song cycle

  • New Songs, Old Texts: Three Different Takes

    The art song has had a long history of composer's exploring texts that allow for a more intimate setting and personal interpretation through a composer's personal aesthetic and style.  Here we are going to take a quick snapshot look at three more recent releases each with a unique collection of song cycles and art songs.

    Carl Vollrath studied with Ernst Dohnanyi and Carlisle Floyd and it is the latter whose music his work seems to be a natural extension of with a dash of the elan and color of the former.  The three cycles on Old & New Poetry (Navona 6342) explore the poetry of William Blake in five rather intense and emotional pieces.  The lyrical vocal lines (sung so beautifully by mezzo-soprano Aliana de la Guardia) are equally matched by a piano line that helps add emotional interpretation.  "Love Songs" is a collection of 7 brief poems by Sara Teasdale set for soprano, clarinet and piano.  The songs provide some intriguing interplay for the solo clarinet line that increases often the intensity of the poetry.  "Child, Child" is perhaps one of the stronger of the songs here with some gorgeous writing that is quite moving.  The music's more modern sound also aids in heightening the drama.  Finally, the poetry of John Gracen Brown inform the final Variations in Verse-Rural Poems.  The themes of the poetry help provide a common link here that relate to Vollrath's interest in nature and interdependency on it.  It too has unique accompaniment with an added saxophone.  Some of these work better than others, but as a whole they are quite captivating.  The almost bluesy-like harmonies Vollrath flirts with provide an accessible entry point for a rather moving collection of texts.

    On a rather unusual coincidence, composer Eloise Hynes Stowe is a noted soprano from Arkansas (and performed the lead in Floyd's Susannah).  Psalms: Sacred Songs by Eloise Hynes Stowe (Navona 6354) is a quite gorgeous collection of modern sacred music that somewhat sits between what one might hear as "special worship music" (if you had a fine soprano like Stella Roden at your disposable) and more concert-like music.  The style has one foot firmly in a grand romantic style and modern song (think more Albert Malote's setting of The Lord's Prayer).  There are eight psalms set here which provide a good amount of material for Stowe to explore her lyric gifts.  The melodic ideas are quite engaging and catch the ear as the music then moves the listener into a more operatic style and experience.  But the music itself is very moving with occasional flute or violin adding some additional color.  Three classic hymn texts are given some new life with new music to classic texts that provide some fresh approaches to hear these lines with a bit more emotional context.  The album closes with 5 Solomonic odes.  The romantic richness of the piano and solo instruments add to some stirring music that provides some far more interesting listening and some new ways for music to enhance worship.  It would even be interesting to see how some of these could be adapted into choral settings which would further increase options for performance.  A very engaging album with some quite beautiful music makes this worth tracking down.

    Known more for his operatic work, composer Evan Mack is represented by a collection of songs on Ravello Records The Travelled Road (Ravello 8051).  The album is bookended by single movement settings for mezzo-soprano and cello which lend them a slighty more operatic feel.  A Little More Perfect opens with a text quote from Hon. Justice Anthony Kennedy and focuses on the issue of marriage and LGBTQ rights.  The final song, The Road and the End, is based on poetry of Carl Sandburg and serves as a fine summary of reflection on the many ways we must move to address some of the issues explored in the texts here.  Three Reflections of Sister Dorothy focuses on the work of the nun who worked for sustainability and rainforest preservation with texts chosen by Mack.  It is an interesting, and dramatic, statement on her life and struggles.  From breaking down barriers of understanding of ecological impact, the album shifts to a cycle called Preach Sister, Preach.  Each of the 14 songs features the words of a specific woman (actresses, authors, comediennes) and the barriers they broke with nods to the period.  This lends the music a more Broadway-like artistic feel with its inclusion of popular music references in rhythms and harmonic play.  Finally, The Secret Ocean, features texts by Mark Jarman that address the links between childhood and parenthood.  This serves as an interesting reflective set with the music moving from rich extended harmonies into more dissonant clusters within a more jazz style.  Soloist Megan Marino performs these pieces with a great sense of play (especially the various Preach songs) with also fine examples of beautiful lyricism.  An overall engaging program of modern song writing.

    Each of these releases provides different musical takes on the modern art song with music that moves from accessible modernism to more romantic and musical theater-like sensibilities.  All have a focus on important thematic connections that can be made across their respective albums.

  • Chamber Music from Edward Smaldone


    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
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    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.