This widely varied disc featuring five compositions from Patricia Morehead recorded over a period of eight years begins with a thoughtful rendering of Disquieted Souls. Chief among the eerie gathering is Carolyn Hove whose beautifully crafted, impassioned performance of what is virtually a concerto for English horn, deftly leads the way and inspires her colleagues to do likewise. Conductor Philip Morehead directs a most tidy ensemble whose strength and aural confidence seems to grow with every passing measure. A smidgeon of counterpoint begs the ear for more and the utilization of motifs—notably the triplet call—binds the soundscape together convincingly. How marvellous it is to feel the spirit of Aaron Copland adding relief amongst the early dissonances, with perhaps a touch too much boom in the pizzicato bass giving anything to quibble about. These souls, following an oh-so-appropriate Ivesian consonance and the second spontaneously rendered cadenza from Hove who then magically passes the torch to cellist Paula Kosover, finally find their way to a reverent modicum of hope. The chorale-like lines are ideally contrasted with bony pizzicati until a moment of silence allows them all to slip away gracefully into the night.
It seems an impossible task to transcribe Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel (more relevant every day as the U.S. is caught up in international calamities that have soiled whatever reputation it enjoyed being the self-proclaimed safe haven for freedoms of all sorts and for all peoples) into a four movement suite. Yet despite the brittle, unflattering pianos on hand for this live, 2002 performance at Toronto’s Music Gallery, pianists Barbara Ann Martin and Philip Morehead would likely have sent everyone in attendance out to track down a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and see for themselves the full narrative behind the music’s extreme registers and near complete lack of resolution (only the final shot of “Salvaging” offers any feeling of closure). The male dominated Republic of Gilead (the result of a successful terrorist attack on the United States in 2195) is a marvel of personality struggles tempered with just a hint of lightheartedness. The pianists are inside and out of their instruments in the opening “Night” (filled with piercing singularities and abundant creepy crawlers) before “Jezebels” loses its melodramatic hue, morphs through a side trip to very off Broadway and some oddly abrasive, struggling jazz colours the “wayward women” with multilayered coats of “How ‘bout you?” and despair. It’s a shame the microphones were so close that the frantic page turns couldn’t help but make their unwanted way into the final mix.
The intense setting of Atwood’s 1968 poem, “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers,” more than captures the miseries (then and now) that seem to fill the front section of print or lead electronic media of all forms daily. Soprano Barbara Ann Martin declaims the text (from “bulldozed corpses” through the title line to deadly end) with a fine mix of passion and stoic disinterest. Philip Morehead thunders his trolls and readily savours (as do we all) the few moments of playfulness permitted. Yet when all is sung and done (especially on the heels of the frequently awful power of the works that precede), one begins to wish that the composer might find more opportunities to employ understatement when roiling through such horrific images.
In a host of ways, Ladders of Anxiety is the finest track on the disc. Patricia Morehead’s ability to let the music evolve in, at various times, mesmerizing (the opening brings snakes and ladders to musical life), thoughtful and cohesive ways rivets the ear and engages the imagination like nowhere else. The dramatic arch is ideally constructed and the courage to offer a consonant glimmer of hope by journey’s end is as welcome as needed rain. The quintet of players are virtually ensemble perfect, seamlessly handing off lines or ideas as required (cellist Cheng-Hou Lee’s calming effects are superbly rendered) and ever conscious of balance as the composer deftly combines busyness with languid melodies that belie the underlying commotion. Flautist Caroline Pittman soars, flutters and reflects with haunting presence that adds much to the deliberately anxious moments, one step/segment at a time. Marvellous, indeed.
The album concludes with an uplifting reading of “Good News Falls Gently.” Both composer and poet (Regina Harris Baiocchi) live the notion of “directly from my heart.” Soprano Jonita Lattimore is equally at home in every register, soaring to the top and supporting the lower reaches in ways that let the text sink in even as its enabling pitches thrust and parry throughout the emotional landscape with aplomb. Only a notch less presence of voice to orchestra could improve the result. JWR