Gramophone Reviews Excelsior


by Donald Rosenberg

Fifth House Ensemble is a group of young Chicagobased musicians who have a flair for inventive programming. Their newest disc, ‘Excelsior’, shows how devoted they are to living composers, with three world-premiere recordings sharing the bill with Mason Bates’s Red River. All of the pieces contain bursts of colour within narratives revolving around natural phenomena.

The Bates score, from 2007, paints five portraits related to the Colorado River, whose twists and turns mingle with evocations of local people and wonders. The composer creates illuminating and animated episodes, some peppered by snazzy electronic elements. Bates has a gift for balancing exuberance with stillness, and for deftly weaving clarinet, violin, cello and piano with contemporary sounds.

The disc’s other extended work is the eponymous Excelsior, Caleb Burhans’ haunting depiction of a free fall from plane to earth. Somehow, the music hovers in air, the instruments conjuring the aura of a downward journey in minimalist gestures that merge with a soprano singing a surreal text by John Coletti.

Alex Shapiro creates flickers of sound amid lyricism in Perpetual Spark, a concise dazzler for sextet. In Jesse Limbacher’s exhilarating Air, a trio playing oboe, clarinet and bassoon use their breath and assorted instrumental techniques, including key clicks, to explore the many meanings of the work’s title.

The members of 5HE, as they call themselves for short, give each piece vivid treatment. Everything is freshly considered and shaped with expressive finesse. In Excelsior, soprano Martha Cluver renders the text with ethereal beauty.

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