December 28, 2023


Douglas Boyce: A Book of Songs; Scriptorium; Ars Poetica. Robert Baker, tenor; Molly Orlando, piano; Byrne:Kozar:Duo (Corrine Byrne, soprano; Andy Kozar, trumpet); Marlanda Dekine, speaker; Nurit Pacht, violin; Daniel Lippel, guitar; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Shawn E. Okpebholo: lullaby | ballad | spiritual; Joshua Burel: Voyage; Margi Griebling-Haigh: Usonian Games; Timothy Hagen: Birds of Maycomb; Craig Michael Davis: Clockwork No. 5. Elicio Winds (Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, flute; Kathleen Carter Bell, oboe; Conor Bell, bassoon). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Justin Dello Joio: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, “Oceans Apart”; Due Per Due; Blue and Gold Music. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert; Carter Brey, cello; Christopher O’Riley, piano; American Brass Quintet (Kevin Cobb and Raymond Mase, trumpets; David Wakefield, French horn; Michael Powell, tenor trombone; John Rojak, bass trombone); Colin Fowler, organ. Bridge Records. $16.99.

     Contemporary composers continue, often with some success, to look for interesting ways of combining instruments – especially in chamber-sized ensembles – to produce intriguing sound worlds to illustrate their musical thoughts. Douglas Boyce’s three works on a New Focus Recordings release are mainly concerned with ways in which the human voice interacts with specific instruments to explore and interpret texts by Marlanda Dekine, Melissa Range, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, and BJ Ward. A Book of Songs (2019) uses the most-traditional art-song combination on the CD: tenor (Robert Baker) and piano (Molly Orlando). The cascading piano interestingly opens all three songs, but the pervasive dissonance and singsong vocals are straightforward elements of modern classical music, as are the rather obvious words. Scriptorium (2021) combines soprano (Corrine Byrne) with trumpet (Andy Kozar) in four movements dominated by the clarity of vocal sound (although the actual spoken words are anything but clear) while the trumpet, often muted, sets up aural backgrounds that vary among the songs – and comes across most effectively on the few occasions on which it does come to the forefront. The words are generally treated as syllabifications of notes rather than sources of meaning; indeed, the trumpet tends to sound as if it is reaching for meaning while the voice is largely indifferent to it. Ars Poetica (2021) consists of nine short-to-very-short pieces in which Dekine declaims her own words as violin, guitar and cello provide acoustic support. The dissonances and technique extensions of the instruments are unsurprising in this context, and the nature of the verbiage is straightforwardly (if somewhat self-consciously) modern: “I am swift as the spaceships behind my eyelids,” “there are words crawling around to be picked up,” “these are loops we are living in,” “the writing is best when I don’t know where I’m going.” It is all very up-to-date and earnest, insisting throughout on its meaningfulness and contemporary relevance. Ars Poetica is a structurally well-developed piece, the five vocal portions separated by four instrumental interludes that contrast well with each other and set scenes distinct from those of the movements including words. Although more successful, all in all, than the other two works on the disc, Ars Poetica is nevertheless the sort of piece that will appeal only to listeners already committed to the cause of contemporary vocal-led chamber music – indeed, only to those who believe such music is a cause.

     The three instruments featured on a Blue Griffin Recordings CD are all winds – flute, oboe and bassoon – and their sound is, inevitably, quite different from that of the three used by Boyce in Ars Poetica. The members of Elicio Winds blend and contrast their instruments in five pieces written specifically for them. Shawn E. Okpebholo’s lullaby | ballad | spiritual (the spelling and layout of the title are affectations) is based on Alabama folk songs and pleasantly blends elements of traditional Americana with opportunities for the instruments to shine both individually and as a group. Joshua Burel’s Voyage is one of several recent works inspired by the journey of the Voyager spacecraft – and one that, like others, considers the loneliness of the deep-space probes as reflective of human loneliness on the planet they left behind. The anthropomorphic nature of the concept does not come through in the three-movement work, but the movements themselves are nicely contrasted, with the second, Hurtling through space, using the instruments especially well. Margi Griebling-Haigh’s Usonian Games has a title referring to certain designs by Frank Lloyd Wright – and again, although the music does not really evoke the concepts and structural ideas of Wright in any direct way, it uses the instruments well and merges them in some interesting ways, especially in the second movement, Perpendicularities. Timothy Hagen’s Birds of Maycomb is supposed to blend characters from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with actual birds found in Alabama: each of its four movements bears the name of a character and a specific bird. Like the Burel and Griebling-Haigh works, Hagen’s requires thorough familiarity with the composer’s inspiration and thinking when constructing the music – otherwise, little of the intended effect of the material comes through, although the movements themselves are nicely contrasted in tempo and overall instrumental sound. These three middle-of-the-CD works do not come across as well to listeners uninitiated in their points of origin as do the opening piece by Okpebholo and the closing one, Clock No. 5 by Craig Michael Davis. This is a one-movement evocation of a beach landscape from sunrise to sunset, and even though the precise meanings of portions of the music are less than clear, the overall feelings of a distinct starting point and end point, and of a journey of some sort between them, come through with sufficient clarity to carry along an audience without requiring listeners to familiarize themselves in advance with the piece’s foundational concept.

     It is a five-piece chamber group – plus an added organ – on which Justin Dello Joio focuses in Blue and Gold Music (2009), heard as one of the three works on a Bridge Records release. Largely gentle and evocative, although not necessarily of the specific colors of its title (or of any colors), the work is effective in its handling of the brass instruments, although the organ comes through as something of an afterthought – despite the way it creates some interesting aural color that goes beyond what the American Brass Quintet players can produce on their own. Dello Joio uses a more-conventional instrumental combination for Due Per Due (2011), a two-movement work for cello and piano. The first movement, Elegia: To an Old Musician, bounces here and there in intriguing ways, with there apparently still being plenty of pep in the “old musician” of its title – but with cello and piano seeming to inhabit somewhat different sonic and emotional worlds, rather than a single one formed by their merger. The second movement, Moto in Perpetuo, offers both the players elements of perpetual motion to explore – but, again, they seem to be playing largely independent musical lines rather than exploring elements of a joint endeavor. The longest work on this very short CD (it lasts only 40 minutes) is not chamber music at all but a piano concerto (2022) conceived on a grand scale and played with flair by the soloist for whom it was composed, Garrick Ohlsson. Whether there is anything particularly oceanic about this work is a matter of opinion: the piece is pervasively atonal and textural, and there is some lyricism in it here and there, but it is not impressionistic (or expressionistic) in any significant way. It is packed to the gills with percussion, so much so that three percussionists are required to handle everything from vibraphone and xylophone to four types of cymbals to tam tam and tom tom and nipple gong and much more. But the concerto is not brashly loud or aurally demanding, although its overall impression is one of drama. The piano is mostly front-and-center despite the very large orchestra, the pacing is quick throughout, and there is some sense of structure through a recurrence of early material near the end – but all in all, the work is more of a sonic experience than an emotional one, despite its sensitive presentation by Ohlsson and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Alan Gilbert. This is certainly not a general-interest CD – its brief duration and inclusion of two-part and six-part chamber music with a full-orchestra work will likely make it of most interest to listeners already knowledgeable about Dello Joio’s music and wanting to hear his recent instrumental thoughts. For those who do know and care for this composer’s music, though, the chance to experience three of his very different pieces on a single disc will be welcome.

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