American Dreams – St. Helens String Quartet – Composers:  KEN BENSHOOF,  JANICE GITECK,  PETER SCHICKELE, BERN HERBOLSHEIMER – Navona

American Dreams  – St. Helens String Quartet – Composers:  KEN BENSHOOF,  JANICE GITECK,  PETER SCHICKELE, BERN HERBOLSHEIMER – Navona CD 6004, 74:00 8/14/15 ****:

American Dreams is a delightful disc from the Pacific Northwest-based St. Helens String Quartet. The group has been making an effort to celebrate 20th century composers, often commissioning new works, or performing lesser known works by American composers. The disc was born as a Kickstarter project, and it was enthusiastically funded, which is a very good thing.

The disc opens with the String Quartet Number 1 by Peter Schickele. He’s best known, of course, for his satirical jabs at classical music in the guise of promoting the fictional P.D.Q. Bach in recording and hilarious concerts for many years. There is, however, a serious side to Schickele, who has composed films scores like Silent Running and quite a bit of quality chamber music.

The concerto heard here was written in 1983, and it blends a classical structure with a jazz idiom. It’s highly listenable, and a highly interesting work.

We get three works by composer Ken Bernshoof. Bernshoof was born in Nebraska in 1933 and studied at Pacific Lutheran University and the Spokane Conservatory giving him some roots in the Pacific Northwest. He composes primarily chamber works and has had 8 notable commissions from the Kronos Quartet.

On this disc, we get Swing Low (2004), Remember (1977), and Diversions (2005). All three works are worth hearing, and to my ear they seem quite American, with a bit of Ives and Copland stylistically.

Composer Janice Giteck offers us Where Can One Live Safely, Then? in Surrender written in 2005. It’s a heartfelt, one movement piece, her expression of respect for the lineage of western concert music. It’s based on a work by Johannes Fux, who composed around 1725. It’s very contemplative music, and I think the highlight work on the disc. The group features another Giteck composition, Ricercare (Dream Upon Arrival) written in 2012.

Finally, we get music by Bern Herbolsheimer, his Botanas, written in 2008. It features Mayan melodies, and the composition has a unique sound and approach to chamber music.

Taken as a whole, this is a fine disc of music that is unlikely to be heard elsewhere. The quartet plays with passion and precision, and the recording is very natural and well mixed. It is a very repeatable disc, and each new hearing will reveal more from this music.

This is my first exposure to the St. Helens String Quartet, and based on this disc I hope to hear more. Recommended!

—Mel Martin

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