Songs America Loves to Sing -- Old and New Music for Winds, Strings,
MOZART: Trio in E-flat, K. 498 'Kegelstatt.' DELLO JOIO: Trio for
flute, cello, and piano (1944). BUNCH: Slow Dance (1996). HARBISON: Songs
America Loves to Sing (2004).
Atlanta Chamber Players
MSR MS1190 (B) (DDD) TT: 72:47
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Lovely. For me, chamber music comes in two flavors: the vessel of confession
and spiritual journey; an excuse for people to get together and make
music. I don't rate one over the other, any more than I value lemon
chocolate. Each has its own virtues and strength, and there's no aesthetic
law that says a "spiritual" score can't have moments of guiltless
enjoyment (Schubert's cello quintet, for example) or a "sociable" one
can't occasionally touch the deeps (like Haydn's "Lark" string
quartet). The music here falls mainly into the latter category.
Mozart's "Kegelstatt" trio for violin (or clarinet), viola, and
piano shows the composer in an "unbuttoned" mood. He wrote it
for a bunch of his friends who used to meet regularly. "Kegelstatt" means "ninepins
(or skittles) alley," and the story, almost surely apocryphal, goes
that Mozart wrote the work drinking beer while waiting his turns at skittles.
The title page suggests that a clarinet can replace the violin, and since
Mozart had by that time made the acquaintance of the clarinet virtuoso
Anton Stadler (he also got the clarinet concerto), the Atlanta Chamber
Players choose to perform it that way. I must say that the clarinet adds
a wonderful color to the music, much nicer and more suitable than a homogeneous
string sound. The score may not represent Mozart at his most profound,
but it has the virtues of tunefulness, energy, and wit. Mozart also throws
in a few squibs along the way to shake things up. The central minuet, for
example, plays with the barline at odd moments, enough to throw off anybody
foolish enough to dance to it. The "Rondeau" finale eradicates
distinctions between theme and episodes, since many of the episodes partake
of elements of the theme. All in all, I love this little work.
American composer Norman Dello Joio, once regarded as a future hope of
American music, has mostly dipped beneath notice since the late Fifties,
in the wake of the post-Webernian serialists, chance composers, and minimalists.
Dello Joio studied most notably with Paul Hindemith, although he found
an original voice which signaled his maturity. What he kept from Hindemith
were solid counterpoint and structural clarity. However, he added a personal
lyricism that identifies the music as his within a few bars.
The Trio, on the other hand, comes relatively early. Hindemith's influence
shows up most heavily in the first two movements, a moderato and an adagio.
In the lively third movement, however, Dello Joio breaks free of his
teacher mainly rhythmically, with an "Allegro spiritoso" closest to the
second movement of the Aaron Copland Third or to Walter Piston's symphonic
finales, both also from the Forties.
A name new to me, Kenji Bunch contributes Slow Dance for standard piano
trio (violin, cello, and piano). I confess to violating my standard practice
and reading the notes before I listened. When I got to the composer's
description of the score as a "tribute to torch songs and their singers," my
heart fluttered for a beat or two. The actual piece disappointed me, since
I expected something reminiscent of Libby Holman and "Moanin' Low" or
Judy Garland and "The Man That Got Away." Instead, we get something
more like Edith Piaf -- not that there's anything wrong with that. I should
follow my own rules and avoid unnecessary letdowns.
However, of the Modern and contemporary pieces, the Harbison cycle Songs
America Loves to Sing definitely stands out. Harbison wrote the piece
for the so-called "Pierrot ensemble," the basic instruments of Schoenberg's
Pierrot lunaire -- flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano --
with clarinet and violin doubling on harmonicas in the last number. Harbison
remembers a volume in his childhood home with the very title. My house
had it, too, and accompanying myself at the piano, I used to go through
its contents: Stephen Foster, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Wearin'
of the Green" -- basically folk tunes and, I suspect, anything out
of copyright. Harbison includes tunes not in that volume.
The work consists of ten movements on the following songs: "Amazing
Grace" (of course), "Careless Love," "Will the Circle
be Unbroken," "Aura Lee," "What a Friend We Have in
Jesus," "St. Louis Blues," "Poor Butterfly," "We
Shall Overcome," "Ain't Goin' to Study War No Mo'," and
the "Anniversary Song" (which bears an uncanny resemblance to "Happy
Birthday). Harbison arranges these tunes in the following way: the odd-numbered
movements feature one of the solo instruments rhapsodizing or riffing on
the tune; the even-numbered ones turn the tunes into canons. In general,
a canon may be described as one line of music that can replicate itself
in such a way that it becomes a polyphonic composition. "Row, Row,
Row Your Boat" is a simple canon. However, canons can become quite
intricate. The tune can go against itself at half speed (canon in augmentation).
The tune can go against itself, first note to last versus last to first
(a "crab" or cancrizen canon). The tune can go against an upside-down
version of itself (inversion canon). Furthermore, Harbison has some contrapuntal
tricks of his own.
The opening movement, "Amazing Grace," gives a lot of room for
the solo flute to ramble on and around the melody. However, wisps of the
tune float through the accompaniment, thus foreshadowing the canons to
come. In "Careless Love," a steady, repetitive piano line supports
various two-part canons, as the composer introduces the instruments of
the ensemble in pairs. "Aura Lee" is a canon where the entries
move at various speeds. In "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," the
piano adapts an increasingly raunchy, even barrelhouse style. The most
complex of the "learned" canons comprises Harbison's setting
of "St. Louis Blues" -- in fact, a double inversion canon. That
is, there are two "leader" lines and two "follower" lines,
and the followers are the leaders upside-down. Miraculously, it sounds
less "learned" and more like a jam session. It also tells you
something about blues structure.
For some strange reason, Harbison's score reminds me of Haydn. The American
musical vernacular has so fused into his DNA that he can play with it,
without feeling the necessity to "raise and purify." I regard
the score as a gift to all lovers of American music.
The Atlanta musicians do very well indeed. I commend single out Laura
Ardan on clarinet, especially for her solo "Poor Butterfly," and artistic
director and pianist Paula Peace, who gets the fun of the score without
sacrificing its wit. I complain only about the recording balance, where
the piano sometimes gets lost beneath the other instruments. Other than
that, you can cuddle up to this disc on cold winter nights -- a joy.
S.G.S. (December 2009)