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American Canvas
Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
American Canvas (2015) [14:57]
Andrea CLEARFIELD (b. 1960)
Spirit Island (1996) [14:07]
Zhou TIAN (b. 1981)
Viaje (2015) [9:40]
Shulamit RAN (b. 1949)
Moon Songs (2011) [25:00]
Lucy Shelton (soprano: Ran)
Dolce Suono Trio (Mimi Stillman (flute), Nathan Vickery (cello), Charles Abramovic (piano))
rec. 2016, Rock Hall, Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University, Philadelphia (Higdon, Ran); 2017, Gould Rehearsal Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia (Clearfield, Tian)
INNOVA 991 [63:47]

How nice to see a release of contemporary music in which female composers take the majority of the programme. One of the more familiar names is Jennifer Higdon, whose appealingly resonant style takes on three American painters for the three movements her American Canvas. The dedication of Georgia O’Keeffe to working on keen observation of often day-to-day items is reflected in a vibrant movement with a limited amount of musical material ‘reframed’ in such a way as to make it highly rich and varied. This is followed by Jackson Pollock, whose gestural lines and multi-layered surfaces is represented in music in which the instruments have equality in terms of material, each leaping out of the texture from time to time in a gloriously virtuoso toccata. The final movement is on Andrew Wyeth, whose incredibly detailed and lifelike work is nevertheless eloquently painterly and often atmospherically mysterious. Higdon focusses on the brush strokes rather than the strange tensions and quasi-serenity of the paintings, creating a score of terrific intensity, but not one I would connect with this particular artist.

Andrea Clearfield’s Spirit Island is named after a small island at the south end of Maligne Lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This “fantasia on the natural world of the island” was inspired by a canoe trip on the lake, the opening music having a dark atmosphere: Variations on a Dream. This is followed by Rowing, which has a sense of peril in its more urgent counterpoint: “the experience of travelling through choppy waters.”
Zhou Tian’s Viaje or ‘Voyage’ was commissioned by the Dolce Suono Trio and is described by the composer as a “9-minute thrill ride.” The subject is the Spanish nobleman El Cid, looking in particular at his relationship between his two daughters, “as they went through an innocent childhood, separation, distrust, and finally, reunion.” There is a fascinating blend of Spanish fire and Chinese-American stylistic colours going on here, with romantic expressiveness in the central section framed by animated phrases and rhythmic syncopation – all in all a highly enjoyable piece.

Shulamit Ran’s Moon Songs add the voice of Lucy Shelton to the instruments of the Dolce Suono Trio, whose commission was to compose a companion piece to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. This particular work is a significant part of Lucy Shelton’s repertoire, and she has the ‘sprechstimme’ elements and extremes of contrast and range for this sort of work well under control. Ran has used texts in Hebrew and English from the Renaissance period to the present, all of which refer to the moon in one way or another. These texts are all printed in the booklet, in translation where necessary. Flutist Mimi Stillman takes the piccolo for some sections, which adds a sometimes lonely, at other times a more exotic folk-like colour to the sound. Moon Songs has a strong theatrical element, the score being divided into four Acts, the last three of which are further divided by two Entr’acte sections. The settings range from “mysterious and incantational… to folk-like and fantastical… contemplative… darkly foreboding… [and with] a jubilant, climactic close.” It certainly pays to follow the texts, as the words are not always easy to follow, but the drama and close attention to a wide range of expressive resources is the pay-off for an extended work that can seem a little extravagant at times. This goes along with the whole Pierrot Lunaire aesthetic of course, and as I say, when you know what is being communicated the whole thing makes plenty of sense.

With good recording quality and fine performances, this is another innova title that takes our awareness and appreciation of new chamber music and this particular trio formation a quantum step further.

Dominy Clements

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