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“Songs for Our Times”, In Review: The days of turbulent living

Mordents Magazine reviews “Songs for Our Times”, an album release by poet Chinwe D. John and composers Stuart MacRae and Bernard Hughes.

The challenges facing the classical music world, and the perceived need for a larger supporting audience, were the driving force behind the latest project from Chinwe D. John. “Songs for Our Times”, represents the unique response of this Nigerian-American physician and poet.

The album of art songs, released in October 2023, as the liner notes highlight, was created as a dedicated effort towards preserving and promoting classical music – singling out declining audience interest as its primary challenge. 

While there may be disagreements over the perception of shrinking classical music audiences and questions about the impact a single album can have on such large-scale issues, this release reflects a genuine desire to create something meaningful – responding first to a need felt deeply by the author.

“Songs of Our Times” consists of two song cycles, Kingdoms and Metropolis, set to music by Stuart MacRae and Bernard Hughes, respectively. John’s poems, upon which the song cycles are based, predominantly discuss contemporary political and socio-economic issues — a marked departure from the typical themes associated with 19th-century art song. 

songs for our times album review

These are the days of turbulent living…

The Kingdoms song cycle is marked by a measured tone, and Stuart MacRae’s subdued piano score largely serves as a glittery, arpeggio-ed ornament to the voice and the lyrics – however, this does not mean there are no moments of simple musical beauty here. 

With a skillfully restrained touch by pianist Christopher Glynn, the transparent piano textures that make up much of the score are almost filigree-like. A reflective atmosphere dominates throughout the cycle, with tenor Nick Pritchard’s dulcet timbre gently carrying John’s contemplative lyrics, which illustrate challenging aspects and experiences of modern-day life: the sense of isolation, emotional responses to global turbulence, the value of community in hardship.

Excuse me if I seem wary and worn, this cycle’s already played out before… 

The inner thematic tissue of Metropolis is woven less tightly. The seven songs that make up this cycle address issues such as global wars, the opioid pandemic, and the experiences of immigrants, but also deal with softer themes of romantic love, based both in reality and fantasy.

Bernard Hughes’s score, similarly to MacRae’s work, mostly serves the lyrics. However, the piano is given a somewhat larger presence, becoming notably more animated and playful in the third song of the cycle, “Call Home”, the warm and jubilant nostalgia of which also makes it one of the album standouts in general.

Soprano Isabelle Halle is completely at ease with the material of Metropolis, prioritizing clarity over expressive excess, yet still creating an emotional, intimate space with her performance. 

Despite the troubled tone that much of “Songs for Our Times” carries, Metropolis ends on a hopeful note with “The River’s Course”, and energetic rhythms evoke jazz and folk idioms otherwise largely absent from the music:

Intended as a poignant response to the challenges faced by classical musicians in current times, “Songs for Our Times” is first and foremost a testament to determination: by the lyrics’ author Chinwe D. John, by the musicians and composers readily responding to her outreach to create this album, and lastly, by the album’s publisher “Divine Art Recording”, the artist-led publishing house dedicated to championing rare and unique works, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2023. 

This release is in every way true to the layered effort that lies behind creating it, and as such, serves as an achingly sincere contribution to the contemporary art song canon.

“Songs for Our Times” is available for purchase in both digital and physical format at Subscribe to Chinwe’s YouTube channel.

Born in California, Chinwe D. John is a Nigerian-American physician and poet/lyricist, whose previous work includes: A book of narrative poetry Tales of Fantasy and Reality, EP Within a Certain Time and Place, released under the Voces8 label in 2022, and the new album Songs for Our Times released in October 2023, to positive reviews under the Divine Arts Record label.

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