Ah, another exciting and worthwhile new choral music discovery: perhaps the primary reason why I find writing for ARG so satisfying; also humbling (sometimes even intimidating), as it often falls to ARG’s reviewers to help tell the world about the music of composers whose art is not yet widely known or championed beyond their own spheres of influence. Frank La Rocca (b 1951) is apparently just such a composer: one whose music warrants a much broader audience. The usual online search revealed no commercially available recordings of his music from an established label.
La Rocca (now Professor Emeritus of Composition and Theory at California State University, East Bay) writes in many genres, but his specialty is sacred choral music. A revealing hint about the nature of his art is found in his bio: “Trained as an academic modernist during his degree studies at Yale and U.C. Berkeley, Frank La Rocca came to see this kind of modernism as a barrier to free musical expression and spent many years in search of a personal creative language.” And he has certainly found his distinct voice, “drawing upon influences as diverse as Byrd, Mahler, Stravinsky, George Crumb, and Arvo Pārt.”
To my ears, perhaps the predominant influence among these names is Pārt. La Rocca’s music is often cast in austere minimalist textures, with profuse triadic melodic progressions and harmonic structures; also frequent “pauses-for-effect,” bell-like sonorities, sustained droning, and a kind of stark, plainchant-like flow. But to dismiss him as just another wannabe “holy minimalist” would be unfair, as (judging from this music) he has achieved a wholly original artistic synthesis. Most of these pieces are rather slow and solemn, with pervasive and intensely spiritual senses of abject abasement and (frequently) penitence. He knows how to punctuate his ideas effectively with nice, “crunchy” dissonances at just the right spots of his chosen texts, often even at the conclusion of a line or phrase. The net impressions are of luminous sacred introspection, transcendental effect, and breathtaking beauty.
I won’t get into all of the pieces offered here, as they won’t be familiar to you unless you frequent La Rocca’s neck of the woods; in fact, these are all composer-authorized (and supervised) world premiere commercial recordings. It suffices to say that none of the selections failed to move and inspire me. You should know that not all of them are vocal: interspersed among the otherwise a cappella choral numbers are a quiet `Meditation’ for solo piano and In This Place (the album’s actual title): a mid-length instrumental trio performed by “Strata”, a crack ensemble consisting of violin (or viola), clarinet, and piano. Then there’s the stunning Veni Sancte Spiritus, a fairly substantial piece for solo soprano (here, the seductive and radiant-toned voice of Christine Brandes) supported by an unusual ensemble of clarinet plus Baroque strings. Among the choral pieces, I was particularly taken with the album’s ravishing setting of `O Magnum Mysterium’ and its remarkably cohesive treatment of the Latin Mass’s central Credo section.
As I’ve often commented before, one sure indication of a composer’s worth is the caliber of the performers who champion him. The artists here are uniformly excellent, including the Artists Vocal Ensemble (also called AVE): a supremely skilled, richly sonorous, and spiritually affecting choir that pleads La Rocca’s case most beautifully... Each of these pieces stands supremely well on its own; none of them failed to sustain my rapt attention, deep interest, and awe-stricken appreciation. My first start-to-finish hearing of the album put me into a kind of serene trance that, upon emerging from it at the end, left me feeling almost bereft and wondering where the time had gone. If you make it your business to keep track of the very finest contemporary sacred choral music, La Rocca is a composer you simply MUST get to know. Excellent sound and the composer’s own revealing booklet notes round out an irresistible package.