Composer Edward Smaldone releases "Once and Again," a collection of chamber music including song cycles and instrumental works that encapsulate his openness to diverse sources of inspiration. Featuring performances by sopranos Tony Arnold and Susan Narucki, alongside prominent contemporary chamber musicians, Smaldone's aesthetic balances "classical" values of motivic and formal cohesion and development with "modernist" values of capturing an improvisatory sensibility, asymmetry, and irregularity.
Cantare di Amore
|Tony Arnold, soprano, Tara Helen O'Connor, flute, June Han, harp|
|01||Longe date, cor mio|
Longe date, cor mio
|03||Darà la notte il sol lume alla terra|
Darà la notte il sol lume alla terra
|Tara Helen O'Connor, flute, Charles Neidich, clarinet, Daniel Phillips, violin, Marcy Rosen, cello||7:57|
Letters from Home
|Susan Narucki, soprano, Judith Mendenhall, flute and piccolo, Charles Neidich, clarinet, Donald Pirone, piano|
|05||Mrs. P.H. Andrews|
Mrs. P.H. Andrews
|06||Your Loving Zola|
Your Loving Zola
|08||Thank you, Luther|
Thank you, Luther
|10||Mrs. P.H. Andrews (reprise)|
Mrs. P.H. Andrews (reprise)
|Charles Neidich, clarinet, Morey Ritt, piano|
|The Brno Philharmonic Strings||9:35|
Edward Smaldone’s compilation of chamber music “Once and Again” encapsulates consistent priorities in his work over five pieces for diverse instrumentations. There is a formalist’s bent in these pieces, presenting the pitch and motivic material for the music within the opening measures, and reflecting a large-scale architecture that is teleological despite intentionally built-in asymmetries. The harmonic language is richly chromatic, but achieves a sense of forward direction with clearly articulated goals. The rhythmic approach prioritizes metric organization, and relies frequently on dance rhythms. The result is an attractive blend of control and freedom, indicative of an experienced compositional hand that creates musical systems that generate their own germane material.
The opening work, Cantare di Amore, is written for soprano, flute, and harp, and heard here in a performance by Tony Arnold, Tara Helen O’Connor, and June Han, respectively. Setting Italian texts already used by Monteverdi in his Madrigals, Smaldone uses lyricism and the lush instrumentation to conjure love in all of its guises. The opening movement, “Longe date, cor mio,” features flowing arpeggios in the harp underneath interwoven, fluid passages in flute and soprano. “Piagn'e sospira” is more somber, unfolding in a more rhythmically free setting, culminating at one point in sharply articulated harp glissandi played with two plectrums, combined with flute flutter-tongue techniques, creating a dramatically expressive gesture. The final song in the set, “Darà la notte il sol lume alla terra,” begins with an exotic, impressionistic passage in flute and harp before leading into swooping, melismatic lines in the soprano part.
Smaldone cites the influence of George Perle’s Sonata a quattro on his Double Duo, both written for the same instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. Written initially at the completion of his PhD work before a revision many years later, the aesthetics underlying Double Duo were formative for Smaldone’s subsequent work. The piece opens with an easy groove punctuated by accented chords that are connected by slithering lines and cello pizzicati. A slow, mournful section follows, with instruments taking turns sounding the primary melodic line. Smaldone then combines these two themes and energies and presents them integrated together in development and recapitulation sections.
Letters from Home is a contrast on several levels to Cantare di Amore. The letters, which Smaldone discovered in his house in the early 1990’s, are in English and use vernacular language between women of different ages and Mrs. P.H. Andrews, the principal character of the cycle. The opening song, “Mrs. P.H. Andrews,” contains playful musical dialogue between the flute and clarinet, while soprano Susan Narucki sets the scene for the cycle, relaying the quotidian information of Ms. Andrews address, and her penchant for correspondence. “Your Loving Zola” sets a letter from Andrews’ niece describing news of a sick child. Swelling chords in the winds surround floating arpeggios in the piano, as the soprano builds to the more difficult health news, delivered in dramatic, parlando style. “Dear Aunt Lou” is from another niece, on the occasion of her graduation, with her thanks for the gift delivered in several playful phrases, each turning around the sentiment in terms of contour, word scanning, and register. “Thank you Luther” investigates Mrs. Andrews spending in a difficult economic moment, on shoes and a piano tuning no less. Smaldone’s saucy setting is reminiscent of Bernstein’s deft navigation of jazz and musical theatre idioms in West Side Story. “Dear Sister” comes from Andrews’ sister Ada, imparting an update on her life. Smaldone shifts the character of the music to support the meandering quality of the letter. The final song is a reprise of the first, returning to the vocal material midway through the text. On the whole the songs evoke the deep emotion of family, communication, and the struggles of women in the mid-20th Century.
Duke/Monk, originally for flute and piano, was inspired by the Duke Ellington composition Come Sunday and the Thelonius Monk composition Well You Needn’t, respectively. Despite clear inspiration from the jazz tradition, Smaldone’s approach to organization of material is consistent with the other works on the recording, driven by through-compositional craft and the implication of improvisation. “Duke” is rhapsodic, with Charles Neidich’s clarinet dexterously singing through elegant harmonies on Morey Ritt’s piano, projecting a cultivated demeanor throughout. As befits its dedicatee, “Monk” is more angular and jagged, with piano interjections and imitative passages between the two instruments. Smaldone captures the musical personas of these iconic artists, Duke as the consummate bandleader-composer-impresario and Monk as the impenetrable artist-genius.
The final work on the recording, Sinfonia, is for string orchestra though originally existed as the third movement of his second String Quartet. We hear many of the characteristics in Smaldone’s other works here, an affinity for jazz influenced gestures, a reliance on dance rhythms as a springboard for motivic development, and a taut approach to form. To the extent that Sinfonia maps Smaldone’s palette onto larger forces, it’s a fitting culmination of the works on this album. Indeed, despite the varied forces throughout this collection, and distinct musical materials of each work, there is a unified compositional approach that speaks with a voice that seeks order, emotion and communication in equal measures.
– D. Lippel
Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) received the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993, launching a steadily growing career that has garnered many other awards, commissions, performances and recordings. Other awards are from ASCAP, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo Corporation, the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, the Percussive Arts Society, and the American Music Center. He was named 2016 “Composer of the Year” by the Classical Recording Foundation at their annual Gala at National Sawdust, in Williamsburg.
His most recent commissions (2019 and 2020) include a Clarinet Concerto (Murmurations) for Søren-Filip Brix Hansen and Den Kongelige Livgardes Musikkorps, (the Wind Orchestra for the Queen of Denmark), premiered in Copenhagen, and a Piano Concerto (Intersecting Paths) for Niklas Sivelöv and the League/ISCM Orchestra, premiered in New York City.
Other notable performances include the Munich Radio Orchestra, Denver Chamber Orchestra, Memphis Symphony, Queens Symphony Orchestra, Oberlin New Music Ensemble, The New York Virtuoso Singers, the Florilegeum Choir, League/ISCM Chamber Players, Peabody Camerata, Stony Brook “Premieres!” Ensemble, Oratorio Sinfonica Japan, the EOS Orchestra of Beijing, China, the Chicago Composers Orchestra, and many other soloists and ensembles in the United States, Canada, China, Japan and Europe.
Smaldone is Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, having joined the full time faculty in 1989 and was the Director of the School from 2002 – 2016. His music is recorded on the New Focus, CRI, New World, Capstone, Ablaze and Naxos labels.
New Focus Recordings continues its vital series of Contemporary Modern music with a volume of the music of Edward Smaldone, Once and Again (New Focus FCR258). The program focuses on five configurations in five compositions written between 1986 and 2014, all distinctively High Modern and showing great craftsmanship and consistent inventive knack. There is a twofold impetus behind this music as the press sheet that came with my copy discusses--that is, an aesthetic balance between "'classical' values of motivic and formal cohesion and development" as contrasted with "'modernist' values of capturing an improvisatory sensibility, asymmetry, and irregularity." A highly chromatic vocabulary, and irregular rhythmic-melodic articulation contrast with the sometimes use of dance rhythms and germinal motivic unfolding for a refreshing vivacity in-the-moment.
Two multi-movement vocal cycles grace the program and provide some key signposts to the musical direction. The declamatorily dramatic "Cantare di Amore" (2009) gives soprano Tony Arnold a chance to shine and gets memorable instrumental underpinning from harp and flute. The narrative flow of the five-part "Letters from Home" (2000/2007/2014) allows soprano Susan Narucki detailed expressive possibilities and gets very appealing instrumental underscoring for flute, clarinet and piano.
"Duke/Monk" (2011) pays tribute to two cornerstone Jazz brilliances with two very lively and expressive spaces for clarinet and piano. They melodically encompass a wide range of chromatic possibilities yet have a hovercraft steadiness around key centers that combine with a sort of soulful exuberance--which in turn works out and maintains a steady-state original expressivity.
The "Double Duo" (1987/2006) expands and extends a complex articulation of chromatic Modernist elevations for flute, clarinet, violin and cello--with eight minutes of complex and well weathered singularity..
The program ends with the chamber string orchestra work "Sinfonia." It is a delightfully thickened, ever varying multi-strand presentation of lasting interest and a great way to conclude.
To live with this music for a week or so is to increasingly open oneself to a series of musical dialogues that sound more and more articulate as one rehears, sound more and more right. Happily recommended.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 9.01.2020
Link to hour-long interview with composer Edward Smaldone and David Osenberg
— David Osenberg, 2.04.2021
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
That would have to be some combination of the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Sessions, Carter, Weinberg and Perle. And somewhere along the way Heinrich Schenker (through studies with Carl Schachter) had a powerful impact on the way I hear music (both my own and that of others.) A very powerful influence on my music has also been performance. I have been a professional guitarist, piano player (not a pianist) and singer for 50 years. I also did a lot of choral singing as a student that had a strong impact on my thinking. Everything should sing, rhythm and “feel” are incredibly important features of compelling music.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Time. There never seems to be enough, and the composer requires so much alone time. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my musical life, with outstanding mentors, wonderful colleagues of both composers and performers. Trying to find the balance in life of artistic pursuit and the everyday is a challenge. That said, the joys of my family are well worth the time and have a powerful impact on my work as well.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
It is a joy to write a commissioned piece, because there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel, shining on a player or ensemble waiting for my score. The challenge is meeting a deadline, but the pleasure of working toward a specific goal with a specific performance is exhilarating.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
This follows directly on the previous question. Knowing that I am writing for a particular player also inspires me because each player has a specific set of skills and strengths that can be exploited. It is a particular pleasure when we can both shine through the medium of a new piece.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m proud of them all, the way a parent is proud of each child. Like members of a family, each piece has its own personality. Each piece (hopefully) traces back to the common ground of my imagination, but also expresses itself on its own terms. I would say that I am typically most proud of whatever I have just completed. The act of completion in and of itself marks a moment in the life of a new work, similar to the birth of a new child. Those are special moments. It is also a special pleasure when an older piece (like an older child) “resurfaces” and stands on its own two feet without compromise or excuses.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
My compositional “language” involves a rich chromatic palette. These are just the kinds of sonorities I am drawn to. In working with them, I try very hard to create a musical fabric that captures both the immediacy of a distinctive gesture, and then puts that gesture on a journey that includes elements of tension and resolve; motion and arrival; and a clear sense of large scale architecture (yes, I know these are very traditional features!). My lifelong love and work in areas of improvised music (especially jazz) also brings an element of spontaneity and improvisation to much of my musical materials.
How do you work?
I work best with a deadline. I’m an early adopter of Finale, so I tend to notate my scores as I am composing. I usually start with improvisations and pencil and paper sketches, but very quickly putting thing directly into the computer is the fastest way to manipulate my musical ideas. (And, when I have a deadline, I’m usually composing from 6 AM until at least 10, daily.)
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I would measure my success by the steady creation, performance and recording of my works. I am exceedingly fortunate to have an academic position (at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY), so I don’t have to rely on commissions and performances for income. This provides an enviable level of artistic freedom. I feel the most “successful” when I have finished a piece, and it gets a great performance, and it is slated for a recording. It is the satisfaction that work is strong that makes me feel successful. I am especially encouraged by multiple performances and even multiple recordings of several works. It is exciting to attend the 10th performance of something. I am also very gratified by the work of other composers and the performers who I get to work with. The shared camaraderie of musicians, both composers and performers, has been a gift.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Set the bar high and the rest will follow. There are no short cuts. The most potent combination is talent, ambition, and hard work. You need all three. Also, treat every musician and every musical situation with respect: be prepared (actually, be over prepared) and don’t be a jerk. People hate jerks.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I think that audiences are very open, as long as they are not patronized, as long as the performances are really excellent, and especially when they can make a personal connection with the artists (both the composers and the performers.) People often don’t want to take a chance with music that is unfamiliar, but if the circumstances are right, new music (of any style) can provide a rewarding experience for the audience. Really terrific performances are crucial.
Beyond this, the personal connection between the people on stage and the people in the audience has a powerful impact on the experience. I remember many “Meet the Composer” grants that included a requirement that the composer talk to the audience. I witnessed quite a number of completely dreadful “composer talks.” The composer would struggle to say something meaningful, and end up being incoherent, or vague, or obtuse. And yet, without fail, the mere fact that there was a living composer making an attempt to communicate, was usually enough to bring the audience a little closer, and make them a little more sympathetic to the effort the composer was making with his music. The personal connection made all the difference.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In 10 years’ time I’d like to be overseeing lots of performances of the works in my catalogue, along with a steady flow of new performances, pieces, and recordings.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I’m not so sure it exists. Like a good piece of music, life needs tension and struggle. Maybe happiness is a good balance of good times and tough times.
What is your most treasured possession?
My family. They are not actually a possession, but the joy that comes from the complex interaction of the people in my family, over a long period of time is truly a treasure. I’ve been married for 40 years and have three grown up children and an extended family of dozens of cousins and other relatives.
— Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, 9.19.2020
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, 1.15.2021
Also in the notes, Smaldone states that “these five works extend from 1986–2014. Each of these pieces was “tinkered with” over a number of years. Each piece was thus visited ‘Once and Again.’ ‘Once and Again’ is also a feature of the two song cycles whose texts have been re-cycled and re-purposed for inclusion in these compositions.”
His harmonic language is modern, mostly using bitonality, but not forbidding to the casual listener. Cantare di Amore is a series of three songs using the same texts used by Monteverdi for some of his madrigals. Soprano Tony Arnold is her usual meticulous, musical self and a great interpreter, though a loose vibrato has crept into her voice in recent years. Flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, whose wonderful album The Way Things Go I raved about way back in March 2016—the first month of my blog—plays on this one as well. There’s a certain modern French sensibility about this music that I liked very much: the music is melodic, and if set to conventional harmony the soprano’s top line would not sound out of place, but by subverting our expectations of harmony and often using “rootless” chords, Smaldone is able to place it in an entirely different sound-world. At times, June Han’s harp is used like a piano, strumming taut chords behind the two soloists while most of the time playing in a more conventional manner.
Smaldone wrote Double Duo in 1987, shortly after completing his Ph.D. He admits not having tried to write something truly revolutionary, but simply being “true to myself.” He then describes some of the technicalities of the music, such as deriving the pitch and motivic material from the opening measures, filling his “straightforward” outline with asymmetries and irregularities, and using the harmony to create “a sense of forward motion.” He also tried to simulate a feeling of improvisation despite carefully crafting each line. The character of the music is almost the opposite of Cantare di Amore, being rhythmically quick and a bit edgy, and using more atonality than in the later work. There’s a feeling here of Stravinsky crossed with jazz though except for the aggressive cello line you can’t really call the work “jazzy,” as well as lyrical episodes that retain the harmonic edginess of the fast opening theme. The title, one realizes, refers to the wind duo of flute and clarinet on the one hand and violin and cello on the other. Sometimes these duos work separately from one another, at other times they work together as quartet.
Letters From Home has a style similar to the Double Duo though there are brief moments of lyricism and despite the use of a soprano singing words—in this case, letters to a Mrs. P.H. Andrews, who lived in Plainview, Texas back in the 1950s. The letters are all to her, from friends, nieces, a sister and an anonymous writer, giving a snapshot of a woman’s life in that time. The soprano here is Susan Narucki, who still has a fine, firm voice, but except for those words sung in her lower range her diction is not terribly clear. One of the songs, “Thank You, Luther,” has a distinct jazz feel about it. I also liked the use of a bass clarinet here and there, as in the final song which is a reprise of the first.
Duke/Monk is a tribute to two jazz greats. The first selection is based on Ellington’s Come Sunday, the second on Monk’s Well You Needn’t. The setting of the first, however, is far from jazz, and is in fact played in a strict classical style by clarinetist Charles Neidich. (These pieces were originally written for flute and piano but were reworked for clarinet at Neidich’s request.) The “Monk” section isn’t very jazzy, either, and it should have been since Monk was sometimes called “the Stravinsky of jazz.” I wish that a clarinetist who can actually play jazz, like Don Byron, had performed this instead of Neidich.
The program closes with the Sinfonia, originally written in 1986 as the third movement of his second string quartet. It was expanded to a sinfonia for string section and premiered in that form in 2010. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found this work less natural in its expression and more “forced” than the other works, though it is well written, but the orchestra plays it quite well.
Although Smaldone’s music is not always highly original, it is clearly interesting and well written. I enjoyed it very much.
— Lynn Bayley, 8.14.2020
A collection of chamber music from the always imaginative mind of Edward Smaldone, Once And Again recruits classical and modernist influences as soprano vocalists and top notch chamber players all contribute their respective talents across 5 compositions.
The album starts with the soprano, flute and harp of Cantare di Amore, where the 3 movements bring lush musicianship, dreamy melodies and plenty of rhythm from Tony Arnold, Helen O’Connor and June Han, and Double Duo follows with flute, clarinet, violin and cello interacting in a groove friendly setting where each instrument is highlighted splendidly.
In the middle, Letters From Home benefits greatly from Susan Narucki’s healthy pipes where dramatic keys and versatile flute complement the vivid storytelling, while Sinfonia exits the listen heavy on the strings as jazz ideas and dance rhythms populate the agile, orchestral climate.
A captivating effort that embodies the timeless spirit of not only chamber sounds but classical, orchestral and operatic sensibilities, too, Smaldone and company make the most of every second on this elegant and precise experience that you’ll want to revisit again and again.
— Tom Haugen, 10.31.2020
Edward Smaldone is a contemporary composer of classical music. His distinctive textures include unusual combinations of instruments, odd beats, counterpoint and rich harmonics. These elements blend but do not merge. Rough edges combined with smooth melodic lines are ear catching. Lines often stretch wide and giant leaps leave surprising spaces between notes.
His new album, Once and Again, is a New Focus Recording which includes recent compositions and those from his doctoral dissertation at the Aaron Copland School of Music. He led the school for over a decade.
The album opens with poems originally set by Monteverdi in madrigals. Smaldone points out that his music does not refer to the original composer. Yet both works dwell on the ache of romantic love. Tara Helen O’Connor is on flute, June Han on harp, and Tony Arnold sings. Her singing voice is rich and expansive. The smooth arpeggios of the harp contrast with the flute’s unexpectedly bristling edges and the tremolos of the voice. Each instrument often performs alone before the others join. This clarifies their individual tones as they mix in unusual combinations. Arnold holds some notes very long, as does O’Connor, while beneath them the harp shades to nothing. The composer asks, “Who wouldn’t want a love that will last until the sun lights the earth at night?”
Smaldone sees Double Duo as the jumping board to his other work. Composed as he completed his academic studies, he offers flute, clarinet, violin and cello. Again we have extended notes, waiting to be joined by others. Then duos, where the strings are in sync, and the flute floats off. Clarinet is most like the human voice and sings with its companion flute, as we hear the pluck of strings in the background. Rhythm is experimental, a jazz beat interspersed with more regular ones. Little rushes play against held notes. Listening pleasure comes from rhythmic and melodic variety. The music feels as fresh as improvised music. As always with Smaldone, textural sounds excite. Tara Helen O’Connor is joined by Charles Neidich on clarinet, Daniel Phillips on violin, and Marcy Rosen on cello.
Letters from Home are all written to one woman by a niece, a sister, and friends. The music recalls correspondence that has rhythms not in the dry code of emails but rather rich with words. "Thank yous" come in many forms. They leap out at the reader and at the listener. Miraculously Smaldone can make jazz rhythms out of bank balances, payments for shoes and a piano tuning. Soprano Susan Nabruki breathes a different kind of life into each letter as she sings. Judith Mendenhall is on flute and piccolo, Charles Neidich on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Donald Prione, piano.
The direct celebration of jazz is exuberant and joyful in Duke/Monk, inspired by the two jazz greats, Ellington and Thelonious.
Smaldone ends up where he began, with a developed Sinfonia based on a movement from a String Quartet he composed as his doctoral dissertation. While he states that it is somewhat hidebound as a result of its academic origins, you can easily hear the massive chords and delightful dotted rhythms that characterize his music from its start.
The composer comments apty that motives and pitches are derived from opening measures. His large form is an arc, interrupted and accentuated with asymmetries and irregularities. Sonic brilliance moves the work forward. Meters are mixed. Dance rhythms abound. The sweep is freewheeling.
These works are unique and enveloping as you listen.
— Susan Hall, 11.23.2020
The five pieces by Edward Smaldone (born 1956) on a new release from New Focus Recordings show a similar level of interest in varying sonorities and instrumentation. Cantare di Amore (2009) is for soprano (Tony Arnold), flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), and harp (June Han). The flute and harp interconnect with sensitivity in all three songs, although the “swooning” sounds of the flute can be distracting; the voice, singing in Italian, is set with welcome clarity and without overly strained or overstated sounds – indeed, its expressiveness is welcome in a contemporary work, although its tonal language is certainly modern. Double Duo (1987/2006) is for flute (O’Connor), clarinet (Charles Neidich), violin (Daniel Phillips), and cello (Marcy Rosen). As the title indicates, this single-movement work handles the instruments mostly in pairs rather than as a quartet. Its rhythmic angularity is effective enough, although it does not fully explore the auditory differences among the participants. Letters from Home (2000/2007/2014) is a set of six movements, the sixth a reprise of the first, written for soprano (Susan Narucki), flute and piccolo (Judith Mendenhall), clarinet and bass clarinet (Neidich), and piano (Donald Pirone). The letters’ topics are mundane ones of the modern world, although hearing matters such as taxes, graduation gifts and familial relationships given the art-song treatment gives the work a certain pleasant piquancy. Duke/Monk (2011), a duet for clarinet (Neidich) and piano (Morey Ritt), offers two movements in different styles (hence the expository title), the first slow and improvisational in feeling, the second more strongly ornamented in the clarinet and with a more-intense woodwind focus. This set of chamber pieces is capped by a work for string orchestra: Sinfonia (1986/2010), played by the Brno Philharmonic Strings conducted by Mikel Toms. This piece is something of a disappointment, without the level of creativity in the other offerings on the disc and with the usual stop-and-start feeling that contemporary composers often use (generally, as here, with limited success) to pull audiences in different emotional directions. As a whole, the CD offers a good portrait of Smaldone’s varying interests in instrumental and vocal contrast, and his particular skill at writing for, blending and contrasting woodwinds – both with and without the human voice.
— Mark Estren, 11.12.2020
The title of this disc, Once and Again, refers to the fact that the works here, composed between 1986 and 2014, have all been revisited—“tinkered with,” in the composer’s own phrase. But in an- other sense, as regards the first piece, Concerti di Amore, there is a revisiting, this time of texts that were first used by Monteverdi. There is a sort of Orientalist sensuality to the opening textures of Smaldone’s first song, “Longe da te, cor mio,” with the angular vocal lines taking on, through Tony Arnold, a sort of Webernian expressivity underpinned by harp and in duet with a flute. The more disparately textured “Piagn’e sospira” brings with it a sense of desperation, before finding an uneasy solace in the act of weeping before the tender “Dar’à la notte il sol lume alla terra.” Arnold, whose recorded repertoire encompasses the likes of Babbitt, Webern Wolpe, Berio, Crumb, and Carter, perhaps unsurprisingly takes to Smaldone as to the manner born.
One of Smaldone’s teachers was George Perle, and Double Duo reveals both influence and homage (it is scored for the same combination as Perle’s Sonata a quattro). It was written in 1987 and revised in 2006. The sort of pitch class set and row manipulations one would associate with Perle, both in his own music and by proxy via his explicatory books on the operas of Alban Berg,are also found in Smaldone. There is a brighter sound to this piece than to the Concerti di Amore (what Smaldone calls “sonic brilliance”). Interestingly this is not the only recording of the piece: its sprightly nature, a sort of jolly atonality brought about by rhythmic haughtiness, presumably invites repeated visitations. Intriguingly, one of them pops up on a disc on the Ablaze label of Smaldone shared with music by Knehans (on whom I have written several times for Fanfare), performed by a group with the rather strange title of All of the Above. The Ablaze recording feels closer and is by that virtue alone more immediately involving. On an emotional level, the performers for this New Focus recording nail the faster, rhythmic aspect, while All of the Above seem more at home in the lyrical passages. It is a very close-run thing and ideally one should own both, but for me it is the Ablaze recording that hits the spot.
The letters in question in Letters from Home (2000/2007/2014: multiple revisitings, then) were found by the composer in his house between various women and Mrs. P. H. Andrews. They are scored for soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), and piano, and there is something of a nostalgic feel to the writing, despite the prevailing dissonance. One of the letters is simply a thank-you note (“Graduation Gift”); others are more extended. The first song (“Mrs. P. H. Andrews”) is heard in shortened reprise at the end. Smaldone’s sensitivity to the text is almost as notable as his sensitivity to his instrumentalists; there are many, many felicitous touches here. The light touch exhibited by Double Duo is here again, and Susan Narucki is as confident as one might expect. This is a great performance.
The two pieces that comprise Duke/Monk (2011), originally for flute and piano, and heard here in a performance of extraordinary virtuosity by Charles Neidich and pianist Morey Ritt, pay tribute to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk respectively (the primary inspirations being Come Sunday and Well You Needn’t). The arrival of mellow consonances in “Duke” comes as a result of these tributes, one assumes, although they are curlicued in a decidedly Smaldone fashion. Unsurprisingly, “Monk” is more Modernist and skittish. Neidich is an incredible clarinetist, his understanding of the music total; his pianist is absolutely his equal, as the passages when they are in (sometimes rapid) dialogue attest.
The only orchestral piece here is Sinfonia (1986/2010). Originally the third movement of Smaldone’s Second String Quartet, a piece written towards the composer’s doctorate, it indeed demonstrates a certain academic strictness and has a decidedly uncompromising aspect. The Brno Philharmonic strings play with great discipline, tackling the angular lines with great accuracy but also finding pools of repose.
This is a remarkably varied disc, and one that repays multiple visits. Smaldone’s voice is individual and confident. There are only three of Smaldone pieces reviewed on the Fanfare Archiveprior to this disc; it’s good to see the imbalance redressed.
— Colin Clarke, 11.15.2020
Launching his career with a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, this leading edge modernist rifles through his back pages here for a collection of what he was up to at various times. From pieces that would make Bugs Bunny repeat “Dat’s a nice, fat opera singer” to stuff that’s more linear in it’s scope, he’s a modernist that doesn’t need pots and pans to make his point. An artist through and through, he knows how to zero in on the hard core and leave the tourists to their own devices.
— Chris Spector, 8.12.2020