“KIRK O’RIORDAN: Strange Flowers” = O’RIORDAN: Sonata rapsodica; Water Lilies; Pressing Forward, Pushing Back; Dying Light; A Strange Flower for Birds and Butterflies; Lacrimosa – Soloists – Ravello

“KIRK O’RIORDAN: Strange Flowers” = O’RIORDAN: Sonata rapsodica; Water Lilies; Pressing Forward, Pushing Back; Dying Light; A Strange Flower for Birds and Butterflies; Lacrimosa – Marianne Gythfeldt, clar./Holly Roadfeldt, p./Reuben Councill, flute/Lawrence Stomberg, c. – Ravello Records RR7873, 76:10 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ****:

This is one of the most impressive and beautiful collections of chamber music I have heard in awhile. As other reviewers have commented, Kirk O’Riordan’s music is “unapologetically beautiful.” It also should appeal to just about anyone for its expressive nature and picturesque vocabulary. O’Riordan is a professor of composition and band director at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania and a fine saxophonist himself. No wonder, then, that his writing for winds, in particular, is so inviting and technically challenging but idiomatic.

His Sonata rapsodica for clarinet and piano is a perfect example. The two movements have very different qualities. The opening, “freely, quietly agitated” is flowing and meditative for the most part; very romantic throughout. The second movement, “flowing, spirited and energetic” is indeed bouncy and propulsive, quite upbeat until the music provides a sudden harmonic and dynamic jolt that leads back to a tranquil, coda-like passage that echoes the mood of the first movement. Clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt plays very well, as does Holly Roadfeldt, pianist. This is a really impressive work that I am personally anxious to explore further.

Water Lilies for solo piano illustrates O’Riordan’s talents in writing for piano quite well. This is a beautiful work that the composer acknowledges pays some homage to the water lily paintings of Claude Monet. This ethereal, nearly impressionistic piece places us in an imaginary space wherein the piano’s shifting harmonies and dynamics flow as if in a circle where colors come in and out as go the textures of the piano. This is a wonderful work that seems almost too brief for its beauty; it begs for more.

Pressing Forward, Pushing Back is a work for flute and piano that sounds almost exactly like what the title implies. The flute part, performed here terrifically by Reuben Councill, is frenetic, filled with energy and constantly edging forward rhythmically and through the range of the instrument. The piano seems to “push back” with punctuated chords that try to halt the flute and interrupt the propulsion. A slow section shifts the mood while creating more of a dialogue between the instruments. The ‘push and pull’ aspect of the conversation leads eventually to a rather restful, ebbing conclusion that the composer calls a “beautifully hopeful statement.”

Dying Light takes its emotional cue from Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into the Night.” As such, this music for cello and piano begins in a somber fashion with the tolling of bell-like chords that give way to a soft, mournful melody for cello. The mood is sustained and sad but beautiful while the initial chords repeat under some filigree in the upper piano, echoed by the cello. The music gets a bit agitated and moves forward briefly only to ebb back into a kind of submission. This is another beautiful work that leaves an emotional impact. Cellist Lawrence Stomberg and pianist Holly Roadfeldt play wonderfully and with the proper emotion throughout.

A Strange Flower for Birds and Butterflies for clarinet, cello and piano takes its inspiration from poetry also; in this case a haiku by Matuso Basho. Each of the three instruments acts in dialogue with each other in a fascinating way. There is a sense of the cello and clarinet responding to the somewhat ‘strange’ counterpart provided by the piano. This is a work that feels “eastern”; almost improvisatory. It is atmospheric and beautiful.

This incredible collection concludes with O’Riordan’s Lacrimosa for solo piano. This is a very meditative and prayer-like work that uses a harmonic progression with very sparse rhythmic variety to invoke a sense of reflection. It is said that the composer thought of some of the great vocal invocations of the “lachrymae” as in the Requiems of Mozart or Verdi to depict human introspection.

I am completely impressed with Kirk O’Riodan’s work based on just this short sample. I have described each piece herein as beautiful or plaintive or restful and so they are. This is not heady, complex, “academic” music requiring analysis to appreciate its intent; it is better than that. This is all music that – with or without any background information – any listener would find a pleasant experience and, in the case of the last three works, may find deeply provocative and meditative. This is all just so lovely and invokes exactly one of the emotions that good music should be able to induce in all of us.

—Daniel Coombs

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