Classical CD Reviews

“Nova” = Works of PHILLIP SCHROEDER; VERA IVANOVA; MARK ENGEBRETSON; CHAN JI KIM; LEONARD MARK LEWIS; ALEKSANDER STERNFELD-DUNN; PIOTR SZEWCZYK & ALAN CHAN – Society of Composers, Inc./var. performers – Navona

Nice variety of styles and some composers you might not know.

Published on August 20, 2013

“Nova” = PHILLIP SCHROEDER: Metaphors; VERA IVANOVA: Aftertouch; MARK ENGEBRETSON: Two Duos; CHAN JI KIM: 9 Years; LEONARD MARK LEWIS: Three Etudes for Piano; ALEKSANDER STERNFELD-DUNN: Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano; PIOTR SZEWCZYK: Apparitions; ALAN CHAN: Daughter’s Lullaby – Society of Composers, Inc./var. performers – Navona (Capstone Records) NV5917, 60:24 (Distr. by Naxos) (6/25/13) ***1/2:

As I have learned, the Society of Composers, Inc. is a membership group designed to actively support and promote the work of the members and of living American composers in general. From their website,”The Society of Composers, Inc. is a professional society dedicated to the promotion, performance, understanding and dissemination of new and contemporary music. Members include composers both in and outside academia interested in addressing these concerns on a national and regional level. The governing body of the Society is comprised of a National Council made up of co-chairs who represent regional activities, and an Executive Committee made up of the editors and directors of Society publications and projects.”    More power to them. I heartily endorse efforts of this kind and especially those that result in recordings and their dissemination.

The works in this collection are all interesting and present a variety of styles and, I think, to mixed forms of audience and sensibility. I have heard some music by the Henderson State-based Phillip Schroeder and find his music consistently intriguing; sometimes a bit “tongue-in-cheek.”   I think such is the case with his Metaphors, a chamber work for clarinet and fretless bass player who (in this case) doubles as a narrator. The somewhat “poetry slam” feel of the text couples nicely with the smoky jazz stylings of the bass line and the clarinet writing. This is an odd work to be sure, but actually quite enjoyable.

Vera Ivanova teaches at Chapman University, in California, and I am not as well acquainted with her work as I would like to be. Aftertouch is a very abstract work for solo piano in which the attacks and decays of notes are at the center of what the composer is trying to manipulate and force the listener to pay attention to. Specifically, “aftertouch” is a term used to describe the decay rates on a MIDI keyboard which the performer should be aware of and can manipulate. Ivanova wrote this work to intentionally make use of manipulated attacks in a poly-tonal context. The work is interesting but does appeal mostly to an informed listener.

Mark Engebretson is both a very fine saxophonist as well as professor of composition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I have heard a couple of his wind works before and they are consistently interesting and challenging for the players. The present Two Duos is a work for flute and percussion in two movements; the “Duos”. Each sounds quite like an improvisation but the work as a whole does not come across as something too abstract. The effect is more of a jazz-improv is quite attractive.

I found 9 Years for clarinet, cello and piano by Chan Ji Kim to be one of the highlights of this collection. Kim is from Korea and presently teaches theory and composition at Eastern Florida State College. Her music is lively and attractive and seems to also speak to the music and moods of her native culture. In this case, the title refers to her first teacher in America, Dr. Ron Mazurek, and the number of years she studied with him. The music is heartfelt, mournful and even a bit “angry” in places but this piece is a solid addition to what is already a very rich oeuvre for this trio combination.

Three Etudes for Piano by Leonard Mark Lewis is quite a different deal. This is a fairly conventional, straight forward technical showpiece that will impress pianists and lovers of piano music equally. I have heard a bit of Lewis’ wind ensemble music before and find his style open, approachable and attractive. Lewis is a professor of composition and theory at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn is a young San Francisco area native who teaches at Wichita State University, Kansas. His Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is a very catchy three movement work that showcases the soloist and the pianist in a quite collaborative manner. His language is tonal but bold. There are many very attention-getting contrasts in the dynamics, the range and the rhythmic intensity of the work. I think this is one of the better modern works for saxophone to be heard in recent years, in an era where contemporary concert saxophone is becoming very popular thanks to some excellent cutting-edge performers and composers.

Apparitions by Piotr Szewczyk is another sharp turn in a different direction. Szewczyk is a top notch concert violinist from Poland who plays in the Jacksonville Symphony and is founder of the Violin Futura Project which assists and promotes young performers. As a composer he is a life-long advocate of contemporary music both here and abroad. His Apparitions for violin, flute, clarinet, cello and percussion is a buoyant, fairly short work that is flighty, lyrical and filled with a nervous energy in places. Stylistically, it touches the parameters of jazz and minimalism but is really quite unique and fun to listen to.

This nice collection closes with Daughter’s Lullaby for soprano and orchestra by pianist and composer Alan Chan. Many of Chan’s works are reflective of his own culture as a Korean-American in California. Daughter’s Lullaby is actually the second of a two song set for soprano (with Mother’s Lament) after poetry by Nicky Schildkraut. This brief but atmospheric exploration of the emotional conflict of a child torn between the instinct to know her biological parents and her bitterness at having been abandoned by them is nearly too short and comes to a close rather suddenly. The two songs as a pair comprise under ten minutes and I would really have liked to hear the whole as this song is quite interesting and sounds both nostalgic and bitter at once.

As in most of these contemporary compilation albums there is a huge diversity of styles but all the works seem very solid in their own way. I was most taken with the selections by Kim, Sternfeld-Dunn and Chan. I think there is certainly an audience for each of these pieces and, just like the Society of Composers, Inc., I believe all new music deserves to heard. Kudos to this organization and once again to Navona for making this available and in their continuously useful interactive CD format.

—Daniel Coombs




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