Notes and Editorial Reviews
NEW AMERICAN MASTERS, VOL. 4
Palisades Virtuosi; Marni Nixon (nar)
ALBANY 1339 (76:26)
Birding in the Palisades
The main links between the seven composers whose music is heard on this CD seem to be that each of them writes in a freely tonal style, and each was commissioned by the Palisades Virtuosi. The ensemble—flutist Margaret Swinchoski, clarinetist Donald Mokrynski, and pianist Ron Levy—has been busy commissioning works. Indeed, this CD is billed as Volume 4. Marni Nixon, known previously to me only as a singer—and a very fine one—joins the group in the two pieces that call for a narrator.
Joseph Turrin, whose
opens the disc, is a graduate of the Eastman and Manhattan schools of music, and currently teaches at Hartt School and Montclair State University. He has been widely commissioned and performed by numerous orchestras and other ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic.
is a five-movement work, the three inner movements of which each features one of the three instruments in the ensemble. The outer movements form a sort of chiasm with musically related material using all three instruments. The work is spun out from short melodic and rhythmic motifs that grow into larger themes and sections. The tonal structure of the work resides within the ambit of mild dissonance and chromaticism, and the piece very effectively explores a range of moods and textures, which include an undulating line in the piano that carries the two woodwinds on its surface like a ship on the wave-tossed sea.
Pulitzer Prize winner Melinda Wagner received her compositional training from the universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, and has taught at a number of institutions including the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. Her
, named after the notion in her mind as a child of a crescent moon being the thumbnail of God, is a sort of sleepy lullaby in miniature, painting with pastel colors and fading away on a repeated tone, as if the piece is nodding off. In its three-minute duration, it is indeed nodding, but nice. (Pun definitely intended, in case you wondered.)
Ryan Anthony Francis is a young (b.1981) American composer from Portland, Oregon. His training was at the University of Michigan, and his
has been performed by the American Composers Orchestra. Francis’s starting point for his trio was the
Gretchen am Spinnrad
of Schubert. Around that germ of an idea, Francis has produced a work in which the melodic material is more or less expansive rather than motivically compact. The piece is characterized by a mostly unbroken flow of 16th notes in one part (most often the piano) or the other, quite reminiscent in that respect of
These (generally) staccato notes are often accompanied by sustained tones in another of the instruments. The piece is cheerful and upbeat throughout its duration, but winds down at its conclusion.
Each movement of Gwyneth Walker’s
is preceded by a poem read by Nixon: The first movement by Whitman’s
Song of the Open Road,
the second by Wendell Berry’s
The Peace of Wild Things,
and the final movement by his
Not by Your Will.
In between come the musical movements by Walker, who holds degrees from Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. Her
is a celebration of life from the humanist perspective. According to the notes, the poems are optional, but I enjoy hearing them interposed between the musical movements. Walker’s style is very melodic and tonal, not intended (I think) to plumb the depths of profundity, but to sooth and relax the listener. She doesn’t stray very far from the tonal centers of each movement, but I was surprised in the last movement to hear the wind players whispering something that sounded like “cha-cha” over the piano.
Sunbin Kim has studied at Mannes College and the Juilliard School, and is apparently working (as of the writing of the notes) at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, where he augments his studies in music with physics. The title of his
comes from the opening flourish in the flute, which generates the remainder of the work. The style of this piece forms a marked contrast from that of the Walker work that immediately precedes it, but it may still be characterized as being somewhat freely tonal. It uses more special effects (for example, flutter-tonguing and blowing through the instrument in the flute, and inside-the-piano techniques) than do the other works on the disc. The composer has intended that each instrument in the mix fill a “niche”—the flute with its quick, bright flourishes, the clarinet with its darker, more pensive tones, and the piano in its ability to produce chords. The three instruments go their own ways in this regard until they reach a climax near the end of the work in one nebulous sonority.
Matthew Halper is on the music faculty at Kean College, having obtained degrees from the University of Maryland (D.M.A.) and New Jersey Institute of Technology (a B.S. in electrical engineering and an M.S. in mathematics, while also gaining an M.A. there in composition and theory—busy fellow, he). His one-movement trio’s solemn opening material, first in piano, and then a duet between clarinet and flute, generates the entire work. Halper states that this work, sketched in Venice, was inspired by the quietude and mystique that resides in the region. (As an aside, I can testify that such a thing is not to be found in every part of Italy. Readers who have found themselves in Milan during rush hour will know what I mean.) Despite the “quietude and mystique,” the piece builds up to a rather intense climax characterized by quickly moving lines in the two winds, underscored by disjointed rhythms in the piano. Eventually, everything does wind down to a quiet conclusion.
Amanda Harberg hails from Philadelphia, and studied at Juilliard. She has been widely commissioned and performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. Like
Birding in the Palisades
introduces each of its three movements with narration by Marni Nixon. Also like
the present work is quite tonally centered, albeit with a few more chords of extended tonality, and even occasional clusters. Its first movement, “Eagles’ Flight,” describes a dance in a tall pine tree between two eagles, who are suddenly set into flight by a gust of wind. “The Kingfisher and the Fish” depicts a pond (the piano) inhabited by a fish (the clarinet) swimming about oblivious to the fluttering bird (the flute) above him looking for his lunch. The final movement, “The Crows of Tokyo (PV Takes a Field Trip),” portrays nature out of balance, in the murder of aggressive crows (yes, “murder” is the collective noun for crows) that afflict the denizens of that megalopolis. There is more dissonance in this movement, obviously intended to portray the aggressive nature of the crows, which had the temerity to attack even the mayor of Tokyo. This led to efforts that succeeded in eradicating tens of thousands of them. The middle of the movement sees the flute replaced by a piccolo, intended to suggest the wisdom imparted by crows according to Native American belief.
This is an enjoyable recital, both in the music and performances. The stylistic variety of the seven composers helps compensate for the sameness of timbre throughout the disc. There are at least two audible splices in the CD, but not blatant enough to mar the flow of the music. My favorite works are probably those by Turrin and Harberg, in part because of the imagination demonstrated by their composers, but every work provides considerable enjoyment. Recommended to those who enjoy well-written woodwind music, and to others interested in exploring worthwhile music by American composers who are not yet household names.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Works on This Recording
Statements by Joseph Turrin
Thumbnail Moon by Melinda Wagner
Trio by Ryan Francis
Full Circle by Gwyneth Walker
Whirlwind by Sunbin Kim
Trio by Matthew Halper
Birding in the Palisades by Amanda Harberg
Marni Nixon (Spoken Vocals)
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