Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dzintars: Songs of Amber

This is another outstanding example of polyphonic choral singing, along with the more famed Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or the Bulgarian female choir variation, and the male Rustavi Choir from the Republic of Georgia.

In the case of the Latvian type, Dzintars, formed in 1947, performs both traditional folk music from a corpus that, according to the helpful liners, includes 1 1/2 million song texts and 30,000 melodies, as well as modern pieces.

Songs of Amber (amber is a symbol of Latvian identity and the word dzintar is the Latvian word for the fossilized pitch from the pine trees that are ubiquitous in that Baltic country) was another outstanding release from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's series of world music recordings for the Rykodisc label.  The album was co-produced by the Dead's late guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia and was recorded at the state-of-the-art, for 1990 and beyond, Skywalker Ranch, owned by Star Wars impresario George Lucas.

Traditional pieces include "Blow, Wind, Blow" and "The Sun Moves Quickly," with other tunes like "Breaking Flax" and "Christmas Masquerade" are latter-day interpolations of classic folk works.  Newer songs, described as "avant-garde" in the notes, include "Song of the Wind" and "The Tomtit's Message."  Finally, there is a sprinkling of pieces from Russian and Jewish sources.

Unlike the Bulgarian or Georgian choirs, this one is very large, including 76 singers, as well as 2 conductors, a pair of accompanists on piano and organ, two choir masters and a soloist from the state opera and ballet theatre.

Dzintars had just completed an American tour the prior year when they went to Marin County to record Songs of Amber and there is a photo, reproduced here, that shows the massive ensemble in their colorful and striking costumes at what is presumably the Skywalker complex.  Having had the privilege to see a performance of Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares at U.C.L.A. some years back, this blogger can testify to the palpable effect of both voice and costume on a live audience.  It would certainly be a concert-going highlight to see Dzintars perform if the opportunity were to come up.  One can hope.

This is breathtaking music, filled with gorgeous melodies, stunning arrangements, top-notch vocalizing and fantastic sound.  Nearly a quarter century after first hearing this amazing album, the effect has hardly diminished.  Songs of Amber is a marvel and well worth seeking out for those interested in choral music.

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