JWR Articles: CD - American Spirit (Featured performers: Sean Osborn, Brian McMillen) - November 26, 2007

American Spirit

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Spirited excellence

The program for this first-rate CD attempts the impossible: capturing the “American Spirit” in 19 tracks. Wisely, the bookends come from Bernstein and Copland whose music, life and legacy have successfully distilled many non-American influences and then found distinctive voices of their own. Of the four other composers, Peter Schickele is likely the best known, but more for his musical parodies (which only work because of his thorough understanding of the art—cross-references below) than his “serious” side. Yet isn’t that so American? Crass commercialism trumps insight and intimacy? But the real spirit is in the practitioners. Clarinetist Sean Osborn goes far beyond demonstrating his complete control of the most versatile woodwind. Whether intoning a multiphonic train whistle (“…Illinois Central”) or rendering a spectacular low register “ring” (Martino’s Adagio) the thoughtful musician always lets the music lead, using his instrument as the means, not the end. The slight fuzz of the throat tones, occasional finger “slaps” and supple reed that threatens to close off the super register are insignificant quibbles that only those who prefer sound over substance would natter about. Savour the fun and joy (Bernstein “Vivace e leggiero”), the teasing—never mocking—lines in the last movement of the Copland Sonata, or Gary Shocker’s Sonata II for Clarinet and Piano with its easy-going stroll down a country lane, ever-amiable “Souvenir” followed soon by a generous helping of lilting triple metre—everything's artfully culled from the score. But, of course, this varied trek across musical America is not made alone. Pianist Blair McMillen is the perfect partner, providing discreet, direct support where required, seamless transitions that let the music evolve not just change, and varieties of tone-texture and touch that add a bounty of colour that might not have been imagined even by the composers. Here’s a disc for everyone—not just clarinetists and their admirerers. JWR

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Featured performers - Sean Osborn, Brian McMillen
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano - Leonard Bernstein
Elegies for Clarinet and Piano - Peter Schickele
A Set for Clarinet - Donald Martino
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano - Aaron Copland
Sonata II for Clarinet and Piano - Gary Schocker
Preludes - Book I - Eric Mandat
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