Monday, June 16, 2014

CD Review: Songs of Madeleine Dring (Wanda Brister, mezzo-soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Timothy Hoekman, piano)

This two-disc set, from the Cambria label, comes to me at a very propitious time: next year I’m teaching an art song survey at the University of New Hampshire and was hoping to find some conservative but finely crafted examples from the twentieth century. Well, I’ve found some. Madeleine Dring (1923-1977) studied at the Royal College of Music: violin with W. H. Reed, orchestration with Gordon Jacob, and composition with Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams. She married Roger Lord, then principal oboist of the London Symphony Orchestra; according to Wanda Brister—an associate professor of voice at Florida State University, one of the singers on this excellent set, and not least an authority on the composer’s work—Dring wrote music “for the sheer joy of it.” Only four of the songs were published during her lifetime. (Josef Weinberger issued the late Five Betjeman Songs posthumously in 1980, and Thames Publishing Company began issuing collections of the songs in 1982, finishing the project only in 1999.) 

These songs bear a superficial resemblance to Roger Quilter with one important difference: they’re much, much better. The text-setting is perfect, the vocal lines eminently singable, and the piano accompaniments eclectic, always harmonious, and traditional-sounding without devolving into kitsch (as Quilter does too often). There are 50-some songs in all, spanning Dring’s short career, and not a bad one in the lot. I will describe two incredible examples from many. In the “Willow Song” from volume 1 (text from Shakespeare’s Othello), successions of third-related minor harmonies alternate with a very deft rehearing of English Renaissance song—Vaughan Williams offers the example, I’m sure, but Dring executes the alchemy with an enviably natural assurance that appeals to the listener more quickly than many songs from her teacher.  In “Through the Centuries,” from Four Night Songs (ca. 1976-1977), Dring’s harmonic vocabulary has become even more colorful, but the style of the music shows clear ties to the popular song tradition without simply repeating its tricks and conventions to no purpose: the turns of phrase respond simply and effectively to the various twists of Michael Armstrong’s poignant verse.

Brister sings a little over half of the songs; tenor Stanford Olsen (of the University of Michigan), the remainder. Both are exquisite artists who respond beautifully to the texts; I sense in Brister a particularly strong attachment to the music, which no doubt owes to her long acquaintance with the work as a performer and scholar; this composer fully deserves her excellent advocacy. Brister’s colleague at Florida State, Timothy Hoeckman, handles the piano accompaniment with great skill and beauty.

Trio Vocalise: Rachmaninoff, Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, McLarry, Bozza, Baldwin, Laitman

The medium of voice, bassoon, and piano is an unusual one, to be sure. And yet it’s not so outlandish as one initially expects—especially when the performers are as good as Trio Vocalise, the artists who recently produced an attractive program for Mark Records.

Much of the CD is taken up with duets. There are a number of arrangements of songs and other instrumental duets for bassoon and piano, including two songs by Rachmaninoff (the famous "Vocalise" and "Do Not Sing, My Beauty"), an Aria by Bozza (originally for saxophone and piano), Fauré’s Piece (originally another vocalise), and of all things the aria “Mon coeur souvre á ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalilah. Bassoonist Scott Pool, presently an assistant professor at University of Texas Arlington, plays them all with a restrained lyricism and very agreeable tone. Here and elsewhere he is very ably assisted by the pianist Natsuki Fukasawa (who among other positions serves on the artist faculty for the Orfeo International Music Festival). I am amazed at how beautiful her tone is despite the obvious limitations of the instrument and/or the inadequate miking for the recording.

Beverly McLarry’s unusual yet ingratiating Edgar Allan Poe Songs offers a very different kind of duet, for voice and bassoon. The distinguished mezzo-soprano Wanda Brister, a member of Florida State University’s faculty, performs the cycle superbly: her tone is rich, even creamy; she relishes the touches of humor McLarry brings to the opening song, “Thou Wouldst be Loved” and makes a good deal of sense out of the odd, mercurial setting of “Eldorado,” which I think aims to suggest that the persona starts his search for the fabled city as a young, naive man and gradually declines.

All three musicians unite for Chabrier’s L’invitation au voyage, a ravishing example of French song with a bassoon obbligato that makes its contribution simply and beautifully, just as one would expect from the refined composer. Here Brister’s luminous voice, impeccable diction, and compelling interpretation steal the show. The three artists are on more equal footing in the charming cycle Of Flowers and Thorns, by Daniel Baldwin. In short, this charming program demonstrates the considerable timbral resources of voice, bassoon, and piano, and the performers’ commitment to new music will, I hope, inspire many other composers to write works for them.

To purchase:

Dionysis Boukouvalas, English Gardens

English Gardens is a CD on the Thalia label from 2011 by my friend Dionysis Boukouvalas. I promised him I’d write a review for my blog, but a number of momentous events in 2012 prevented me from finishing my task until now. All the works on the CD were captured in concert performances from 2004 to 2008, and a number of them suggest at least a partial role for improvisation. Boukouvalas is a wonderful pianist and, even acknowledging my own limited experience with the art, an inventive and surprising improviser. 

The CD’s eight tracks all cover very similar expressive terrain but from a number of different perspectives, so that the resulting program makes for a varied and satisfying concert experience. “A Dream Within a Dream” (2004) is the earliest work on the release. It is a post-minimal study beginning on a single D-major extended triad; gradually, he introduces a moving bass that reinterprets the upper parts into different harmonies, along with the introduction of a couple new pitches. Boukouvalas’s sense for harmonic change and constantly shifting but familiar patterns is quite deft. As the piece unfolds, small melodic motives eventually appear in the upper voices, and the rhythmic patterns become less regular and more expansive. This landscape is one familiar to many post-minimal works: Boukouvalas makes the experience more singular through his melodic ideas, which develop in unexpected ways, and through the ever-expanding garlands of sound articulated by the rhythmic patterning. 

Two of the works on the program exceed ten minutes—“Rustle of Light” (2005) is another essay in patterns that begins much like “A dream”; soon, however, the note choices introduce a few lovely cross-relations that perhaps suggest the choice of the album’s title: the expansive textures and wistful optimism evoke both William Byrd and Michael Tippett (especially his first sonata). “Autumn Path” (also 2005), my favorite track on the disc, is even more dynamic: a ruminative, mysterious opening with slow, resonant chords leads to an undulating, somewhat nostalgic-sounding melody. After five minutes the piece appears to reach its close, but one tiny element in that apparent final moment gives way to another lengthy section that begins by questioning what has come before and then reinforcing a feeling of even greater loss. The greatest surprise comes within the last 90 seconds: an explosion of sonority and figuration that ends in an ecstatic flourish in the keyboard’s highest register. What’s so compelling to me about this form is its inevitability: after my initial surprise, I couldn’t imagine the piece unfolding any other way, and experiencing it again and again makes the impression even more satisfying.  

The other works, while less ambitious, are equally effective. “Voyage to Innocence,” for instance, starts with a freer and somewhat more rhapsodic melody with spare but poignant accompanying chords. A simpler and eloquent melody contrasts from time to time and eventually prevails over the more rhapsodic, gestural ideas. It ends ambiguously: after all, innocence simply exists; it doesn’t need to make a grand statement. English Gardens, then, reveals a wonderful expressive range in Boukouvalas’s work that’s very hard to achieve.

For purchase, see

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Zen and the Art of John Cage (1)

I’ve written John Cage. Now I have to write Zen.

A writing on Zen is not a writing about Zen.

A writing on Zen is not a writing on Zen.

To write Zen comes closer to what writing Zen is.

It is writing to feel the pen as it contacts the paper.

It is writing to hear the sound of putting pen to paper.

It is writing to feel the paper in contact with the pen.

Making the letters carefully, I see these marks as beautiful in themselves, as if the words they form are incidental.

It is hearing the sounds both in- and outside my house.

It is feeling my legs as they are curled up on the loveseat, the tension in my right thumb and index finger as I hold the pen, the tension in my left hand as I hold the notebook open.

It is relaxing my right hand but writing legibly.

It is taking time to write by hand.

[And if it’s here, it is taking more time to type it.] 

It is writing, going on without stopping, so that the process is like breathing (or walking).

Once I write Zen, does Cage become Zen and Zen become Cage? And then do they become themselves again?

How do I edit something like this? Does it ever become part of my book, or is it simply an experience I have in order to write my book?

When I write a book, I am always writing about myself.

Therefore, I am Zen and Zen is I.

Read every day; write every day.

Enjoy the silence.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Pleasures of Organization

As I've written elsewhere, tonight I took six sheets of 20 x 23 inch paper (made by the good Post-it people) and wrote down all my professional obligations (plus a couple of personal goals and side-projects, not strictly professional), along with the date it needs to be complete or an estimation of such a date. This took me up to February, 2015, when my projected song cycle, Loss and Magic, will be premiered at UNH.

Strangely enough, this process gave me an unbelievable amount of comfort. Yes, the list is ridiculously long, and if I can get through what I have, I am going to have to learn to say no more often in the future; but somehow it looks oddly manageable.

Next task--more arduous: break down each obligation into a series of manageable tasks, estimate how long each task will take, and plug these tasks into a weekly or semi-weekly schedule, depending on all the known deadlines. Starting that project tomorrow. Much of this way of thinking owes to my reading Eviatar Zerubavel's The Clockwork Muse, and my memories of those wonderful days when I was working a full-time job and coursework for two doctorates at Eastman. I had every minute scheduled and I was more productive than I've ever been. I recommend The Clockwork Muse to anyone that feels overwhelmed by their ambitions.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Music Appreciation

I've pretty much given up on the notion of a good textbook for music appreciation. I've looked at them all--indeed, my first experience with music history was with Charles Hoffer's Music Listening Today. But things have changed a lot since I was 10. For one thing, we ignore pop music (not to mention indie, world, and all sorts of other little sub-subgenres) at our peril. Non-music majors simply are not going to drop that music and embrace classical music anymore. Why not lead them to a deeper, richer experience of that non-classical music?

That's my plan, anyway, for this semester's class in appreciation, good old MUSI401 at UNH. Fortunately, this is an honors section, so the students are very motivated and very smart. I think they'll be able to help me find out exactly how best to teach this class. And I'm videotaping every class meeting so they (and I) are going to have a record. I'm also keeping a record of what I did, which I might make available for their use and which, I hope, will serve me when I try to organize this material further.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Pleasures of Long-Term Practicing

I’m continually amazed at my professional piano-playing colleagues, who are usually so busy that they must maximize the efficiency of their practicing in a way that’s completely beyond my imagination. Much of the time (or so it seems to me), they learn (or re-learn) music in days, at most a few weeks. Since they do this constantly, I suppose their muscle memory (and perhaps also their sight-reading ability) is more finely developed than mine.

Performance, much as I love it, can never occupy so much of my time that I can come close to these virtuosic powerhouses. But while that’s true, I can give myself a luxury that they can’t: I can learn pieces over a longer span of time—can, in a sense, live with the piece, or better, experience playing a particular piece as if it’s like getting to know someone. I first became aware of what that feels like when I began performing Two2 with Laurel back in 1993. After a couple of years not doing it, we got into the habit of playing it every year. It changes partially with us, partially with circumstances—for example, in the last couple of years, we tend to play it as the second half of an evening-length program (with Four6 as the first half). I think it works pretty well that way, although at some point I'd like to do the two piano parts of Music for _____ as Music for Two. It’s been a while since I listened to that piece, but I seem to remember it would make a good contrast with Two2.

Anyway, I found myself thinking about this afternoon when I had a sudden urge to practice some music that I’m playing for Nic Orovich in the spring. So far, the two works definitely on the program are Hindemith’s alt-horn sonata and Leslie Bassett’s trombone sonata. I played the latter many, many years ago while I was still in high school with Hugh Eddy, who I now see is the associate trombonist with the New York City Ballet orchestra (yay, Hugh!); I haven’t played it since. I was surprised today that the piece came back into my fingers after about 90 minutes. But I’m more glad that, now that it has, I have lots of time to spend with it as a piece of music—rather than finding myself fighting to perfect it the week before the performance. The Hindemith is new, but I’ve played so many of his sonatas that I feel as if I’m with an old friend every time I learn a new one.

This kind of practicing is surely a luxury; I can’t help feeling, though, that it gives people the chance to make a particular piece of music a part of their life. That’s something rather different from working full-time as a performing musician.