Thursday, September 18, 2008

Singability and Sensibility: The Music of Kevin Allen

This past summer at the CMAA's Colloquium at Loyola University in Chicago, Wilko Brouwers, conductor of the Monteverdi Choir of Holland, led a reading session of some of the works of Chicago composer Kevin Allen. Those of us who attended were highly impressed.

"Why aren't you famous?" I asked this unknown composer halfway through the session. Indeed, Allen's music represents an auspicious combination of innovation, respect for tradition, and singability. The harmonies are advanced, but the individual lines are melodic. At a glance, one can see that these pieces are obviously the work of a modern composer, but in listening, one hears the not-so-faint echoes of Palestrina and Byrd. Genius and common sense all in the same corpus of work! This combination is rare.

On that day in Chicago, we read through three of Mr. Allen's motets: O Cor Jesu, an introverted, gently lilting piece of something of a devotional character which yet maintains every standard of good taste; Tantum Ergo, which, if I recall correctly, he wrote one lonesome Thanksgiving and which has a correspondingly golden autumnal timbre; and finally O Sacrum Convivium,
probably the best of the three, which begins in a quasi Arvo Part style which is utterly transformed by Allen's gift of beautiful melody and which concludes with a soaring Alleluia fit not only for worship but indeed for the angels themselves. This last piece I hope to include in our parish Mass next month for the closing of Forty Hours.

At the new music reading at the end of the colloquium, we read through two more of Allen's pieces, Hodie Christus natus est and Vidimus stellam. These are some of the most colorful Christmas motets written since the time of Francis Poulenc. Here is a very rough, site-read performance (please keep this in mind!) of the Hodie.

Allen's work is not restricted to the choral idiom. I have in front of me his Twelve Gregorian Preludes, which I obtained in Chicago and perused on the plane back to Philadelphia. I could hardly wait to get on the ground and hear what these things sounded like. In this collection, Allen has set Adoro te devote, Vexilla Regis, Divinum mysterium, Pange lingua, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Veni Creator, Ave verum corpus, Regina caeli, Salve regina, Per omnia saecula saeculorum, Ubi caritas, and Victimae Paschali.

The scope of these selections, in addition to their quality, recommends this book as one of those which should remain on the organist's desk throughout the year. The Pange lingua is, in certain respects, reminiscent of Naji Hakim. Per omnia saecula saeculorum is a daring work, more difficult than it looks on paper, one in which the organist can easily be baited into a much faster tempo than might be practical for the ending. (Please don't ask me how I learned this lesson.) These pieces are, generally, of moderate difficulty, not sight-readable for most but perfectly playable for those who have obtained the proper technique of organ playing.

These aforementioned works are only a small portion of Kevin Allen's output. We are seeing here only the beginnings of a hidden treasure, a treasure that will lend clarity, credibility, and, most importantly, beauty to the contemporary church music scene. To order Allen's music, visit his website.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: