Classical CD Reviews

Works of PATRICIA MOREHEAD: “Good News Falls Gently” = Navona Records

Pleasant enough and interesting but with mixed results.

Published on September 20, 2011

PATRICIA MOREHEAD: “Good News Falls Gently” =  Disquieted Souls; The Handmaid’s Tale; It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers; Ladders of Anxiety; Good News Falls Gently – Carolyn Hove, English horn/members of CUBE ensemble/Philip Morehead, conductor/Abraham Stokman, piano/ Philip Morehead, piano/ Barbara Ann Martin, soprano/ Caroline Pittman, flute/ Jonita Lattimore, soprano – Navona Records  NV5854 (Distr. by Naxos), 59:56 ***:

Patricia Morehead, composer and oboist, is the Founder and former Artistic Director of CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Morehead is also on the faculty of Columbia College in Chicago. She is past president of the International Alliance of Women in Music and American Women Composers Midwest, and organized the latter’s fifth anniversary year featuring the music of African-American women composers in two concerts at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. She is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. She made her Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1977 and has concertized actively in Brazil, Canada, Europe, China and the USA.

I was familiar with Morehead’s name, being from Chicago, but was unfortunately unfamiliar with her music until this very interesting release of some of her music. As an oboist, she has been very active in the commission and promotion of new music for winds, in general, and has been a very prominent figure in the Chicago arts scene for a number of years, including a close affiliation with classical radio station WFMT. As a composer, her voice has a somewhat “academic” sound to it but there is also a tonal, melody infused and attractive nature to much of it. She is clearly well trained, having studied with some of the midwest’s big names in contemporary music such as Shulamit Ran, Ralph Shapey and John Eaton.

I did find all of the works in this collection interesting and attractive in their own right, but also found some more appealing on first hearing than others. For example, I was especially taken by “Ladders of Anxiety” for solo flute and ensemble. This is a clean, propulsive and neat work for flute, string trio and guitar commissioned and premiered by flutist Clare Chase of Ice. It has been performed on WFMT with Caroline Pittman as soloist with the Avalon String Quartet. “Ladders of Anxiety” for flute/alto flute, guitar and string trio is dedicated to the incomparable Claire Chase and ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble). It has some virtuostic moments for the flutist, Pittman, but the overall effect is some true synthesis among all players and is a very fine work.

I found Morehead’s vocal works interesting as well and I admit that I found “Good News Falls Gently” the more compelling. The music is a setting of the poetry of Chicago African-America poet/composer Regina Harris Baiocchi. She wrote this sacred poetic text at the composer’s request especially for the 7th International Festival, “Incontri di Musica Sacra Contemporanea” held in Italy in the cities of Trani, Bari and Roma in October 1995. Her text portrays an intense spiritual faith from a feminist perspective. It was premiered and recorded in Chicago with CUBE and soprano Jonita Lattimore. The text setting seems very picturesque and appropriate and Jonita Lattimore’s performance is solid. I was a little less taken with “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” . The text, by Margaret Atwood, about the cruelties of war, is dark and a bit onerous in its message. Morehead takes full advantage of the tone of the text and the performance by Barbara Ann Martin is dedicated and matches the mood. I just found the text itself and the necessarily angular writing in “…Newspapers” not as attractive as the net effect of “Good News Falls Gently”.

I had similar reactions to the two chamber instrumental works in this set. A strong offering is “Disquieted Souls”. Morehead’s website indicates that the work is inspired by pre-Christian Celtic legends of goddesses and the supernatural. The piece starts with the suggestion of a Celtic dance tune and then the music enters the realm of the supernatural with the English horn playing mysterious melodies evoking the twilight of the dense forest. In the middle section the English horn sings in a world that is inhabited by sprites and faeries. The last part of the piece explores deep sadness and lost love, the essence of many ancient Celtic myths. I would agree that the music conjures up images or at least moods very appropriate to this story line and the performance by the always amazing Carolyn Hove is wonderful.

Morehead does seem to have an affinity or predilection toward the works of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Morehead’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was commissioned by two internationally known pianists –  Ursula Oppens and Aki Takahashi in celebration of American Women Composers Midwest 15th anniversary at Pick Staiger Hall at Northwestern University, Evanston, The four movements of the composition reflect the composer’s thoughts in reading the Atwood novel, apparently a mélange of futuristic fiction tinged with a women’s issues perspective. The performances by Abraham Stokman and Philip Morehead are very fine and attention getting (as certainly the original performance must have been as well!) Of the four movements, I appreciated the second, “Gilead”, the best although there are structural and atmospheric similarities among all. It may help to read the Atwood novel and get a sense of the moods the composer was trying to convey.

Patricia Morehead is clearly a talented and prolific composer whose recent efforts have even brought her into the opera stage. I did like this collection, some pieces more than others – as stated – and it does make me curious about some of her other works. I would be especially interesting in hearing her upcoming “Dragon Concerto” for tuba and large orchestra.

—Daniel Coombs

 

 




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