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Edward SMALDONE (b. 1956)
Once and Again
Cantare di Amore (2009) [19:33]
Double Duo (1987/2006] [7:57]
Letters from Home (2000/2007/2014) [19:12]
Duke/Monk (2011) [10.91]
Sinfonia (1986/2010) [9:35]
Tony Arnold (soprano), Susan Narucki (soprano), Daniel Phillips (violin), Marcy Rosen (cello) Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), Judith Mendenhall (flute), Charles Neidich (clarinet), June Han (harp), Donald Pirone (piano), Morey Ritt (piano)
Brno Philharmonic Strings/Mikel Toms
rec. 2014-2019 LeFrak Concert Hall, New York; June 2013 Besední dům, Brno, Czech Republic

The American composer Edward Smaldone’s music is as well represented on recordings as it is heard in performance in concert halls around the world. Named Composer of the Year in 2016 by the Classical Recording Foundation, Smaldone is a professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York. Once and Again, the most recent recording of his music, features a sampling of his smaller-scaled works, including two for voice and instruments.

Smaldone does not leave the listener in the dark as to his musical style and predilections, as he spells them out in the liner notes for the recording. Self-admittedly, he is not a revolutionary, but rather strives to be true to his artistic and intellectual self by crafting works that have structural integrity, aural brilliance and rhythmic vitality. The five works on this recording are not only prime examples of his compositional approach, but also his evolution as an artist over the past three decades.

The most recent work on the recording is Cantare di Amore (2009), in which Smaldone set three Italian texts that Monteverdi used in his Madrigals. Smaldone emulates the Italian composer in spirit with his adventurous tonal style, use of irregular rhythms and frequent shifts of texture, as well as the brilliant instrumental colors that he draws from the combination of flute and harp.

Smaldone’s musical word painting, particularly the frantic harp glissandos and fierce flutter-tonguing from the flute in ‘Piang’e sospira’, however, link directly to Monteverdi’s stile concitato that he used to depict battle scenes. Rather than war, however, Smaldone, uses the harsh sounds to depict a distraught woman frantically carving her lover’s name and incising the injustices that she has suffered into the bark of a tree.

The other vocal work on the recording is Letters from Home, a cycle of six songs which were inspired by some old letters that Smaldone found in a cupboard in his home in the early 1990s. These are not the passionate outbursts of romantic love found in Cantare di Amore, but rather the expression of tender affections of families separated by distance. Brief written accounts of the mundane rituals of everyday life and concerns for one another’s well being were the instant messaging of an era when long-distance phone calls were reserved for life and death matters and travel was time consuming, expensive and often arduous.

Smaldone creates a personality for Mrs. P. H. Andrews, with musical strokes both subtle and vivid, drawn from the barest of biographical details about her in the writings. All we really know about Mrs. Andrews is the balance in her bank account and the amount spent on a new pair of shoes. We do, however, see her warmth reflected in the words of others.

These writings are intimate glimpses of a people who led simple, ordinary lives. The dreaminess of a niece writing to her aunt is punctuated by a hysterical outburst relating the concerns that her son had been ill; thankfully it wasn’t polio as feared. A thank-you note from another niece for a graduation gift is delivered telegraph style, but as the single sentence is repeated several times the mood goes from rhapsodic to lyrical.

The most atmospheric of the songs is Smaldone’s setting of a letter from Mrs. Andrew’s sister Ada providing news of her return home from a hospital stay and the kindness of friends and relatives. The musical personality that Smaldone created for Ada bursts through in all of her moods; whether happy or sad, if she is excited her voice rises in pitch and intensity. Facts are delivered in short staccato outbursts, but the music becomes dreamy and sentimental when Ada expresses her longing to see her sister and her family.

Smaldone composed Double Duo while pursuing his doctorate, but reworked it in recent years. The work owes a debt to George Perle’s Sonata a quattro, as Smaldone employed the same instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin and cello. Perle was considered ‘the poetic voice of atonal composition’ and known for his musical craftsmanship, especially his use of vivid melodies and lively rhythms, as well as the structural clarity of his compositions. The same qualities have been present in Smaldone’s works from the start.

Duke/Monk pays tribute to jazz greats Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Originally scored for flute and piano, Smaldone reworked it for clarinet. It’s as natural a marriage of instrumental sound as one could image to capture two very different sides of the jazz coin. As he did in Letters from Home, Smaldone creates two musical portraits as distinct as the two titans of jazz’s respective styles. Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’, which evokes the sounds and emotions of the Black spiritual, is contrasted with the energetic, jagged bebop sounds of the Forties. In both, Smaldone’s attention to detail and structure are ever present.

The instrumentalists — violinist Daniel Phillips, cellist Marcy Rosen, flutists Tara Helen O’Connor and Judith Mendenhall, clarinetist Charles Neidich, harpist June Han and pianist Donald Pirone and Morey Ritt — are from the top rank of performers in New York’s chamber and contemporary music scenes. Most are Smaldone’s friends and colleagues. They were joined by two luminaries in the world of new music, sopranos Tony Arnold and Susan Narucki. Collectively, they bring technical excellence, musicianship beyond compare and passion to every note they play or sing.

The final work on the recording, Sinfonia, like Double Duo, dates from Smaldone’s student days. It was originally the third movement of his String Quartet No.2, but he later reworked it for string orchestra. Sinfonia foreshadows the elements that course through Smaldone’s works to this day: subtly deployed jazz elements, lively dance rhythms and a taunt approach to form.

British-born conductor Mikel Toms leads the Brno Philharmonic Strings in a masterful performance that displays his and the players versatility and commitment to the music. The strings playing is vibrant and transparent at all times and Toms’s keen ear and attentional to detail make this performance something special.

Rick Perdian

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