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Drive American / Heidi Louise Williams

Release Date: 10/11/2011 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1298  
Composer:  John AdamsJoan TowerDaniel CrozierChen Yi,   ... 
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DRIVE AMERICAN Heidi Louise Williams (pn) ALBANY 1298 (78:20)

ADAMS American Berserk. TOWER No Longer Very Clear. CROZIER Winter Aubade. YI Ba Ban. READ THOMAS Traces. BOLCOM 12 Read more New Etudes: 3 selections

Here’s something you don’t get every day: an album of contemporary music that is fun. OK, that’s a bit facetious, but the music here is certainly more rollicking than is usual. Things start off with John Adams’s delightfully manic American Berserk , a contemporary toccata, I would say. The composer himself calls it bipolar music. The energy is bursting at the seams in this tour de force , but Joan Tower’s music is barely less vivacious, although the character of the material is darker, lacking the echoes of whimsy that Adams dials in. Her music comes across as having more dramatic gravity, delivered with her characteristically gutsy and colorful voice. The two works strike a compelling contrast.

Winter Aubade , from the pen of Daniel Crozier, is the restful interlude at the center of this program, a kind of slow movement in this driving American clutch of music. It is a very beautiful work, constructed of lush, even exotic harmonies that recall Debussy. Just when I began to sense that the music was going on too long (it runs just shy of 12 minutes in this performance), my imagination was re-engaged by the dreamy serenity of the writing. I have not heard Crozier’s music before this, but welcome the opportunity to hear more.

Ba Ban brings our ears brusquely back to high energy, with a brilliant opening motif that seems to sound out the name of the piece. Chinese born Chen Yi, now a professor at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, employs many traditional Asian techniques and folk idioms in this work, including whole-note harmonic progressions, but the effect is very fresh, bristling with modern energy.

Augusta Read Thomas has written a clever pastiche of cross-influences, five short pieces that ponder such encounters as “like Stravinsky crossed with Chopin and Thelonious Monk.” Of course, her own influence is equally important, essential in a basic sense, as she brings a refined humor and wise insight to the work of musicians she obviously loves. The whole thing kind of sounds like music heard in a dream, and then quickly jotted down in the composer’s earliest waking moments.

William Bolcom’s 12 New Etudes , from 1988, may well become a contemporary staple. This is remarkable music, superbly constructed and accessible without being in any way pandering, a model of successful contemporary writing. The last piece on the program, Hymne à l’amour , is without doubt a masterpiece, a deeply moving tribute to the work’s dedicatee, Paul Jacobs. The music has a profundity, and a pulsating expressiveness, that is simply hypnotic.

Everything here is delivered with bold yet thoughtful playing by Heidi Louise Williams, a superb young American pianist and Peabody Conservatory grad. This is a terrific presentation of music by living composers, an unabashed pleasure to listen to, but also provocative and stimulating.

FANFARE: Peter Burwasser


Drive American, a recital of American keyboard music, spans nearly 25 years of American piano music. These works are played with insight and understanding by pianist Heidi Louise Williams.

Among the highlights are American Berserk by John Adams, (the composer tells us the title comes from a phrase used by novelist Philip Roth.) The piece sounds like an exuberant cousin of Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music, and Ragtime of 1918, that is to say, a Cubist jazzy piece that rushes and jumps all over the page in what Adams described as “bipolar shifts of mood and tempo.” It is great fun on the ears and Ms. Williams plays it with an appealing forward momentum.

Joan Tower’s No Longer Very Clear is a collection of four pieces written at different times. This is music that impresses on repeated hearings. The pieces at first have cryptic titles but the music, subtle on melody but high on motion and rhythm, becomes more rewarding as you listen. The first piece, Holding a Daisy, is inspired by a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and opens musically in a colorful way but without melodic sentiment. The second, titled Or like a…an Engine, is dedicated to pianist Ursula Oppens for the 50th anniversary of radio station WNYC-FM. Here the music picks up speed with motorized rhythms. Vast Antique Cubes attempts to create a vast space and gradual ascent as a structural element giving the pianist a chance to play in legato and the longest piece, Throbbing Still, is more elaborate, and perhaps more personal in its meaning. Here Joan Tower, without obvious allusions to other composers recalls the influences she grew up with in South America including Inca rhythms and the works of Stravinsky.

At a little over 11 minutes, Winter Aubade by Daniel Crozier is the longest single piece on the album and the toughest nut to crack, though it is not a particularly loud or forceful piece and it is graced with a poetic atmosphere that draws you in. The piece was written specifically for Heidi Louise Williams. This morning song explores what the composer has termed "fairy-tale" music of a "fantastic" sort. Telling a story through well-delineated themes that are heard at the start and moving through many transformations. There is no specific story or program but the overall mood is poetic and introspective. It is quite gratifying that new American music such as this is being written, well performed and recorded.

Ba Ban by Chen Yi, based on a Chinese folk melody also brought to mind Stravinsky, particularly the mechanical bird music from Song of the Nightingale as well as the splashier portions of Firebird and some of Ravel as well. But that is only a superficial coloristic impression. Subtle motives emerge and repeated brief gestures eventually give this piece an appealing charm.

Two other composers on this disc are Augusta Read Thomas, whose five movement suite titled Traces (composed in 2007) is most enjoyable and William Bolcom, with three selections from 12 New Etudes, Book IV. The Thomas pieces are quite clever, such as Reverie, subtitled Like Robert Schumann (The Poet Speaks) crossed with George Crumb. That is exactly what you get. A tiny, gentle, quite, minimalist and fragmented essence of Schumann’s poetic piece. The second piece, Caprice – Like Scarlatti’s Baroque Ornamentation crossed with Art Tatum, attempts to combine these elements. The other titles are Tango – Like Astor Piazolla crossed with John Coltrane, Impromptu – Like Stravinsky crossed with Chopin and Thelonious Mink and Toccata – Like J.S. Bach crossed with BeBop. This music is not however witty or light, nor does it cleverly shift from one obvious stylistic allusion to another. Instead, it is written and played throughout with a seriously straight face.

Bolcom’s three Etudes were written in memory of the great Paul Jacobs and I can’t help feeling on listening that Williams plays them with the same sensitivity and beauty that Jacobs would have brought to them. This album is highly recommended to anyone who loves to explore and discover important new music for the piano.

- Greg La Traille, ArkivMusic.com
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Works on This Recording

American Berserk by John Adams
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2001; USA 
No Longer Very Clear by Joan Tower
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Winter Aubade by Daniel Crozier
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams (Piano)
Ba Ban by Chen Yi
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams (Piano)
New Etudes (12) for Piano, Book IV by William Bolcom
Performer:  Heidi Louise Williams (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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