Elliott Miles McKinley: String Quartets Nos. 4-6. The Martinů Quartet. Navona. $16.99.
Craig Madden Morris: Chamber Music—Violin Concerto (piano reduction); Piano Trio; Dream Songs; Cello Rhapsody (piano reduction); Tropical Dances. Christine Kwak, violin; Eduard Laurel and Martha Locker, piano; Nan-Cheng Chen, cello. Ravello. $12.99.
Patricia Morehead: Disquieted Souls; The Handmaid’s Tale; It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers; Ladders of Anxiety; Good News Falls Gently. Carolyn Hove, English horn; Abraham Stokman and Philip Morehead, pianos; Barbara Ann Martin and Jonita Lattimore, sopranos; Caroline Pittman, flute; Philip Morehead, conductor. Navona. $16.99.
McDuo: Works for Flute and Percussion by James Lewis, Daniel Adams, Paul Reller, Stephen Montague, Howard Buss, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, and Hugo Weisgall. Kim McCormick, flute; Robert McCormick, percussion. Ravello. $12.99.
Sculpting the Air: Modern Works for Wind Instruments by Samuel Barber, James Adler, Russ Lombardi, Jan Van der Roost, Barry Seroff, Brian Gillett, Juan Sebastian Lach Lau, and Richard Crosby. Solaris Quintet, Daniel Speer Trombone Quartet, Juventas New Music Ensemble, Black Sea Brass Quintet and others. Navona. $16.99.
Heavy Pedal: Works for Organ by Tadd Russo, Curt Cacioppo, Ron Nagorcka, Wilhelm Middelschulte, and Michael Summers. Michael Kraft, Robert Gallagher, Brink Bush and Karel Martinek, organ. Navona. $16.99.
It is not just the future of classical music that is uncertain – it is the definition itself. What exactly does “classical” mean at a time when so many composers meld recognizably classical forms with elements of jazz, rock, all sorts of pop music, electronic and aleatoric segments, and more? Some of this melding has been going on for a very long time – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, dates to 1924 – but works that used non-classical elements were almost always, until recent years, recognizably classical at the core. There were exceptions – some pieces by Edgard Varèse, for example – but by and large, it was clear that even as classical music adapted to new times and adopted new forms and new elements, there was something fundamentally different about it when compared with, say, pop music. This is no longer the case. “Crossover” music is its own field now, and even composers writing ostensibly classical works, using demonstrably classical forms, frequently present listeners with a sound that is difficult to construe as “classical” in any foundational sense.
How to showcase this sort of new-but-classical music? There are two basic approaches: CDs devoted to a single composer’s work and ones that are thematically structured and include the work of multiple composers. The single-composer approach presents material in more depth and will be attractive to those who already know a particular composer, but can be tough going for listeners unfamiliar with a particular person’s music (or uninterested in hearing a full disc of it). The anthology approach provides a sampler that is guaranteed to have higher and lower points (different ones for different listeners) and that more readily appeals to people interested in the particular theme selected – wind music, for example, or music focused on percussion or a particular extramusical theme. Labels such as Navona and Ravello offer interested listeners numerous opportunities, both in single-composer and anthology form, to hear some interesting music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The well-produced and generally well-played CDs, however, are unlikely to find a wide audience, since by definition this is recent and little-known music that may be seeking broad appeal but has not yet found it.
New discs focusing on the music of Elliott Miles McKinley (born 1969), Craig Madden Morris (born 1968), and Patricia Morehead (born 1940) provide interesting views of these composers’ approach to classical form and substance. McKinley’s fourth, fifth and sixth string quartets, commissioned by the Martinů Quartet and played by them with skill and a strong sense of commitment, are complex and filled with virtuosic requirements – no surprise in any quartet written in the shadow of Bartók and Carter. But these works are often (although not always) more accessible than those of the better-known modern quartet masters, thanks to McKinley’s interest in and absorption of the rhythms and harmonies of jazz. The music sometimes bounces, sometimes flows, sometimes meanders. Quartets Nos. 4 and 6 are in four more-or-less traditional movements, but No. 5 has a very unusual structure: it is in three “parts,” the first containing six short elements, the second having two, and the third including four. Several of these building blocks last less than a minute (“With a Touch of Swagger,” for instance), and only one lasts more than two minutes – so this quartet has an episodic, suite-like feeling about it that makes a nice contrast with the ones preceding and following it. The Chris Madden Morris disc features a variety of styles, from the intimate (Piano Trio) and gentle (Dream Songs) to the passionate (the piano reduction of the Violin Concerto). Here too the pieces are complex and difficult to play, their accessibility to listeners varying based largely on their mood: Tropical Dances, a piano suite consisting of “Salta (Jump),” “Colores” and “Habanera,” is probably the best starting point, although the Cello Rhapsody, which is just as lyrical as its title indicates, also has immediate appeal. Morris handles the instruments well and does especially well writing for the violin and piano, both of which he plays. Patricia Morehead’s instrument is the oboe, and although Morehead is from an earlier generation than McKinley and Morris, her works featured on the new Navona CD are no less up-to-date. The earliest, Good News Falls Gently, which sets poems by Regina Harris Baiocchi, dates to 1995; the latest, Disquieted Souls, was written in 2009. Morehead has a talent for setting words, not only in the Baiocchi cycle but also in It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers, to poems by Margaret Atwood. And she shows in Ladders of Anxiety that she can write as well for the flute as for the oboe. But a full CD of her work is a bit much to take, since her outlook tends to be bleak and her subjects rather dour – The Handmaid’s Tale, although not a vocal work (it is a two-piano suite), is also based on Atwood, specifically on a chilling futuristic dystopian story. The preponderance of fear and anxiety underlying these pieces can make them heavy going when the disc is heard from start to finish, although there is no denying Morehead’s communicative abilities.
Three other new contemporary-classical CDs fall within the anthology model. McDuo features husband-and-wife performers Robert and Kim McCormick in works that combine and contrast the heights of the flute with the depths (and occasional subtleties) of various percussion instruments. The works are variable in approach and interest level, with the contrasts built into Stephen Montague’s 2 Dirges – 3 Dances being especially interesting. Also worth multiple hearing is Tangents by the best-known composer here, Hugo Weisgall (1912-1997), who was most highly regarded for his opera and vocal works but here shows an attractive insouciance in instrumental guise. Sculpting the Air also includes one work by a well-known composer: Summer Music by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). There is a certain evanescence to all the works on this CD, which focus largely on brass and flute and range from political commentary of a sort (A Forum for Abandoned Euro Leaders by Barry Seroff) to reinterpretations of older and once-controversial classical pieces (Juan Sebastian Lach Lau’s recasting of one of Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies). One attractive work here is in fairly strict classical style: a sonata for trombone and piano by Richard Crosby. The other pieces have mostly their moods rather than their approaches in common. What the compositions on Heavy Pedal have in common is, of course, the fact that all were written for organ, an instrument long since freed from its spiritual associations (thanks largely to Liszt, who then, in later life, restored many of the instrument’s religious connotations). But even in secular guise, the organ seems to invite the use of Baroque forms, with the result that the five composers on this CD offer a total of eight works that include, among other things, a prelude, passacaglia and ciaconna (chaconne). There is something decidedly old-fashioned and highly attractive in these pieces, as if the composers connected more easily to traditional forms of classical music by virtue of writing for an instrument with such a venerable history. Two works by Tadd Russo (born 1976) hark back to the organ’s church uses, as do two by Ron Nagorcka (born 1948) – with Nagorcka calling for, in addition to the organ, instruments such as a clarinet, a trombone and the didjeridu of Australia’s aborigines (played here by Nagorcka himself). Wilhelm Middelschulte, the oldest composer here by far (1863-1943), is represented by two Bach-imbued pieces, one of them written for pedals only (in 1903) and based directly on a Bach theme, and the other a passacaglia dating back even further – to 1896. Curt Cacioppo (born 1951) draws on Mozart rather than Bach for a well-proportioned “ciaconna-fantasia” on themes from Don Giovanni. And the final composer on the CD, Michael Summers (born 1973), draws on the past as well, albeit in a different way, with a four-part set of Variations on an English Folksong. Like the other pieces on the CD, it is well written for its magisterial instrument and manages to partake of both modern sensibility and an attractively old-fashioned regard for the roots of classical music – no matter where its branches may be growing in the 21st century.