April 12, 2018


John G. Bilotta: Yeats Songs; Renaissance Songs; Three Sonatinas for Piano; The Hippocampus’ Monologue; Two Songs on American Poetry; Allan Crossman: 10 Songs; Sonata fLux, for piano. Navona. $14.99.

Mark G. Simon: Ode on a Grecian Urn; Anniversary Sonata; Un Buen Piola Porteño. Linda Larson, soprano; Mark G. Simon, clarinet; Aleeza Meir, piano. Navona. $14.99.

James M. Stephenson: Liquid Melancholy—Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Colors; Last Chants; Fantasie; Étude Caprice; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Lake Forest Symphony conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic (Concerto); Alex Klein, oboe; Chicago Pro Musica (Colors); Chicago Pro Musica (Chants); Patrick Godon, piano (Fantasie, Étude, Sonata). Cedille. $16.

     Contemporary composers of vocal music are nothing if not eclectic in their choice of texts to set. Some of the works by John G. Bilotta and Allan Crossman on a new Navona CD draw on unsurprising sources, while others are considerably more unusual. Bilotta’s works dominate the disc. Yeats Songs (1977) are, as the title indicates, settings of five poems by William Butler Yates, performed here by baritone Andrew R. White and pianist Hadley McCarroll. “The Lover Pleads with His Friend for Old Friends” is suitably dismal, and “The Moods” continues in much the same vein. So does “A Drinking Song,” which is only half a minute long – just enough time for a slight nostalgic flavor. “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” is depressing, and it is only in “Maid Quiet” that a touch of tenderness creeps in to counter the generally downbeat mood of the whole cycle, which is darkened further by White’s rich baritone. Renaissance Songs (1976) is quite different, using five texts – by John Donne, George Herbert and others – and sung by tenor Justin Marsh, with McCarroll again on piano. The titles are “Prisoners,” “The Silver Swan,” “Aubade,” “Bitter-Sweet,” and “A Fancy,” and the songs run only about a minute apiece. The piano accompaniment here is more flowing than in the Yeats cycle, the emotions expressed more floridly in the language of the Renaissance and in music that brings them forward. In fact, Bilotta has some interesting ideas for piano expressiveness: the three three-movement sonatinas on this disc are more expressive, all in all, than the Yeats and Renaissance song cycles. Karolina Rojahn plays the sonatinas with suitable delicacy and an understanding of their miniature nature: each lasts less than four minutes, the first being dancelike, the second having a stronger sense of forward momentum, and the third offering some humor in its opening and closing movements (each under a minute long) with a contrasting two-minute Andantino sandwiched between them. Bilotta seems most comfortable creating miniatures, although his remaining two works on this CD are slightly more extended. The Hippocampus’ Monologue (2013), sung by Cass Panuska with McCarroll on piano, is an excerpt from an opera in which some characters are parts of the brain, while Two Songs on American Poetry (1976) uses texts by Carl Sandburg (“Lost”) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Prayer to Persephone”). Cass and McCarroll perform these as well, and the music has many of the same characteristics as the Yeats songs despite the very different textual choices.

     Two works by Crossman are juxtaposed with those by Bilotta, and here too the composer’s choice of words to set varies quite widely. This is especially evident in 10 Songs, seven performed by mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson and three by bass Richard Mix, with Crossman himself on piano. Four of the songs use words by Federico García Lorca; the other six include an anonymous text from Renaissance Spain and works by Hermann Claudius, Ricarda Huch, James Joyce, Alexander Scriabin, and Louis Phillips. Where Bilotta uses his song cycles mainly to establish a single mood, Crossman uses this one to produce a variety of effects, from the pastoral (to the Spanish text) to the mystic (Scriabin’s words from his “Poem of Ecstasy,” which he later turned into his own music) to the simple and naïve (the text by Phillips, which begins, “Oh to be sixteen again”). Crossman’s other work on this disc is a somewhat too cutely titled piano sonata, performed by Keisuke Nakagoshi. It is a more-or-less impressionistic work, the title “fLux” having a capital L to indicate “Lux” (light) and the second movement following the same pattern, being called “fLight of the Firefly,” the spelling indicating the insect’s light. That movement proffers largely expected fluttering sounds, although some are produced in unusual ways. The first movement, “Moto Atlantico,” is one of the innumerable attempts to bring the feeling of a body of water – here, the Atlantic Ocean – into music. The finale, “Rondo a Pollock,” is by far the most interesting movement, including a touch of polka (in a pun on painter Jackson Pollock’s name) amid a kind of personalized pianistic pastiche that recalls Chopin, Hummel and Beethoven. The CD as a whole offers some interesting contrasts between the two composers’ handling of the piano in a support role for vocal works and as a focus of its own.

     The voice appears in only one of the three works by Mark G. Simon on a new Navona CD, but the clarinet – which closely resembles the soprano voice in many ways – appears on them all, played by the composer. That makes the piece combining soprano (Linda Larson) with clarinet and piano (Aleeza Meir) especially interesting. This is Ode on a Grecian Urn (1995), using as its text four of the five stanzas of the familiar poem by John Keats. Simon’s third setting here, “Coming to the Sacrifice,” does a particularly good job of interweaving soprano and clarinet, then moves into an entirely instrumental section that includes a fugue – an especially interesting treatment of the text. The other works on the disc are for clarinet and piano without voice and are performed by Simon and Meir, who sound well-matched in their give-and-take. Anniversary Sonata (1998) is pleasant enough music, less striking than the Keats setting, and perhaps a bit too intensely personal to be readily comprehensible by listeners unfamiliar with its underlying story – which, Simon explains, has to do with his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and his mother’s heart attack. The third work on the disc, Un Buen Piola Porteño (2001), is personal in a different way, being connected with Simon’s interest in learning the Argentine tango. Inevitably, a “tribute” work of this sort bears comparison, for good or ill, with the music of Ástor Piazzolla. But in this case, there is little in common between Piazzolla’s creations and Simon’s. Simon offers three tango themes in a specific order, then “unwinds” them in the opposite sequence, in the middle creating an affecting slower episode. Simon’s music is easy to listen to, confidently tonal and redolent of pop influences. If it is never profound, neither is it ever difficult for the sake of difficulty.

     The music of James M. Stephenson is similarly accessible, although less steeped in traditional tonality, on the basis of a new Cedille recording consisting mostly of world premières. Liquid Melancholy, although certainly concerto-ish, is neither particularly melancholy nor especially liquid-like – indeed, at times Stephenson seems to write against the natural flowing line of the clarinet in order to elicit a particular effect, as when he has the instrumental sound leaping about, oboe-like, in the work’s finale. The music certainly demands considerable control from the soloist, in all the clarinet’s registers, and John Bruce Yeh provides that to perfection: as a sheer display of technical skill (not merely virtuosity), this is a most impressive performance. Yeh does equally well in the other extended work here, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which is also a world première recording. The able partnership of Patrick Godon makes this truly a work of cooperation, and the music is lyrically appealing to a greater extent than is that of the concerto. Actually, “liquid melancholy” is a phrase (originally from the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451) that is more applicable to the first two movements of the four-movement sonata than it is to the concerto that uses the words as its title. In the sonata, though, Stephenson does an abrupt about-face in the third movement, to such an extent that the opening of this movement sounds as if it is being played on a flute. The last movement, with its jazz inflections and high level of sensitivity to the clarinet’s warmth, is a charmer, and Yeh, the work’s dedicatee and its first performer, plays it with smooth beauty that is thoroughly appealing. The shorter works on the disc also show how adept Stephenson is at writing for all the sounds and moods of the clarinet. There are two more world première recordings here: Last Chants, which percolates along nicely in a blend of subtle percussive sounds with themes derived from Near Eastern music; and Fantasie, a blend of a different sort, mixing typical three-quarter-time forms such as waltz and scherzo in sensitive scoring that neatly partners the clarinet and piano. The other two works on the disc are the only ones that have been recorded before. Colors uses oboe as well as clarinet – Stephenson writes well for both – plus string quartet, in four movements that are intended (a bit like those in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments) to reflect the emotional connotations of specific colors. “Red,” of course, is angry; “Blue” is, well, bluesy; “Green” is pleasantly outdoorsy; and “White” is bright and upbeat. The work is very enjoyable to hear and best not taken too seriously. Also on the disc is the very short Étude Caprice, a delightful little encore (although not placed last on the CD) that gives Yeh a considerable workout that appears not to trouble him at all. Nor will it trouble listeners, who will find its compressed capriciousness thoroughly satisfying as a kind of auditory dessert.

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