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Waking the Sparrows
William NEIL (b. 1954)
Out of Darkness into Light (2013) for violin, saxophones, bassoons and digital acoustics [24:03]
Andrew YORK (b. 1958)
Open the River for voice, guitar and violin [6:19]
Jin Jing LUO (b. 1952)
A Song of Unending Sorrow for soprano and guitar [12:00]
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Three Cabaret Songs (arr. Michael Lorimer) – Waitin’ [1:52], Song for Black Max [3:22], Amor [3:26]
David KECHLEY (b. 1947)
Waking the Sparrows for soprano and guitar (2013) [22:49]
Duo Sureņo (Nancy King, soprano, Robert Nathanson, guitar)
Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi (violin)
Laurent Estoppey (saxophone)
Helena Kopchick Spencer (bassoon, contra-bassoon)
Recording details not provided

This CD, largely devoted to works for soprano and guitar, takes it name from the song-cycle by David Kechley, which ends the disc. The composers represented are American or have American connections.

The disc opens with a large-scale single movement setting by William Neil of a poem by Malgosia Sawczuk entitled Out of the Darkness into Light. Sawczuk was restoring a church in Chicago whilst pregnant, very demanding work both physically and mentally. The poem is written from the point of view of her (at first) unborn child “Mother, mother can you hear me when at lonely night…”. The music takes the text through passion, joy, anxiety and pain wonderfully conveyed by soprano Nancy King. The text ends with ‘I am alive… You are alive… I hear your voice” and we hear the laugh of a young child across the haunting final musical landscape. The score is partially improvised and includes the composer adding digitally processed sounds weaving around the saxophone’s keening melodies and the deep heartburn of contra-bassoon. The more I listened the more it fascinated. I shall look out for the recording of Neil’s Rhapsody for Violin and orchestra.

The poem Open the River set by Grammy award winning composer Andrew York is by William Merwin. It is one for which you can perceive a meaning but can never quite grasp its full implications. Adding to its mystery, and setting it for a rather “funky guitar” and a more lyrical violin, York includes spoken passages. After the poem has gone through once it is then spoken over an atmospheric ostinato. It works better than my description may sound.
Jing Luo was born in Beijing but has worked much in America. She has received several awards and commissions from American orchestras and various bodies. She divides the poem with its slightly uninviting title of A Song of Unending Sorrow by Ba Juyi (d. 846) into three “acts”. The poem, dating from the Tang Dynasty, tells of a sad Emperor’s obsessive love for a concubine who is eventually murdered, which results in his own broken-hearted demise. The text is in Chinese and English but is not given completely in the booklet which otherwise offers all of the texts. The guitar writing is especially innovative and often virtuosic.

William Bolcom’s will probably be the only name which most listeners (especially those in the UK) will have met before. Indeed, that may be through his ever-popular Cabaret Songs which, when I last looked amounted to four quite thick volumes. The three chosen here are almost his best known. The texts, by Arnold Weinstein (d. 2005) are wondrously witty. Waitin’ is more like a spiritual in its gentle diatonic language. Black Max has a couple of spoken verses which actual work just perfectly in the context of the story and melody. The ear-worm Amor is about a young women who seems to enjoy the favours of a variety of men. All good fun and performed most alluringly.

The disc ends with Waking the Sparrows by the prolific David Kechley who seriously started his composing career as a teenager. This is a series of five movements using Japanese Haiku poems mostly from the seventeenth century. They generally evolve around the natural world and the seasons. They are scored for soprano and guitar but the singer is also asked to play some percussion, the crotoles for example, to capture bird sounds. The most striking songs seem to me to book-end the piece. Both include ostinato patterns in the guitar with a lyrical, almost meditative line in the voice. The text is mostly sung in Japanese but certain lines stand out in English. The language is often modal or diatonic but some more ambiguous tonalities are often touched on.

All in all, an unusual programme of some intriguing pieces, well planned and often ear-catching. I am not always enamoured with Nancy King especially in her highest tessitura but she otherwise sings sensitively and thoughtfully. Robert Nathanson projects this varied, often challenging, guitar writing wonderfully.

Gary Higginson



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