BARBARA WHITE: Five Elements; Enough Rope; The Wound and the Eye; My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon – soloists – Albany

by | Feb 14, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

BARBARA WHITE: Five Elements; Enough Rope; The Wound and the Eye; My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon – Sabrina Learman, sop./ Jennifer Frautschi and Laura Frautchi, violins/ Daniel Panner, viola/ Stephanie Shao, cello/ Deborah Bolden, flute/ John Blacklow, piano – Albany TROY1303 [Distr. by Qualiton], 60:22 ***1/2:
Subtlety is the name of the game in Barbara White’s music. White, who received her B.A. from Harvard and Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and is now professor of music at Princeton, specializes in chamber music, forms in which small instrumental forces make small incremental gestures in leisurely fashion, adding up to a musical whole. Mostly, the parts and the sum of the parts in Barbara White’s chamber music are equally successful.
The most interesting works recorded here, the title composition My barn having burned to the ground and Five Elements, provide a good summary of the composer’s strengths. The piano quintet Five Elements has few of the trappings of the traditional quintet. It was influenced by White’s study of the Chinese discipline known as qi gong. “The Five Elements qi gong is a choreography of slow, fluid movements that evoke the gradual transformation of one element into another. As one gives way to the next, the progression reveals not only the individual character of each but also their relatedness to and interdependence.” The elements are also related to other natural cycles such as the change of seasons and the times of day, so White “maps” the cycle of the elements over that of the seasons to create a subtle interplay between the two. The piece starts with a series of thunderous tone clusters low on the piano keyboard that evoke “the state of unity before the elements differentiate themselves.” As her portrait of the elements unfolds, the duality is expressed in a vigorous section that not only portrays wood but also the springtime awakening of plants. As we move from earth (summer) into metal and consequently autumn, the music becomes increasingly eerie and evocative. Finally, water and winter: descending patterns in the piano give way to static, chilly chords surrounded by slithering arpeggios and high harmonics, then a final departure into the highest registers of strings and piano, “a dissolution into the infinite.”
The intriguingly-named My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon (for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano) takes its title and concept from a haiku by seventeenth-century poet Mitzu Masahide. In fact, this being haiku, the title is the entire poem, and the idea of gain in loss claimed by the poet translates, in the music, into a growing sense of calm proceeding from chaotic activity. This is achieved through “the revelation of materials that are ever-present but take some time to emerge from obscurity, and most of all in an attention to the resonance and decay of individual sounds.” The progression is expressed on a macrocosmic and microcosmic level within the work. The restless piano runs of the opening give way immediately to a quiet rebuttal from the winds. Just so, the whole work becomes a meditation on the musical elements introduced in the agitated beginning, devolving at last into quiet wisps of quickly decaying sound.
Written for solo piano, The Wound and the Eye is based on a precept that’s arguably more interesting than the music. Psychologist James Hillman wrote that “The wound and the eye are one and the same,” the upshot of his aphorism being that injuries have things to teach us that we shouldn’t shy from learning—a Jungian concept which counters the Freudian idea that psychologically traumatic experience should be exposed and ultimately exorcised. The music is an attempt to capture a picture of psychological trauma and a fruitful meditation on it, but for me, the attempt leads to only fitfully eventful music.
Similarly, Enough Rope, a cycle of songs on Dorothy Parker poems, has larger ambitions than are apparent from the execution of them, at least to my ears. According to note-writer Eric Moe, the poetry is arranged in such a way as to lead the musical expression from “urgent and urban to plangent and folksong-like.” This corresponds to the temporal emphases in the first two sections, as the first three songs “take place ‘in the moment,’” while the next three look backward. The last three songs, which look to the future, offer “a synthesis of preceding musics—the future contains both past and present.” If all of this sounds like an overly ambitious program for a song cycle scored for solo flute and soprano, it is. Some highly astute listeners may grasp how the music mirrors the temporal shifts and interleaving that Moe describes, but I don’t and don’t even think it’s important to the overall effect of the music. What’s immediately apparent is the subtle ways in which Barbara White plays off tonal lyrical sections against more chromatic, dissonant ones as the well-ordered worlds that Dorothy Parker constructs in her poems lead to comic collapse expressed in her ego-deflating surprise endings.
Most of these endings are treated as throwaways, quietly deadpanned by the soprano, which is just about the only way they can be approached without scotching the humor of the verse. The exception is Parker’s “Promise,” in which the speaker hopes that Love will guide her to “Fiercer bliss and wilder thrill, / All of this some day you’ll teach me, / Y-e-e-s you will!” White’s setting of the poem ends with a wild vocal paroxysm on the word “Y-e-e-s,” which is every bit as suggestive as Parker wanted it to be. While the poems are mostly funnier read than heard, White’s treatment of them is never less than interesting, as she manages to color them in telling, memorable ways.
The performances, by a number of musicians well known in American symphonic and chamber-music circles, are all expert; producer White has assembled a fine group of advocates for her music. The sound recording from Taplin Auditorium at Princeton is potent but a bit too close for comfort.
—Lee Passarella

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