Easley Blackwood: Rondo Caprice for Flute and Guitar, Op. 35
CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 071
This generously filled CD is all-Chicago in almost every way possible: the seven composers either received their musical education or have spent much of their musical life in Chicago; the seven performing artists are all active in the city; and the label is a native product. As is almost always the case with Cedille, the sound is excellent, the CD booklet well designed and informative, and the program is imaginative, doubtless planned in collaboration with the star musician, Mary Stolper. Chair of the flute faculty at de Paul University, principal flutist with a number of Chicago ensembles, and a champion of modern and contemporary composers on several earlier recordings, Ms. Stolper is accompanied by the expected piano on only two of the works on her program, the honors otherwise going to clarinet (in two works), guitar, percussion and viola.
Lita Grier's 3x2 for Flute and Clarinet, first on the program, is also the earliest in composition, from 1953, when the composer was only 16, and nearly the shortest work (5 minutes, the finale just over half a minute). It is a playful and abstract work, its title referring (among other things) to its three movements, in the traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement. A highly satisfying piece, worth repeated hearings, it reminded me of flat panels or tiles of a mobile revolving at various speeds. Clarinetist Eric Mandat ably joins Stolper, as he does later in the program for the last three of six miniatures of Robert Muczynski. These form a fast-slow-fast suite in themselves, with an especially enjoyable Andante molto and final Allegro, bringing out the similarities more than the unique sonorities of each instrument (perhaps because the piece was originally written for two flutes, though revised in 1984 for the present combination).
Easley Blackwood's 1992 Rondo Caprice was for me the one real disappointment on the CD. A pastiche of baroque/classical styles — a suite as much as a rondo — evoking composers from Corelli to Boccherini, it struck me on first hearing as blandly pleasant wallpaper music, though there are compositional subtleties (the program note mentions that the 10-minute work goes through every key of the chromatic scale). Subsequent hearings did not make the work much more ingratiating, though Stolper and guitarist Denis Azabagic play with liveliness and lyricism. Perhaps my response is unfairly affected by my love for Blackwood's First Symphony, a youthful masterpiece sensationally performed by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, superbly recorded by RCA, and still available in all its post-Berg-and-Shostakovich splendor on a Cedille reissue.
Leon Stein's 1960 Introduction and Rondo pairs the flute with a solo percussionist (here the Chicago Symphony's Jim Ross) playing various drums and suspended cymbals. The piece has an oriental flavor in both the slow Introduction, with the flute's sinuous modal melodies against the percussionist's murmurings, and the "exotic" rhythms of the Rondo.
The Piccolo Sonata of John La Montaine (once keyboardist for Toscanini's NBC Symphony) is perhaps the most immediately American-sounding of the works on the program, in a tonal mid-20th-century way. (So what if it's dated 1993? It's a confident and pleasurable work.). The opening movement is marked "With driving force" and played with brio by Stolper and accompanist Melody Lord, though they appropriately settle down for a contemplative second theme. The slow movement ("Sorrowing") allows the piccolo to display a lyrical bent; a so-called third movement, marked "Searching," is really more of a cadenza/lead-in to the "Playful" finale, finishing off an altogether refreshing piece.
The bright sound of the piccolo gives way to the melancholy of a viola (here Keith Conant), with Stolper back on flute, predominantly in its lower register. William Ferris' 1997 Lux Eterna is a mournful work, free in form, perhaps a little too long, but attractive in the slowly weaving lines of the two instruments.
Following the Muczynski miniatures, the program concludes with its longest (26 minutes) and one of its most recent (1997) compositions, Music for Flute and Piano, by the Dutch-born Sebastian Huydts, who also accompanies Stolper. This is a "four seasons" work, starting with a hazy Tranquillo "Summer" (one of those humid Chicago spells?), followed by a ben ritmico "Autumn," really bursting with energy. "Winter Haze" actually has quite a bit of icy sparkle, and the final "Principio di virtu," in keeping with its medieval-flavored title, has peasant rhythms and antique-sounding modal tunes. The program notes suggest that the fife and the fiddle are evoked at times, but still, the movement is unmistakably modern in sound overall. Together, the four movements call for the most virtuoso display of any works on the program, and provide a substantial close.