American Flute Quintets

Joan TOWER (b.1938)
Rising (2010) for flute and string quartet [16:09]
Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937)
Two Pieces (1918) for flute and string quartet [13:47]
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Theme and Variations, Op.80 for flute and string quartet [22:10]
Carol Wincenc (flute), Kevin Lawrence (violin), Carolyn Stuart (violin), Sheila Browne (viola), Brooks Whitehouse (cello).
rec. 19-21 December 2011, Watson Hall, UNCSA, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA.
BRIDGE 9373 [52:08]
Only the other day I had never heard of Joan Tower. Then I watched a BBC Proms on television during which they played one of Tower’s five Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. This was a nice touch following, as it did Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Now I have this disc and I read in the booklet notes that she has been described as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time”, then explaining how she takes issue with “qualifying designation ‘woman’”. I’m with her since no male composer would be given the designation as ‘male’ but just as ‘composer’ and, in any case, music cannot be said to be either male or female; it is just music. I don’t know what the New Yorker mean by “most successful” either but both of her works I have now heard are excellent in every way. The booklet includes her description of her pieceRising in which she explains the thinking behind it saying how she has always been interested in how music can “go up”. I’ve always found it staggering as to how composers can describe all kinds of things from emotion to movement in an art form with its own unique non-verbal ‘language’. Joan Tower mentions Beethoven as being a particular example of someone who understood all the elements involved in representing the action of rising (or falling). Though Haydn’s Sunrise quartet (Op.76 no.4) was given its title by a publisher its opening is a good example of music describing the action of rising as is Vaughan Williams’ The Lark ascending. Joan Tower’s Rising is a brilliant addition to these works. The music perfectly achieves its aim and the flute seems to be the ideal instrument to use for this purpose. It is an extremely evocative piece of great beauty which represents everything that is the best about contemporary music, namely that it is exploratory yet immediately accessible.
I have come across the composer Arthur Foote before and was struck by how much I enjoyed his music. This work confirms those feelings. The Two Pieces bear the titles Night Piece and Scherzo and are understandably among his most popular works. Night Piece is a simple title as befits a work that is as beautifully simple as it is simply beautiful. Long and flowing melodic lines led by mellifluous sounds from the flute are accompanied by the quartet. Then a gorgeous theme emanates from the violin which picks up the lead. The work ends with the five instruments together. Scherzo begins with a Dvořákian dumka which then leads into a dialogue among the instruments before a return to another dance-like theme. Foote was resolute in pursuing his own internal musical dictates resisting any pressure to conform to the current trends of his era. His music has deservedly achieved its status as incorporating the best tenets of American music; freedom and innovation.
If Joan Tower is known as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time” then surely Amy Beach must be another and she was the first American woman to compose any large-scale symphonic works and wrote over 300 works in total. Having to triumph over the constraints placed upon her first by an overbearing family and then by an arranged marriage to a surgeon 25 years her senior, Amy Beach, who took back her maiden name of Cheney after her husband died, wrote music that has endured and is becoming even better known today as more discs of her music appear. Her Theme and Variations, Op.80 is based, so I read in the booklet, on one of her own melodies, An Indian Lullaby which is treated to six variations and ends with a coda. The premise is that the women’s voices in the original implore the “forest breeze to lull the child to sleep with the soothing scent of pine needles”. The music is ravishing, with the flute playing the principle role though the other instruments do get their moments too, especially the cello, which has some achingly beautiful passages, particularly in variation number 5. Everything of Amy Beach that I have heard I have really enjoyed and this is another example of her huge talent. Women composers today are certainly more fortunate in their freedom to express themselves though it will still be a greater struggle for them than for men which is why they have to strive to be better than men - which often they are! - and Amy Beach is a shining example of those efforts. Her music is certainly up there with the best composed at the time and which has rightfully remained both successful and popular.
This is a wonderful disc and the music is brilliantly played by five highly talented musicians and Joan Tower herself is quoted as saying that flautist Carol Wincenc “could make Three Blind Mice sound like it came from Heaven!!” I must concur; she is one of a growing number of superb flautists making a name for themselves and encouraging composers to write music for them that further expands the repertoire which is a win-win situation for us all.
Steve Arloff 

A wonderful disc and the music is brilliantly played.