ROREM: Trio. LOCKLAIR: Reynolda Reflections. HIGDON: American Canvas / Pangaea Chamber Players: Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, fl; Meredich Blecha-Wells, cel; Jeffrey Brown, pno / Navona NV6279
This is another of those albums which, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, aspires to reflect the visual world of art in music. One would be prudent to point out that, for better or worse, Mussorgsky himself did not succeed in this: the line drawings and paintings of Viktor Hartmann on which his piano suite is based are but nice little sketches compared to the vast cathedral of sound created by Mussorgsky, and I have yet to hear a piece of music that truly reflects a picture, but by golly they just keep on trying!
Fortunately, the music itself is good, and since I already knew the work of two of the three composers (Ned Rorem and Jennifer Higdon), I took the plunge on reviewing it.
The album cover shows reduced images of three paintings that the Pangaea Players were particularly fond of by Hallie Sands, Olivia Floyd and Taylor Morriss. Ned Rorem, reclusive old curmudgeon that he is, provided no program notes for his Trio, the movements of which bear the usual tempo directions, but Dan Locklair’s essay on his website reveals his inspirations as being Worthington Whittredge’s 18664 painting The Old Hunting Grounds, Thomas Hart Benton’s 1927 painting Bootleggers, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pool in the Woods, Charles Sheeler’s 1952 Conversation Piece and Elliott Daingerfield’s 1912 The Spirit of the Storm. Jennifer Higdon based her music on Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Andrew Wyeth.
Though noted mostly for his songs, Rorem has composed several instrumental works, and this one is as excellent as many of his previous pieces. It opens with the piano playing a bitonal chord while the cello joins it in its low register, with the flute playing a sort of fantasia above them. Then, at the 2:10 mark, the trio suddenly erupts in a somewhat menacing minor-key melee of sound. But the second movement, believe it or not, is even edgier than the first, a spooky “Largo” in which the flute and cello slither through their lines like ominous, monstrous worms looking to devour someone. The last two movements, though a bit less eerie, are also very creative.
Dan Locklair was a composer new to me, and I was pleasantly surprised by his very creative and individual style: tonal but not sweetsy or cloying, with real themes developed in an interesting manner. In a way, he harks back to certain American composers of the mid-20th century, before they all discovered serial and electronic music (or, worse yet, minimalism). Moreover, there is real variety in his writing as he moves from piece to piece; “Grounded in Machines,” which is based on the Benton painting mentioned above, has a touch of George Antheil in it along with a bit of Jazz Age rhythm, while “Arias to a Flower” contain glissando effects that almost make it sound as if Kunzer was playing a Chinese flute. “Songs to the Wind,” the last piece in this cycle, is in an entirely different style from the others, with the piano playing a series of upward—rising arpeggios while the flute in its mid-range and cello near the upper range play a strong melodic line, the harmony of which is then expanded in the piano solo. This is, quite simply, excellent music, well crafted and superbly played. I was very impressed. Incidentally, the title of his suite is a tribute to the Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Jennifer Higdon’s American Canvas is in her usual pleasant, lyrical style, just modern enough in harmony to be interesting. “Georgia O’Keeffe” is very florid music, with the flute swirling around in the upper register while the cello plays a rapid countermelody below. In the second half of this piece, the tempo becomes much more relaxed, almost pastoral. “Pollock,” on the other hand, is almost minimalist in the beginning with a strong motor rhythm before Higdon expands the music and takes it further.
But “Wyeth” was, to me, the most surprising and original piece of the three, based on a stiffish, ostinato rhythm around which all three instruments engage, each in his or her own particular musical space and rhythm. At times, in fact, the rhythmic byplay becomes extremely complex. This is clearly something new for Higdon, and I was utterly fascinated by it.
No question about it, this is a surprisingly creative and interesting CD that I consider essential for fans of Rorem and/or Higdon (and, of course, for those of you who also know Locklair’s work.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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