Mark N. Grant: Inching Through The Sunsplendid Dust

Release Date: 5/8/2012
Label: Albany
Catalog Number: 1347
Composer: Mark N. Grant
Conductor: Paul Hostetter
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews

GRANT Auto de fé. Alba. Bird of Paradise. The Book of Illuminations Carol Wilson, Sharla Nafziger, Elizabeth Farnum (sop); Paul Hostetter, cond; Jorge Caballero (gtr); Lydia Kavina (theremin); Stephen Gosling (pn) ALBANY 1347 (72:22 Text and Translation)

Albany’s track record in issuing worthwhile CDs is almost good enough that I would simply have to list the headnote and say, “Here’s their latest—go out and buy it!” This disc devoted to the music of Mark N. Grant is no exception to Albany’s string of successes. The writer of the notes refers to the difficulty that today’s composers have in straddling the worlds of the traditional and the modern, attempting to keep up with the latest compositional trends and fashions, not knowing where they will be five or 10 years in the future. In my judgment, the most successful composers, assuming that some modicum of talent resides within their breast, write the music they want to write, without worrying too much about what’s currently in. This seems to be Grant’s approach, and as a result his music, while conservative with modern elements, is distinctly his.

Grant was born in New York City into a family of professional actors, and took up piano studies at an early age. He studied piano and theory at Eastman School of Music, and then composition with Gail Kubik and Meyer Kupferman. In 2006, he received the Friedheim Award, its first recipient since 1993. Beyond his classical works, Grant has written numerous works for the musical theater, often setting his own libretti.

His Auto da fé is a monodrama for soprano and chamber ensemble of nine players, setting a love poem of Ilsa Gilbert. One might wonder what her love poem, A Day Alone, has to do with the term in its historical sense of the burning of a heretic, but the composer explains that the language and intensity of her 1953 poem evoked a dramatic and musical scenario requiring much more than a setting along the lines of a conventional art song. The separation of the lovers described in the poem was regarded by them as torture or even death. The musical language is ambiguously tonal, and its composer does a skillful job in capturing the drama of the text. The mood is dark throughout, and the torture felt by the protagonists is largely kept under the surface, although there are not infrequent outbursts from the soprano, Carol Wilson, whose rich, dusky voice seems perfectly suited to the work. The tonal ambiguity occasionally gives way to more tonal definition, according to the text’s demands.

Alba: The Lover’s Departure at Dawn is a work for solo guitar. The term alba is a medieval one, referring to a song that is midway (that is, in the middle of the night) between a nocturne and an aubade. It’s meant as just the sort of song that a lover might sing in the wee hours, just before he makes his escape after his tryst. The piece is largely subdued, both in its volume and the nature of the dissonances employed by the composer, although it does build up to a dramatic climax. Alba is played with refinement by guitarist Jorge Caballero.

Bird of Paradise is a work for theremin, probably the most enduring of all electronic instruments. It is a fascinating instrument. If you’ve never seen one played, go to YouTube and search under Clara Rockmore, and you’ll find some videos. There is even one showing its inventor, Léon Theremin, performing. The theremin is the only instrument that is played without touching it (excepting perhaps John Cage’s piano in 4’33” ). In this case, the thereminist is Lydia Kavina, whose grandfather was actually a cousin of Theremin. Her execution of this work is extremely impressive, given its quick staccato runs, particularly difficult to execute on this instrument. At the time of its composition (1997), this was one of the first extended solo theremin works, although the instrument’s repertory has been considerably expanded in the intervening years. Its title refers to the family of birds, and not the beautiful flower that is ubiquitous in south Florida where I grew up.

There cannot be too many song cycles that specify two sopranos, neither of which sings with the other during the course of the entire work, but The Book of Illuminations is one such. The five poems set are drawn from C. M. Silver’s anthology of 28 poems under the same title. Each of them the composer has set to climax in an ecstatic vertical ascent, as if each piece were both a lyric poem and an expression of devotion. Two sopranos of different range and timbre are used in order to heighten the drama, and the device is an effective one. Sharla Nafziger is the light lyric soprano, and is given the outer songs (“The Angel,” “The Hunt,” and “The Tree”), while her counterpart Elizabeth Farnum is a full lyric soprano, who sings “The Statue” and “The Serpent,” the two longest songs in the cycle. Both singers do a fine job, but Farnam’s slight wobble propels me into a slight preference for Nafziger’s voice.

This CD will appeal especially to those whose tastes run toward the darker, more somber side of classical music. If you’re expecting the wit and insouciance of a Jean Françaix, it would be best to look elsewhere, but those whose velleity is music of soul-searching profundity will find ample rewards. What was I saying at the beginning of the review? Oh yes: Go out and buy it!

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Works on This Recording
1. Auto da fé by Mark N. Grant
Performer: Barbara Allen (Percussion), Jennifer Ahn (Violin), Julia Koo (Violin), Markia Hughes (Cello), Céline Gay Des Combes (Harp ), Carol Wilson (Soprano), Elizabeth Rodgers (Piano), David Hopkins (Clarinet), Judy Hirschman (Percussion), Virgil Blackwell (Bass Clarinet)
Conductor: Paul Hostetter
Period: 20th/21st Centuries
2. Alba: The Lover's Departure at Dawn by Mark N. Grant
Performer: Jorge Caballero (Guitar)
Period: 20th/21st Centuries
3. Bird of Paradise by Mark N. Grant
Performer: Lydia Kavina (Theremin)
Period: 20th/21st Centuries
4. The Book of Illuminations by Mark N. Grant
Performer: Sharla Nafziger (Soprano), Elizabeth Farnum (Soprano), Stephen Gosling (Piano)
Period: 20th/21st Centuries
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