With works ranging from 1970 to 2007, this compendium of Sy Brandon’s music for small ensembles provides listeners with a marvellous entry into his thoughts, styles and consistently well-crafted art.
The seldom heard combination of oboe (Katherine Young is a model of flexibility through all ranges), cello (Naomi Gray is equally effective taking the melodic lead or underscoring her colleagues) and harp (Marguerite Lynn Williams superbly brings the fourths-informed structure to thoughtful or brilliant life as required) is a welcome change for the ear. How curious that the main motif for the “Meditation” is so reminiscent of Grieg’s “Morning” from the first Peer Gynt Suite. This “Dance” is chockablock full of energy and zest, replete with a jolly waltz then a purposely edgy oboe before the opening calm is revisited. The tempo picks up again as the “winds” literally scale the dramatic heights all the way to the finish.
One of literature’s favourite rascals steps into the spotlight for Scenes from Tom Sawyer. After a beautifully arched “Prelude”—dreamy sunrise yielding to mid-day heat before night falls once more over Hannibal: all is well—a narrator (Mary Elizabeth Southworth) sets the table for the ensuing miniatures. Unfortunately, the shifts between declaimed text and the instrumentalists lack proper fade-in, fade-out edits, producing unwanted brutal stops and starts instead of seamless transitions between text and music.
Clarinetist Marianne Breneman demonstrates a mastery of legato lines (notably in the “Prelude” and “Tom Declares His Love for Becky”) with just a couple of “slaps” hampering the flow. Flautist Danielle Hundley is particularly effective interacting with her fellows, especially as “Tom Declares His Love for Becky” conjures up an image of the pair walking wind-in-wind down the path of romance only to hit a bump along the road. Holding everything together is pianist Philip Amalong who offers a variety of tones and touch (ideally dry when the pace picks up such as in “The Pirates on the Island”) that is at one with the composer’s continually evolving lines. Conundrum’s deceptively easy-going ensemble skills give the music a welcome sense of surety and fresh engagement.
Flautist Abigail Kegel Walsh takes stage from the first piercing note of “Three Preludes” and is soon drawn into an imitative conversation with Jared Elder’s guitar. The highlight is the Spanish-infused “Allegro,” causing cinematic images to come to mind from all manner of films old and new. Elder excels with a finely controlled solo. Walsh is at her best in “Moderato” while exploring Brandon’s mystical realm over top of the guitar’s relentless pedal bass. At times collectively too vertical and wanting an ounce more spontaneity in the “Lento rubato,” the set flies by and is time well spent.
The composer also saves his best for last in the Sonatina for oboe (Jill Marchione) and bassoon (Kimberly Buchar Kelley). The youthful exuberance of the “Allegro” is deftly tempered by a return to the calm of the opening “Lento.” The performers expertly match their voices, yielding a well-balanced result that suits every bar. Still, a shorter staccato and wider dynamic range would bring these early efforts into an even higher plane of excellence.
In the Four Poems, Brandon displays an affinity for the verses under his care and employs a music-theatre approach that works remarkably well. The treatments are curiously at one with the recent “redo” of Porgy and Bess where the “grand” is largely removed from the opera, only to find a larger audience for the core of the music (cross-reference below).
Like Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, Brandon is drawn to Walt Whitman. The decidedly maritime soundscape is navigated in convincing fashion by Southworth. Similar to the concluding “Annabel Lee,” the obvious fact that a woman is singing these lines that might be seen as the exclusive domain of men is worked around by avoiding the extreme upper register and shifting to a much more masculine approach when key lines (e.g., For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee) are in focus. Unforgettable is the use of low flute and dirge-like piano to frame “My captain does not answer, et cetera”). Employing a “chorus” to declaim “Exult O shores” is another interesting dramatic effect.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude” begins awkwardly as Brandon asks Southworth to extemporize the initial pair of key verbs (laugh, weep), robbing the second and third stanzas of their intrinsic power (still, specially “treating” rejoice/grieve, feast/fast would take a seat in the theatre of the absurd). The only poem not directly linked to death comes at just the right time. The frequently light accompaniments let Southworth’s impeccable diction and fine phrasing lead the ensemble with optimistic abandon. Yet speaking the last line (“And that made all the difference”) causes “The Road Not Taken” to merely stop rather than conclude.
Quibbles aside, Four Poems shows Brandon’s impressive creativity and ability to take risks even with such well-loved masterworks of verse. JWR