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Songs For The Soul / Malarmi Chamber Players

Moore / Malarmi Chamber Players / Freelon
Release Date: 06/08/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1190   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Undine Smith MooreAnderson, Thomas J., Jr.William BanfieldAnthony Kelley
Performer:  Nnenna Freelon
Conductor:  William Banfield
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Mallarme Chamber Players
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SONGS FOR THE SOUL: Chamber Music by African American Composers Nnenna Freelon (voice 1 ); William Banfield, cond; 1 Mallarmé Chm Players ALBANY TROY1190 (70:04)

BANFIELD 1 Soul Gone Home. MOORE Afro-American Suite. ANDERSON Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Spirit Songs. KELLEY Grist for the Mill

William Banfield’s Soul Gone Home (2001) is the most interesting piece on this disc of music devoted to mostly recent music by African-American composers. Describing it as an “opera,” as the composer does, is maybe stretching things a bit; it’s what I was brought up to call a “dramatic scena,” effectively a self contained scene, a tableau. In this case a mother kneels by the body of her recently dead son, lamenting “Oh Gawd! Oh, Lawd!,” only, to her surprise, for the dead youth to reply. There then follows a dialogue of recriminations between the mother and the dead teenager. (Son: “You never did feed me good”; Mother: “You couldn’t earn nothin’ sellin’ papers,” and so on.)

Based on a one-act play by Langston Hughes, Soul Gone Home is rescued from depression by both Banfield’s and Hughes’s willingness to be witty as well as sad, and by Banfield’s sense of timing; the music moves swiftly and surefootedly. And Banfield handles his genres—soul, jazz, blues—with great assurance to produce something entirely convincing and “of a piece.” Nnenna Freelon is as good as perfect, hitting precisely the right point between “classical” performance and jazz, slipping into speech effectively when asked. The band supports admirably, its music tellingly written, as in the tiny Interlude toward the end.

It is never clear whether the mother is hallucinating, or whether the dead son has “really” sat up and spoken. Freelon does a good job of characterizing both roles, and, while I could have wished for a little more timbral differentiation between them, I suppose that part of the point is that the mother and child are one and the same. A very successful work.

Undine Smith Moore was one of the most prominent African-American women composers of the 20th century. Her Afro-American Suite (1969) for flute, cello, and piano is made up of four short movements that present a number of spirituals and folk songs with simplicity and little development. The plainness of the arrangements does not equate with dullness and the movements do not, as reviewers used to say, outstay their welcome.

Thomas Jefferson Anderson’s Spirit Songs (1993) for cello and piano is altogether on a larger scale—the three movements run for 25 minutes. Commissioned by Yo Yo Ma, it was eventually premiered by the present artists. The writer of the booklet notes optimistically describes Anderson’s compositional style as “audaciously modern.” It isn’t. There are occasional nods to once-contemporary performance techniques, a few glissandi and col legno moments in the cello, the odd little cluster chord in the piano, but these have the feel of add-ons to the spirituals upon which this work is also based. In the second movement, “Gospels, Serenades and Vamps,” the tune sails nobly on while being decorated and occasionally required to change style. However, Charles Ives this ain’t. The composer has said that the work is “improvisational in nature,” but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like it’s trying to be improvisational, but can’t break from the bonds of European Classicism. This isn’t helped by the reluctance of the otherwise fine performers—Bonnie Thron, cello, and Thomas Warburton, piano—to give any rhythmic elasticity beyond what would be expected by the conservatory.

Moore and Anderson turn in music that seems to me to be as unidiomatic as possible. Writing for the ensembles found in European drawing rooms in the 19th century, these 20th-century black composers clearly want to celebrate their musical heritage—both works are soaked in the spirituals that are their raison d’être —but, for whatever reason, they adopt a cautious, conservative style. Anthony Kelley’s Grist for the Mill (2005) for flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion is a Mallarmé commission. It takes its inspiration from the workings of early corn mills and the mechanisms therein. Witty and apparently not containing any spirituals, it too receives a somewhat straightlaced performance. All the composers here are served by clearly committed performances, well recorded. Soul Gone Home is well worth going out of your way to hear.

FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
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Works on This Recording

Afro-American Suite by Undine Smith Moore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Mallarme Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Spirit Songs by Anderson, Thomas J., Jr.
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Mallarme Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Soul Gone Home by William Banfield
Performer:  Nnenna Freelon (Voice)
Conductor:  William Banfield
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Mallarme Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Grist for the Mill by Anthony Kelley
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Mallarme Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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