playing. Much like their choice to stick with a mostly-acoustic sound, The Westerlies’ choice to include some of these realistic sounds onto the album shows that they are not interested in the expectations of anyone else; they are thinking for themselves and forging their own path.

Perhaps one reason The Westerlies chose to build the sonic world of this release with the above elements is that they see their group as primarily a live acoustic ensemble, even in the context of a studio recording. Few, if any, of the tracks on this release would be difficult for the group to recreate in a live setting, and the live performance would likely sound much like the album, including sounds of “the room” and many of realistic sounds of live brass playing that are often omitted in commercial recordings. If this is indeed the case, this is an integrity move and their audience is better for it.

The compositions themselves also warrant praise. Much like the delicious balance between varied and unified articulations and colors throughout the album, the pieces themselves represent a diverse, yet broadly unified element that ties the entire release together. All the compositions on this release save three are by The Westerlies themselves. While there are moments of raucousness and unique diversions that occur frequently among these compositions, the overall effect is similar to that of the soundscape that pervades the album; the pieces have enough in common that they hang together remarkable well. Hopefully, these overarching unities bode well for the future of the ensemble, signaling that the quartet is bonded in a way that will afford them fruitful collaboration for years to come.

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Photo Credit: Michael George

Finally, the three compositions not by The Westerlies must be considered. It is a fascinating trio of pieces: one traditional tune (arranged by Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon), a Duke Ellington tune, and a piece by Charles Ives. There might be myriad reasons why the quartet chose these three, but it seems that the most likely plan is this: these tunes give just enough context to convince a skeptical listener to buy into this genre-defying acoustic quartet. Also, one jazz tune, one “modern” piece of classical music, and one traditional hymn-like tune are an excellent representation of the background that most classical-trained brass players have. Whether these tunes are intended to provide context for the new music on the album, or are a nod to the background of the quartet members, or are simply included because the quartet likes them, they are woven with the same delicious technique and careful construction as the rest of the release.

The Westerlies is an album with two layers of existence. It is at once a plainly beautiful release shot through with genius technique and considerate musical planning, and an innovative exploration into what the future of acoustically-driven music could be. The fearless choices The Westerlies have made on this release lead the way for acoustic music in the face of an increasingly computerized musical landscape, while at the same time creating a sublime listening experience that can be enjoyed for its simplicity and peace.

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STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, October 14 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

1045-bates-cover-1600Mason Bates: Mothership (BMOP/sound)

Some combinations are wonderful despite the unintuitive relationship of their component parts.  Mason Bates’s Mothership contains such a combination.  You wouldn’t think that live electronics, a full orchestra, and NASA spaceship sound samples would go well together with the sound of the guzheng, but they do.  So sit back, grab some cream cheese for that hot-dog, and enjoy Mothership. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Etude No.12; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

dsl-92205-dreaming-awake-coverI‘m a total nut for minimalism and usually turn to it when working, running, cooking, commuting, exploring, just about anything. So, I was thrilled to discover Dreaming Awake, a recently released 2-disc journey of Philip Glass’ piano music guided by Bruce Levingston. Ten of his etudes are tucked in between and around The Illusionist Suite, Wichita Vortex Suite (with guest vocals from Ethan Hawke), Dreaming Awake, and Metamorphosis No.2, for an asymmetric but balanced collection.

I hope you catch Etude No.12 on Second Inversion today. Whereas his first 10 etudes were written primarily as exercises for improving technique, his later etudes are more expressive and emotional. No.12 to me is characteristically “Glass” in many ways – repetitive, steady, with rhythmic, driving arpeggios, and also a somber depth. The musical colors are incredibly poignant in this tribute to American painter Chuck Close, who temporary lost (but later regained) the ability to paint due to a spinal aneurysm. Glass depicts this emotional battle in the music, Levingston communicates it with is playing, and the producers at Sono Luminus record it with such mastery, yielding a stand-out new release in the contemporary classical realm. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Stephen Suber: Soleil; Ars Brunensis Chorus (Centaur)

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The best music is music that convinces you there is no other music in the world.  This week Stephen Suber’s “Soleil” did that for me.  He describes the composition as “an orchestral piece without the orchestra,” using only the dynamic human voice to create rhythms and harmonies that grow more complex as the piece continues.  Baritones sub as the double bass, tenors become cellos, and percussion is provided by plosives, sibilants, and fricatives.  This composition is from his album Starlit and, when asked about it in an interview, Suber refers specifically to “Soleil” when he states that the singers “came so close to reading my mind.  They nailed it.”  With a review like that it’s no wonder he cites this as his favorite work from the album! – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Richard Reed Parry: Heart and Breath Sextet;  yMusic and Nico Muhly
(Deutsche Grammophon)

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Richard Reed Parry is one of those musicians who really writes from the heart—in this case, literally. His “Heart and Breath Sextet” throws all time signatures out the window and instead instructs the performers to play, well, to the beat of their hearts.

The piece comes from his introspective opus, Music for Heart and Breath: a series of compositions which uses the performers’ hearts and lungs as the performance parameters. Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and very quietly) in order to stay in sync with their own heartbeat, thus resulting in a beautifully irregular ebb and flow—a soft and serene watercolor come to life.

And as you can imagine, no two hearts beat exactly in time. For this sextet, performed by yMusic with Nico Muhly on piano, the result is a pointillistic effect: starts and stops are staggered, melodies fall out of sync with one another, harmonies bend delicately up and down.

And every once in a while, one of those softly sighing melodies falls in sync with your own heart and breath—a gentle reminder of just how musical it is to be alive. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Utah Symphony’s “Dawn to Dust”

by Geoffrey Larson

It’s always tremendously exciting when we get a premiere recording of American works for orchestra, but this release has me especially enthralled. Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer present an immaculately conceived performance of works by three of our most prominent composers of the moment: Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman.

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Augusta Read Thomas’ Eos is subtitled Goddess of the Dawn, a Ballet for Orchestra, and presents a tableau of Greek gods and goddesses. It’s interesting to note her remarks in the liner notes, where she mentions her compositional process involves standing at a drafting table to connect with the feel of dance. The opening movement Dawn is immediately spellbinding. It subtly evokes Copland’s Quiet City at the outset, with its spare textures and timid groups of repeating notes, eschewing the richness of Ravel’s Dawn from Daphnis and Chloe. It doesn’t last long, however, as we are soon taken on a playful journey that is a true concerto for orchestra. Utah Symphony really wows in Augusta’s music: the way challenging runs pass through the entire orchestra with perfect precision and ensemble is truly something for the ears to behold, and the Soundmirror recording team has produced a wonderfully balanced and transparent capture of the performance for Reference Recordings.

Nico Muhly’s Control is also helpfully subtitled, and the Five Landscapes for Orchestra that he explores are all impressionistic representations of Utah’s stunning natural landscape. He mentions oblique references to Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, and I actually hear a lot of Messiaen in this music, from commanding brass chords that stand like massive pillars of rock to gamelan-like rhythms of pitched percussion. It’s a fascinating work, such a far evolution from Muhly’s earlier minimalist-influenced textures, although this DNA partially forms the rhythmic backbone of Beehive. It’s interesting that the fourth part, Petroglyph and Tobacco, reminds me of Copland’s most muscular, swashbuckling populist works; it’s portraying stone-carving, rock-painting, and a Ute song that was used when begging for tobacco, a distinctly different viewpoint than Copland’s American West.

Andrew Norman’s Switch is a percussion concerto that seems to follow in a creative line from Play, his earlier work that “explores the myriad ways musicians can play with, against, or apart from one another.” In this work, the percussionist appears to control the action of the orchestra like an insane puppeteer, which certain percussion instruments setting off licks one part of the orchestra, and so on. It never ceases to surprise, enthrall, or sound less than tremendously difficult. It’s an incredibly symphonic work that seems to be successful in a purely shock-and-awe way, a work that clearly says “look what a modern orchestra is capable of.” Haydn would have been terrified.

ALBUM REVIEW: Philip Glass and Nico Muhly ft. Angela and Jennifer Chun

by Geoffrey Larson

Angela and Jennifer Chun

The sister violin duo Angela and Jennifer Chun, originally from Seattle, have blazed new trails for the violin duo (and violin-viola duo) repertoire, commissioning new works by George Tsontakis and Osvaldo Golijov while performing existing rep ranging from Vivaldi to Martinu. Their new album presents music of Nico Muhly with the composer on the keyboards, together with music of Philip Glass, a composer with whom Nico has a close personal and musical relationship.
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The synthesized sounds of the Muhly Four Studies that open the recording add an ethereal backdrop to the motion of the two violins, and in general the four short movements are enjoyable to listen to. It’s amazing how much the synth background adds to the character of the violin duo, and the listener hears the various characters and emotions of each movement as if in suspended animation, like walking through a gallery of fossilized amber. Honest Music, and earlier Muhly, takes the duo in even more serious, occasionally dark directions. Angela and Jennifer attack this one with a fervent purposefulness, and display virtuosity with notes that occasionally leap up in high exclamations.

The Philip Glass works on the disc are arrangements, and are considerably less successful. Mad Rush was originally a piano work written for the Dalai Lama visit to New York in 1981, and In the Summer House was incidental music for a play by Jane Bowles based on a short story, originally written for violin, cello, voice, and synthesizer. Presented here solely on their own and navigating tricky arpeggios that would be no sweat on a keyboard instrument, the violin duo struggles throughout both Glass pieces. Inaccuracies of pitch and rhythm occur throughout, showcasing the difficulty of this arrangement of vignettes more than anything else.

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Glass’ music is most successful when the repetitive figures are perfectly even and metronomical, with rhythms repeating smoothly and identically. The unevenness of the duo’s playing disrupts the spell, and though the violinists mostly eschew vibrato as they strive to portray the pure simplicity of this music, moments of poor intonation are made all the more obvious. Shaky bow pressure also becomes clearly apparent in softer passages. It’s likely that this music would be much better served in its original instrumentation; it’s also likely that this duo’s performances of Bartok and Shostakovich would be more enjoyable to listen to.

Geoffrey Larson is a host on Second Inversion and is the Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas 

by Maggie Molloy

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There is a time and a place for the thousands of corny pop renditions of Christmas carols that exist in this world—but Second Inversion is not that place. In honor of the impending holidays, this week we’re highlighting a choral Christmas album with a little more spice.

Essential Voices USA’s new album “Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas” presents a lush musical tapestry of traditional Christmas favorites punctuated by fresh new holiday carols by contemporary composers Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly, and Gene Gilroy. Plus sparkling new choral arrangements of each of the Christmas classics adds a dash of new-music magic to the mix of traditional carols.

The result is a short, sweet, magical, and merry collection of Christmas carols that clocks in at just over 20 minutes. But don’t worry—your holiday guests won’t mind if you play it on repeat.

Released on Sono Luminus earlier this fall, the album showcases the talents of the acclaimed Essential Voices USA chorus conducted by Judith Clurman. Featured performers include mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, soprano Maureen McKay, pianist Tedd Firth, and harpist Stacey Shames.

Within the first minutes of the album, the choir takes us straight to the heavens with their sweet and tender rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” elegantly accompanied by Firth on piano. “O Holy Night” follows with the choir’s rich blend of voices shimmering above a delicate harp backdrop.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s voice soars with beautiful sincerity over a chorus of angels in “Silent Night,” and she sways just as gracefully over a muted piano accompaniment in the lesser-known lullaby, “The Virgin’s Slumber Song.”

Jennifer Higdon’s new composition, “Love Came Down,” comes to life with the elegant vocals of Maureen McKay, who recently sang the soprano lead in Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Her gorgeous voice soars with precision and grace, at once expressive and effortless above the delicate choral and harp accompaniment.

Nico Muhly’s choral composition, “Whispered and Revealed,” is the most experimental carol on the album, though it is no less charming than the others. The bittersweet text comes from a poem published in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled “Snow-Flakes.” Harp arpeggios embody the delicately falling snow, while rich, iridescent vocals bring a fireside warmth to the piece. The result is a shimmering musical sentiment that just might outshine the Christmas classics.

The piece is followed by Gene Gilroy’s “Merry Christmas Wishing Well,” a sweet and sincere new musical work disguised as a traditional Christmas carol. Gorgeous, lush vocal harmonies glisten above a gentle piano accompaniment, reminiscent of the caroling days of yore.

The album ends with unaccompanied choral rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” adapted by conductor Judith Clurman. It’s the icing on the cake—or rather, the sparkling star on top of the Christmas tree. Either way, the album is a Christmas essential.