April 28, 2022


Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin, Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, and Joseph Lamb: Piano Music. Marilyn Nonken, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Margaret Brouwer: Rhapsodic Sonata; Declaration; I Cry—Summer 2020; The Lake; All Lines Are Still Busy. Sarah Beaty, mezzo-soprano; Brian Skoog, tenor; Mari Sato, narrator and violin; Eliesha Nelson, viola; Shuai Wang, piano. Naxos. $13.99.

Jeffrey Jacob: Symphony No. 6, “Sequoias”; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe; Two Pieces for Piano; String Quartet No. 2. Navona. $14.99.

James Dashow: Soundings in Pure Duration, Vol. 2. Manuel Zurria, bass flute; Nicholas Isherwood, bass-baritone; Enzo Filipetti, alto saxophone. Ravello. $19.99 (DVD).

     Composers have many reasons for choosing specific instruments or ensembles for their works, a primary one being the belief that particular instruments or groups are best-suited to communicate whatever a composer wants to express to an audience. In addition, composers who are also performers frequently create works that show their own abilities in the best possible light. Both of those factors were at play in the early 20th century among creators of the proto-jazz form of ragtime, which is fascinatingly explored on a Divine Art CD by pianist Marilyn Nonken. Interestingly, the best-known ragtime composer, Scott Joplin (1868-1917), played the violin and cornet – and was a singer. He was a capable enough pianist, but the piano was not his primary instrument. Yet it clearly fit what he was trying to do in his many rags, waltzes and other short character pieces. Other composers working on similar music sometimes collaborated with Joplin or sometimes had their works arranged by him, and Nonken’s disc provides an unusual opportunity to hear some of those collaborations and arrangements. Of the 17 works on the CD, nine are by Joplin himself: Eugenia, Stoptime Rag, Magnetic Rag, Binks’ Waltz, Bethena—A Concert Waltz, Pleasant Moments—Ragtime Waltz, Antoinette—March and Two-Step, Solace—A Mexican Serenade, and Reflection Rag—Syncopated Musings. The eight other pieces combine Joplin’s creativity what that of four other composers: Louis Chauvin (1882-1908), Scott Hayden (1882-1915), Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), and Arthur Marshall (1881-1968). All the pieces here date to the early 20th century, having been written between 1901 and 1917 (the ragtime era was essentially over by 1920); and all share similar sensibilities and a similar approach to melody and rhythm. What Nonken does so well in her performances is to differentiate the individual pieces, giving each its own character and distinctiveness. With most of the works cut from essentially the same mold, this is by no means easy to do; and there is little sense of genuinely different compositional styles among the composers here – everything that is not by Joplin sounds distinctly, well, Joplinesque. But this is by no means a bad thing. It underlines the collaborative nature of this type of music in this time period, and it shows quite well that rags, two-steps, waltzes and marches communicate their sentiments, from joie de vivre to melancholy, very effectively on the piano, which had never been used quite this way before – and which was soon to become the anchor of jazz when that form developed, in part, from works like those heard here.

     The piano is also a communicative instrument of choice for Margaret Brouwer (born 1940) in most of the works on a new Naxos CD – but not the piano alone. These pieces, all of them written in the 21st century (and all of them world première recordings), employ the piano in an instrumental (rather than compositional) collaboration, mixing it with strings and voices in various combinations. The three-movement Rhapsodic Sonata (2011/2016) is for piano and viola – an apt combination in light of the work’s title, with the viola’s mellow tone and warm capabilities clearly able to be complemented by the piano’s versatility. The discursive first movement is as long as the other two together, but the slow central movement reflects the “rhapsodic” content best. The finale is more puckish than rhapsodic, with some piano touches reminiscent of ragtime and jazz, and a viola part that mostly ignores the instrument’s smooth middle register in favor of high notes, glissandi and thematic angularity. This is well-balanced, well-crafted music that stands up well on repeated hearings, and is the strongest work on this (+++) CD. Unfortunately, the disc is dominated by a trio of more-dogmatic, less-engaging pieces that encapsulate the usual “isn’t society terrible?” attitudes of far too many otherwise creative artists. Declaration (2005), for mezzo-soprano, violin and piano, uses the all-too-commonplace technique of incorporating Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence into a work that also includes texts by others – here, by Ann Woodward (born 1939), David Adams (born 1955), and Brouwer herself. Unsurprisingly, those more-recent words bemoan the imperfections of society (specifically, American society) and cast a pall of gloom over the naïveté of any attempt to form “a more perfect union.” I Cry—Summer 2020 (2020), for violin and piano, is a short, dour, heartfelt, emotionally overdone lament for the confluence of events that many people felt at the time of the work’s composition, ranging from pandemic restrictions to enforced isolation to racial injustice. Its wordless lament makes matters seem even worse than they were. The Lake (2019), for tenor and piano, with text by Brouwer, is – like Declaration – a piece about how awful it is that utopia remains unachieved and that ambitious wishes for things to be better have fallen short. This piece starts as a song about the beauty of a lake and of nature, then turns into a diatribe about pollution and the evils of human endeavor. Self-flagellants will gravitate to this as well as to Declaration and I Cry—Summer 2020. Brouwer does have a sense of humor and wit, though, and it appears in the final piece on this disc – the only one not using piano. All Lines Are Still Busy (2019) encapsulates a typical attempt to reach “customer service” by telephone, including “on hold” music that happens to be Pachelbel’s most-famous Canon. The dehumanizing effect of this sort of attempt to reach out to a business comes through clearly, but without the sort of underlying despair that permeates most of the other pieces on this CD – resulting in a refreshing change of pace after several dour works of unrelenting bitterness.

     Like Brouwer’s dismal, politically correct laments about nature and humanity, the pieces by Jeffrey Jacob on a new Navona disc are inspired by the natural world. But Jacob (born 1948) manages to see and communicate some of the uplift that humans can derive from nature despite the depredations that people have visited upon it and are now trying, more successfully at some times than others, to mitigate. Brouwer uses a variety of instruments to make his points – and, as a pianist himself, unsurprisingly gives the piano a central role in three of the four works on the CD. Indeed, Two Pieces for Piano is for piano solo and is performed by Jacob himself. Here, the crepuscular Forest Murmurs is followed by The Breath of the Earth – the first piece contrasting short thematic elements with longer ones, the second representing multiple characteristics of the wind through well-contrasted chordal and flowing passages. The forest is also the topic of Jacob’s Symphony No. 6, “Sequoias,” another piece that includes Jacob on piano, in this case with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. Here Jacob shows his awareness of threats to the natural world – from climate change, among other factors – but even though one movement is called Under Siege and is intense and agitated, the other three speak to the beauties of a forest of sequoias and the transcendence available there if people will only pay attention and see beyond themselves to the beauties of the Moist Stars (the last movement’s title). The symphony’s tone painting is on the obvious side, and its message is somewhat overdone, but the music is at least intermittently effective and does not fall into constantly condemnatory mode. The third piece in which Jacob performs as pianist is the Bartók-inspired Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe, in which David Spalding conducts the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. This is a two-movement work in which the shorter first movement, labeled Taut, Anxious, reflects its title almost too well: its percussive effects are comparatively predictable, although the lyricism of the strings is quite effective and somewhat out of keeping with Jacob’s expressiveness in other works. The second movement, Tranquil, Graceful, is intended to reflect the stillness of Yosemite, and while it does not quite do that – it moves ahead a bit too forcefully – it does offer a purity of line and gentleness of impression that bring listeners a welcome sense of peace and uplift. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe is the most-successful of the works on this (+++) CD, the most consistent in communication and the best at utilizing its instrumental complement. The fourth and last work on the disc is the only one that dispenses with piano. String Quartet No. 2, played by the New England Quartet, is in two movements – whose titles are very much like those in Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe. The first quartet movement is labeled Tense, Expectant; the second, Pensive, Nostalgic. Both movements follow their titles rather closely, beginning respectively in anxiety and inward-looking uncertainty, then moving toward something more affirmative by the end. The quartet is well-constructed but a bit too heart-on-its-sleeve emotional to be fully engaging. Nevertheless, it – like the other music on this disc – shows how well Jacob is able to delve into emotions communicated by the specific instrumental complements that he chooses to use to convey them.

     James Dashow (born 1944) is interested primarily in expression through electro-acoustical means, and a Ravello DVD called Soundings in Pure Duration, Vol. 2 shows what that entails. Why a DVD? The medium is used to offer five pieces twice each, once in surround-sound mixdowns (“5.0 surround”) and once in a stereo format that has been enhanced (“widened”). Listeners not interested in the technical elements of this release are not the audience for this (+++) recording, which is strictly for those “in the know” about such matters and enamored of composers who create their own creative approaches (Dashow’s is called the Dyad System). The specific Soundings in Pure Duration presented here are offered in the order of No. 9 (2016-2017), No. 8 (2015-2016), No. 7 (2014), and No. 10 (2020); they are followed by a work from 1999 whose lower-case title, which begins with an ellipsis, is …at other times, the distances. This earlier piece was written for quadraphonic electronic sounds; the four Soundings were created for octophonic electronics plus, in three of the four, other components: bass flute (No. 9), bass-baritone voice (No. 8), and alto saxophone (No. 7). As in many avant-garde compositions, the technical complexity of the works’ creation is fundamental to their effect, and interest in compositional and recording techniques is necessary for listeners to appreciate and accept whatever communicative material the composer is offering. Thus, the “attack pattern canon” between flute and electronics is an important element of No. 9, the textural back-and-forth alternations are crucial to accepting and making sense of the words by Stephen Dobyns in No. 8, and so on. Listeners not firmly committed to the avant-garde in music and not deeply interested in the conceptualization of electro-acoustic compositional techniques will find nothing here to convince them to become engaged in the material: for all its very clever construction and personalized approach to creativity, the music sounds a great deal like many, many other electro-acoustical creations – including parodies of electro-acoustic music. This sort of material is about as highly rarefied an auditory experience as a listener can have in the contemporary-music world: either one gravitates toward works of this sort for their unusual sonorities and sometimes surprising combinations of acoustic and electronic elements, or one realizes within a few minutes, if not a few seconds, that the sound world of Dashow is simply not one whose form of expression carries any particular meaning, importance, or enjoyment.

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