Monday, November 17, 2014

Dan Locklair has people singing

Charlotte native Dan Locklair has darted all over the musical map: symphonies, chamber music (especially for brass), even a ballet and an opera. Here's a little taste of his style in an organ processional:

But he's probably best known for choral music, and a two-CD package issued by the MSR Classics label will show you why.

The longest piece on this "Tapestries" set owes its existence to Charlotte, specifically the Oratorio Singers and former director Mary Nell Saunders. "Windswept (the trees)" was dedicated to both and premiered by the Singers under guest conductor Catherine Comet 20 years ago; texts come from celebrated poet A.R. Ammons, a Whiteville native. The rest of the set ranges from Christmas motets to a brief mass. Here are some thoughts:

Even in a sacred text, Locklair's not afraid to syncopate. A "Te deum laudamus" may begin as a chant and end with a swing in its hips.

You can't always infer a composer's religion from his work -- Brahms wrote one of the great Requiems -- but a lot of this music has been set to Christian texts, almost all of them comforting.

He's not afraid of dissonance, though he never veers too far from tonality, and he writes for unusual combinations: "Windswept" uses a choir, woodwind quintet and piano. He can switch moods from drama to reflection quickly, as he does in these poems.

He's got moxie. Locklair reset the text we know as "America the Beautiful" to an ethereal wisp of a piece with only a mild climax, renaming it "For Amber Waves."

When he writes melodies, they're extended, rather than concise or catchy. "A Christmas Carol" repeats itself, as a traditional carol does from verse to verse, but it doesn't have a traditional hook.

He has a sense of humor: An inscription on a tombstone inspired his jaunty, 80-second "Epitaph."

He asks for patience. Literally so, in "Instant Culture," a piece mocking our obsessions with short-form events that deliver quick gratification. And metaphorically, in pieces that unspool slowly and require time to absorb. But then, he's a pipe smoker. I never knew a pipe smoker who rushed into anything.