Songs America Loves to Sing -- Old and New Music for Winds, Strings, and Piano.
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

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 custard over 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)