Classical CD Reviews

Music of BARBARA HARBACH: Chamber Music III – Reeds, Brass, Strings, Harpsichord & Piano – UM-St. Louis Ch. Soloists – MSR Classics
NEIL ROLNICK: Extended Family; Faith, Mono Prelude – ETHEL/Gluck, p./Rolnick, computer & voice – Innova

Variety—it’s the spice of life and the essence of contemporary American music, as evinced by these very different offerings from Barbara Harbach and Neil Rolnick.

Published on March 12, 2011

Music of BARBARA HARBACH: Chamber Music III – Reeds, Brass, Strings, Harpsichord & Piano – UM-St. Louis Ch. Soloists – MSR Classics<br/> NEIL ROLNICK: Extended Family; Faith, Mono Prelude – ETHEL/Gluck, p./Rolnick, computer & voice – Innova

Music of BARBARA HARBACH: Chamber Music III – Reeds, Brass, Strings, Harpsichord & Piano” = HARBACH: Frontier Fancies for Violin and Piano; American Dialogues for Flute and Piano; Four Dances for Two for Oboe and Violin; Tres Danzas para Clavecin; Phantasy and Phugue for Solo Piano; Spaindango: Caprice for Harpsichord; Rustic Scene for Viola and Piano; Perambulations for Trumpet and Piano; Daystream Dances for Oboe and Piano; Emanations from the Sacred Harp for Cello and Piano – UM-St. Louis Chamber Soloists – MSR Classics MS 1257 [Distr. by Albany], 65:07 ****:

NEIL ROLNICK: Extended Family; Faith; MONO Prelude – ETHEL / Bob Gluck, piano / Neil Rolnick, laptop computer and spoken voice – Innova 782, 58:06 ***½:

Here are two chamber music CDs by American composers whose work illustrates just how varied the current musical scene is in our country. Barbara Harbach, professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is a noted organist and harpsichordist as well as composer; she’s heard here in Tres Danzas and Spaindango, both for harpsichord solo. For me, these are two of the liveliest and most engaging pieces in the whole recital. The last of Tres Danzas is entitled Danza-Delirio, and true to its name, it involves a mad dash to the finish plus wild, zithery glissandi. Harbach tosses it all off with mad abandon. Equally Dionysiac is the tiny Spaindango, a fierce eminently undanceable version of a fandango. Harbach gives herself an opportunity to unwind only in the slow second Danza entitled Andante para viheulo de penole, which is like a jazz player’s lament, colored by the soft sounds of the harpsichord’s lute stop.

In fact, my favorite works on the program are for solo instrument, including Phantasy and Phugue for piano, which has jazzy elements, Impressionistic elements, neoclassical elements—everything but the Baroque elements the title might imply.

The program seems to grow more engaging as it progresses from the folksy, somewhat forgettable Frontier Dances and American Dialogues through works with a stronger profile: Perambulations, Daystream Dances, and Emanations from the Sacred Harp, the last based on Early American hymn tunes, including an arresting dissection of William Billing’s Chester, made familiar by William Schuman in his New England Triptych. Perambulations for Trumpet and Piano has some of the urban-jungle melancholy of Persichetti’s The Hollow Men, scored for trumpet and strings. Daystream Dances starts with a lively, almost throw-away movement called “Rolling Brightness,” then settles down to “Reeling Dusk,” whose 11/8 time signature “creates a slightly off-kilter sway,” as well a general sense of unease. At least that’s the impression I’m left with.

My favorite piece among the chamber works may be Rustic Scene for Viola and Piano, which the notes tell us “evokes the quintessentially American frontier character and spirit.” While that may be true, somehow I hear the influence of the rustic, very Hungarian music of Bartók and Rosza behind this piece—maybe it’s just the use of the viola, which figured so prominently in the compositions of the two Hungarians.

I will grant, however, that most of this music has a quintessentially American tunefulness and vigor that should make it a favorite of recitalists. It gets first-rate advocacy from the composer and her colleagues at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The recordings, made in a number of venues in Missouri and New York State, are all very good—big, bright, with good presence. It’s a tribute to the MSR engineers that consistency is maintained throughout, regardless of venue.

Neil Rolnick’s pieces featuring laptop computer are another musical matter entirely, and yet Rolnick’s Extended Family, commissioned by the contemporary string quartet ETHEL, has some of that same made-in-America rhythmic vitality tinged with a kind of restless melancholy that informs Harbach’s best music. In his notes to the recording, Rolnick explains that the work suggested itself as he attended to his dying mother’s affairs, then got together with family members for a memorial service for her. It begins with a movement entitled “Gene Pool,” which introduces musical material developed in the later movements: “Siblings” and “Cousins & Uncles & Aunts.” Of this latter movement, Rolnick writes that it “explores some of what happens when influences from outside the original DNA sources get introduced. Characterized by sudden and abrupt changes in tempo and texture, with varied glimpses of the original “Gene Pool” peeking through, this movement imagines a gathering of a widely extended family, combining inevitable bits of harmony and conflict.” It’s spry, jazzy—fun.

In contrast, the fourth movement, “Loss,” addresses the death of Rolnick’s mother and is sober and heart-felt, quite moving. Back to jittery activity in the last movement, “The Gathering,” which portrays the memorial service by way of a jumpy, syncopated fugue. Quite a family portrait, and quite an imaginative approach to the string quartet medium!

More jazz influences—pretty heavy ones—in Faith, commissioned by composer and pianist Bob Gluck, who was at one time a practicing rabbi. Gluck’s commitment to his Jewish faith suggested the idea for the piece to Rolnick, but I have to say that the connection to faith is about what I’d expect from a guy who describes himself as “pretty much atheistic in my beliefs”—tenuous at best. I think Bob Gluck has a better handle on the music, describing it as “a fusion of lyrical Tin Pan Alley song, late 20th century abstraction, boogie-woogie riffs, jazz improvisation, cut and paste mash-up, Chopin and Liszt virtuosic romanticism, real-time digital processing, see-sawing between quiet reflection and dramatic gestures.” As you can imagine, it doesn’t all fit together nicely, nor does Rolnick try very hard to make it fit. The best way to approach the piece is to let it happen in all its multifarious quirkiness. Gluck and Rolnick are obviously enjoying themselves, and you will, too, if you approach the music in the right vein.

The MONO Prelude is an eleven-minute excerpt from a evening-long work that fits music to a series of stories that people have shared with Rolnick about their various impairments and how those afflictions color their perception of the world. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a fun evening, and in fact, the Prelude is a piece you probably won’t want to return to often. It describes Rolnick’s own experience with impairment, permanent hearing loss in his left ear accompanied by a maddening instance of tinnitus. The piece involves Rolnick’s describing this experience, his voice “modulated” by his laptop computer, which also generates a series of variously jazzy and eerie musical sounds. Rolnick’s untutored, deadpan delivery of his text doesn’t mesh well with these sounds, at least for me, and as moving as the experience must have been for him, the piece is not. Still, the zinging stereo effects and the musical and not-so-musical sounds Rolnick extracts from his computer make the piece worth listening to, at least once.

The other works on the disc, however, invite repeated listening. Neil Rolnick is not for everybody, but if you can handle some wild and often witty musical polystylism, you should have a good time with this CD.

– Lee Passarella




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