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.
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
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
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 Edwards, 9.01.2020