COOMAN: SACRED CHORAL MUSIC • Rupert Gough, cond; Choir of Royal Holloway, University of London; Samuel Rathbone (org) • NAXOS 8.559361 (79:36)

Adam Lay Ybounden. In the Beginning Was the Word. A Cosmic Prayer. New World Carols: An American Christmas Triptych. Builders for Christ. O Perfect Life of Love. Premat Mundus. The Way, the Truth, the Life. God, You Move Among Us. Easter Triumph! Easter Joy! Missa Brevis (“Trottier”). I Will Pour Out My Spirit. Be Present, Holy Trinity. O Bone Jesu. Psalm 66. The Lamp of Charity. Prayer of Julian of Norwich. Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

This is the third CD released by Naxos during recent months to be devoted to the music of Carson Cooman. The first (reviewed by Robert Carl in Fanfare 31:3) showcased orchestral and chamber works; the second, music for piano solo. This one is devoted Cooman’s sacred choral music, which comprises approximately half of his output. These pieces are eminently practical, and well within the grasp of amateur choristers, with whose strengths and limitations the composer is intimately familiar. All were responses to commissions, but most have been performed repeatedly. They are tonal or modal, with harmony that is largely consonant, and rhythms that are generally straightforward, though often energized by lively syncopations, while contrapuntal demands are minimal. Many of the texts are traditional and biblical, while some are taken from religious poetry, past and present. It is remarkable how rich an expressive palette is possible within such a circumscribed idiom. 

This selection of Cooman’s work represents the “tip of an iceberg,” as practical repertoire for church choirs constitutes a huge segment of contemporary musical composition. Although many of its leading figures are barely known to the general public, a few names—notably John Rutter and Morten Lauridsen—have pushed through and attracted broader attention. Cooman’s choral music falls into this category, although his sensibility strikes me as somewhat less obvious and more reserved than theirs. His pieces tend to exude a sense of fervent, innocent joy, reverence, and awe, always rendered with the best of taste. Emotional extremes and histrionic excesses are avoided. In fact, what I miss in this music is just that sort of excess, some indication of the composer’s having taken expressive risks, of his daring to proclaim his own individuality. But that reaction probably betrays my own aesthetic perspective, which resides largely outside the world of religious music.

The performances heard on this recording are beautifully and meticulously shaped, making the best possible impression for the music. Although an English choir is featured, with the idiosyncrasies of that musical sub-culture clearly evident, Cooman is very much an American composer, who sees himself as contributing to a national tradition. In light of the music’s somewhat limited expressive range, the generously filled CD is probably best enjoyed in smaller doses.

But, as noted earlier, sacred choral music represents only one portion of Cooman’s creative work: He has also written operas, symphonies, and other orchestral and chamber music. The musical language of much of his instrumental work is atonal and highly dissonant, often drawing freely upon serial procedures. But that hasn’t prevented it from winning acceptance: As with his choral pieces, most of his instrumental works have resulted from commissions and many have been accorded multiple performances. Cooman is a rather prolific composer; note that the pieces on this disc range from Op. 161, composed in 1999, to Op. 683, composed in 2006. Of course, many are quite short; after all, this release alone accounts for 18 opus numbers.

But composition itself represents only one aspect of Cooman’s musical activity. He has a voracious interest in and appetite for the music of the past hundred years, and proclaims equivalent admiration for the works of both Howard Hanson and Charles Wuorinen. He is also a professional organist, giving recitals devoted exclusively to works of the 20th and 21st centuries composed by others. Indeed, more than 120 new works have been written specifically for him to perform. He also manages and promotes the careers of other composers, edits a publication called Living Music Journal, and produces recordings that have been released by a number of different companies, including Zimbel—his own label. And I understand that he is soon to join Fanfare’s staff of critics. Did I mention that this year he reaches the age of 26?

A summary of Cooman’s activities may create the impression of intense personal ambition, as if he is something of an “operator.” But his ambition does not appear to have a competitive, “zero-sum” quality; rather, his enthusiasm seems to be rather ingenuous—even self-effacing—fueled by tremendous energy and intelligence, insatiable interest, and inexhaustible musical knowledge. I look forward to following the career of this remarkable young man.