Five Composers And An Imagined New England Landscape
Every now and then I drop a new classical release in the player and find myself instantly delighted by new music. Such was the case earlier this summer when I lifted the Albany Records release “New World Serenade” off the stack, with its picturesque cover painting of the aurora borealis by 19th Century American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church.
A couple of names on the release were already familiar to me: Ellen Taafee Zwilich, and John Corigliano, whose clever, tuneful and funny “The Ghosts of Versailles” is among my favorite modern operas. But I had never heard any music by Byron Adams, or Oliver Caplan, and was relatively unfamiliar with Walter Piston, known as he may be to musicologists and professional chamber musicians.
Immediately I was taken by Adams’s “Serenade for Nine Instruments,” music that feels like a homemade quilt on a chilly fall afternoon. It’s not for nothing that I read American Public Media chose music by Adams to be featured on a Thanksgiving program in 2015. Strings, clarinet, flute and horn are matched well in Adams’s tribute to Czech music. The four-movement suite opens with an Allegro movement that flows like a gentle brook. The slightly melancholy ballade that follows leads into a playful Intermezzo of plucked strings and a warm melody traded by the clarinet and flute. The finale is a rousing outdoor adventure.
Of his “Lunastella Fuga,” composer Oliver Caplan writes in the liner notes that he was inspired by the dog days of summer and staring into the night sky. As the layered lines of the strings develop into a fugue, one can imagine stars, constellations, and the moon itself spiraling in on each other.
For “Snapshot: Circa 1909,” John Corigliano draws on family history, and even includes in his liner notes a photograph of his father and brother that inspired the music. He writes: “My father looked about eight years old, wearing knickers and earnestly bowing his violin, while my uncle, then a teenager, held a guitar in an aristocratic position and stared at the camera.” The piece for string quartet uses a strumming technique and features the solo violin throughout. Midway through its modest six-minute running time, as the cello plucks its strings, the solo line became so moving I could imagine I was listening back on a family melody from a century ago, and the piece ends with a beautiful musical sigh.
Piston’s “Divertimento for Nine Instruments” and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Prologue and Variations” round out the album. Zwilich’s music was the only piece that didn’t grab me; its drama, while effective, was too strident after an otherwise peaceful collection of chamber music that feels distinctly of imagined New England landscapes.
NOTE: The album is also available as a digital download. If I had to pick one piece to add to your collection, I'd go for the Byron Adams.