HARBACH The Soul of Ra.1,2 Freeing the Caged Bird.2 Transformations.1,2 Echoes from Tomorrow.4 K. CHOPIN Lilia Polka (arr. Harbach)3 • Kirk Trevor, cond;1 Bratislava CO;2Read more Bratislava Ww Qnt;3 Ens Istropolis4 • MSR 1255 (69:41)
Barbara Harbach identifies herself as “an American voice,” and that capsule description holds true for most of the music here. Without access to a score, I won’t try to explain how her melodic and harmonic tendencies could be construed as American except to refer to her appreciation of folk music and a superficial resemblance to Copland and others of similar bent. Transformations for string orchestra—inspired by Making an American Citizen, a silent film directed by Alice Guy Blanche in 1912—exemplifies her approach to our national idiom. The opening “Pastorale” is lyrical, perhaps emphasizing the gentler side of a bucolic early America. There’s a transition to a rhythmically pronounced or dance-like theme before the movement subsides. “Towards Liberty” is more assertive, but optimistic strains are followed by “Restrain,” in which dramatic intensity and darker harmony imply struggle, no doubt correlated to episodes in the film. “Commandment” combines the lyrical “Pastorale” element and the striving implicit in “Towards Liberty.” All told, the eight movements continue in the same vein as these first four, encapsulating, in the composer’s words, “moods . . . from nostalgia to agitation to resolution.” It’s not uncommon for composers of film scores to compile suites to allow their music to be heard in the concert hall—Harbach has done so herself in Echoes from Tomorrow for chamber orchestra, adapting material she wrote for another silent film, Simon Judit—so, reversing that procedure, I suspect Harbach’s music would provide a moving and meaningful accompaniment for Making an American Citizen. Echoes, compared to Transformations, shows the same hand at work, insofar as the melodies and harmonies sound familiar, but the instrumental color is more diverse, as it’s scored for piano, winds, and solo strings (violin, viola, cello). There also seems to be more interplay among the instruments. The opening movement, intended to portray “the joy and exuberance of young love,” pulses with buoyant “Anticipation.” The spare violin and piano that begin “Changes” introduce a vaguely anxious motif that alternates with happier, dance-like episodes and a sweetly nostalgic violin solo—the fluctuating form is no doubt an attempt to convey the central character’s confusion and sorrow in the midst of life-changing circumstances. While sometimes bittersweet, the music doesn’t dwell on the film’s tragedy. Harbach, as her notes reveal, is more interested in the central character’s psychological evolution, and she finds hope even in a darkly oppressive story. “Transitions” alternates between major and minor and between themes implying struggle as well as cheerfulness, while “Remembrances” is reflective, sad perhaps but not somber—the price of hard-won wisdom? Harbach’s wind quintet, Freeing the Caged Bird, opens with a jaunty theme that could be heard as an introductory fanfare. Each of the four movements is named for the literary woman who inspired it: “Maya Angelou,” “Sara Teasdale,” “Kate Chopin,” and “Emily Hahn.” Teasdale’s adagio follows Angelou’s allegro, with Chopin and Hahn’s flowing allegrettos comprising the last two movements. Hahn is a trifle spicier than Chopin is, but also partakes of Harbach’s considerable lyricism (I only use the Italian terms as a convenient reference for readers as such tempo indications aren’t listed on the CD). The quintet’s prevailing mood is sunny, even though the subjects’ lives were hardly free from struggle, depression, or opprobrium. Although I fundamentally agree with Harbach that she’s immediately recognizable as an American composer, oddly enough, I thought of Mahler when I heard Soul of Ra’s second subject; it’s “a soaring melody of hope and heart’s ease” that closely follows an elegy, “In Memoriam,” intended to honor “all our lost love, loved ones and the many war dead.” Soul of Ra’s energetic second movement, “Phoenix Rising,” “personifies the indomitable human spirit that transcends loss and this world’s suffering.” The composer symbolically repeats themes from the first movement to stress that even “Amidst our joy there is always a reminder of ‘In Memoriam’ and the gentle ache of remembrances past.” The final track, Harbach’s delightful transcription for wind quintet of Kate Chopin’s Lilia Polka for piano, provides a whiff of ragtime and 19th-century Americana to end the CD. Conductor Kirk Trevor, the Bratislava Woodwind Quintet, the Bratislava Chamber Orchestra, and the Ensemble Istropolis play Harbach’s music in direct, communicative ways that never compromise the music’s integrity with uncalled-for tempo alterations or interpretive distortion of any kind. This is a fine disc of appealing music by a talented composer.