Once and Again
Tony Arnold, soprano. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. June Han, harp.
Charles Neidich, clarinet/bass clarinet. Daniel Phillips, violin. Marcy Rosen, cello.
Susan Narucki, soprano. Judith Mendenhall, flute/piccolo.
Morey Ritt, piano.
Brno Philharmonic Strings/Mikel Toms
New Focus FCR258
Total Time: 67:14
Composer Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) explores a number of chamber music expressions in this new collection from New Focus. From song cycles (Cantare di Amore; Letters From Home) to wind solos (Duke/Monk) and duets (Double Duo) to a concluding string Sinfonia that reveal the composer’s style and approaches in works written between 1986-2009.
The first work on the album is the song cycle Cantare di Amore (2009) and represents Smaldone’s most recent work. The texts are borrowed from the fourth and sixth book of Madrigals by Monteverdi. There are three settings, the first opening with an almost Asian-sounding inflection from the flute and harp. The voice and flute tend to interweave and feed off one another with the harp providing flourishes to add harmonic signposts. There are sometimes subtle shifts to more traditional harmony, though these are hints that quickly dissipate. At the center is a darker love song exploring contemporary effects for the accompanying instruments and a freer rhythmic feel. The final song has more of these free-flowing soprano lines. The piece is a bit reminiscent of Dallapiccola (perhaps it is just the way the instruments are applied and the florid vocal writing). The performance is quite exquisite. The second song cycle is based on some letters the composer discovered in his home (hence the title, Letters from Home 2000/2007/2014). The actual letters are interspersed with the composer’s own texts to add context to the material. Here it is Susan Narucki’s performance that entrances the listener.
The song cycles are separated by a Double Duo (1987/2006) that pits two woodwind instruments (flute and clarinet) against two string instruments (violin and cello). This earlier composition, here in a revised form, Smaldone cites as being influenced by George Perle. It expresses that economy of material with opening ideas being the primary pitch and motivic ideas that form the basis of the tightly-constructed 8-minute work. There is still a sense of improvisational approaches that allow each instrument to come to the foreground briefly. An outward-reaching gesture helps further move things along as more angular, and jagged outlines add an additional intensity. More careful listening helps discern that these ideas are placed within a sonata form. The more rhythmic material opens the work with a slower, harmonically ambiguous, second idea providing contrast. A development section further unpacks these ideas before a somewhat interesting recapitulation where these two ideas occur simultaneously. The penultimate track is a two-movement work, originally for flute, that is performed on clarinet. Duke/Monk (2011) reveals another of Smaldone’s “influences”, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. The musical material is derived form a work of each of these classic jazz musicians and composers. The new transcription was made for its soloist here, Charles Niedich. It piano allows Smaldone to stretch and manipulate jazz harmonies while the soloist has a more improvisational feel exploring the melodic lines of the quotations.
The final work here is an early piece for strings adapted from the composer’s 1986 second string quartet. The Sinfonia (2010) features a beautiful viola opening with extended harmonic punctuations before shifting into a dancing scherzo. The work encapsulates the composer’s exploration of small cells of material and repeated pitch constructions. After a more reflective opening, the dance-like rhythms of Smaldone’s interests also align.
The music here is especially marked by some beautiful lyric writing, though couched often in more astringent harmony. It is almost as if sometimes a line will follow a traditional harmonic arc but the accompaniment pulls into closer intervallic constructions towards dissonance. That can be quite fascinating to hear and Smaldone is quite fortunate to have secured such fine performances of these pieces.