September 30, 2021


Juliana Hall: Letters from Edna; Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush; Theme in Yellow; Cameos. Molly Fillmore, soprano; Elvia Puccinelli, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Alastair White: WOAD—Seven Scenes from the Tale of Tam Lin. Kelly Poukens, soprano; Suzy Vanderheiden, alto saxophone. Métier. $18.99.

Music for Saxophone and Piano by Kevin Day, Leonard Bernstein, Olivia Kieffer, Lucie Robert, Bruno Mantovani, and Edvard Grieg. Nicki Roman, saxophone; Casey Dierlam Tse, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

     Contemporary composers continue to find inspiration in the words and stories of the past, but generally try to give them a modern expository twist or two. Recent song cycles by Juliana Hall (born 1958), for example, are based on some writings by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and other well-known sources for musical treatment. Letters from Edna (1993) consists of eight songs on Millay texts, including three drawn from her epistolary love affair with Arthur Davison Ficke. The sequence of the songs has nothing apparent to do with their content, which ranges from the mundane (“Spring is here and I could be very happy except…”) to the philosophical; and the three Ficke songs are given out of chronological order and separated by other material (the latest Ficke piece dates to 1943, two years before Ficke’s suicide: “I have wanted so often to write you”). The settings are pleasant, by and large, with varying degrees of consonance and dissonance, and with vocal technique ranging from the straightforward to the swooning-and-swooping style often associated with more-modern art songs. The last song, “To Mother,” is the most affecting in its simplicity. Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush (1989) has seven songs set to words – from letters, not poems – by Emily Dickinson. The settings vary in tempo and in use of the piano, which contributes more here than to the Millay songs. Again, the connection among the texts is pretty much arbitrary: because both the Dickinson and Millay cycles involve letters rather than poems, one may expect the prose chosen to build toward or circle around a particular point, but in neither case does this occur. Theme in Yellow (1990) does, however, turn to poetry, its six songs using words by Millay, Amy Lowell, and Carl Sandburg. Here the color connection is the unifying theme (“Ripe Corn,” “Haze Gold,” and so on). Delicacy and an overall pastoral feeling distinguish these settings, and the vocal lines tend to be more forthright and audibly clearer than those in the prose-based Millay and Dickinson cycles. The fourth cycle on this Blue Griffin Records disc is based on poems by soprano Molly Fillmore herself, although Cameos (2018) is written for mezzo-soprano (as are all these cycles except the Dickinson-letters-based one). Cameos is the most deliberately contemporary of the works here in its approach and orientation: its six songs use words Fillmore wrote in tribute to six women artists, and the music is more dissonant and aggressive than anything else on the CD. Of course, the common “inclusive” bona fides are here, with Fillmore careful to include black and Native American artists. The most-interesting setting focuses on symbolist Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), and in general the songs are more effective when they explore the artists’ own themes instead of coming across as advocacy pieces in and of themselves. The performances by Fillmore and pianist Elvia Puccinelli are fine and clearly dedicated to the spirit of Hall’s settings, whose unevenness often seems intentional. The audience for contemporary song cycles tends to be quite limited, but its members will likely find a good deal worthwhile in this recording.

     The instrumentation is more unusual in WOAD by Alastair White (born 1988): soprano voice and alto saxophone. The subject matter is older than anything set by Hall: White’s basis is the medieval Scottish ballad Tam Lin. And his approach is more deliberately “contemporary” in sound, featuring plenty of atonality and lots of nonverbal expression. The most-interesting material on the Métier release is the way White intermingles the instruments – for he generally treats the voice as an instrument rather than a presenter of narrative. Unsurprisingly, White twists, turns and reinterprets the original Tam Lin story, in which the title character is rescued from death at the hands of the Fairy Queen through the ability of his pregnant human lover, Janet, to hold onto him even as the fairies change Tam Lin into a variety of frightening and possibly deadly shapes to try to throw Janet off and retain Tam Lin for their own purposes. This is quite a good story that has inspired various treatments, novelistic and otherwise, for it contains enough drama and fairy-tale elements to please some writers and enough female empowerment and assertiveness to resonate with others. For White, though, the story is a gateway to surrealism and to a reconsideration of reality, its focus the invented question of whether Tam Lin really changes or the world around him does. The underlying narrative is straightforward and not particularly adaptable to the sort of portentousness that White wants it to have, so he loads down the music with electronic effects and has soprano Kelly Poukens and saxophonist Suzy Vanderheiden sound sometimes in support of each other, more often at cross-purposes, and frequently as if they are engaging in two different works at the same time. This is one of those pieces that insist on being seen as avant-garde and also insist on having listeners try to figure out their genre – opera, song cycle, cantata, declamatory story, or some mixture of those. The reality, though, is that the specific genre does not matter, and neither does White’s insistence on being looked at as “with it” in whatever genre WOAD inhabits. The question is just what the work communicates, and how effectively, and it is precisely in communication that it falls short. It is intellectually intriguing and at times quite creative in its use of voice and alto saxophone, but nothing in WOAD really touches listeners except in a rather cold and reserved way. It is easy to see White attempting to dress up and restate the old ballad’s meaning, much harder to see why he bothers or why the audience should care.

     The saxophone itself is the “voice” on a new Ravello CD featuring an eclectic mixture of works that saxophonist Nicki Roman seems to have chosen simply as a personal recital – so personal, in fact, that the last piece is Roman’s own arrangement of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, the sixth of his Lyric Pieces. The rather arbitrary nature of the mixture of material here means the disc will be of considerable interest to saxophone players but somewhat less to non-performers. Still, the CD has much to recommend it. It opens with Kevin Day’s Unquiet Waters for alto saxophone and piano, which offers some rather straightforward mood painting in the first movement (“Fast, Turbulent”) and the last (“Disturbed”), while never providing the expected contrast or relief in the second (marked “Still,” it is anything but). Next is an alto-saxophone version of Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the composer/conductor’s first work to be published (in 1942, although it was mainly written in 1941). The piece is not highly individuated, but it shows how well Bernstein had absorbed influences from earlier in the 20th century, and it sounds effective enough on alto saxophone, if not quite as expressive as in its original version. Then comes Floating Bones by Olivia Kiefer – a three-movement work for alto sax alone that certainly explores the instrument’s range and requires skillful application of multiple performance techniques (plus some speaking by the player). The piece is well-crafted and at times inventive, although more involving for performer than for listener. Lucie Robert’s Cadenza is not, despite its title, for alto sax alone, but for sax and piano. A single movement that lasts as long as Kieffer’s three, it is even more of a tour de force for the performer and is somewhat exhausting for listeners, never letting up in intensity and insistence. Bruno Mantovani’s Bug is, like Kiefer’s work, a solo. Its title refers not to an insect but to a computer bug, and the piece is suitably discontinuous, complex and disjointed – it is clever and highly virtuosic, although a bit of a chore to hear. After this, Roman’s arrangement of Grieg’s work – for soprano rather than alto saxophone, plus piano – is an unalloyed pleasure, its simplicity and gentleness communicating much more directly and effectively than most of the far more complex and driven pieces heard earlier on the CD. Given the athleticism that Roman has displayed in most of the music on this disc, the gentility called forth here makes a welcome conclusion to a variegated recital that saxophonists will relish – although it is something of an auditory mixed bag for a more-general audience.

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