The Music of Edward Smaldone


SMALDONE: Cantare di Amore / Tony Arnold, sop; Tara Helen O’Connor, fl; June Han, harp / Double Duo / O’Connor, fl; Charles Neidich, cl; Daniel Phillips, vln; Marcy Rosen, cel / Letters From Home / Susan Narucki, sop; Judith Mendenhall, fl/pic; Neidich, cl/bs-cl; Donald Pirone, pno / Duke/Monk / Neidich, cl; Morey Ritt, pno / Sinfonia / The Brno Philharmonic Strings; Mikel Toms, cond / New Focus Recordings FCR258

From the liner notes:

Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) received the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993, launching a steadily growing career that has garnered many other awards, commissions, performances and recordings. Other awards are from ASCAP, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo Corporation, the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, the Percussive Arts Society, and the American Music Center. He was named 2016 “Composer of the Year” by the Classical Recording Foundation at their annual Gala at National Sawdust, in Williamsburg.

Also in the notes, Smaldone states that “these five works extend from 1986–2014. Each of these pieces was “tinkered with” over a number of years. Each piece was thus visited ‘Once and Again.’ ‘Once and Again’ is also a feature of the two song cycles whose texts have been re-cycled and re-purposed for inclusion in these compositions.”

His harmonic language is modern, mostly using bitonality, but not forbidding to the casual listener. Cantare di Amore is a series of three songs using the same texts used by Monteverdi for some of his madrigals. Soprano Tony Arnold is her usual meticulous, musical self and a great interpreter, though a loose vibrato has crept into her voice in recent years. Flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, whose wonderful album The Way Things Go I raved about way back in March 2016—the first month of my blog—plays on this one as well. There’s a certain modern French sensibility about this music that I liked very much: the music is melodic, and if set to conventional harmony the soprano’s top line would not sound out of place, but by subverting our expectations of harmony and often using “rootless” chords, Smaldon is able to place it in an entirely different sound-world. At times, June Han’s harp is used like a piano, strumming taut chords behind the two soloists while most of the time playing in a more conventional manner.

Smaldone wrote Double Duo in 1987, shortly after completing his Ph.D. He admits not having tried to write something truly revolutionary, but simply being “true to myself.” He then describes some of the technicalities of the music, such as deriving the pitch and motivic material from the opening measures, filling his “straightforward” outline with asymmetries and irregularities, and using the harmony to create “a sense of forward motion.” He also tried to simulate a feeling of improvisation despite carefully crafting each line. The character of the music is almost the opposite of Cantare di Amore, being rhythmically quick and a bit edgy, and using more atonality than in the later work. There’s a feeling here of Stravinsky crossed with jazz though except for the aggressive cello line you can’t really call the work “jazzy,” as well as lyrical episodes that retain the harmonic edginess of the fast opening theme. The title, one realizes, refers to the wind duo of flute and clarinet on the one hand and violin and cello on the other. Sometimes these duos work separately from one another, at other times they work together as quartet.

Letters From Home has a style similar to the Double Duo though there are brief moments of lyricism and despite the use of a soprano singing words—in this case, letters to a Mrs. P.H. Andrews, who lived in Plainview, Texas back in the 1950s. The letters are all to her, from friends, nieces, a sister and an anonymous writer, giving a snapshot of a woman’s life in that time. The soprano here is Susan Narucki, who still has a fine, firm voice, but except for those words sung in her lower range her diction is not terribly clear. One of the songs, “Thank You, Luther,” has a distinct jazz feel about it. I also liked the use of a bass clarinet here and there, as in the final song which is a reprise of the first.

Duke/Monk is a tribute to two jazz greats. The first selection is based on Ellington’s Come Sunday, the second on Monk’s Well You Needn’t. The setting of the first, however, is far from jazz, and is in fact played in a strict classical style by clarinetist Charles Neidich. (These pieces were originally written for flute and piano but were reworked for clarinet at Neidich’s request.) The “Monk” section isn’t very jazzy, either, and it should have been since Monk was sometimes called “the Stravinsky of jazz.” I wish that a clarinetist who can actually play jazz, like Don Byron, had performed this instead of Neidich.

The program closes with the Sinfonia, originally written in 1986 as the third movement of his second string quartet. It was expanded to a sinfonia for string section and premiered in that form in 2010. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found this work less natural in its expression and more “forced” than the other works, though it is well written, but the orchestra plays it quite well.

Although Smaldone’s music is not always highly original, it is clearly interesting and well written. I enjoyed it very much.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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