• Short Films and Music of John Morgan

    Many film music fans will recognize John Morgan from his extensive reconstruction work on a variety of classic film scores recorded with William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony.  This new collection of music features selections from several of his scores for short films and audioplays.  As one might suspect, Morgan’s affinity for classic film music spills over into his own musical language.
    The album opens with music from the 2004 critically acclaimed short film, The Visage.  This is a little creepy score with gothic romantic music that comes to the forefront in its dark main title.  As the score progresses, it is most reminiscent of a classic Herrmann score with its dark orchestral textures that swirl around Morgan’s theme.  Anna Bonn Stromberg contributed a brief noir-ish “Saxophone Source Piece” and William Stromberg provided some additional music as well.  With the Moscow Symphony at their disposal, the sound of the score is quite marvelous bringing out the rich, dark colors of Morgan’s score.  Towards the end of the score a series of linked cues (“Pesky Corpse-Unrest-Harmonic”) give the listener a chance to hear some of the different orchestral techniques that Morgan uses to blend theme with even creepier musical styles to add tension.  It makes for a fine introduction to this release.

    At the center of the release are selections from an anthology film and a radio play.  First is a suite from The Headless Horseman of Halloween (1996) which is sort of variant on the classic Irving story.  The music here incorporates the Dies irae chant as well as some additionally Hermann-esque stylings and delicate flute and oboe writing.  Here too the orchestral writing is stunning.  The Trials of Mrs. Surratt (c. 1982) is from an audio play about the first woman tried through a military tribunal and executed for her part in Lincoln’s assassination.  Some fourteen minutes or so of score appear here.  Scored for brass and winds, it has a rather wistful Americana feel at times, with a beautiful opening trumpet theme.  As it plays out, is feels like a long-lost Twilight Zone episode score.  It is framed by a larger suite from the anthology film series for the episode “The Eggs”.  The music here has been arranged into a longer concert work for chamber orchestra.  It has a rather quirky feel part Herrmann, part Elfman, with nice wit in its orchestral hits and overall thematic development.  The wind writing here is really a highlight.  It is reminiscent of The Trouble With Harry.

    Closing off the album is music from the The Medal (1992).  Directed by Andrew DeCristofaro (an Oscar-nominated sound editor), the story follows a man who reflects back on a military medal he received as a youth and it becomes a symbol for him to carry on after his wife’s death.  The film has a nostalgic and sentimental quality that comes across in Morgan’s beautiful score using a reduced chamber-size orchestra.  “Graveyard” features a heart-melting thematic idea to open this often moving score with a truly inspiring “Finale”.

    Morgan’s own style is an extension of the vintage film music he lovingly reconstructs.  Gorgeous orchestral writing, a nod to Herrmann here and there, and engaging themes all make this release a delightful discovery.  The release is available through the BuySoundtrax.com website.

  • Piano Music from the Americas


    Direct Contact
    Roberta Rust, piano.
    Navona Records 6229
    Total Time: 68:48
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Roberta Rust teaches at the Lynn Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton, Florida.  Her debut album with Navona collects music from eight contemporary composers with music spanning across seven decades.  There are also more personal connections that the pianist brings to each of these works either through direct contact with the composers, or as important works in her own development as a performer.  The music provides a snapshot of 20th Century piano music and its many musical expressions across North and South America.  The program is filled with engaging musical discoveries in excellent performances that make a perfect case for all the music here.

    The album opens with a somewhat uncharacteristic excerpt from George Rochberg’s Carnival Music (1971).  “Blues” has a very Gershwin-esque piano style that only slowly begins to unravel into more contemporary language in its final bars.  Two works by Michael Anderson (b. 1989) follow.  Thirteen Plus 4 (2005) builds on the sort of expanded jazz harmonies of the opening selection providing a nice transition into a piece that is more restrained, much more like a late night jazz reflection.  The same can be said of the first movement from the composer’s Sonata (2008) which has a rather compelling melodic idea with beautiful harmonic writing in this equally contemplative piece.   In a somewhat similar vein, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament (1999) was composed in response to Judith Arron’s death, a person whom the composer held in high esteem for her work in the redevelopment and rebirth of Carnegie Hall.  The music has this rather intense expressive style that seems to reach out in askance.  Chromatic shifts in the melody add this pained quality to the music set against Zwilich’s somewhat romantic musical gestures in what is a very intimately personal work.  There also seem to be some additional veiled musical references that are like passing memories.  The oldest selections on the album come from the composer’s husband, Philip Evans (b. 1928).  First is one of his first compositions, the Minuetto (1939), a more traditional piece of Neo-Classical influences, but a most gorgeous primary melody.  It is then followed by two selections from his Suite 1945 (“Sarabande” and “Aria”) which are more modernist in tone in a Bartok-ian way, though Evans’ music still has a rather engaging melodic content that blends traditional harmony within Bartok’s piano style.  Thomas McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces (2005) are two more intense and expressionistic works that have a tight construction in a couple of very brief pieces.  Three of John Sharpley’s Four Preludes (1998) conclude this album.  The first, “Reflection”, is an aptly-named restrained piece.  The other two are in the tradition of Ives-like quotation of American popular tunes and hymnody extrapolated into more modern sounds within the composer’s personal musical language.

    In addition to the host of selections by American composers, Rust has included music from Cuba and Brazil.  Leo Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos (2007) was inspired by Cuban artists and in at least two of the pieces require the performer to improvise.  Rust has chosen three of the pieces: nos. 4, 5, and 7.  For the seventh, she incorporates a Bach theme in between the habanera framing sections in a moment that has a somewhat jazz-like sensibility.  Brouwer’s music always has a delightful combination of rhythmic excitement that can be heard in these selections which shift between mostly tonal harmony and forays into the slightly more dissonant.  The other music from South America is by the Brazilian composer Almeida Prado (1943-2010).  Rust gave the premiere of his 1986 work Halley.  The three-movement piece was written to the year the famous named comet appeared again near Earth.  Prado studied with Boulanger and Messiaen and his music reflects some of the latter’s aesthetic.  The first movement begins with an exploration of the lower nether regions of the piano.  The music is more atonal with intriguing clusters of sound out of which emerge different motivic threads.  It represents a more advanced tonal sound palette that is eased by the descriptive connections of the music.  There are moments where the music shimmers almost like an Impressionist piece before returning to its more angular lines.  Each movement is an exploration of motive and unique colors of the piano.  A host of grand gestures also make for a rather dramatic work that requires more virtuosic demands which Rust handles well.  This is especially true of the way the music shifts in tone from the more dissonant to the more sparkling aspects, from dark rumblings to final ethereal evaporation.

    Rust’s performances here are beautifully captured by the sound of this recording.  The piano has the perfect presence and this further enhances her delicate performances of the lyrical music on this album.  This is an excellent collection of pieces all well worth hearing and further exploring for anyone interested in accessible contemporary piano music.